What Planet Are You From?
John Travolta's absurd alien escalates the camp quotient of Battlefield Earth
By Bill DeLapp
Just six months into the millennium and already we've got one of the 21st century's all-time silliest movies: Battlefield Earth (Warner Bros.; 117 minutes; PG-13; widescreen; 2000), perhaps the dopiest sci-fi extravaganza to come along since 1958's Queen of Outer Space.
At least love is something of a Battlefield for star John Travolta, who for years has been trying to get the 1982 best seller--penned by the late L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Scientology religion, of which Travolta is a card-carrying member--adapted to the silver screen. Travolta was so enamored with the project that he's even making the career-killing move of playing Terl, the dreadlocked, 10-foot-tall extraterrestrial villain from the planet Psychlo.
Yet for all the media hype generated by the film's Scientology connections, including unsubstantiated reports that cultists were planted in the audience during pre-release screenings to avidly cheer the feature, Battlefield Earth turns out to be standard, unexciting stuff we've all seen too many times before--and just because it came out of Hubbard's cupboard doesn't make it any more special.
With opening screen legends proclaiming "a saga of the year 3000" and "man is an endangered species," this wanna-be epic depicts the aftermath of a Psychlo invasion after they took over planet Earth in just nine minutes. Set in a post-apocalyptic Colorado, where the Psychlos use the enslaved "man-animals" to mine gold from our orb, Earth mostly deals with the battle of wills between nasty planet security chief Terl and rebellious human Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Saving Private Ryan's Barry Pepper), as the latter attempts a grandiose scheme to wipe out the enemy planet.
Of course, with Travolta's Terl coming across as a grandstanding, foppish villain (imagine Franklin Pangborn with Jimmy Cliff's dreads), the suspense is considerably muted. That's evident during the quizzical scene when Terl lets Jonnie visit the Denver Library to learn why Earth fell apart in record time--but the earnest human instead uses the books to hatch his daring plan, which even entails a burglary at the Fort Knox gold reserve. (Hmmmm, maybe Jonnie checked out a copy of Goldfinger at the library.)
And if the knowledge-is-good mantra is part of the Scientology religion, apparently so is the notion of ripping off a slew of identical moments from many other sci-fi flicks: the smashing-through-a-series-of-windows stunt from Blade Runner; a slow-motion bullets-and-rubble shootout from The Matrix; a host of similar visuals cobbled from the likes of Planet of the Apes, Damnation Alley and Logan's Run; and the type of tilted camera angles that haven't been seen since the 1960s TV series Batman.
At least director Roger Christian, who has done second-unit work and set decorating chores for several Star Wars pictures, keeps things going on a mindlessly kinetic level, but it's still an endless haul despite the pricey special effects on display. Christian is unable to reign in Travolta's campy hamminess, as his unthreatening Terl laughs heartily at his own bad jokes ("Never engage in a criminal activity unless you have a patsy to pin everything on!"), and comes across as a dilettante master of the universe. Forest Whitaker is also aboard--and likewise buried under lots of makeup--as Terl's Chewbacca-ish second-in-command, yet playing such a doltish role isn't really the smartest career move.
Oddly enough, Travolta's real-life wife Kelly Preston owns the film's best scene in her cameo as a Psychlo slut, as she delivers the film's fruitiest bon mot ("I'm going to make you as happy as a baby Psychlo on a diet of kerbango!") and also comes equipped with a special-effects tongue that would be the envy of anteaters everywhere. But this goofy bit can't save Battlefield Earth from being a cult movie that not even Scientologists will want to savor. And for those looking for hidden messages, just play this review's final sentence backward for anyone nuts enough to embrace this Psychlo babble: !swolb yllaer eivom sihT