Movie Guru Rating: Unconscious
John Travolta's sci-fi "epic" would make Ed Wood proud
by Zak Weisfeld
Oh, things are grim. So grim you don't even want to know. Man is an endangered species. The reason for this species endangerment is not some subtle biological plague, nor environmental apocalypse, nor is it insidious computer mind-control. No, the endangering evil can be seen stumping around the blasted remains of Denver in giant platform boots, cast-off leather Star Trek uniforms, and towering dred-locked wigs that would make Lil' Kim woozy with excitement. These, my cowering readers, are the Psychlos. From the planet Psychlo no less. And what's really weird is that one of them looks uncannily like that guy from Saturday Night Fever.
The year is 3000 and the Psychlos have conquered Earth (for reasons unexplained). But the mere fact that they're called Psychlos is pretty much a dead giveaway that their motives are far from good. Just in case it isn't though, the Psychlos are 10 feet tall, have hairy, taloned fingers and Britishly bad teeth (apparently no amount of technology can make up for bad brushing habits), which drives the nail of their evil right home.
In the wake of the Psychlo conquest, man has been reduced to what can only be described as a Hestonion state of existence. He has become what the Psychlos call man-animals. So as not to be confused with the dog-animals. And bird-animals, etc. Those man-animals not forced into slavery by the Psychlos have been driven into caves in the vastness of the Rocky Mountains where they struggle just to survive. During this thousand-year dark age, man has degenerated into a race of strong-jawed, blond-haired, blue-eyed, leather-pants-wearing savages with really great teeth (perhaps their primitive diet consists of fewer refined sugars than the Psychlos) and a tendency to overact.
Battlefield Earth begins when one of these men, a hot-headed young fellow by the name of Jonnie, has about had it with hiding in caves and decides to see what these aliens are really about. Needless to say, Jonnie comes to the conclusion that man would be a lot better off if Earth weren't under the long, hairy thumbs of 10-foot tall alien overlords. Welcome to Battlefield Earth.
Based on the 1982 novel by pulp science-fiction writer and founder of the world's one true faith, Scientology, Battlefield Earth recounts the epic battle of the man-animals in their bid for freedom from the Psychlos. It's a rousing tale, to be sure--complete with impassioned speeches, hair's-breadth escapes, schemes, explosions, and against-all-odds, last-minute, do-or-die fights for freedom.
But Battlefield Earth is not your everyday, sci-fi, free-Earth-from-the-alien-menace summer movie. While it may steal shamelessly from its recent predecessors on a scene by scene basis (look for the slow-motion corridor run lifted almost whole from The Matrix, the shots of the Psychlo homeworld that look as though they may be actual outtakes from Blade Runner, the Psychlo bar borrowed from Deep Space Nine, the fighter jets versus alien space craft from Independence Day, the battles amidst the rubble from Terminator) it has a spirit of its own, or at one least stolen from much older movies.
Though it is set in the year 3000, Battlefield Earth is far from being a journey to the future; it is a journey to the past, to the golden age of pulp sci-fi, the late '50s and early '60s. The movies that Battlefield Earth truly owes a debt to are not the adrenaline-fueled sci-fi epics of the '90s, but the talky, mannered, and goofy films of a generation past: Plan 9 From Outer Space, Planet of the Apes, and the original Star Trek. Like them, Battlefield Earth's timeless brilliance isn't in its tight pacing or great special effects; instead, it's a movie whose beauty emerges in the bizarre nuances, the weird, unintentional comedy, and linguistic quirks that can only come from a labor of love. In this case, Scientologist big-wig (and in Battlefield Earth, literal big-wig) John Travolta.
Only a star of Travolta's caliber could bring to the screen a movie in which the final battle for Earth's freedom looks like a music video rumble between the KISS Army and a group of renegade Chippendale dancers; where many of the plot turns revolve around the use of something called pict-o-cam technology, and the line, "Stupid man-animals" can be delivered followed by a menacing laugh that is not followed by howls of non-menacing laughter. And unless Travolta has been lying awake nights dreaming of playing the much put-upon Psychlo chief of security, Terl, only love, or religious devotion, could possibly explain why he would want to.
But if love is the only explanation for how a movie as wonderfully ridiculous as Battlefield Earth could make it to the big screen, then only money and the millennial audience's lust for hyper-real special effects keeps the movie from becoming an instant classic. If shot for a million dollars in Travolta's back yard, Battlefield Earth would have been a work of Ed Woodian genius. Instead, Battlefield's big, goofy heart is hidden behind multi-million-dollar planetary explosions, more slow motion running sequences than every Six Million Dollar Man ever made, and a score and sound effects so loud they seem designed to distract the audience from the ridiculous on-screen action with the blood running from their ears.
If only the damned Psychlos at Warner Brothers had let L. Ron's true genius come through, me and the four other people in theater would probably be standing in front of a Scientology recruitment office right now, ready to free the Earth and ourselves from some metaphorical oppression. Oh, stupid man-animals. Stupid. Stupid.