[box cover]

Battlefield Earth

Warner Home Video

Starring John Travolta, Barry Pepper, and Forest Whitaker

Writing credits (WGA): L. Ron Hubbard (novel),
Corey Mandell and J. David Shapiro (screenplay)

Directed by Roger Christian


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


"You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!"
— Chief bad-guy alien,
Plan 9 from Outer Space

"Stupid humans!"
— Chief bad-guy alien (and co-producer) John Travolta,
Battlefield Earth


Watching Battlefield Earth is to a movie-watching experience what having a yeast infection is to having sex. It probably won't ruin the experience forever, but you're still glad when it's over and it forces you to remember other experiences that were far, far better.

In the interest of fairness and credibility, I must state up front that I avoided this infamous disaster at the multiplex. The reviews and word-of-mouth publicity everywhere made it clear that this was something to avoid, like egg salad gone green on an L. Ron Hubbard commemorative plate. Later, its seven Razzie Awards (including Worst Couple awarded to John Travolta and "anyone sharing the screen with him") dropped confidence below the zero mark. It has ended up on every Worst Movies of the Year list by the reviewers I trust to make my critical tuning fork hum in concert.

I can't say that I watched this DVD without knowing that. But I placed Battlefield Earth in my DVD player with as much of an open heart and mind as I could muster.

So. To business.

Here's the plot as described by Warner Brothers:

In the year 3000, there are no countries, no cities... Earth is a wasteland. And man is an endangered species. A millennium ago, vicious Psychlo aliens swept down from the skies and wiped out Earth's entire defense force in nine minutes. Now, the handfuls of surviving humans are either used as slaves, stripping the mineral resources from the planet for use by the Psychlo race, or hiding out in remote mountain villages, primitive and cut off from the rest of humanity. One of the most powerful figures on this new Earth is Psychlo Chief of Security Terl (John Travolta), a brilliant and monstrous alien who believes he was destined to conquer galaxies. What he does not know is that one human, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Peooer), is about to put a kink in his plan to exploit Earth's human slaves for his own personal gain. A hunter who sets out to make life better for his people, Jonnie is captured and made to work as a slave in one of the Psychlos' mines. It is here that his journey really begins — a grand adventure that will lead him to discover places and things he never knew existed. Terl holds every advantage, with the massive strength of invincible Psychlo machinery and the vast Psychlo empire behind him. Jonnie is an insignificant animal to Terl, but he is about to turn the tables, and unleash his unfailing hope in a final showdown for the future of Earth.

Okay.

The obvious question is, "Is Battlefield Earth really all that bad?"

The obvious answer is, "You bet your noseplug, buddy." It's bad. Worse, and a separate issue entirely, it's not entertaining. It's not fun bad.

In the gene pool of science fiction cinema, Battlefield Earth most resembles its oldest ancestors — the black-and-white serials of the 1930s. Seen in a generous light, it's a romping revisitation of those goofy old cliffhanger serials like King of the Rocket Men, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, Spy Smasher, and Radar Men From the Moon. More than anything, though, it reminds me of The Phantom Empire, the 1935 serial starring cowboy singer Gene Autry who, with the children's club called the Thunder Riders, defeat the evil Queen Tika in the lost civilization buried beneath Radio Ranch. The Phantom Empire isn't better than Battlefield Earth, but it's a more lovable "sci-fi" (pronounced either "skiffy" or "sigh, fie") movie about rebellion and greed and radioactive elements and baddies with ray guns.

Sure, special effects are much better nowadays. But even my wife, who, and I still love her dearly, will see any movie and forgive any of its faults as long as the special effects are cool, uttered a loud, "Oh, please, SPARE ME" twenty minutes into Battlefield Earth. She is a wise woman, and was a reliable barometer of things to come.

Now, picking Battlefield Earth to pieces is no more sporting that shooting a dead gopher. The carcass has already been riddled, its innards exposed to the light, and shooting it again won't make it a better gopher. But, dammit, there's never been a better time when filmmakers can exploit their art and craft in pursuit of a science fiction movie with the Oz-ish virtues of brains, heart, and courage. (Now there's a far, far better movie about unlikely allies banding together to defeat a supremely powerful foe.) Nothing in Battlefield Earth's pedigree — not the director, the writer, and certainly not L. Ron Hubbard — gave us any reason to expect Hollywood greatness. Still, it's 2001 and there's no excuse for anyone with so much on-hand talent and resources and some 70 million dollars to make a movie this thudding and tawdry, not to mention designed as if after a weekend of aggressive Dumpster-diving.

Throughout its interminable story, Battlefield Earth generates no suspense or tension, no interest in what's happening or who it's happening to. It's dull as well as dull-witted. Because there are no characters on that screen. Just cyphers, cut-outs, pixels that do a lot of running and leaping and monkey-hooting (yes, really). They are as two-dimensional as images on a screen really are. There's more honest humanity in one minute of Toy Story than in this entire 119-minute running time.

