There are some bad movies that over time become enjoyable to sit through because the years have been kind to some hidden comedy. There are even cases where after time has passed, thanks to new eyes and humors changing, the film’s dramatic reputation improves as people start to understand better what the makers were truly after. Both of these developments can be wonderful things, especially when the discoveries bring fans closer together, and everyone can start to appreciate a movie in unique ways. You know what movie none of this will ever happen to? Battlefield Earth.
A short backstory: In the late 70s, John Travolta was becoming a major star. L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer who dreamed up a bizarre religion while in the hospital for fake war injuries, was attracted to movie stars because it would bring followers to his movement. After some cajoling by Hubbard’s handlers who hadn’t yet been imprisoned in a subterranean work camp, (seriously, read Lawrence Wright’s book, it’s outrageous shit), young John would eventually become a true believer in the ways of Scientology, preaching Hubbard’s insidious gospel any time he got the chance.
For about 10 years beginning in the 80s, Travolta’s career began to stiff. But all that changed after he was cast in Pulp Fiction, snagging an Oscar nomination and great respect from critics, while Hollywood again saw him as a box office draw. While all of this should have made him a man of great esteem forever, he’s made shockingly poor choices in the roles he’s taken since then, the most egregious example the film we’ll be discussing today.
There is no way to assign retroactive positivity to the making of Battlefield Earth. Even if we focused only on its technical flaws, it’s kind of challenging to give a $73 million movie any breaks. But it’s technique, (which we’ll get to later), isn’t what makes the movie such an offensive mess; it’s the big deal, glad-handing, bullshit Hollywood hubris which made the production possible that makes people hate it just as much today as they did 14 years ago.
For SAG and DG purposes, the movie was directed by Roger Christian. If you believe Christian had any real say in anything that went on, I’ve got a flux capacitor to sell you. This one was Travolta’s ultimate vanity project, and he was devoted to it in an uncommon way. It’s based on one of Hubbard’s most popular novels, a sprawling, messy, 1,000+page space opera that outlines in martyred terms the kind of hokum Scientology practitioners insist man is capable of when our brains are working to their full capacity. And the movie covers only the 1st half.
The story: It’s the year 3000 AD, and Earth has been taken over by Psychlos, a race of 9 foot tall humanoid aliens who mine the planet for resources to ship back to their home planet….Psychlo. Remaining humans have been enslaved by the invading race, forced to mine gold in the canyons of the Rocky Mountains. The area in our story is presided over by Psychlo security chief Terl, (Travolta), a creature who brutalizes his human charges, and fancies himself a man of letters and sophistication. Among his charges is “man-animal”, (the Psychlo term for idiot humans), Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, (Barry Pepper, trying his damnedest). Terl has been told he cannot leave Earth for another 50 “cycles”, but he is determined to return to hearth and Psychlo. To make up for his past indiscretion with the daughter of some Psychlo VIP, he decides to buy off his bosses with gold. He makes Jonnie the foreman of an outlaw crew digging for gold in an area the Psychlos can’t breathe in, but Terl must first hook Jonnie up to a “rapid learning machine” so that Jonnie will develop the proper leadership skills for the dig, insisting to his peer Psychlos that it won’t matter if man-animals are armed with knowledge, because no matter what happens, they could never achieve the evolutionary superiority of themselves. This of course, is a mistake, because Jonnie uses his time on the machine to learn all Psychlo history, including their weaknesses, plus all manner of weapons and aviation training a man would need to build an insurgent army. And he does. And his army not only drives the Psychlos off of Earth, but destroys their home planet as well. The End.
I have just described the entire spinal plot of this thing, and it was damn tiring to do so. But I needed to include all of this exposition so that you could fully appreciate all that went sour in this production. The story itself is not the issue, because as you can tell from reading the synopsis, a competent filmmaker could take those bits and make something decently entertaining. It’s the delivery, execution, and ego involved that make this thing so off-putting.
First, the technical stuff: I am not shitting you here, EVERY scene in the film ends in a middle wipe. And this is after enduring 2 hours of nauseously low camera angles that seem to agressively peer up the actor’s noses. Not to mention dungeon-porn cinematography that I suppose is meant to stylistically make the Psychlos appear more fearsome, but it only makes you glad you’re not into S&M. (And if you are, I guess the movie would be even worse.)
And finally, there is the acting. One of the great mysteries of modern cinema is just what the hell John Travolta was going for with this performance. A glistening Christmas ham in every scene he appears in, his Terl comes off as a shrieking, 9-foot Norma Desmond. And like that aging former ingenue, he remains oblivious to what those around him truly think of him. While his efforts can at times be amusing, it’s for all the wrong reasons, because even if you were completely buying the story being told, to giggle at an acting performance when giggling was not expected shows deluge-causing cracks in the structure. If the man has any sense of humor, he will some day publicly acknowledge just how distressingly horrendous he is in this movie.
If you’ve read this far and you haven’t seen the film, you probably are dying to check it out. I would never ask you not to see it, because if you had friends over, the evening would turn into a really enjoyable, 118 minute piss-take. But allow me to caution you one last time: you will NEVER develop a sick fondness for this film, no matter how hilarious you find Travolta. Plan 9 this isn’t. Real money was spent here, so no pats on the head can ever be extended.
Ready for more? You seem the type. Then come back next week for…..Reform School Girls!