2000, Warner Bros. Directed by Roger Christian. John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker, Kim Coates.
Decent Films Ratings
|?Teens & Up*|
Content advisory: Much science-fiction and Stone-Age violence; some obscene and profane language; fleeting crude sensuality.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Here is the closest thing to a positive statement I can make about Battlefield Earth: Although it is an adaptation of a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the sect of Scientology — and although it stars John Travolta, one of Hollywood’s most high-profile Scientologists and a long-time champion of this project — Battlefield Earth is not a cryptic tract or allegory of Scientology. (By contrast, a previous Travolta project, Phenomenon, arguably was an allegory of Scientology.) While traces of Hubbard’s views can be found here and there (e.g., the name of the evil "Psychlo" alien race apparently reflects Hubbard’s animosity toward the disciplines of psychiatry and psychology), the film has no noteworthy problematic or offensive spiritual or moral implications, overt or covert.
In other words, for better or for worse — and it’s pretty much all for worse — Battlefield Earth is exactly what it is, no more and no less: a loud, dumb, unpleasant, illogical, thoroughly generic sci-fi epic utterly devoid of any trace of drama, originality, passion, interest, or life.
No, it doesn’t rise to the appalling heights of awfulness of such legendary mega-bombs as Ishtar, Toys, or Burn Hollywood Burn. It hasn’t the wit. Those films were awful in their own absolutely unique ways — ways no other bad filmmaker had ever even imagined making any other bad film.
By contrast, Battlefield Earth lacks any slightest shred of creativity. Its story (alien invaders destroy human civilization, keeping humans in Stone-Age living conditions for a thousand years before one human arises to lead a rebellion) contains nothing that hasn’t been done better in countless other Planet of the Apes knockoffs and Star Trek episodes. There is not one device, not one scene that provokes surprise, except at the filmmakers’ judgment; not one visual that inspires wonder; no futuristic technology, set, or spacecraft that is in any way remarkable. Nothing that happens, right up to the climax, has the least emotional resonance.
It’s astonishingly bad, to be sure, but its badness is strictly derivative and formulaic. In fact, the film is a virtual compendium of everything that can possibly be done in a science fiction epic without ever accomplishing a single thing that anyone would want to do with a science fiction epic. It lacks even the wit to work as camp. It ought to be studied at film school as a textbook case of how not to make a movie. Rules not to be followed might include the following:
- Start with a hero and a villain who are as unimpressive and uncompelling as possible. To really run the gamut of badness, the hero should be dull, bland, uninspiring, and forgettable, but the villain must be portrayed in the most over-the-top, strutting, scenery-chewing, ham-fisted way imaginable. This will be even more effective and unbalanced if the villain is played by a big-name star like John Travolta (who fully merited his Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor), but the hero is an actor best known for supporting roles — say, Barry Pepper (whose name you might not recognize even if you’ve seen him in The Green Mile, Saving Private Ryan, Enemy of the State, or Titanic).
- Ensure that the villainous aliens are in no way unique, interesting, or visually appealing. Generic Klingon-esque forehead complications and Predator-like dreadlocks will do. If that’s not unpleasant enough, consider thick claw-like fingernails and drooping breathing tubes that hang like snot from their nostrils. (The humans, too, should be unkempt and generally unpleasant-looking; why should the audience derive irrelevant aesthetic satisfaction from anything on the screen being enjoyable to look at? Human beings may still utter idioms like "piece of cake", but on no account should they possess the technology to comb their hair.) Keep the aliens’ intrigues banal and obvious, with clumsy double-crosses, blackmailings, and office-politics blather about contracts, memos, transfers, and the like.
- At the same time, don’t feel torn between a provincial,
human-centric picture of alien society on the one hand, and an
almost unbridgable "alien" gap on the other. You can do
both! Just because one of your aliens whines that he didn’t
know that an alien female he slept with was a senator’s
daughter — thus implying a whole social fabric of familial
structures, sexual taboos, and political patterns essentially
interchangeable with current human ones — that doesn’t mean you
can’t also make your aliens so alien that, even after a
thousand years of ruling mankind, they are:
- unable to recognize humans as sentient beings capable of using tools or weapons (while the ruins of our cities and civilization are all around them);
- unable to communicate with their slaves (which seems rather impractical, and wouldn’t a race as technologically advanced as the Psychlos at least have scientists who might be as interested in human language as we are in the communication of, say, dolphins or bees?);
- not only unaware of what kinds of food humans like to eat but also unable to figure it out, unable to recognize desperate foraging when they see it;
- repulsed by the beauty of the Colorado Rockies, especially in comparison to the delights of their own foul sewer treatment plant of a homeworld; and
- unable to find Fort Knox in a thousand years when they have this thing — and this gets us back to the provincial human-centric bit — for gold.
- When shooting the film, don’t worry about style, direction, storytelling, or cogency. Constantly employ some pointless device, like randomly tilting the camera at arbitrary angles in practically every scene. (It may not make the movie any more visually interesting, but it’ll definitely get the critics’ attention and give them something to talk about.) And you can’t have too many sweepy transitions. Battle sequences don’t have to be choreographed or intelligible; plenty of fast cutting, explosions, and desperate action will carry the scenes.
- Let’s face it, people don’t watch movies like this for the story, so don’t bother about petty consistency or logic issues. When Jonnie specifically mentions having learned Euclidean geometry from an alien teaching machine, no one will mind that an alien teaching machine wouldn’t call it "Euclidean" geometry — unless of course in another one of those odd provincial touches the same mathematical principles just happened to have been worked out by a Psychlo mathematician who coincidentally also happened to be named Euclid. Likewise, fighter jets, nuclear missiles, and other sophisticated technology can be stipulated to have lain around for a thousand years and still be in perfect working order, and illiterate Stone-Age humans can easily learn to use such equipment, even flying the jets in only a week.
Note: Although as mentioned above Battlefield Earth is not an allegory of Scientology, certainly it was made with the sect’s support; and a percentage of anything the movie takes in will doubtless find its way into their coffers. Those tempted to rent the film out of morbid curiosity should keep in mind that they may be supporting an insidious sect. Fortunately, Battlefield Earth lost so much money at the box office that it may never be profitable.