Battlefield Earth

The summer has barely begun but misguided “blockbusters” are already beginning to hit theaters. While the big-budget Gladiator, released a week earlier, turned out to be a big hit, Battlefield Earth has a different future in store for it. To be blunt, this isn’t just an inept sci-fi shoot-‘em-up, it’s a lumbering failure in every imaginable way. Even John Travolta is a bore. There was some controversy before the film’s release about author L. Ron Hubbard and Travolta’s beliefs — the former is the founder of the Church of Scientology and the latter is a devout follower — but all the hubbub was over nothing.

In the year 3000, Man is an endangered species. A cruel race of aliens none-too-subtly named the Psychlos have taken over Earth (in 9 minutes, as the head Psychlo points out) and imprisoned most humans. Jonnie “Goodboy” Tyler (???), played by the relatively unknown Barry Pepper (The Green Mile, Saving Private Ryan), has thus far eluded incarceration. One day when Jonnie leaves his colony, he and a couple of his buddies are captured by a Psychlo and sent to the concentration camp where all of the “man-animals” are forced to do useless manual labor.

Meanwhile Terl (John Travolta), the Psychlo chief of security on Earth, figures out a way to scam his government. He plans to teach the man-animals to mine gold (something that the rest of the Psychlos deem the humans unable to do) and keep it for himself. He recruits a group of man-animals, among them Jonnie, for this task. He teaches one of them — again, Jonnie — the Psychlo language through a magical learning machine and tells him to get his men to mine gold. Meanwhile, Jonnie and his group of rag-tag renegades hatch a plan to take back the planet.

The first requirement for an inherently brainless plot like this is that the movie looks good. Unfortunately, the whole of Battlefield Earth‘s budget seems to have been expended on John Travolta’s hair. Most of the sets are obviously matte paintings, the Psychlo ships are cheesy and unoriginal and all of the characters, including the technologically advanced Psychos, look like they haven’t had a shower in months. Even worse, director Roger Christian films all of the action scenes in slow frickin’ motion (why? why?) and tilts the camera in precisely 100% of the shots so that by the end of the film I was tilting my head to one side or the other in order to avoid a headache. It didn’t help.

The villains inexplicably look like 9-foot-tall Jamaican guys. Their exaggerated “evil” laughs and one-dimensional malevolence make them laughable instead of menacing. They are supposed to dwarf the humans, but the film underplays this potentially interesting idea, avoiding putting a Psychlo and a human in the same shot at all costs.

The climax is an incoherent mess. There are some airplane/ship chases (apparently, U.S. Air Force planes are still in working condition after 1000 years, as is a library), gun battles on the ground and even hand-to-hand combat. The humans go through some allegedly complicated process to destroy the Psychlos’ home planet. The film never bothers to explain it. We leave the theater shaking our heads, both at the plot and at the thought that someone let this project be completed in this state.

Reportedly, Battlefield Earth was a labor of love for Travolta. It’s hard to imagine him being happy with this. Scientologist or not, this is as inane as summer blockbusters get.

-- Eugene Novikov

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