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Battlefield Earth

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 12 May 2000

Directed by Roger Christian.

Starring John Travolta, 
Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker, 
Kim Coates, Sabine Karsenti 
and Kelly Preston.

Written by Corey Mandell and J.D. Shapiro, 
based on the novel by L. Ron Hubbard.

During the chaotic opening scenes of Battlefield Earth, the first multi-million dollar Hollywood Scientology science-fiction epic, John Travolta strides on-screen wearing an epicene smile, clothed in a huge black armor-like outfit, his face colorless and scaly, his eyes glowing green, and with long, stringy black hair falling down either side of his head. He is Terl, from the planet Psychlo, which, sometime before the year 3000 (A.D., presumably -- it's never specified), has taken control of the Earth, wiped out civilization, and sent the remnants of the human race heading for the hills, where they've reverted to wearing buckskin, living in tribes, and carry spears.

The gods, it seems, turned away from mankind after it became too selfish and greedy, and so the demons, like Terl, descended. But one human, Jonnie (Barry Pepper, the rifleman in Saving Private Ryan), wants to see the so-called demons for himself. Riding out of the hills on horseback, he meets other men, who show him store mannequins that they mistake for people who were turned to stone by the gods. Then, whammo blammo, Jonnie and his friends are swept up and whooshed through the "Denver Human Processing Plant," and imprisoned in cages, where they're fed excremental-looking food from hoses. Jonnie, being of noble character, steps forward and insists that the food should be shared and shared alike. And so it is.

Meanwhile, Terl is anxiously waiting for his transfer to come through so he can get off of Earth. But the Psychlons, along with having bad teeth and no higher culture, are the type of creatures who cheat, play games with semantics, and pull dirty tricks on each other. When a senior officer arrives, Terl is informed that his tour of duty on this miserable little rock has been expanded to ten times its original length, "with unlimited options for renewal!" Terl, literally, reaches for his gun. And then they laugh. They laugh, and laugh.

Later, having seen some potential in the "man animal," he chooses Jonnie to help him secretly mine a newly-discovered vein of gold. After a quick trip to the Learning Machine, Jonnie can not only converse fluently in Psychlon -- which, in its original form, sounds like strangled garglings -- but fly their aircraft. And in no time at all, he and a handful of other "man animals" have devised a way to get rid of the Psychlons once and for all.

John Travolta comports himself in this film as a cross between an effete martinet and the most paranoid aspects of Richard Milhous Nixon. He records all his conversations, despite the fact that it's against the rules, has surveillance devices everywhere, and holds onto evidence of things like double ledgers to use against other Psychlons. He throws people off-guard by suddenly pulling freshly severed heads out of nowhere and then cackling obscenely. He also boasts of his family line, and of his record at "the Academy," and keeps telling his subordinate (played by Forest Whitaker, of all people) how dumb he is. "That's why I'm an executive, and you're a lowly clerk!"

Yes, corporate politics are alive and well in the 31st century. The home planet is referred to by the Psychlons as the "home office," and they complain about not being paid enough. During relaxation time, Terl has the bear claw-like nails on his stubby, thick fingers manicured by a female (Kelly Preston, of all people), who has an oval-shaped head, jutting Vampira-like eyebrows, and a two foot-long tongue (she shows it to us), and who purrs in his ear, "I'm going to make you as happy as a baby Psychlon on a straight diet of kerbango!"

One hopes that they're kidding with this stuff, but they're not: the filmmakers are absolutely serious. I'm not familiar with the "oeuvre" of the late L. Ron Hubbard, so I don't know how faithful this is to the original source. There are little threads that appear throughout about overcoming fears, and good conservatorship. The humans in the 31st century are very, very particular about killing only for food, and about being faithful to their women. ("A good woman is hard to find!") The Psychlons, on the other hand, wiped out all species of dog on Earth because it was found that they were poor at manual labor.

This is the type of science-fiction film that throws all science and logic to the winds. The Psychlons can't breathe Earth's air, so whenever they go outside they wear metal nose-clips attached to cords which make it look like they have mustaches growing out of their nostrils. The "man animals," in turn, can't breathe the Psychlon's atmosphere inside their domed cities, so they wear nose-clips to protect themselves from air that, allegedly, would make their lungs burst in a matter of minutes. The humans also find a fleet of air fighter jets, and operational nuclear weapons, in an underground hanger which, in the 31st century, are all ready to go at the press of a button. Fort Knox, in Kentucky, is also intact, its gold supplies neatly stacked on shelves, and a swift kick at the front door is all that's needed to gain access to it.

The film also contains what looks like swipes from the Planet of the Apes series, the dogfight sequences in Star Wars, and the techno-industrial cityscapes designed for Blade Runner. The locations showing maundering, ruined Earth cities look like outtakes from The Omega Man, and the long shots of ruined cities and alien metropolises are no more convincing. "He speaks the language of the Beast!" says one tribal human, shaking a finger at Jonnie, just like in Roger Corman's 1958 Teenage Caveman. And then there's the part where Terl tosses Jonnie and two other "man animals" into the wilderness outside of what used to be Aspen, Colorado, to find out what their "favorite food" is. Watching on a monitor, Travolta says, in dripping, pearly tones, "See how much they enjoy Rat. How slowly they eat it!" Can you dig it?

Roger Christian directed this unbelievably overblown folderol -- the action scenes are staged like scrimmages, and the more quiet scenes are on a par with his earlier film Nostradamus. That was the one where the 16th century scientist was shown seeing visions of World War One soldiers, interplanetary spacecraft, toppling skyscrapers, and children standing in a downpour of black rain.

A visiting Psychlon takes one look at Earth upon his arrival and sniffs, "All the blues and greens are gone." So are some of the movie's marbles, but don't take my word for it. By all means, run, don't walk, to your nearest theater, where you can enjoy this peerless piece of camp, in all its glory, on the big screen.


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