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Battlefield Earth

The story for this one goes way back to 1982, when “Battlefield Earth” was first published. Its author, L. Ron Hubbard, worked fervently to get two film adaptations made — one for each half of the 1,000-page book — but his efforts were all in vain. Not even the Grand High Nutjob of Scientology could drum up enough support to get the film through cast auditions, and the project imploded for want of a higher budget. Ah, but LRH still had an ace up his sleeve, though he never got to actually play it until after his death in 1986.

John Travolta had converted to Scientology back in 1975, so he was of course instrumental in LRH’s plans for Hollywood. Unfortunately, “Battlefield Earth” came out just after the aptly titled Blow Out bombed in theaters. Travolta went on to headline Staying Alive, Two of a Kind, Basements… the ’80s were a really bad time for John Travolta, is what I’m saying.

Nobody in Hollywood wanted anything to do with him until Pulp Fiction happened in 1994. After that, all the studios came and said “Congratulations, John, you’re a bankable star again. Pick your project and we’ll make it. We’ll do anything you want.”

“That’s great,” said Travolta. “I want to make ‘Battlefield Earth.'”

“Anything but that.”

Travolta spent four years lobbying countless studio execs, recruiting his famous Scientology buds for assistance, but it was no good. The book was hardly a mainstream sensation, the effects would surely be very expensive, and no mainstream studio wanted to go anywhere near the controversial subject of Scientology. Even with Travolta’s new star power, it was simply too big a risk to make. Enter Franchise Pictures.

Founded in 1998, Franchise Pictures was a company built on finding the stalled passion projects of major celebrities, funding those projects, and then paying the celebrities a discount fee in return. In theory, this was a very clever means of getting A-list talent on a tight budget. In practice… well, they went to John Travolta.

The lead actor agreed to cut his salary and pay $5 million of his own money to bring Franchise aboard. Franchise then reached out to foreign companies — including Intertainment AG of Germany — who then bought the foreign distribution rights in return for 70 percent of the production costs. At the time, the budget was estimated to be roughly $75 million. I only mention this because it’s going to be important later on.

With independent funding in place, Warner Bros. finally agreed to a $20 million promotion and distribution budget. But apparently, even that was too much involvement for WB to be comfortable with. To provide an extra degree of separation, WB released the film through Morgan Creek Productions, who was under contract with WB at the time. Battlefield Earth was officially a go.

Fun fact: Franchise Pictures was co-founded by Elie Samaha, who ran dry-cleaning businesses and nightclubs before he went into film production. “There’s no way I’m going to lose if [Battlefield Earth] does $35 million domestically,” said Samaha, “and Travolta has never had an action movie do under $35 million.”

The film grossed $29 million. Worldwide. Adding insult to that injury, the movie walked away with seven Razzies that year — later winning two more for “Worst Picture of Our First 25 Years” and “Worst Picture of the Decade” — breaking the record previously set by Showgirls. And the rest is showbiz infamy.

Before I get to the film itself, it’s worth noting that Battlefield Earth doesn’t actually have anything to do with Scientology. I understand that LRH smuggled some of his anti-psychiatry hysteria into the subtext of the book, but that’s about it. Clearly, the author intended for this story to be a work of science fiction, completely removed from the nonsense that he allegedly thought to be true. Moreover, so far as I can tell, Travolta was the only one in the film’s entire cast and crew with any current or prior connection to the Church of Scientology.

So set your hearts at rest, ladies and gents: This is not Scientology propaganda in any way. It is, however, a movie more godawful than I could hope to sufficiently describe.

This picture fails right out of the gate by treating us to a lengthy text crawl. Through this, we learn that beings from the planet Psychlo have come to take over Earth and wipe out humanity to near-extinction. They’ve done this “on countless other planets across the galaxies” with the intention of mining precious metals. In the case of Earth, they’re after gold.

First of all, “Psychlo.” If that’s the name that LRH invented for our extraterrestrial antagonists, then it’s a terrible portent of the hackery yet to come. Secondly, this is stuff that really should have been shown to us instead of told. If we had actually seen the… *ahem* Psychlos at work, it would have done so much to establish the scale as suitably epic and our villains as suitably powerful. Without that, the film is noticeably weaker.

However, I will grant the premise this much: It’s actually not that stupid for an alien race to come here for our gold. The precious metal has a wide variety of electronic and mechanical applications, and even in outer space, gold is thought to be extremely rare. Sorry for the digression, but I’m trying to be fair here.

