John Travolta won't talk to The Finger -- but his action figure will
As told to Tony Ortega DIANETICS BOY The Finger was counting on John Travolta to talk candidly about Battlefield Earth, his colossal summer disaster -- er, blockbuster -- but the glad-handing star was suddenly nowhere to be found after weeks of high-profile pimping for the L. Ron Hubbard epic. Instead, his 11- inch-tall counterpart, the action-figure Terl, agreed to answer questions about how the box-office flop might affect Hubbard's wacky religion, Scientology.
The miniature alien security chief from the planet Psychlo seemed to be taking Battlefield Earth's dismal showing at the box office with stoic calm. In fact, he stood -- silent and motionless, clad in massive platform shoes and a black leather outfit and looking for all the world like a dreadlocked KISS Army reject -- aiming a laser blaster at no one in particular. The action figure resisted all of The Finger's attempts to question it until, with a squawk and a round of gunfire, the tiny Terl came to life when this digit pressed itself against a button on his heavily armored chest.
What follows is a transcript of the conversation that ensued, with The Finger's probing interrogation and actual responses from the Terl doll.
The Finger: "First, I wanted to thank you, Terl, for coming through when your overweight human counterpart didn't have the guts to answer phone calls."
Terl: "I'm a Psychlo of my word."
The Finger: "Did you read what critics had to say about your movie?"
The Finger: "Yeah, I don't blame you for being sensitive. Battlefield Earth opened May 12 to the most unified chorus of critical derision since Ishtar. Let me just refresh your memory if you've forgotten: 'You don't watch it, you survive it,' said the Denver Post. The Detroit Free Press said the film 'stinks of moldy cheese.' 'Just plain dumb,' said the Dallas Morning News. 'Like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. Not merely bad; it's unpleasant in a hostile way,' wrote Roger Ebert. 'One of the most painfully excruciating experiences of my life,' opined the Sacramento Bee. 'Wouldn't tax the smarts of a troglodyte,' chimed in the Washington Post. 'Deeply dumb,' said USA Today. But the New York Times delivered the cruelest blow: 'It may be a bit early to make such judgments, but Battlefield Earth may well turn out to be the worst movie of this century.' That's just gotta hurt, eh?"
Terl: "Exterminate all man-animals at will!"
The Finger: "At least the New Times' reviewer, Luke Y. Thompson, was one of the two or three critics in the country who actually enjoyed Battlefield Earth. And why not? No science fiction flick since Plan Nine from Outer Space has more laughs. Thompson was just grateful that the movie was at least more entertaining than Hubbard's dreadful 1,048- page novel. He wrote that it was Travolta's over-the-top camp -- think Pee Wee Herman meets Darth Vader -- that really made the movie a hoot.
This digit decided to get a look itself and squeezed past the large crowd -- all six filmgoers -- at Santa Monica's Cineplex Odeon Broadway on the Monday after opening night. Thompson was right: Seeing Travolta as a post-apocalyptic Rastafarian who treated Forest Whitaker like his space-alien bitch was a cinematic triumph. You go Terl baby!"
Terl: "I give the orders, do you understand?!"
The Finger: "Uh, sure."
Anyway, this appendage noticed that some movie critics were unsure about the connection between Hubbard's science fiction tale and his notorious science fiction cult, and many were downright stupid about Scientology. Some of them seemed unaware that the Commodore, who died in 1986, loved making movies of his own out at his Hemet compound, and that he dreamed of promoting Scientology through the mass appeal of Hollywood. Trouble was, Hubbard never could get studios to bite on a science fiction screenplay he wrote, which was based on the beliefs of Scientology itself. The cult is normally very secretive about its core tenets which, court records show, involve an evil galactic overlord named Xenu who supposedly blew up Earth's volcanoes 75 million years ago to vaporize surplus aliens whose disembodied spirits now live in clusters inside unwitting human beings. (Dianetics is the process by which, for a very high fee, Scientologists can purportedly free you of your inner alien horde.)
