Battlefield Earth, the big-time Warner Bros. summer sci-fi extravaganza, got nearly as many laughs as Small Time Crooks --- at least at the all-media screening I attended. Set a thousand years in the future, the movie posits a world conquered by extraterrestrial Psychlos who, operating out of their Human Processing Center in the sooty rubble of suburban Denver, have enslaved most of humanity and reduced the rest to a pathetic pagan tepee-and-buckskin lifestyle. The Psychlos, led by John Travolta and a Wookie-like Forest Whitaker, are big fellas with green eyes, dreadlocks, formidable paws, and mossy teeth. They are much given to evil chortling, and, when they're not sadistically zapping the "man-animals," their idea of fun is to hang around a windowless bar swilling tumblers of a chartreuse liquor with the baleful glow of radioactive urine.
The movie's mode is brutal and excremental. Such narrative as there is pivots on Travolta Psychlo's scheme to strip-mine the Rockies for gold using man-animal labor. To facilitate this, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper), the most belligerent of the man-animals, is treated to an educational light show so he might be taught the Psychlo language. But the human learning curve is steeper than Psychlos imagine. Jonnie quickly picks up Euclidean geometry and the skill to operate a remote control. Before long, he reads the Declaration of Independence, flies a plane to the Library of Congress, and discovers Fort Knox. Under his tutelage, man-animals need barely 45 minutes to climb from the caves to the stars, egging themselves on with the primitive chant "Piece o' cake."
Remarkable mainly for rendering the prospect of human extinction inconsequential, Battlefield Earth was adapted from the 1982 mega magnum opus by L. Ron Hubbard, the Golden Age sci-fi writer who parlayed a pop positivist version of Freud into the Church of Scientology and composed this novel at a moment when his church was beset by lawsuits, federal indictments, and charges of criminal conduct. Since the movie's star and coproducer Travolta is also a longtime Scientologist (reported in The Washington Post to be an Operating Thetan who can control "matter, energy, space, time, form, and life"), there has been much cyberspeculation that B.E. would bristle with subliminal messages and overt propaganda to advance the Scientology agenda.
No such luck. Though Battlefield Earth may have some relation to the church's more arcane theories of alien control, its most disappointing aspect is the absence of subtext. No less than that of the industry that spawned it, the movie's main purpose appears to be making money from the suspension of disbelief. Its one moment of truth is Travolta's sneering reference to "stupid humans."
L. Ron Hubbard employed "engram" --- abiological coinage meaning the permanent change wrought by stimulus to protoplasm --- to characterize repressed traumas. In a different sense, Carl Jung used the word to describe imprinted "racial" memories. Collage filmmaker Lewis Klahr, who calls his latest cycle Engram Sepals, is an artist who traffics in both psychic scars and cultural remembrance, conditions he suggests are organic by attaching engram to a botanical term for flower stem. An artist who nourishes his intensely private visions on the compost heap of collective fantasy (most of his images come from old magazines), Klahr could be described as a "small-S" surrealist. His evocatively low-tech animations are as free-associative in structure as they are elusive in meaning. Engram Sepals' feature-length suite of seven mainly cut-and-paste "melodramas" (all produced over the past six years) opens in a heavenly blue cosmos on a note of dreamy fetishism, then turns noirish, and goes on to evoke the fashion-model sophistication and cocktail iconography of the early '60s. Klahr's films are often quite specific in dating their images. Engram Sepals' lone live-action episode combines late-'60s 8mm footage of campus antics and hippie weddings with the murky psychedelia of counterculture exploitation films, perhaps shot off TV.
In every case, juxtaposition is key. Pony Glass, located at the heart of the cycle, is one of Klahr's greatest films --- a convoluted romantic pentangle set in a sci-fi corporate world, starring Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen. Accompanied by an almost unbearably desolate-sounding Frank Sinatra, Jimmy loves and loses an airline stewardess (then shifts his sexual orientation altogether). Klahr lets these cutout creatures have sex, tenderly affixing their comic-strip heads to writhing bodies culled from skin mags. This tawdry, wistful effect, as funny as it is unexpectedly erotic, continues in less romantic fashion in Downs Are Feminine, which fashions a number of polymorphously perverse hermaphroditic constructions taken from an illustrated gay porn novel found in the street.
Engram Sepals comes more or less full-circle with Failed Cardigan Maneuver. Here, children in a garden of outsize fruit dream of food and love, then grow up to have unhappy office affairs in the glamorous Manhattan of the late 1950s. Sinatra sings another sad saloon song, but Klahr doesn't need him for the mysterious alchemy that makes these paper dolls so expressive, eloquent, and moving.