From sci-fi pulp to celluloid pap REVIEW: 'Battlefield Earth' is laughably bad.
May 12, 2000
By HENRY SHEEHAN The Orange County Register
When confronted with a bad movie, the human mind can take one of two possible turns (that is, aside from commanding the body to stand up and leave the theater):
Those of a naively optimistic cast can hope that the movie will get better. Sadly, this is a particularly forlorn expectation, as the number of movies that go from bad to good somewhere around the fifth reel are as rare as cherry blossoms in fall.
The more realistic mind will simply hope that the movie will get so ludicrously awful that it will become funny. Under the pressure of expanding screen-induced ennui, this hope takes on a tinge of desperation that is thus communicated to the body, which in turn reacts with forced laughter.
So when I tell you that "Battlefield Earth," which stars John Travolta as an intergalactic pain in the butt, is laugh-out-loud terrible, maybe you should take it with a grain of salt. Because by the time the movie had clocked in an hour of its running time, what was left of my consciousness was to humor as a drowning man is to a raft.
Actually, this movie never had much of chance, being based on a novel by L. Ron Hubbard. As just about everyone knows, before he founded Scientology, Hubbard was a science-fiction writer. Specifically, he was a product of the pulp magazine school of writing, a hard-knocks academy that has gotten an unfairly lofty reputation because of the work of its most gifted graduates.
But for every Ray Bradbury who wrote for the sci-fi pulps, there were a dozen or so, well, Hubbards. These latter writers combined pretentious pseudo-philosophizing with an utter incomprehension of internal dramatic logic and an inability to imagine a future in any significant way different from the present. They generally held fast to these limitations even as the size of their work expanded from short stories to the gassy expanse of novels such as Hubbard's.
And based on this movie version, those handicaps not only survive the transfer to the big screen but pick up some of their own. The most outstanding negative of the movie is Travolta who, allowed to play one of those self-regarding villains science fiction too often can't live without, carries on a one-man campaign to bring ham acting into disrepute.
It's one thing to strut around a movie set (a tiny, tiny movie set) with an elongated head of bushy braids, declaiming on the insignificance of human kind. It's another to do it at the top of your piping voice from first entry to last exit.
Of course, Travolta could be being clever about all this; his lines of dialogue are so bad that he may have figured shouting them might put them beyond the capacity of the human ear to hear.
To take but the worst example, Travolta's character, Terl, is the amazingly obnoxious security chief for the Psychlos, a race of profiteers who have occupied Earth, ravaged its resources, and enslaved most of the few humans left.
But what's really annoying about the guy is his repeated use of semantics to bust someone's chops. If he promises that he isn't going to kill someone, he'll end up by saying, "I said I wouldn't do it, I didn't say I wouldn't order him to do it." This is nursery room stuff, not evil super-villain stuff, and he does it over and over. You soon begin to wonder whether the most effective response to his villainy wouldn't be to just order him to his room.
But no, this Canadian-lensed saga has a regular hero. Jonnie (Barry Pepper) is a member of one of the few surviving free human tribes and gets caught up in the Psychlos' nets when he goes looking for food around the ruins of human cities. He fights back ineffectively for a while, vainly trying to whip up general human resistance among his fellow slaves. But nothing constructive happens until Terl straps him to the seat of an electronic learning machine and fills Jonnie's brains with futuristic knowledge.
The Psychlos consider themselves superior, but if they are going to commit Bad Guy Stupid Mistake No. 1 (Arming the hero in a way he could never do himself), then it's pretty hard to take them seriously. Particularly when all of them - including Forest Whitaker as Terl's No. 2 - look up to Terl as an exemplar of their breed. I mean, really, who are these guys?
You could pick at this movie the way a hyena picks at a deer carcass, but unlike the hyena, you wouldn't end up feeling fulfilled afterward. If you're wondering why I haven't commented on the sci-fi style action, it's because there hardly is any till the end, and then it's only third-rate. So let's cut it here.
Yes, "Battlefield Earth" is so bad it is funny. Eventually. And the few, measly forced laughs you get aren't worth the hours and hours (oh, all right, one hour) of total bore dom it takes to get you there.