Let’s get back to the story. It’s the year 3000 AD, and the Earth has spent the past thousand years or so under Psychlo occupation. Yes, these aliens were capable of taking over the entire planet in nine minutes (that’s directly stated in the film, by the way, I’m not pulling that number out of thin air), yet it takes them over a millennium to harvest all the Earth’s gold. Whatever.

Our protagonist is Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, played by Barry Pepper. He’s one of the last surviving humans, living in an isolated village guarded by a huge spiky “fuck off” gate. However, given that Jonnie is seen wandering into the city after the gate is closed, I presume the village’s defenses aren’t very effective. Anyway, when we first meet Jonnie, he’s flying into a fit of rage after learning that his father has just died off-camera. A character we know nothing about is mourning a character we’ve never met, and the death is immediately forgotten afterwards. Let’s call that “strike two.”

Only a few seconds later… this happens. Folks, I could write a whole blog entry just on those eleven seconds. Not even five minutes into this picture, and the movie has already jumped a mile-long row of sharks, Evel Knievel-style. Seriously, just look at that pathetic attempt of no-way-I-can-possibly-call-it-acting. Look at the awful production design. The piss-poor editing. The mindless direction. The worthless dialogue. The camera that’s always slanted to a terribly distracting angle.

Worst of all, ladies and gentlemen, that’s the best that this film ever gets. The complaints that I’ve just listed pervade the entire picture. This movie doesn’t just beat you about the head with how bad it is, this movie practically opens with a double-dog dare for you to stay through the entire running time.

And I’m going to sit through it so you don’t have to. Happy fucking birthday to me.

Getting back to the premise, Jonnie runs away from the village for no adequately explained reason. He eventually gets captured by the Psychlos, who have set up their base of operations in modern-day Denver. This is where we meet our antagonist, the Psychlo chief of security here on Earth. Though Terl (John Travolta) is eager to wrap up his term of service and get back home, his superiors have made the last-minute decision to keep him on indefinitely just to spite him.

Before moving on, I’d like to pause for a moment so that we may discuss the Psychlos. For comparison’s sake, battlefieldearth.com (the official site of the book, and no way am I dignifying it with a hyperlink) describes the Psychlos of the book as nine-foot-tall monstrosities covered in fur, with sharp talons in place of fingers and an extra talon on their right hand. Somehow, we went from there to aliens who look only marginally more dignified than those of Plan 9. The filmmakers did at least keep the extra finger on the right hand, however, I’ll grant them that.

These creatures look so lazy and comically ugly that it’s impossible to take them seriously as villains. The actors spend the entire film struggling to move against their prosthetics, which are so visibly cheap that you can actually see where the filmmakers chose to cut corners. The aliens’ design is stupid, which in turn implies that the aliens themselves are stupid. And we’ll see for ourselves that they are, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now, let’s get back to the premise.

Luckily for Terl, his executive officer (Ker, played by Forest Goddamned Whitaker) has recently discovered a rich vein of gold that was freshly uncovered by a landslide. Unfortunately, the gold is surrounded by uranium deposits, and Psychlo “breathe-gas” is highly volatile around radiation. Psychlos are unable to mine in the area without risking a massive explosion, so Terl gets the bright idea of training “man-animals” to mine for them. Even better, Terl will conduct this whole operation in secret, keeping the gold to himself so he can surreptitiously leave Earth a wealthy Psychlo.

(Side note: If radiation is so incredibly harmful to the Psychlos, then why didn’t our nuclear weapons work against them? For that matter, how are the Psychlos able to survive all the radiation that comes from our sun? Your guess is as good as mine.)

It bears repeating that the concept of using humans to mine gold is a completely new one to the Psychlos. In fact, Terl’s colleagues consider the notion to be laughable. Yet we plainly see for ourselves that humans are being used for manual labor within the confines of Denver. If they’re already being used as slaves within the Psychlo base of operations on Earth, then why aren’t they being used as slaves elsewhere? Why keep so many hundreds of humans cooped up in cages if they’re not going to be used?

Just wait, folks. It gets even more idiotic.

Terl eventually crosses paths with Jonnie and decides to use him as a sort of test subject. Jonnie is trained to be a more effective slave worker and comes to be a hero figure for his fellow humans. Before long, Jonnie decides that he’s going to lead a group of rebels to fight off the Psychlos and take Earth back.

