Grade: D Cast: John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker, Kim Coates, Sabine Karsenti Director: Roger Christian Rated: PG-13 Running time: 117 minutes
The summer movie season has barely begun and already it has its first 10-ton turkey. Battlefield Earth is a sluggish, soporific dud, the dreariest big-budget science-fiction adventure since Dune. The film strives for the cheeky spirit of a high-toned B-flick: It's crammed with slick-but-chintzy special effects and a campy sense of humor. But practically every scene in the movie falls miserably, painfully flat. About the only thing that works is a running gag about rats.
It didn't have to be that way. Battlefield Earth is based on L. Ron Hubbard's 1,000-page novel about mankind's revolt against the Psychlos, a race of 9-foot dreadlocked aliens that has enslaved earth in the year 3000. With its broad, simple characters (the hero is named Jonnie "Goodboy" Tyler) and pulpy, Buck Rogers brand of action, the book is the kind of sci-fi adventure yarn best enjoyed by undemanding ninth graders: 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's not. (Neither is it a recruitment vehicle for Hubbard's Church of Scientology, as some had initially suspected).
But as mundane as it was, the novel still offered a framework pliable enough for an imaginative filmmaker to turn it into a rousing comic book of a movie, the way Ridley Scott pumped up the thinly written Gladiator. Unfortunately, Battlefield Earth was directed by Roger Christian, whose previous efforts (Starship) didn't exactly hint at a great imagination.
Christian's drab, workmanlike direction here is enervating: even he seems bored by it all. The bulk of the movie consists of the Psychlos bickering amongst themselves while their human prisoners plot to overthrow them. There are lots of foot chases, which Christian inexplicably shoots in slow motion, defeating their purpose. Every once in a while, there is a gigantic explosion. And that's pretty much it, really.
Battlefield Earth had been a dream project for John Travolta since the novel was published in 1982 (he's one of the film's producers). Initially, he hoped to play the twentysomething hero Tyler. Now too old for the part, he took the role of Terl, the Psychlos' chief of security, the meanest of the movie's meanies.
Buried under bad-skin makeup, rotted teeth and sickly green contact lenses, Travolta hams it up merrily, belly-laughing so maniacally he makes Dr. Evil seem demure. His broad, theatrical performance is game, but it's turned silly by the juvenile dialogue, which makes the Psychlos sound like 5-year-olds taunting each other during recess (Terl calls his underlings "Idiots!" and "Imbeciles!" and refers to his human captives as "Rat-brains!"). Forest Whitaker doesn't fare any better as Terl's second-in-command.
Since all of Battlefield Earth's real star power is on the Psychlos' side, the movie spends more time with the villains than with the heroes. It's a good thing, because as insipid as they are, at least the aliens have interesting hairdos. Tyler, the leader of the uprising, is played by Barry Pepper (he was the sharpshooter in Saving Private Ryan), who tries hard to look stoic and noble but usually just seems to be wondering how he let his agent talk him into this.
It was at that point that a recent preview audience gave up altogether and started laughing openly at the movie. Travolta claims a sequel is already in the planning stages. In Hollywood, folly is never in short supply.
This review was published on: Sunday, May 14, 2000