Where does the responsibility lie? In Hollywood, one answer to that is "Everywhere and nowhere." The more common one, though, is "Don't blame me. It's that other's guy's fault." Whatever the real answer is, Battlefield Earth almost proudly displays some obvious candidates:

The writing:

The plodding screenplay is based on Hubbard's pulpy book of the same name, the worst-ever science fiction novel to achieve a measure of pop visibility. Battlefield Earth, the book, appeared in 1982, but Hubbard's career peak as a writer came in the 1940s. The book's bones and gristle connect to the garish Space Opera that thrilled teenage boys in the '40s and '50s. That dime-novel old stuff resurged (some might say regurgitated) in recent years thanks to the Star Wars bonanza and the wave of copycat Hollywood hokum that followed. Hubbard's book is generally considered a rollicking yarn, a rip-snorter, a dandy read when what you want are yesteryear thrills and summer-on-the-beach fluff. It's Jackie Collins, Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele, and Tom Clancy, only with funky hair and foil shelf collars. The kind of fat 800-page yarn you read while convalescing from major surgery. On the screen it's been translated into a patchwork script stapled together from clichés found in hundreds of better movies. Sections appear to be lifted intact from Planet of the Apes, Logan's Run, and Saturday morning cartoons.

That's not to say that a Joseph Campbell "hero's journey" story of a lone rebel removing his shackles to lead a righteous rebellion against vastly more powerful oppressors isn't a worthy story. God knows it's been told often enough since the Old Testament, sometimes very well. And that's a thumbtack in this screenplay's shoe. All potential good here was much better when we saw it in Spartacus, The Wizard of Oz, or random episodes of Star Trek or Doctor Who. Now, that by itself isn't always a problem. The first Star Wars had no single original idea in it either, but it repackaged hoary old sci-fi chestnuts from the 1930s to the '50s and reintroduced them in a satisfying fashion. Unless you can find something new in Campbell's overused deck of flash cards, and can communicate it with vision and clarity, we really have already been there and have exhaustively done that, thank you.

Battlefield Earth's script is so shotgun-blasted with holes that it feels like, at best, a first draft. For instance, we're asked to believe that the Psychlos — a race so technologically advanced that they conquer entire galaxies and possess instantaneous faster-than-light teleportation that can materialize an individual with pinpoint precision on a planet's surface from across untold light-years — have after 1000 years been unable to tell that nearby Ft. Knox is full of gold, the thing they've been on Earth for a millennium to plunder. We're asked to believe that humans living in Stone Age ignorance can learn to fly an attack force of the 20th century's most advanced military aircraft in what feels like little more than a day or two, and that after 1000 years of neglect those aircraft remain miraculously fueled, powered, and fully operational. It makes sense only if this is some stupendous product-placement scheme by Boeing. And then we're asked to believe that the planet Psychlo can be blown up by a relatively small amount of "radiation" (type unspecified) that triggers a "chain reaction" with the planet's atmosphere and then kablooeys the entire rocky bulk of the planet itself. In Battlefield Earth, the "science" in "science fiction" vanished at the moment the Psychlos arrived.

Particularly painful is the banal dialogue, especially when you hear it voiced by actors who either declare it as if it were Shakespeare in the Park (Travolta, Pepper) or with such lackluster boredom that you can read their thought balloons: "It's paying work, but I passed up a sitcom shot for this" (everyone else).

The director:

On this disc's full-length commentary audio track, it's plain that director Roger Christian (abetted by production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, who should feel equal reason for embarrassment) sees into a dimension that the rest of us do not. He praises his achievement as a visionary masterpiece with "many layers of richness," and if it happens to be misunderstood, well, that's because it's so far ahead of it's time. "One day this film will be seen in its true light," he tells us. To him its box office failure is the fault only of prejudiced critics, the same narrow nabobs who initially pooh-pooh'd Battlefield Earth's brethren such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner.

Christian's only prior qualifying résumé bullet point came from being a second-unit director on The Phantom Menace, and it says something that his feature directorial debut is several steps sludgier and dumber even than that. He mentions, repeatedly, the blessings placed upon him and Battlefield Earth by George Lucas. Plus, perhaps understanding that Lucas' imprimatur increasingly fails to impress in recent years, he establishes his film-wonk cred by making sure that Akira Kurosawa and Jean-Luc Godard are name-dropped like clanging anvils. Battlefield Earth is, he says, "Schindler's Listy-like in places."

You read that right. "Schindler's Listy-like in places."