I don’t know what’s more stupid; that Jonnie thinks a couple dozen cavemen can fight off an intergalactic species of technologically superior aliens… or that he succeeds.

I don’t know if it was the filmmakers or LRH, but someone obviously realized that this fight was impossibly unfair. As a result, the plot and premise do absolutely everything possible to stack the deck in the other direction. How the Psychlos fail as our alien overlords, let me try and count the ways.

To start with, Terl has an “education machine” that allows massive amounts of information to be downloaded into a human brain within moments. This is how he teaches Jonnie the Psychlo language. 1. If it takes absolutely no time and effort to teach humans how to speak Psychlo, then why hasn’t this already been done with all the other captured humans? This would make the humans into far more effective slaves, for reasons that I hope should be obvious. 2. We very quickly learn that Jonnie has also mastered Euclidian geometry, molecular biology, and who knows what else from this machine. Why in Xenu’s name didn’t Terl just let the machine teach Jonnie the Psychlo language and let it go at that?! 3. Why haven’t the Psychlos used this technology on themselves to understand the human languages? This would keep the humans from plotting in secret, which does indeed happen as the film progresses.

Actually, there’s an answer to number 3: The Psychlos know absolutely nothing about us. They never bothered to learn about human culture, human biology, human technology, or anything else about us. 4. How have the Psychlos been able to control and sustain such a huge contingent of human slaves without knowing the first thing about us? Hell, how were they able to beat us in the first place?!

This brings me to number 5: The Psychlos — Terl, in particular — have a nasty habit of brushing us off as mere animals. No matter how many times the humans prove themselves to be more intelligent and resourceful than given credit for, the so called “higher species” keep turning their backs with the absolute certainty that mutiny is impossible. Literally, there are multiple times when they just let the humans roam free without any supervision, because they figure nothing could possibly go wrong.

Then we get to the part where Terl brings in the humans to mine the gold. 6. The human workers are only monitored by a drone that flies by every few hours to take a single static picture. 7. He leaves behind a Psychlo aircraft with the only human who knows how to fly it. 8. Somehow, the drone completely fails to notice that the Psychlo aircraft is missing from the mining site for huge stretches of time.

The past three points lead me to number 9, which needs a whole paragraph to itself. While half the humans stage a mining operation, Jonnie takes the other half to start planning a revolution. He flies all around the country, gathering weapons and supplies that were somehow left over from the Psychlo occupation. The Psychlos had a thousand freaking years to scour the planet and take away anything that might plausibly be used against them, and they just decided not to bother. Even more improbably, these machines are still in perfect working condition over the past few hundred years and the cavemen learn how to use them in two goddamned weeks. (Again, by the way, I’m not making that number up. Terl explicitly gives the humans two weeks to mine the gold.)

One example deserves yet another paragraph: Fort Knox. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the movie goes there. To satisfy Terl’s greed, Jonnie takes a crew to Fort Knox. And it’s still overflowing with untouched gold. Our new alien overlords have spent the past thousand years mining for gold, and they never raided Fort Knox. That’s like spending a solid year searching around your house for Christmas presents and looking everywhere except for UNDER THE FUCKING TREE!!! Yeah, that one’s a big number 10.

Oh, and even better: When Terl is presented with the gold, he doesn’t even question that mere cavemen had the means to make perfectly-formed ingots. Chalk that up as number 11.

Hmm… we still need a number 12. It’d be great if we could get the number up to an even twelve. Let me think… *snaps fingers* Oh, right! During the climax, when its a whole cadre of Psychlos chasing down one measly human, the Psychlos show worse marksmanship than a bunch of cross-eyed Imperial Stormtroopers with cerebral palsy. Number 12, right there!

Then again, maybe the Psychlos could have a chance at shooting straight if the camera wasn’t constantly tilted. Between the pointless Dutch angles and the pug-ugly lighting, the cinematography alone is enough to make this film fucking unwatchable. The editing is similarly worthless, with a hokey curtain wipe acting for every single scene transition. The editing also sabotages the film’s action, as the film has a nasty habit of cutting away right when something big happens. The film depicts explosions and bodily injuries without actually showing them, which is yet another clear sign of cutting corners.

The visual effects look hideous, even by the standards of the day. Composer Elia Cmiral turns in a score that’s weak, repetitive, and generally incompetent. The sound design… sweet merciful fuck, the sound design. The film does a good job of transitioning between Psychlo-speak and English — making it clear when the movie is translating for us — but that’s it. In all other respects, the sound design frequently tries to elicit drama and fails miserably in the attempt.

