"Battlefield Earth": Space Opera
By Brian Conant, CPNet Illinois College Bureau
Movie: "Battlefield Earth"
Starring: John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker, Kim Coates, Kelly Preston, Richard Tyson & Sabine Karsenti
Director: Roger Christian
Opens: May 12, 2000
Giant, reptilian creatures who come from another planet, invade the earth and, due to their superior weaponry (and perhaps in part to their very long tongues), have humanity do their bidding for a millennium or so, until one brave slave suggests a strike. Sounds like just about every science fiction movie ever made -- and as such, "Battlefield Earth" is hardly a film worth fighting to see.
The flick is based on the writings of the late L. Ron Hubbard's 1982 novel -- a bleak little peek at the future from an otherwise fairly positive guy, but I guess the father of scientology was a bit hard-pressed at the time.
Before he cooked up Scientology in the 1950s Hubbard was a mostly ignored pulp sci-fi, crime and adventure writer in the '30s and '40s. When the multimillion-dollar empire his pseudo-religion became found legal trouble afoot in the '80s, it drove him into Salman Rushdie-like seclusion where he pounded out "Battlefield Earth" and ten other novels before his death in 1987.
Enter John Travolta, one of Scientology's chief celeb advocates (when he isn't being a Hollywood hero) who immediately began pushing to make Hubbard's sci-fi book into a feature film.
While "Earth" suffers from a paper-thin plot and a lack of logic in some places, it is dragged down by the two things it would seem to have in its corner -- the cash and the star.
Playing dual roles of actor and executive producer, it is Travolta's passion that brought the story to the screen, but his presence also manages to be too much of a burden for the rest of his familiar, but unestablished cast.
Travolta plays Terl, chief of security for the Psychlos, the foul-tempered race that conquered Earth a millennium ago. He is a bitter, evil, reptilian fellow straight out of the "Handbook for Space Villain Handbook." He has plenty of enemies, plenty of ill will and plenty of hair. (I'm not sure what is really accomplished with the Busta Rhymes "do" and Spice Girls cleats outfit that Terl and his henchmen wear to work.)
In fact, Travolta's character has no redeeming merit at all -- he's kind of like the Danny Zuko of the Universe, except instead of singing, Terl tends to cackle one of these "I'm so evil aren't I?" from the pit of his stomach every time something goes his way. And when he finds a deposit of gold lying around in the mountains of Colorado, the cackling is in full effect.
Terl's plan is to take a team of the long enslaved humans, or man-animals as he likes to call them, out into the wilderness and teach them how to work a variety of machines to get the gold. During the course of events that follows, one slave, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper, who played Jackson in "Saving Private Ryan"), manages to endear himself to Terl and thus is taught the Psychlos language, how to use their weapons, and their weakness -- which is, surprise, they can't breath Earth's air. Oh, and they are also allergic to nuclear firearms. Go figure.
At this point if you have seen any science fiction movie about the earth being conquered since H.G. Wells started the genre, the ending isn't much of a surprise.
Pepper was better in Ryan, when he played the stoic sharpshooter who takes one for the team. Here, no such luck as Tyler hoots and hollers and is a general mangy nuisance for most of the film.
It's not to say that the movie has no redeeming value. Using some very "Star Wars" techniques mixed with twisted camera angles and very dark sets, director and George Lucas protégé, Roger Christian makes a unique vision of the future that is, if nothing else, consistent. (It's as if the world were swallowed by the Cantina bar. I half expected to see Hans Solo pop out of a corner somewhere accompanied by his wookie buddy.) The battle scenes which dominate the last quarter of the film, though, show that Christian still has a few things to learn.
There are no blatant allusions to Scientology in the film, though this space opera serves as a how-to guide of sorts. The religion asks members to seek out self-actualization, and our hero Tyler says "I can, I can" with every challenge that comes his way. I wonder though if the purpose it serves is necessary. I also wonder if this is a movie that really needed to be made.
[also includes a picture of Hubbard on the web site article]