& Area Guide
Space aliens without a clue
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2000
I wasted more time watching Battlefield Earth, based on the novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, than I've spent reading news reports of the church's affairs in the past year. You won't catch me probing for subliminal messages or inscrutable motives in Warner Bros.' latest release.
This movie simply isn't worth that much thought.
Battlefield Earth is junk, not even enjoyable junk. The plot is jumbled and poorly edited, the dialogue laughable, and special effects seldom appear so common. A performance by John Travolta in which he abandons everything that ever made him cool is the rotten cherry on top.
This sagging saga is set in the year 3000 when an alien invasion has turned Earth into a wasteland. Humans are back to wearing fur, and braids are still a popular coiffure. A race of aliens called Psychlos rule the planet, led by Terl (Travolta), a dreadlocked giant who ends nearly every sentence with absurd cackles. Human savior Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper) shrugs into action to shut him up.
Jonnie's bravest act is keeping a straight face while cheesy light beams pump knowledge into his noggin. A few extra hours skimming amazingly preserved books in the Library of Congress make him Einstein-like. Jonnie gives remedial lessons to his grunting co-conspirators.
It is also reassuring that Fort Knox can be entered so easily in the next millennium. Then you wonder how planes unused for centuries can start right up.
It's clear that Terl wants the gold to send back home to Psychlo. But why, with his advanced intellect, did he never notice Fort Knox before? Travolta, a Scientologist, is the film's only hope for an audience, for whatever purposes, so he pops up anywhere the action shifts.
The actor/co-producer needs work on his Ming the Merciless impression. Even when a scene has camp potential -- like proving humans can't fly by tossing one over a cliff -- poor pacing and editing kill the joke.
Travolta and sidekick Forest Whitaker as Ker lumber on platform boots through cheaply constructed sets and bad matte shots, looking a bit too much like Klingons for copyright comfort. They snort lame insults about "man-animals" and marvel at humans eating rats, then describe what occurs in the next three or four scenes. Some of this sounds better than it plays out.
Science fiction is obliged to serve as an allegory for contemporary life, and Battlefield Earth makes a few half-hearted stabs at it. The Psychlos are governed by "The Corporation" and everybody babbles about gaining "leverage." Freedom is an easy soapbox to climb aboard. But this isn't Planet of the Apes or even Stargate when it comes to stimulating thought.
There is no noticeable sermonizing in Battlefield Earth, certainly not to the extent that Billy Graham's old movies, The Spitfire Grill or The Apostle conveyed for Christian faiths. Brains aren't washed, but they could be numbed.
Director Roger Christian has only one trick up his sleeve. Nearly every frame is shot with the camera sharply angled one way or another, like villain lairs in the old Batman TV series. Good and evil have nothing to do with this technique. Even Jonnie always looks like he's facing downhill. Absolutely no reason exists for such an incessantly annoying maneuver. Or this movie.