Travolta prepares to show
off by doing the Batusi.
Reading the reviews of Battlefield Earth, you might wonder how one film could inspire such a wide range of responses. Some reviewers thought it was the worst film since Batman and Robin. Others said it was the worst film since Showgirls. And a third camp suggested it was the worst film since Ishtar.
Movies can be bad in different ways. Sure, every bad film is bad in its own precious way, but there are general categories. There are movies that are hobbled by extreme poverty, like Manos, the Hands of Fate. There are extremely sleazy films, like The Lonely Lady. There are movies that have troubled production histories, like Waterworld. Battlefield Earth is a very special kind of bad movie. It doesn't have any of the problems we just mentioned, being well funded, practically chaste (except for one alien hooker), and the filmmakers made a big deal about their ability to produce their exact vision. No, Battlefield Earth is incompetent on nearly every level because the people who made it were apparently incapable of seeing that they were making a stinker. This movie is an astonishing spectacle to watch, because it's almost impossible to believe that so many allegedly creative people could have been involved in the production of this movie, but no one said, "Hey John, you're making an ass out of yourself by overacting like that," or, "Does it make sense that Terl would accept that Jonnie mined gold bars out of a remote mountainside?" Or even, "Hey, why isn't there anything fun in this movie?"
In the year 3000, man is an endangered species. Helpful titles inform us of this right at the beginning. This is pretty dumb, because it spoils what could have been Planet of the Apes moment about ten minutes on, only with a mini-putt course instead of the Statue of Liberty. It's especially hard to understand why these titles were needed because the exact same information is given to us in the dialogue, almost in those exact words.
All they give us to eat is SPAM!"
Our main character is Tyler... no, Kiroc... no, Tumac... no, Jonnie (Barry Pepper), a young man living with in a small stone-age community in the mountains. He's fed up with the elders, who declare that the gods have left the earth and demons now rule. Impatient to shake the dust of that nowhere burg off his shoes, Jonnie heads out on a horse to find his... Destiny.
He finds mini-putt and Kim Coates. Coates plays Carlo, a city-based hunter-gatherer who agrees to show Jonnie a demon. But while camping in an abandoned underground mall, Jonnie and company are attacked by an unseen enemy with a ray gun. Jonnie makes a run for it, but is shot and crashes through a series of plate glass windows in a scene stolen blatantly from Zhora's death in Blade Runner.
Jonnie is thrown into a cage and brought to Denver, which now acts as home base for the Psychlos, a group of intergalactic capitalists who conquered the entire planet a thousand years before. The Psychlos look a lot like Klingons, and act like them too. But here, again, the movie makes no sense. A big deal is made out of the fact that the Psychlos actually work for a corporation, one that makes money through mining for gold. Yet the individual Psychlos are so petty, so violent, and spend so much time back stabbing each other, it's inconceivable that they could organize themselves into a corporation. The Klingons on Star Trek had a strong concept of honor to keep the race from falling into anarchy, but the Psychlos don't seem to have anything. In the rush to make them evil, the filmmakers of have rendered the Psychlos ridiculous.
"And you know what they call a
Quarter Pounder with Cheese on Psychlo?"
Matters are not made any better by John Travolta, who plays Terl, the Psychlo in charge of security on Earth. Travolta plays Terl as a sort of evil aristocrat, but overacts the role at every opportunity. It's like he went to the Brian Blessed School of Subtle Performance, but was thrown out for laughing too much. Travolta laughs maniacally at every opportunity, and it gets old by the second time he does it.
In Denver, the Psychlos are gathering humans for manual labor under a huge dome. As soon as Jonnie is off the transport, he manages to get his hands on a gun, which he uses to kill a Psychlo. This is an apparently unprecedented event. The Psychlo's call humans "man-animals," and consider them unable to use tools. Inconsistency check! First of all, why would the Psychlos, who call themselves Psychlos, need to degrade men by calling them "man-animals"? Surely, they would call them either "men", or "animals", but "man-animal" makes no sense from a race that doesn't call themselves "men." And secondly, how can the Psychlos not think that humans use tools? Just earlier, we saw the Psychlos throw breathing gear (necessary because the Psychlo breath a gas poisonous to humans) into Jonnie's cage, and the humans had to figure out how to use them. And even though the Psychlos think dogs ran the planet (don't ask), they admit that they know the dogs couldn't use tools, so they must know that humans built the city they're living in. We even see Terl looking at a picture of a man driving a car!