Even so, the film is considered a cinematic guilty pleasure. As such, there must be something about this movie that was given sincere and enthusiastic effort, only to fail in some campy manner. In this case, it’s the Psychlos. You can tell that the filmmakers really wanted the Psychlos to be this frightening alien menace, but they only succeeded in creating a species of laughably stupid monstrosities.

John Travolta is emblematic of this, I think. It’s obvious that this was a passion project for him, and he truly wanted to make Terl a great villain. If I squint and tilt my head sideways, I can almost see Terl as a slimy and duplicitous sociopath, just clever and charismatic enough to be a serious threat. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Travolta wanted — and seriously believed — Terl to be the next Darth Vader.

I know for a fact that you burst out laughing just reading that last sentence, and that’s okay. For all of Travolta’s efforts and lofty ambitions, the best he could do was to relentlessly chew scenery. The end result is hilarious and pathetic in equal measure, especially since Travolta so clearly thinks that he’s nailing it. Compare that to Forest Whitaker, who obviously knows that he’s in a pile of shit. Every time he was on the screen, I could honestly see him thinking “Well, I’m buried under all this natty makeup and I’m reading from this awful script. I might as well have fun with it until I can go back and fire my agent.” Whitaker is clearly trying to have fun and make the best of it, which makes his performance all the more enjoyable.

Even so, there’s no way Battlefield Earth is worth sitting through just for those two performances. The visuals are oppressively ugly, the acting is relentlessly over-the-top, the screenplay doesn’t have a single good idea, the list of problems just goes on and on and on. In every possible way, at every possible level, this film is just bad, bad, painfully bad.

The fallout was disastrous for everyone involved, though some got off easier than others. To start with, the biggest loser of the bunch was easily Franchise Pictures. Remember that German company, Intertainment AG? They sued Franchise after the film premiered, claiming that Franchise had defrauded Intertainment out of millions by inflating the budget. The courts ruled in favor of Intertainment, awarding a settlement to the tune of $121.7 million. That ruling, coupled with the catastrophic failure of Battlefield Earth (and the Get Carter remake, and Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, and A Sound of Thunder…) completely ruined any shred of credibility that Franchise Pictures still had. In August of 2004, only six years after its founding, the company was dismantled for good.

Director Roger Christian went on to direct a couple of films in 2004, both of which went nowhere. He finished another movie called Prisoners of the Sun back in 2007, and that film never even saw release. Co-writer J.D. Shapiro (who personally accepted all of his Razzies, I might add) has dabbled in writing and acting in the time since, though he mostly seems to be working as a stand-up comedian nowadays. Corey Mandell, the film’s other co-writer, doesn’t have a single other screenwriting credit or even a Wikipedia page that I can find. However — get this — the guy is presently working as a screenwriting coach. That’s right, all you aspiring screenwriters out there: If you’ve got the time and the money, you can have your script reviewed by the Razzie-winning screenwriter behind Battlefield Earth.

John Travolta has gone through the past few years taking one step forward (Hairspray) for every two steps back (Wild Hogs). For what it’s worth, his wife Kelly Preston had a cameo role in Battlefield and the two of them are still married. Barry Pepper spent the following decade wading through irrelevance, though his career has been on an upswing ever since he appeared in the Coens’ True Grit. Forest Whitaker, on the other hand, came back in 2002 with an appearance in David Fincher’s well-received Panic Room. Soon after, he won Best Actor for playing Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and all was forgiven. The only other notable Battlefield alumnus is Kim Coates, who played one of Jonnie’s closest lieutenants. Coates had an amazing career as a character actor before 2000, and the failure of Battlefield hasn’t slowed him down one bit.

So far as I know, everyone else involved with this picture basically vanished into the ether. I’m sure they’re all eager to leave the stink of this movie behind them.

2 Comments

  1. Comment by Padraig Criostoir Nolan:

    Easily one of my favorite movies of all time. Some of the lines are so hilarious that the first time I watched it, I had to rewind and replay them 5+ times. Most notably the random alien woman slurping her tongue around JT’s crotch, and the line “Your friendly bartender!” as he holds up a terrible impression of a head.

  2. Comment by Curiosity Inc.:

    Like I said, Terl and Ker were the only enjoyable parts of this movie.

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