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BATTLEFIELD EARTH

Review by Andrew Manning (5/00)

Release: 2000, Warner Bros.
Starring: John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker
Director: Roger Christian
MPAA Rating: [PG-13] violence, sexuality
Genre: Science Fiction





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SUMMARY

In the year 3000, earth is a desolate wasteland ruled by giant aliens called Psychlos, and humans are a slave race. A young man named Jonnie (Pepper), bent on restoring the freedom of humanity, leads a revolt against Terl (Travolta), the Psychlo Chief of Security stationed on earth. Based on the 1982 science fiction novel by L. Ron Hubbard.

THE SUDDEN RUNDOWN

Bad acting, bad characters, and a bad script make this the Attack of the Killer Tomatoes of the year 2000.

WHAT'S GOOD

Battlefield Earth can best be described as an unintentional comedy--a movie that's so well meaning and completely oblivious to its own awfulness that it's absolutely hilarious. In fact, this is the first science fiction movie in years that I can remember just laughing at constantly. It's so bad, so hokey, that I think in 20 years we'll dust off our antiquated DVD players, pop in a copy of this cheesy sci-flop, and laugh our asses off in the same way we revel in the campiness of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

Some background: Battlefield Earth takes place in the year 3000. By this time, earth has been conquered by a race of giant aliens called Psychlos. They're about nine feet tall, have nappy hair, and are organized in a somewhat corporate society primarily concerned with strip-mining planets and generating profits. Matthew Leary, our resident Star Trek freak, says they're a mix of Trek's Klingons and Ferrengi, combining the warrior society of the former with the greediness and scheming of the latter. My own personal take is that John Travolta, playing the main Psychlo here, looks like Rob Zombie.

Travolta plays Terl, the Chief of Security who is unwillingly stationed on earth. Although some humans have managed to evade the Psychlos by hiding out in the wilderness, most of the remainder of humanity is used as slave labor by Terl and his crew. Psychlos view humans as a decidedly inferior species, so much so that they won't allow humans to mine ore for them. Instead, humans are used merely as pack animals, and are referred to as "man animals."

Enter Jonnie, a spunky young man who wants to leave the safety of the wilderness and venture into the "forbidden lands." The humans live in primitive tribes relying on superstition, so they know nothing, apparently, of the alien nature of the Psychlos or of the past accomplishments of humanity. So of course, the tribal elder tells Jonnie that demons live beyond the sanctuary of their mountains. But Jonnie is an utter dumb ass--and adventurous to boot--so he leaves the tribe and immediately gets captured and thrown into a prison camp. From there, he hatches a plan to revolt and lead humanity to overthrow their alien overseers.

There are five, and only five, cool scenes in this entire movie. One: the first appearance of a Psychlo is rather freaky, as you only see a giant, hulking shadow coming around the bend, and it looks like something out of a Marilyn Manson video. Two: the story holds that the Psychlos conquered a scientifically advanced earth in a mere nine minutes (too bad they never show it, though, because that level of destruction would have been bad ass for a sci-fi flick). Three: to prove what a good marksman he is, Terl shoots the legs off of live cows in a comical manner. Four: Travolta's real life wife, Kelly Preston, makes a brief appearance as an alien chick with an exceptionally wicked tongue. And five: Terl spies on a group of humans reluctantly eating rats in order to survive, and he mistakes their slow eating for an attempt to savor a good meal; he thus mistakenly concludes that rat is a favorite food amongst humans.

Okay, that's enough background. Now I can start slamming the film.


WHAT'S BAD

Let's start with the characters. First, the hero is a dumb ass. He's foolishly optimistic, gets himself into completely unnecessary trouble at every turn, and tries to act like Braveheart throughout the movie. Second, the villain is a dumb ass. He's also foolishly optimistic, he's a bit on the dim side, and he's sort of prissy to boot. What ever happened to the cool bad guys Travolta used to play? Pulp Fiction, Broken Arrow, even his take on Castor Troy in Face/Off. All of those characters were villains you loved to hate. Terl, on the other hand, is just a stooge you sort of feel sorry for. That said, if you can't root for the hero and you can't root for the villain, who exactly are you supposed to take an interest in?