Gowron reports for filming.
In any case, the rest of the plot revolves around Terl's lust for gold. It seems gold is valuable to the Psychlos, despite the fact that they have conquered galaxies. Terl needs the gold in order to bribe his way back into a position of favor with the mining corporation. Yes, bureaucratic disputes are truly the stuff of epic sci-fi. But the new vein of gold Terl has found has been irradiated by nuclear weapons, something that makes it unreachable to the Psychlos because the gas they breathe explodes on contact with "radiation." Well, why doesn't Terl just use remote control devices to mine the gold? Apparently the Psychlos can conquer galaxies, but remote control technology is beyond them. Also, they can be KO'd by a little uranium decay. Arrgh!
So Terl trains Jonnie (who has already shown high levels of aggression towards Psychlos) in the Psychlo language, how to use Psychlo technology, and how to fly Psychlo ships. Sure, that makes sense. Then he sends Jonnie and a few other man-animals out to mine the gold. Thanks to a trip to the library (sponsored by Terl... why doesn't he just walk back in forth in front of Jonnie slowly with a target painted on his back?), Jonnie knows where to get gold without mining, thus giving him time to plan an insurrection. An amazing scene follows where Jonnie presents Terl with the gold he's "mined." You see, Jonnie got the gold from Fort Knox (Terl left Jonnie the use of a Psychlo flying machine), and it's all in minted bars. Does Terl figure something is up? Nope, he accepts Jonnie's explanation that the man-animals smelted it into bars. With no equipment. On a remote mountaintop. They smelted it into perfect bars. Of course. These people conquered galaxies?
"Are you sure the camera is straight?
It looks a little off from here."
The Fort Knox thing really makes you wonder. It is stated that the Psychlos defeated all of humanity's weapons in nine minutes, which would make you think that they did a thorough search of the planet pretty quickly. Yet, despite their lust for gold, they missed Fort Knox? And while we're talking about dumb stuff, why do the Psychlos keep threatening to "vaporize" people, yet their guns shoot stun bolts or shotgun-like blasts? How would they vaporize someone if they wanted to?
In the end Jonnie leads the revolution, destroys the dome, and sends a bomb to the Psychlos' home planet (portrayed by footage of Blade Runner's LA tinted purple). And of course, none of it makes sense. Major plot points revolve around cavemen (who Jonnie met in Terl's presence... Isn't Terl supposed to be head of security?) learning to fly harrier jets in a week, and Jonnie's newly-acquired knowledge of how to hotwire a nuclear bomb. And the entire Psychlo planet is blown up by that one nuclear bomb. Oh the pain!
"Geez, I'm beginning to get
a little seasick here."
It would be one thing if this incoherent mess had any style, or was any fun. But sadly the whole movie is dark and drab -- and the entire film is shot at a 45 degree angle. Even the old Batman show didn't tilt the camera this much. There's no reason for it. Good filmmakers like John Woo and Sam Raimi may use tilted camera angles for emphasis, but Battlefield Earth just overdoes it, and the crazy angles mean nothing. The film's cinematographer claimed that tilting the camera gave the film "energy," and they once they started doing it, they couldn't stop. So apparently we're supposed to believe that tilting the camera is like crack cocaine to cinematographers, and the results are about as pretty. When not tilting the camera, director Roger Christian rips off better films, notably Blade Runner and The Matrix, not to mention Star Wars. Roger has worked on good films, and he seems to know what a good movie looks like, but he doesn't have any idea how to put one together himself.
We should try to say something nice about this film, so here goes: Forest Whitaker, unlike anyone else in the cast, hits the right notes as Terl's right-hand(less) Psychlo sidekick. And the production design is rather nice, even if there isn't much here we haven't seen twenty times before. By comparison, Battlefield Earth isn't nearly as painful as, say, Nukie, but that's akin to saying that a gunshot wound to the stomach isn't as bad as being eaten alive by ants.
By the time you read this, Battlefield Earth will almost certainly be on its way out of theaters, thanks to a disastrous opening weekend. The battle has been fought. And in some small way, all of us won, even if those of us who saw the film count ourselves as casualties.