In his 1977 screenplay, Revolt in the Stars, Hubbard planned to come clean about Scientology's wacky origin myths in a Star Wars-like space opera. But Hollywood execs wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole.
Instead, Hubbard pinned his hopes on Battlefield Earth, a novel he wrote in 1982 that rips off just about every science fiction story that came before it.
But Battlefield Earth made no mention of Xenu or other Scientology secrets, and some morons have made the mistake of thinking that the story has no connection to Hubbard's religion. The most surprising gaffe appeared in a piece by Lynn Hirschberg in the May 14 New York Times Magazine. For the Times, the piece was surprisingly puffy, and late besides (by the time the article appeared, the movie was already well into its nosedive; meanwhile, the Washington Post and L.A. Times had already done the same story, ostensibly about Battlefield Earth's producer Elie Samaha). Hirschberg asserted that Scientology would not benefit financially from the movie since the rights to Hubbard's book had been acquired in the 1990s from Author Services, Inc., "a Los Angeles agency that handles Hubbard's fiction and is not affiliated with the church." But The Finger checked with one of the church's most high-ranking members ever to defect, Stacy Brooks, and she says that's a stupid blunder for a good newspaper to make. Brooks should know -- she worked for Author Services and was once one of the top people in Scientology's public relations force. Brooks says only the most trusted members of Scientology's Sea Organization get to work at Author Services. Declarations filed in court, meanwhile, show that Author Services is not only made up of church officials but at one time actually ran the Hubbard empire and religion. Recognizable for the curious quasi-naval outfits they wear, Sea Organization members are among the most dedicated of Hubbard's believers.
The Finger: "Hey Terl, they sign billion-year contracts, agreeing to come back, lifetime after lifetime, to serve Hubbard for little pay."
Terl: "You wouldn't last one day at the academy."
The Finger: "And thank God this digit doesn't have to."
Besides selling the rights to the movie, Scientology also gets a cut of toy sales generated by Battlefield Earth. The Terl figure and several other characters from the movie were produced by Trendmasters, a company that also produced toys for Independence Day and Godzilla. In fact, alert toy experts tell this protruberance that the jet fighter and tank being sold under the Battlefield Earth logo -- neither of which show up in the film -- are really leftover toys from the Godzilla line with a new coat of paint. After Battlefield Earth's opening, Trendmasters may have to figure out a way to recycle a lot more toys.
Battlefield Earth's dismal first weekend resulted in an $11.5 million box-office take the third-worst result for a film opening in 3,000 theaters in movie history. The movie has a long way to go to recoup the $70 million spent to produce it (which includes $5 million put up by Travolta himself). The film's flop also puts a dent in Scientology's attempt to convince the world that Hubbard was not the crackpot that military, government, and court documents make him out to be.
Make no mistake, says Brooks, who once handled some of the most sensitive publicity affairs for the church: Battlefield Earth was very deliberately intended by Travolta and the church as a public relations campaign to promote L. Ron Hubbard and, by extension, his religion. But The Finger doesn't expect lame-ass movie critics, even at the New York Times, to know an E-meter from a Psychlo blaster.
Terl: "That's the first intelligent thing you've said yet!"
Brooks was relieved that the film was taking such a nosedive: "What they have on their hands is something that is going to set back their recruitment very severely, thank God." And she added that the setback couldn't have happened at a worse time for the church. In Germany, France, and other European countries less squeamish than the United States at looking at how religions operate and how they treat their believers, politicians have labeled Scientology a money-making scam and are considering severe restrictions on it. In Florida, meanwhile, the suspicious 1995 death of a Scientologist at one of the religion's holiest sites continues to generate controversy. Looks like the church's long-term plan of taking over the world ("clearing the planet") is in serious jeopardy.
Terl: "Man is an endangered species!"
The Finger: "Can it, Dianetics Boy."