This article appeared in Issue 20 ofFrontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine
Long before he founded the quasi-religion of the Church of Scientology in 1951, L. Ron Hubbard was an accomplished author, writing science fiction during the Depression to support his studies in mathematics, engineering, and nuclear physics. One of his more high-profile works was "Battlefield Earth", an 800+ page tome that recounted a far off future in which humanity was enslaved on an conquered Earth. Now, nearly half a century since it was first put to paper, "Battlefield Earth", the movie, has arrived, the 'pet project' of John Travolta ("Face/Off"), a card-carrying Scientology member and one of Hubbard's more outspoken advocates.
However, in the past few months leading up to its theatrical release, a number of pundits have criticized the sci-fi production on a number of fronts, from being a propaganda piece to spread the quasi-religious teachings of Scientology, to just being a bad movie. While there is little evidence that "Battlefield Earth" is a mass-market vehicle for indoctrination into Scientology, it is undoubtedly a lackluster blockbuster that will join the ranks of "The Mod Squad" and "The Avengers", saddled with uninteresting characters, howlingly-bad dialogue, and a plot built on clichés and illogical nonsense.
Covering the first half of the book, the story starts in the year 3000, where Earth is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and humanity is an endangered species. Earth has been ruled for 1000 years by a nine-foot tall alien race known as the Pschlos, who are stripping the planet of all its natural resources. Man has been thrown back into the Stone Age, with the few scattered tribes in the countryside having access to only the simplest of technologies, including simple stone tools, agriculture, and domesticated animals. Johnny Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper of "The Green Mile") leaves his village in search of the mythical evil gods that rule his world, which he finds, thanks to the help of two hunters he runs into, Rock (Michel Perron) and Carlo (Kim Coates of "Waterworld").
They wander into the ruins of a city, set up camp in the abandoned edifice of a shopping mall (evidently, Earth was conquered just before Christmas), and wind up getting captured by a Psychlo patrol. They are then taken to the Psychlo's main base, located in the ruins of Denver, caged as animals (à la "Planet of the Apes"), and put to work as slave labor in the Psychlo's mining activities.
Fortunately, Johnny catches the attention of the Psychlo chief of security, Terl (Travolta), and his assistant Ker (Forest Whitaker of "Light It Up"), who see a potential for using him in a pilot project that would substitute regular Psychlo miners with unpaid 'man-animal' slave labor, thereby improving profitability of the mining operation. Without any thought to the potential consequences, they hook Johnny up to a 'learning machine', which ends up teaching Johnny not only the Psychlo language, but molecular biology, mathematics, and the ability to use Psychlo weaponry (isn't that convenient).
Johnny is then put in charge of a group of his fellow 'man-animals', and they are left in the wilderness, without direct supervision, to mine a gold vein within three weeks. Of course, Johnny has no intention of mining the gold, and instead he uses the time to start a revolt. Using his newfound knowledge, he begins raising an army and arming his would-be soldiers with any Psychlo or long-forgotten human weapons that he can get his hands on. To cover his tracks with respect to the mining, Johnny raids Fort Knox (which is still intact, after a millennium), and uses the gold to appease Terl (whose curiosity isn't irked by how primitive 'man-animals' could figure out how to smelt the ore and create such nicely-formed bars). And so, the final showdown between mankind and the Psychlos is put in motion...
To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from "Battlefield Earth". A few months ago, the shooting script was stripped of its title and author, and passed around for independent review. When the reviews came in, the news was less than positive-- it was described as 'cliché', 'hokey', and just plain 'stupid'. Unfortunately, little has changed in the transition from script to screen.
For a technologically advanced race, the Psychlos are pretty dumb. In addition to their shortsighted blunders of teaching Johnny everything he needs to defeat them and leaving him unsupervised with technologically-advanced equipment, they speak to each other in the most insipid vernacular (which includes very human phrases such as "C'mon, get out of here! What are you talking about?"), and spend most of their time laughing at their own jokes, which gets old very quickly, particularly with Travolta's nasal intonations. The Psychlos also don't seem to have a clue as to what humans like eating, leads to an idiotic sequence where Terl incorrectly surmises that humans consider raw rat a delicacy. It is also unclear if screenwriters Corey Mandell and J.D. Shapiro were trying to write a satire in the vein of "Office Space", since much of the dialogue unsuccessfully tries to parody corporate culture, which includes making references to communicating with the 'home office' (they must have "Dave Letterman" on their planet) and maximizing company profits (maybe they're an off-shoot of the Ferengi).
In fact, the whole story makes little sense. In order for the story to work, the audience must believe that:
I could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea.
Even with respect to the production values of the film, there is much room for improvement. Helmer Roger Christian, whose last major gig was second unit director on "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace", does a terrible job of framing and sequencing his shots, giving the overall film a choppy feel as it awkwardly jumps from scene to scene, particularly during the action sequences (including one that rips off of the lobby scene in "The Matrix"), and his predilection to tilting the camera in every shot gets old quickly. The special effects are also spotty at best, with the use of CGI, scale models, and matte paintings blatantly obvious throughout the film. It also appears that the production ran out of money for the climactic battle scene, since the same footage gets reused at least two or three times. Travolta once boasted in an interview about how little the film was made for-- well, it shows.
"Battlefield Earth" is certain to be remembered over the years, though not in the manner that was originally intended. Instead of an inspiring science fiction epic about the dogged determination of humanity to overcome all obstacles, "Battlefield Earth" is a dressed-up B-movie that should have been sent directly to the video racks. With its cheesy dialogue, idiotic characters, and a laughable plot, this is a sci-fi movie that will be remembered by future generations in the same category as "Plan 9 From Outer Space" and "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians".