"Battlefield Earth"

L. Ron Hubbard's pulp sci-fi classic comes incomprehensibly to the screen starring Scientologist John Travolta.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 12, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

The first thing to talk about with "Battlefield Earth" is not the subliminal messages allegedly sneaked in by the Church of Scientology. (If they're there, they don't work.) Nor is it John Travolta's unintentionally (I presume) hilarious performance as a villain who's part community-theater Iago and part Rastaman pimp. It's hair. There's more of it in this movie than in the sink trap at Supercuts.

First there are the heaping dreadlocks of the Psychlos, the evil alien race that rules the Earth in the year 3000. Then there are the flowing, Manson-era tresses of the rebellious humans led by Jonnie (Barry Pepper), who sports the rawhide trousers and bad attitude of Billy Jack. I found a picture of director Roger Christian on the Web, and he's got golden Fabio locks. (Most Hollywood directors, by contrast, resemble trolls who got trapped in the tanning booth.) Everybody in the film, in short, looks like they know where to find truly excellent weed.

If you're the kind of sci-fi fanatic who has to see every new futuristic action movie no matter how crummy it is -- and I come pretty close to that category myself -- then of course you'll check out "Battlefield Earth" regardless of how many cheap jokes critics crack at its expense. The action sequences are acceptable in a generic, Sci-Fi Network way and the Psychlo costumes at least look cool. But don't say you weren't warned.

I imagine the novel on which the movie is based, by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, is ludicrous trash (although I haven't read it and have no intention of doing so), but I doubt it's as incoherent, as hysterical or as flat-out gratingly loud as Christian's movie. For one thing, an author can't subject you to shot after shot photographed at wobbly, off-center angles for no particular reason, weigh every action sequence down with super-slo-mo in lame imitation of "The Matrix" or end every single scene with a vertical wipe.

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that "Battlefield Earth" was directed by a software program that absorbed and reprocessed the standard sci-fi elements of the past 30 years: grimy spaceships, alien overlords, the human race reverting to barbarism, someone reading the Declaration of Independence and making sense of it. Sure, Christian has that luxuriant coif and an illustrious risumi (he was art director on "Alien"), but how can we be sure he's not a hologram or a CIA personality graft?

Christian has supposedly directed eight other films. Now, I pride myself on my appetite for trash culture, and I'm damned if I've so much as heard of a single one of them. Come on now: "Masterminds" with Patrick Stewart? "Underworld" with Denis Leary and Joe Mantegna? "Nostradamus" with F. Murray Abraham and Rutger Hauer? Those don't exist; they were invented to sound vaguely plausible, like something you might have noticed on the USA Network's schedule one night, and planted on the Internet Movie Database after the fact. If you believe you have seen them, can you prove your memories were not implanted by an alien race from the 31st century?

OK, maybe those Scientology mind-control rays have affected my judgment after all. The first 20 minutes or so of "Battlefield Earth" are quite enjoyable, if you have a weakness for the cheapo decrepit future envisioned by the "Planet of the Apes" series. Jonnie and sultry babe Chrissie (Sabine Karsenti) live in a primitive human settlement high in the mountains, where they were driven after humanity was abandoned by the gods, as their legends tell them, and demons came from the skies to conquer the world. Pepper, a Canadian actor who's had supporting roles in "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Green Mile," is well cast as a hooting, growling, half-wild man; with his narrow, pointed face framed by all that stringy hair, he looks like he's part wolverine.

When Jonnie leaves the mountains to explore the truth behind the legends for himself, he finds that hoariest of post-apocalyptic clichis, a ruined 21st century (or so) city that for some reason has not disappeared or been buried over the course of 1,000 years. (Does anybody besides me think that an enormous amount of science fiction derives from Stephen Vincent Benit's short story "By the Waters of Babylon"?) As Jonnie stands gazing at an abandoned automobile, another hunter-gatherer type tells him about the gods who drove chariots to and from caves with golden arches.

This is typical of the efforts at humor in Corey Mandell's screenplay; "Battlefield Earth" wants to strike an occasional note of the kind of self-mockery that worked so well in "The Matrix." (Keanu Reeves: "I know kung fu!") But the Wachowski brothers had complete confidence in the imaginative universe they'd created, which enabled them to poke fun here and there without undermining their narrative. Christian never clearly establishes a tone for "Battlefield Earth," so violating it only furthers the sense that the whole film is a murky, addled mess.

Soon enough, Jonnie is captured by the Psychlos, who have ruled the planet since conquering it in a nine-minute onslaught a millennium earlier. All I can say about that is, if we were overrun by these quarrelsome bozos with their rotten teeth, platform shoes, Peter Tosh wigs and samurai armor, it doesn't say much for human intelligence or fortitude. As for Travolta's performance as Terl, the Psychlo head of security, he and Joaquin Phoenix (from "Gladiator") should be nominated for a special Academy Award: best impersonation of Liberace in an evil starring role.

Travolta is one of the producers of "Battlefield Earth" and is a well-known adherent of Hubbard's Scientology teachings, but he's not doing his late mentor any favors by exposing his own weaknesses as an actor this way. By the time the final credits rolled, two guys behind me were performing loud imitations of Terl's Snidely Whiplash villain cackle, reducing the rest of the audience to hopeless giggling.

Seeing that Jonnie is unusually intelligent for a barbaric man-animal, Terl decides to use a magic machine to teach him all about Psychlo language and technology, with all of human science and history thrown in. (Yes, another "Matrix" ripoff.) Terl, it seems, is a poor manager and a bad guy even as Psychlos go; he hopes not only to loot and pillage all of Earth's remaining riches but to defraud the Psychlos' ruling Corporation along the way. "Once we've finished mining out this miserable planet," he announces, virtually drooling, "let's do the universe a favor and exterminate the lot of them!"

Next Terl sends Jonnie and a group of other humans off to the mountains to mine gold with no supervision whatsoever, so they have lots of time to cram for math exams and plot their uprising. I guess we're supposed to admire the humans' pluck and resourcefulness -- once Terl has carefully laid the groundwork for their rebellion -- but the script takes them straight from studying the equilateral triangle to unearthing some old-school human military technology that was supposedly useless the first time around. No, they aren't transformed into kick-ass superheroes by finding an old copy of "Dianetics," but that might have made more sense.

Many questions go unanswered. If the Psychlos are so damn smart, how come they never learned the humans' language? (If nothing else, the textbooks on dentistry might have been helpful.) Why are they vulnerable to a rebellion by a few dozen "Easy Rider" freakazoids with centuries-old jet fighters? What the hell is going on in all the incomprehensibly edited, computer-graphics-clogged and impenetrably dark action sequences? And what's that green stuff the humans eat? Guacamole? Vichysoisse? Rotten oatmeal?

It's tough to find anything like a silver lining here; Forest Whitaker does his agreeably growly bit as Terl's assistant and Kelly Preston briefly enlivens matters as a babealicious Psychlo vixen. In the larger scheme of things, no crimes were committed here; next summer, after you've worn out your DVDs of "Wing Commander" and the "Mortal Kombat" movies, you might rent this and decide it's not the worst movie you've ever seen. It probably won't convert you to Scientology, but you might pick up some hair tips.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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