Say what you like about Tom Cruise (and we do), but at least he’s had the sense not to let his devotion to batshit-crazy pseudo-religion Scientology impact on his movie choices. The same can’t be said of fellow traveller John Travolta who killed off what remained of his credibility with this utterly dreadful sci-fi outing.
Battlefield Earth is based on a 1982 novel by ludicrous cravat-wearing Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard who, when he wasn’t busy starting religions, spent his time writing naff sci-fi “space operas”. A Scientologist since the 70s, Travolta pledged to bring the story to the big screen when he could and – on the back of the brief bounce in his profile due to his surprisingly-not-shit performance in Pulp Fiction – he eventually managed to do so. It was an era when epic extra-terrestrial disaster movies were in vogue (Independence Day, Armageddon etc.) and he even signed up a director, Roger Christian, who had cut his teeth working on Star Wars. What could possibly go wrong? Well, pretty much everything as it turns out.
The plot soon becomes nonsensical, but I’ll sketch it out for you anyway: it’s the year 3000 and humankind has been enslaved by some intergalactic baddies called ‘The Psychlos’ (essentially Klingons with dreadlocks), which plan to drain planet Earth of its natural resources. Travolta plays Terl, the baddie in charge of things on Earth, who is fed up with the gig and is pining for a cushy job back on Planet Psychlos (he actually uses the phrase “cushy job”). For reasons that are not quite clear, he decides the best way to achieve this is to extract some rare earthly gold, which, for other reasons that are not quite clear, can only be mined by the indigenous population, creating an opportunity for a plucky band of human folk to liberate their planet.
There are plotholes a-plenty but the storyline soon becomes a secondary concern to the physically nauseating experience of watching the movie itself. Its shot mainly in a murky blue, occasionally switching to a piss-coloured yellow for the outside scenes, while there’s lots of tilted camera work and random slow-motion bits, creating a viewing experience comparable with being pissed up on a ferry.
If there’s one reason to watch this movie, it’s to witness the extraordinary performance from Travolta. His face is in a permanent grimace, making him look like he constantly needs a poo, and he fleshes out the piss-poor dialogue with lots of evil cackling – none of which deflects from the fact he’s wearing platform boots and a pair of oversized “monster” mittens and moves around with all the grace of a Halloween drag act. At times I was convinced he was hamming it up, but as we’re dealing with a sacred Scientology text one must assume he was taking it all very seriously.
No-one else involved is quite so invested in the project. Forest Whitaker plays Terl’s number-two ‘Ker’ (all the characters have shit names); he’s a fine actor on his day, but you can see the colour drain from his face during the course of this movie as it dawns on him he has made a terrible career move. The dreadlocks suit him better, but he still looks like the lion in The Wizard of Oz. Meanwhile, our actual hero and leader of the revolution is a vacuous character called Jonnie “Goodboy” Tyler (Barry Pepper). Although all the other humans are beardy cavemen he’s nicely clean shaven with lovely golden hair in plaits. He’s also got a bird who’s the only female human on the planet who isn’t a snaggle-toothed old crone.
The climax to the film is triggered when Tyler stumbles on some gold and some old fighter jets kept in Fort Knox. “Flying machines,” says one of the cavemen in wonder. “Yes, and here’s a learning machine,” says Tyler pointing to a conveniently located flight simulator. And, lo, after a few minutes practice they’re able to blow up all the baddies on earth AND blow up Planet Psychlos too, via a conveniently located bomb teleportation thing. Terl’s comeuppance sees him trapped forever in Fort Knox in a prison made of gold bars, which I think is a heavy-handed metaphor for greed (or something).
I guess we can be thankful Battlefield Earth bombed as badly as it did as we would have been inundated with screen adaptions of dreadful L. Ron Hubbard novels for years afterwards if it hadn’t. Instead, it got awarded ‘Worst Picture of the Decade’ at the 30th Golden Raspberry Awards, and will probably still be in the running for ‘Worst Picture of the Millennium’ when the year 3000 comes round.
(If you are masochistic enough to watch this film, why not also track down Hubbard’s accompanying soundtrack to the original novel – it’s called ‘Space Jazz’. I’m not joking)