Christian directed Battlefield Earth as if he doesn't trust the material to stand up on its own. Instead of telling the story straight up and letting it rise or fall on its own merits, he tricked up almost every scene with "artsy" slow-mo and other film-school gimmickry that make him look unsure, insecure, too eager to show off cool stuff for the sake of showing off cool stuff. One obvious offense came in shooting almost every scene in vertiginous Dutch angles, as if one leg of his camera's tripod needs a few more phone books to prop it up. It's a technique so overplayed it would make Joel Schumacher seasick.

("Schindler's Listy-like in places." Sticks in your head, doesn't it?)

And as for whether he knows how to direct actors so that their art and their craft are given a chance to shine — the less said the better. Any director that makes me embarrassed for Forest Whitaker shouldn't be allowed behind a camera again. Speaking of Whitaker, who plays Terl's "hilarious and deceptive" assistant, Ker: Instead of Battlefield Earth rent Ghost Dog, a far, far better movie about self-determination and devotion to a higher order.

"Schindler's Listy-like in places." Like an ice-cream headache, Christian makes you want to scoop out your frontal lobe with a spoon.

The soundtrack:

If you can't make it good, make it loud. It's been a gold-plate rule in Hollywood summer flicks since the 1970s. Battlefield Earth is loud. Oh so skull-slapping loud. The musical score tries its best to tell you that here you should feel excited and here you should feel moved and here you should be on the edge of your seat. But it's all sound and fury, signifying zip. The score clubs you over the head as if to distract you from all the other flaws beneath it. It fails.

John Travolta:

This turkey was his to cook. As its star, co-producer, and chief advocate, this was his pet project for years and it's safe to say that this movie version of Hubbard's novel would not exist without him. Fine. But his work on and in this movie reminds me of a line from a far, far better movie about independence and freedom-fighting, the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup: "Look at him ... he may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don't let that fool you — he really is an idiot."

As much as I adore Travolta's performance in Pulp Fiction (note the titular irony there), everything about his performance as Battlefield Earth's chief baddie is so painfully ludicrous, from his makeup and inexplicable shifting accent down to his Herman Munster shoes. His Terl is the cackling villain we've seen in all those bad old B-movies and serials and Snidely Whiplash melodramas. He is Ming of Mongo without the cool. If any unknown newbie actor had given exactly the same performance that Travolta gives here, we'd not be seeing him again except perhaps in the occasional margarine commercial. It is dreadful and, while watching Travolta, I felt sorry for him. (Then I thought about what he probably paid himself and stopped.)

About the DVD

Battlefield Earth is a big, dumb movie. Hollywood produces lots of big, dumb movies. Many fare well at the box office (Independence Day). Most do not. Battlefield Earth may be the biggest, dumbest movie of 2000, but it's probably not the biggest, dumbest movie of all time, and it won't be long before Hollywood cranks out one that's even bigger and dumber. Battlefield Earth will make its money back on DVD, especially in overseas sales, a market with a seemingly bottomless appetite for big, dumb American movies that aren't at all Schindler's Listy-like in places.

That may explain why Warner Home Video is not marketing Battlefield Earth's inevitable DVD release as some sort of "camp classic" in the Ed Wood so-bad-it's-good vein. Instead, this DVD gives the film all the respect of an A-list marquee title. And you have to hand it to Warner, because as a DVD this is a first-rate product. Still, if you take a turd and dip it in Lucite, preserve it and polish and keep it pristine, what you have at the end of the process is a pristine, well preserved turd.

The widescreen image (2.35:1 anamorphic) and transfer are excellent, capturing every ugly design choice in sharp definition, and allowing some scenes' weird blue and green tinting to be, well, weirdly blue and green. Also quite fine is the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, which makes the most of the home-theater surround soundstage and displays an impressive dynamic range all the way down to the booming LFE channel. Set your volume control a notch down to merely Obnoxiously Overbearing.

The collection of extras starts with the aforementioned audio commentary track by director Roger Christian and designer Patrick Tatopoulos. It's destined to go down in DVD history as one of the most self-serving and self-rationalizing tracks on the shelves, which is really saying something in these days of overblown director commentaries. Attached to the commentary track is a feature like the "follow the white rabbit" click-and-see gimmick on the DVD of The Matrix. When the icon appears, click Enter to view a brief topic-related behind-the-scenes snip. When the sequence ends, you are returned to the movie at the point you left it.

A featurette, Evolution and Creation, is your standard E! Network fifteen-minute "talking heads" promotional fluff with Travolta and others.

Footage from Evolution and Creation appears again in a pair of two-minute spotlights on Travolta's make-up tests and the creation of some visual effects.

An eight-minute animated storyboard juxtaposes the original concept artwork with the corresponding finished scenes. Its techno-thump musical scoring is as pleasant as chewing aluminum foil.

Click around the menu screens, if you must, for five Easter eggs holding 30-second behind-the-scenes clips.

Also here are the theatrical trailer, two TV spots, cast/crew bios, and Windows-only DVD-ROM content.

—Mark Bourne



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