Logic and originality are alien to 'Battlefield Earth' By Stephen Whitty Newhouse News Service 5/12/2000
'Battlefield Earth' (PG-13) Warner Bros. (117 min.)
Directed by Roger Christian. Stars John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker.
L. Ron Hubbard must have put an awful lot of thought into Scientology. Because judging by "Battlefield Earth," he didn't leave anything for his novels.
The new movie of Hubbard's 1980 space adventure seems like a respectful adaptation. It certainly should be - it was shepherded to the screen by star (and producer) John Travolta, a long-time Hubbard follower, who worked for years to get it made.
The final result also seems like a lot of other science fiction. Mostly bad science fiction.
Those post-apocalyptic humans, sunk back into skins-and-stones savagery? A favorite fantasy plot, in everything from H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" to Roger Corman's "Teenage Caveman." Those municipal libraries and national monuments, now hailed as ruined palaces of the gods? Pick the "Planet of the Apes" film of your choice.
When Hubbard's story does stray off the old pulp-fiction path, though, things get worse. His name for the invading aliens - Psychlos - is strictly bad comic book. The point that drives the whole plot - that the chief alien has a lust for gold - is ridiculously old-fashioned. (Heck, old Robby the Robot probably could have made him half a ton in an afternoon.)
The story begins in the year 3000, hundreds of years after an interplanetary war has devastated Earth (and yet, oddly, left 1990s cars to rust picturesquely in the street). Jonnie, a "man animal" with high cheekbones and lovely blond braids, has been captured by the conquering Psychlos, and put to work in the mines. Can he rally the remaining humans, defeat the invaders, and blow up the aliens' home planet?
Hey, it's a cinch. Or, at least, it's a cinch thanks to the creaky plot, which has the villains constantly capturing Jonnie and then deciding not to kill him, or conveniently leaving him with one of their rocketships so he can zip around gathering supplies. Jonnie's first stop: a miraculously intact Marine base, where he finds hangers full of ready-to-fly jets, along with a simulator that turns all these modern cavemen into pilots. In a week.
Perhaps this might work as camp, but it doesn't look as if the cast and crew were in on the joke. Barry Pepper - the Sgt. York marksman of "Saving Private Ryan" - is all righteous cheekbones and cool blond hair as Jonnie, like some wicked blend of Kevin Costner hero and aging Hanson brother. Forest Whitaker, buried under layers of makeup, is immediately forgettable as the second villain in command; Kim Coates, as Jonnie's girlfriend, seems there strictly as proof that the buddy-bonding Jonnie isn't gay.
Travolta has a little more fun than the other actors, although not enough to save the movie. Sure, his alien villain should be larger than life, and literally is - between the Frankenstein boots and the hair extensions, the green guy's nearly 9 feet tall. He's cold, focused and brilliantly controlling (and any parallels you want to draw to the story's author are a lot more intriguing than anything here).
But this monster also needs to be superior and viciously witty, a George Sanders with a raygun. Instead he's only tiresomely sarcastic, an action-film villain sneering after every murder. Just in case we don't get the bad jokes, Travolta punctuates all of them with a booming, theatrical laugh: Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha.
It isn't nearly as funny the fifth time he does it.
Someone should have told the star that, of course, but that doesn't seem to be the kind of director Travolta the producer hired. A story as big and boring as "Battlefield Earth" needed some sort of MTV iconoclast or European surrealist. Instead, it has Roger Christian, who last worked as a second-unit director for George Lucas. Outside of fiddling a bit with the color, he doesn't seem to have an original idea. Most of the film's big scenes consist of characters fighting in slow motion.
Luckily, it's not only good things that come to an end in this world, and eventually "Battlefield Earth" winds down, too. Don't expect people to stop talking about it, though, even when it time-warps out of here. Since the project was announced, critics have been decrying it as Scientology-fi; like Travolta's otherworldly "Phenomenon," it's been denounced as pop-cultist propaganda.
That's unfair. Actually, there's a lot more science fiction in Scientology than there is Scientology in "Battlefield Earth." And a lot more imagination.
Rating note: The film contains sci-fi violence.