by Jon Bastian
Even a dash of Pepper can’t spice up a movie that isn’t bad enough to be truly great.
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The critical and popular reception of the John Travolta produced Battlefield: Earth has been marked by a degree of hyperbolic contempt not seen since Showgirls — to which “The Hollywood Reporter” directly compared it. Most critics have gone out of their way to bash this movie, which makes me wonder how much of it is actual disdain for the product and how much of it reflects hatred for Scientology. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of L. Ron Hubbard’s pyramid scheme pseudo-religious cult. But when there’s this much advance flack on a movie, you have to wonder if there are ulterior motives for the contempt. Still, I went into Battlefield: Earth with extremely low expectations, actually hoping I’d hate the movie so that I could write a wittily scathing review myself. I can’t honestly do that here. I’ve certainly seen worse movies in recent memory, like Stigmata. Still, I can’t give any enthusiastic recommendation to John Travolta’s pet project.
I can answer a couple of questions. Is it a monumentally bad film? Not really. Is it a feature length advertisement for Scientology? No, if anything, quite the opposite message is hidden between the lines, more on which below. Is it worth running out to see? That depends. If you never saw Blade Runner or Logan’s Run or Planet of the Apes or Zardoz or any of a number of other films from which Battlefield: Earth liberally borrows its visual style, you might find it new and interesting. Otherwise, there’s nothing really groundbreaking or earthshaking on display here.
It’s the year 3000, and Earth has been invaded and taken over by the Psychlos, an over-sized race of interstellar land rapers bent on draining the planet of its resources, mostly gold. The humans they have not enslaved live in isolated tribes in the mountains around what was Denver, Colorado. It’s from one of these tribes that our hero, Johnny Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper) ventures forth, only to be captured by the Psychlos. But, since Johnny is a science fiction epic hero, it’s almost inevitable that he will mastermind the plot that brings about the downfall of the bad aliens. He’s unwittingly abetted in his mission by Terl (John Travolta), the alien’s chief of security, who is so convinced that the resident man-animals are good for nothing that he gives Johnny the training and knowledge necessary to enable him to lead a revolt. It’s all about Terl’s greed, his desire to grab for himself tons of gold hidden in the mountains that, for reasons I won’t elaborate, the Psychlos themselves cannot go near. Terl’s plot ultimately bites him on the ass. I’m not giving anything away by telling you that the humans eventually win.
Yes, the plot holes abound, but many of them aren’t as gaping as they’ve been made out to be and director Roger Christian keeps things moving at a brisk enough pace to mostly distract from these gaffes (although he’s pretty clueless on coherently directing major action sequences). Yes, Terl does hand Johnny the knowledge to rebel on a silver platter via a learning machine, but it is pretty well established that the Psychlos have no expectations of the humans, looking upon them as nothing more than livestock capable of manual labor. The existence of a fleet of working harrier jets that’s been idle for a millennium is another detail that has been pounced on by other critics, but if there was a point in the film where anyone mentioned that the Psychlo invasion had happened a thousand years earlier, I didn’t hear it. The book may differ, but here, the length of residency of the evil overlords is indeterminate.
Travolta chews the scenery with abandon in this performance, but it worked for me, and the complicated plots and counterplots between Terl and his right hand man, Ker (Forest Whitaker), as each attempts to outmaneuver and blackmail the other, were one of the more enjoyable bits of business. Yes, the whole interstellar yuppie rug merchant device feels a hell of a lot like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Ferengi. However, the book Battlefield: Earth was published before that series, so I could make the argument that Gene Roddenberry stole from L. Rob Hubbard, and not the other way around.
Other thefts, though, are obvious and for the most part are the director’s doing. For example, early on, Johnny is hit by a Psychlo stun weapon in an abandoned mall and careens in slo-mo through a series of display case windows, a la Pris in Blade Runner. (Slow motion is way overused throughout.) Johnny’s sense of purpose is derived from a visit to a bombed out library, story and visuals courtesy of Logan’s Run and Zardoz. Kelly Preston, a.k.a. John Travolta’s current beard, pops up in a long-tongued cameo in big-head make-up very reminiscent of Tim Burton’s wife in Mars Attacks! There’s even an exploding collar, shades of The Running Man, but, again, that may be a chicken-and-egg derivation. Throw in a final shot that hints at Citizen Kane by way of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and we end up with an experience that ultimately feels very, very familiar. If it weren’t for the implied connection to Scientology, there really wouldn’t be any distinguishing feature to the film. With almost any other pedigree, this would have been a direct to video release.
Even beyond the grave, though, L. Ron Hubbard still has a certain kind of weird negative cachet. Everyone was expecting Battlefield: Earth to be some kind of subliminal recruiting film. In reality, the only connection to Scientology is that the villains are aliens who have subjugated the residents of a planet, the ultimate secret of Hubbard’s theology for which seekers are relieved of thousands of dollars. Otherwise, the story seems to be almost an anti-Scientology roadmap, if read in a certain way. The Psychlos are colonizing bureaucrats interested only in material wealth — profit making takes precedence over their laws. They keep each other in check by gaining leverage through blackmail, making video recordings of incriminating statements and threatening to send them back to the home office. They look on humankind as a bunch of useless animals and their glassed-in headquarters in Denver bears more than a passing resemblance to Scientology’s Vatican, the FLAG in Clearwater, Florida. In short, the bad guy Psychlos behave a lot like, well, you-know-who, and the mere humans can destroy them by learning their secrets. It’s almost as if Hubbard gleefully trashed his own cult in creating these villains, knowing that the rank and file of his church would make it a bestseller and never get the irony. I wouldn’t put it past him. Say what you want about Scientology, Hubbard himself was a genius who got away with it, creating a monolithic organization mired in ideological group-think. For any member of the cult to realize that “Battlefield: Earth” actually contains a veiled and self-directed slam would itself be a sin, comparable to a Catholic interpreting the bible to say there shouldn’t be a pope.
I guess Travolta didn’t get any of that. He doesn’t seem to have gotten a whole lot, although he’s obviously having a ton of fun playing a nine-foot tall alien. At least his character is, literally, bigger than life. But, in compressing an epic novel of international scope into under two hours, the rest of the piece seems much smaller than life, an exploding planet notwithstanding. A much wider and deeper canvas would have been necessary to capture everything. Then again, David Lynch tried that with Dune, and was also crucified by the critics — not that Dune is awful, just awkward.
And, not that Battlefield: Earth is awful. The trouble is, it’s not good enough to be worth even a matinee, but it’s nowhere near bad enough to be worth seeing. If that seems paradoxical, it is: “If only this movie were crappier, I’d give it a glowing recommendation.” But, it takes a certain talent to make a flick so gut-wrenchingly awful that it’s an instant cult classic, and Travolta, Christian and company don’t have that kind of talent. The reaction is neither “love it” nor “hate it.” It’s just so-so, meaning “so what?”
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles and is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.
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