Battlefield Earth (2000)

D: Roger Christian
S: John Travolta, Barry Pepper

Ponderous and silly sci-fi epic from the novel by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the scientology religion to which star John Travolta belongs. Back in 1980, when Travolta was still relatively hot in the first phase of his career, Hubbard formed a production company called Brilliant Films to make a sci-fi film of his own writing called Revolt of the Stars. At that time Travolta did not choose to participate, despite already then serving as a spokesperson for Hubbard's cause. Twenty years on, and now in the second phase of his stardom, he has lent his clout and screen presence to this big budget big screen adaptation of the author's most famous novel (he was also one of the producers). There is some bizarre fun to be had watching his performance as a giant alien overlord assigned to supervise security on 31st century Earth, now a mining colony won, apparently, after a mere nine minute struggle by humankind. Bands of humans survive scattered throughout the globe (although all we get to see is the former US, as is always the case in such things), but are disorganised, superstitious, and largely ignorant of the past. They are, in fact, mostly cave and forest dwellers who seem to have reverted to earlier forms of tribal societies and even more primitive languages. One intrepid human known as 'Greener' (as in 'Faraway Hills are Always... read: 'Skywalker') challenges tribal custom and goes in search of answers to the riddles of the past. He runs afoul of Travolta and his band of sadistic cut-throats, who are as eager to outmanoeuvre one another to curry favour with the corporation who apparently control their society as they are to line their own pockets in side deals. Will humanity win the day and take back the planet, proving finally that positive thinking and proactive, motivated self-interest with a veneer of democracy will always win out? Duh!

If any proof were needed that Independence Day was a piece of well-judged and well organised hokum, here it is. Armed with a $70 million plus budget, top technical personnel, a major star, and a novel to provide it with a plot, Battlefield Earth is a shambles. It comes off like some cheapie knocked out by Charles Band or Roger Corman from a script written on a napkin, only it is less entertaining. Apart from the fact that the story has obviously been heavily compressed, with resultant massive lapses in timeframe which result in unbelievable and sudden leaps in the plot; apart from the fact that the entire cast seem to think they're doing Shakespeare when their characters are paper thin; and apart from the fact that composer Elia Cmiral seems to think the film is a lot more emotionally involving than it really is, director Roger Christian is largely to blame for the shooting the legs out from the stool as the noose tightens around the film's proverbial neck.

Christian has worked as an art director and production designer on some distinguished genre films, including Alien and Star Wars. He received a second unit directing credit for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and seems to have learned one or two things from George Lucas. Unfortunately he learned them from The Phantom Menace. For one thing he seems to assume that a plot with lots of incident is coherent in and of itself, and that characters who are sketched out in rough archetypes will automatically work if given the right bits of generic dialogue to mouth. For another he is obviously fascinated by the ability to create fantastical landscapes and use digital imaging technology to meticulously construct the world of the film. On this level, there are moments in it, as in The Phantom Menace which have a certain gee whiz quality to them. To designer Patrick Tatopoulos' (Godzilla) credit, some of the technology and set designs have a freshness which would have made them interesting enough to look at if we could have seen them clearly. Alas, Christian has chosen to lather the film in coloured filters which drown out much of the visual detail in a haze of blue, orange, or purple, depending on the scene (it is meant to indicate changes in the atmosphere, but it just looks like a lab error). When the colour scheme is relatively normal, the camera is usually at an angle, which is all very well for Orson Welles, Carol Reed, or even Brian De Palma, but when used with such frequency that is seems to become some sort of visual register for 'normalcy', it makes no sense and becomes very, very irritating. Add to this the fact that there is not a single memorable action scene in the film which has not been derived from something else (howlingly obvious references to scenes in Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes, and The Matrix are the least of its problems), and that the whole film is a bit of ballyhoo propaganda for self-actualising leadership qualities based on manipulating others which finally turns on a hypocritical would-be ironic statement about the evils of greed, and there is not much to take home.

The script, co-written Corey Mandell and J.D. Shapiro (with doubtless many others along the way) is not entirely blameless either. There are the aforementioned time lapses in which characters seem to do a lot more than is humanly possible (so to speak), and thus the plot turns on ridiculous contrivances and wild improbabilities. Presumably the process of adaptation is at least partly responsible here, as it was with David Lynch's ill-fated Dune. But then there are the characters, none of whom is even faintly memorable despite a hero who is of the classical mythology variety (worked through the sensibilities of the original author, of course). It is all very male too, and without a lot of detail with which to begin to understand anything much about either the alien or human society. Diehard genre fans will enjoy picking out where the various elements come from and seeing just how badly bungled this faint imitation is. It is a hodgepodge of genre cliches which needed to be stretched out over a much longer timeframe to make a modicum of sense: but who would sit though it?

What fun there is to be had here is in watching Travolta take his part quite seriously and actually register one or two moments of genuine nastiness as the literally larger than life villain. He likes playing bad guys, obviously (Broken Arrow, Face/Off) and he has a surprising talent for it. He is certainly the most entertaining thing in the movie, either for laughing at or laughing with, depending on your inclination. Poor Forest Whitaker is less funny as Travolta's put-upon sidekick. The rest of the cast are bland, as befits their characters, and one finds it difficult to root for the human race when they plainly have nothing interesting to offer in their defence.

Let's wrap this up. Battlefield Earth is a complete dog's dinner of a movie which has some intriguing elements but no real imagination. It is wildly overacted, ear-splittingly overscored, photographed through coloured handkerchiefs with a camera in serious need of a spirit level, and relies on an overbaked script from an elephantine novel by an author whose legal protections probably forbid any disparaging remarks, even in death. A group of inebriated male students in a dirty rented flat watching this movie on video is probably the ideal audience, and I have no doubt that alcoholic or drug-infused viewers of this ilk will probably eventually start their own religions based around its glories, at least until final exams come. Some laughs, none intentional, and a really very odd performance indeed from the star are all there is to recommend here, which I suppose makes it better than Deep Impact, Batman and Robin, and Wild Wild West, but then it is probably also better than Inchon. Is that reason enough to go and see it?

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.