The humans are absolute idiots in this movie. They're a bunch of superstitious cavemen saying things like "the gods abandoned the planet, and so the demons came from the heavens and took it over." This is perhaps the most confusing and irrational part of the entire story. We're never told exactly when the Psychlos invaded the earth, but it's assumed to be in the near future. Let's say 2050. This movie takes place in 3000. So that leaves 950 years of human history under the rule of aliens. During all that time, superstitious stories and proverbs like "the grass is always greener on the other side" manage to survive. Why then, can humans not remember the simple fact that they used to be a scientific race and the Psychlos were extraterrestrial invaders? If society is stable enough in the wilderness to pass down stories about the Psychlos from generation to generation, why can't it throw in some basic stories like, "humans used to live in houses, cook decent food with microwaves, and wield the atom bomb"? The fact that a race of grungy Halloween rejects is more believable than the depiction of human stupidity here should be the first red flag.

Terl, like a cocky villain from a Bond film, manages to screw things up royally. He's on the verge of ruling the world, but he wants more. He wants to increase mining capacity, so he trains humans on mining techniques. This involves schooling them, so he hooks up Jonnie to a "learning machine" that zaps knowledge directly into his brain. Then he gives Jonnie assistants, drops them off in the wilderness, and gives him his own damned spaceship. For some reason, Terl is just asking for a revolt! It's like being a prison guard but unlocking all the cells, arming the prisoners, and telling them they're on the honor system. It's ridiculous.

What's even more ridiculous is that Jonnie and his band of cavemen actually manage to succeed in a revolt! After a few hours on the learning machine and an afternoon in the Library of Congress (Terl actually takes Jonnie there so he can "know what humanity used to be"), Jonnie is suddenly smart enough to concoct a mastermind plan and train everyone else on how to execute. They plan to blow up the Psychlos' headquarters on earth, then transport a nuclear bomb to the Psychlos' homeworld. Once it detonates, the radiation will instantly react with the strange atmosphere of the planet and obliterate it. Needless to say, Jonnie and the Primitives somehow succeed!

This is the most absurd point in this whole idiotic flick: In one moment, humans are living in caves, wearing loincloths, and talking about gods. About a week later, they are flying Harrier jets with expert precision, arming nuclear bombs, and overthrowing a race of aliens who conquered modern-day earth in nine minutes! One caveman (let's call him "Og") runs out of missiles on his jet while dogfighting in the sky with a Psychlo transport. So Og sets the jet into a collision course with the target, then ejects a nano-second before it takes out the Psychlo. And just a week ago, Og was guarding fire and hunting rabbits!

As if having bad characters and a bad story isn't enough, all the little things suck, too. For starters, who's doing the makeup job on this movie? You know the giant rubber hoof-hand that Jim Breuer wears when playing Goat Boy on Saturday Night Live? That's the type of "first class" costume effects you'll see with the Psychlos' hands. Then there's the way the movie tries to elicit sympathy, and just outright fails in a heartbeat. Two humans sacrifice their lives to defeat the Psychlos, and the movie tries to make them seem heroic. One even has a bad catch phrase that is supposed to make audiences connect with him: "Piece of cake." Whoa! Hold the phone, I think Arnold Schwarzenegger needs to hear about this one. It's funny, because you don't even care if he dies. Then there's another short scene in which Jonnie has a chance to kill Terl pointblank with a ray gun, but instead gives the gun back to Terl.

Battlefield Earth is one bad thing after another. Just because it is based on a book by Scientologist guru L. Ron Hubbard, people are quick to think it's full of propaganda. But even that is giving the movie too much credit. The fact that this is one of Travolta's worst performances ever and that he's still the highlight should tell you something. Maybe in a few decades, if this becomes the camp classic I think it could be, I'll boost the rating by a couple of points. But until then, this movie gets my lowest marks of the year so far.


Rating: 1.5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)
MORE ABOUT RATINGS

Reviews of good sci-fi films that Battlefield Earth ripped off:
The Matrix
Star Wars
Star Trek: First Contact







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