A Case of Saturn Night Fever?
“Battlefield Earth” is set in the year 3000, but stuck in the 1970s--and not in any hip, retro way.
As taken from L. Ron Hubbard’s 1982 novel, in the year 2000 aliens called the Psychlos conquered Earth. The Psychlos are a species/corporation whose guiding moral principle is profitability. By 3000, the only humans left are slaves or Neanderthals hiding in the hills. Both groups have the intellect of baboons, but that doesn’t prevent them from staging a revolution with perfectly preserved 1,000-year-old American military weapons.
Sure, science fiction gets some leeway in the reality department, but “Battlefield Earth” doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. Compounded by a dated visual style, patched-together special effects and ludicrous dialogue, “Battlefield Earth” is a wholly miserable experience.
At ground zero of this disaster sits John Travolta, producer and star. (Travolta is a longtime follower of the Church of Scientology, which Hubbard founded, and was instrumental in getting the film made.) He plays Terl, the Psychlos’ chief of security who thinks he’s above his station. “Groomed from birth to conquer galaxies” is how he describes himself.
He looks like he hasn’t been groomed, period. His head is covered with this falling-apart dreadlocked beehive hairdo. He’s stumbling around in platform boots that are supposed to make him appear 7 feet tall, but instead just make him clumsy. (At least when he was in platforms before, in the disco classic “Saturday Night Fever,” he moved better.)
Travolta’s played pure-evil villains before, notably in John Woo’s “Face/Off.” But there’s something new--a campy, fey style--to his turn as Terl. Is that a bit of Bette Davis as he cackles, “As a friend, I could forget to file the report. But unfortunately I’m not your friend!”? His dialogue throughout is punctuated with a wicked laugh that recalls Vincent Price--but again, more campy than eerie.
It’s an embarrassing performance that begs the question, “What was he thinking?” But that at least gives the audience something to ponder while this scenario--it can hardly be called a plot--rumbles on.
Barry Pepper plays Jonnie, a restless young human captured by the Psychlos and used for experiments by Terl. In a nonsensical development, Terl decides to mine gold in an area too radioactive for Psychlo health. So he tries to smarten up one of these man-animals to see if he can learn to operate mining equipment.
Jonnie gets strapped into a learning machine and knowledge--from world history to Euclidean geometry--gets pumped into his brain. The Psychlos apparently don’t believe in doling out information on a need-to-know basis. Pepper’s performance alternates between a startled expression and a snarl. The most intriguing thing about him is his hairdo; apparently even in the primitive cave-man-like world he inhabited, there was time for braiding. Forest Whitaker is the only recognizable face, though in his Psychlo get-up he resembles Burt Lahr’s cowardly lion.
The script by Corey Mandell and J.D. Shapiro may be laughable, but the film itself is grim. It’s not just the violence--much of which remains distractingly off-screen--but the whole tenor of the movie. When Terl starts shooting the legs off cows, science fiction hits a new low.
Director Roger Christian got his start as a set decorator on “Star Wars” and has--though it’s hard to believe--made films before (“Underworld” and “Masterminds”). His sole visual device is framing shots at a 15-degree angle. Maybe that’s so no one will notice how unbalanced the Psychlos are in those ridiculous boots.
The aesthetic in “Battlefield Earth” seems deliberately 1970s sci-fi. (Why someone would choose that is another question.) Cuts between scenes are done with wipes across the screen. The weapons could be leftovers from the “Star Trek” TV series. Christian makes some lines of dialogue resonate--literally--with echoes.
The visual effects come from nine production houses, and the patchwork shows. Some of the computer-generated imagery looks fine, but others--the Psychlos’ home planet, for one--would be comical on “Star Trek: Voyager.” The ruins of American cities have a distinct “Logan’s Run” quality to them. But it’s the non-computer stuff that’s really bad. Shots don’t match. The climactic battle of “Battlefield Earth” is nothing but a loud chaotic assault on the audience.
This film aspires to the simple rah-rah good vs. evil frenzy that fueled blockbusters from “Star Wars” to “Independence Day,” but it doesn’t come anywhere close. In the post-apocalyptic adventure genre, “Battlefield Earth” makes “Waterworld” look like a masterpiece.
Swaggering about in his platforms and padded leather outfit, Travolta (and much of the movie) is almost over-the-top enough to be bad in a good way. But it’s too lame even for that. Maybe he needed higher platforms.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sci-fi action. Times guidelines: many explosions and extended battle sequences. Nearly all violence is bloodless and takes place off-screen. Humans enslaved and kept in cages.
John Travolta: Terl
Barry Pepper: Jonnie
Forest Whitaker: Ker
Morgan Creek and Franchise Pictures present a Franchise Pictures/Jonathan D. Krane/JTP Films production. Directed by Roger Christian. Screenplay by Corey Mandell and J.D. Shapiro based on the novel by L. Ron Hubbard. Produced by Elie Samaha, Jonathan D. Krane and John Travolta. Executive producers Andrew Stevens, Ashok Amritraj and Don Carmody. Director of photography Giles Nuttgens. Production and costume design Patrick Tatopoulos. Edited by Robin Russell. Music by Elia Cmiral. Visual effects supervisor Erik Henry. Casting by Lynn Stalmaster. Co-producers Tracee Stanley and James Holt. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
In general release.