Friday, May 12, 2000
War is hell - and so is sitting through John Travolta's dumb Battlefield Earth
By RANDALL KING Winnipeg Sun
You know how the villains in Bond movies always like to reveal the machinations of their sick plots to 007 just prior to attempting to kill him in over-elaborate ways?
Expect that hoary cliche -- presumed dead by ridicule in the Austin Powers movies -- to be taken to dizzy new heights in Battlefield Earth. The extraterrestrial villain goes far beyond mere gloating. He actually gives the hero the means to defeat him. He practically gift-wraps it.
Imagine a Bond movie that ends with Blofeld giving Bond the blueprints to his island lair, a couple of thermonuclear devices and sending him off with the cheeky challenge: "Go ahead, Bond, you boob, do your worst. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"
That stupid turn of plot is just one element in a series of blunders that Battlefield Earth from what might have been, at best, just another mindless summer sci-fi spectacle.
The year is 3000, and humans have become slaves to clubfooted aliens called Psychlos. The few remaining free humans live a hand-to-mouth existence in desolate mountain villages.
And that's not good enough for Jonny Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper, sincere as can be), a clean-shaven, lion-maned noble savage who leaves home to see for himself if "demons" rule the Earth, as his elders suggest.
Bad news for Jonny: they do. He is captured and taken to a toxic "dome" over Denver to be utilized as slave labour.
His Psychlo overlords resemble something you might see at a leather fetish parade. They're nine feet tall. Luckily for mankind, they're incredibly arrogant. Better yet, they're bureaucrats.
That is particularly true of the Psychlo Chief of Security Terl, played by John Travolta. Terl demonstrates all the cunning of a seasoned middle manager whose survival instincts have been honed to a razor's edge. He easily deflects the inter-office uprisings, particularly those of his scheming aide de camp Ker (Forest Whitaker). When he's not doing that, Terl loves nothing better than to mess with human heads with cruelty evidently nurtured in Psychlo playgrounds. He is given to saying things like: "I promised I wouldn't kill you. I didn't say my assistant couldn't kill you! HAHAHAHAHAHA!"
Terl is eager to fulfil his destiny as a conqueror, but to do this, he must acquire tons of gold to buy his way off the planet he despises. He has discovered gold in the mountains, where Psychlos cannot tread due to some convenient malady. (Psychlos must wear special breathing tubes in their noses to survive in our atmosphere, which necessitates Travolta fulfil his own destiny by going through much of the film with a rubber hose up his nose.)
Terl's strategy is as follows:
"You there, Jonny Goodboy Tyler. For a man-animal, you seem to be highly intelligent and aggressive, as you've already killed a Psychlo guard within moments of your arrival. So, here. Learn my language, culture and science with this 'learning machine.' Here, learn how to fly Psychlo airships. Here's library privileges, while we're at it, so you can learn about your own defeated culture. Now, why don't you and some of your handpicked followers leave our internment camp and go mine gold for us in the mountains? I'll send a ship by every once in a while to check up on you, so don't do anything rash. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"
You'll never guess how it ends.
Director Roger Christian, a set decorator on Star Wars, does labour to give us a few interesting shots, including 1,000-year-old overgrown cities. But the film is fundamentally lacking in the stuff we expect from summer junk. The violence is edited for minimum impact. It's not sexy, despite a cameo by Mrs. Travolta, Kelly Preston, as a skilled, tongue-wagging concubine Terl hires as a "secretary."
Fortunately, the film isn't a Scientology indoctrination device either. And frankly, given that it was adapted from the novel by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and given that noted Scientologist Travolta has both starring and producing credits, I was nervous the film might contain subliminal messages that would have me walking out of the theatre feeling a compelling need to take a Personality Test.
Battlefield Earth is bad. But at least it's not propaganda.
(This film is rated PG)