My Year OF Flops Case File #66: Battlefield Earth
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It is with a heavy heart that I must report that the long, pointless national nightmare that is my oft-thwarted attempt to secure a workable copy of a Free Money DVD is far from over. This morning when I greedily inserted my Netflix copy of Free Money into my DVD player, the ecstatic sounds of Handel's "Messiah" soaring through my mind, I made a horrifying discovery: the disc was cracked. I can only assume this had nothing whatsoever to do with the part in my The Fountain My Year Of Flops entry where I wrote about Netflix slipping anthrax into every third envelope to keep customers in a state of perpetual readiness.
So I was forced to improvise and bump my Thursday movie into today's slot. I can't believe I've somehow made it 66 entries into a feature about historic failures without writing about John Travolta, an actor who makes so many flops that when other actors fail spectacularly they have to pay him royalties. Yes, rat-brains and puny man-animals, today I am going to be writing about 2000's Battlefield Earth, a fiasco that occupies a distinguished place high atop the pantheon of widely reviled crap.
I previously reviewed the film and covered it for my very first Commentary Tracks Of The Damned, which means I officially saw Battlefield Earth for the third time before writing it up. This is the life I chose. I don't regret it. Having listened to the commentary track I feel like I have a much clearer sense of director Roger Christian's authorial vision. I can now report with great certainty that that vision is, to use a critical term, a bit shite. And by "a bit" I of course mean "complete".
When Battlefield Earth was released all the bad will and resentment that had been building up throughout the years towards Scientology exploded into a world-wide orgy of schadenfreude and Bronx cheers. A legendary disaster well before it finished completion, Battlefield Earth hit theaters with a "Kick Me" sign on it so massive it could be detected from outer space.
The movie became a vessel through which people could vent their frustrations with Scientology without coming off as bigoted or small-minded. I of course have nothing but respect and admiration for Scientology and the powerful Scientologists at the top of the Hollywood food chain but lots of people who aren't me, my family or my co-workers resent Scientology. They resent the way Scientology is as secretive, paranoid and litigious as Disney yet far more devoted to spreading fantasy and make-believe. They resent those obnoxious human-interest stories where Johnny CareerTrouble opens up to People about how Scientology helped cure him of his debilitating marijuana addiction. They resent the way Scientology seems to have made kissing up to celebrities a major component of their faith.
They resent those self-righteous press releases where Scientologists compare their treatment in Germany to that of Jews during the Holocaust. They resent prominent Scientologists lecturing about the evils of psychology on television and condemning women who use psychoactive drugs to treat post-partum depression as weak-minded pawns of the pharmaceutical industry. They resent the idea that an undistinguished novelist could be a religious leader on par with Jesus or Buddha.
Of course if a preeminent figure in my faith had a lucrative sideline writing ridiculous pulp fiction I'd probably downplay that aspect of his life and teachings. If, for example, Moses used his downtime writing the Torah to hastily compose a series of fantasy novels exploring the lives, loves and adventures of Thoretta, She-Ogre of The Barbarian Realm, I'd probably steer clear of publicizing his side-gig too aggressively. I certainly wouldn't try to lure Bridgette Nielsen into starring in a feature-film adaptation of Thoretta, She Ogre Of The Barbarian Realm as a way of bringing converts to Judaism.
Obviously John Travolta doesn't feel the same way. For him, producing and starring in one of the great masterworks of L. Ron Hubbard (a book that reportedly sold over a bazillion copies, including several to non-Scientologists) was as much an act of faith as a business move. I love John Travolta but I love laughing at him just as much. For Travolta has an unparalleled genius for throwing himself wholeheartedly into some of the most ill-conceived projects imaginable.
Battlefield Earth opens in a future dystopia where mankind has been defeated by a race of nine-foot-tall aliens from the planet Psychlo whose gnarled appearance suggests what Klingons might look like if they took their fashion cues from the leather daddies in Cruising. Humanity has finally shaken off the high-falutin' plague of book-learning and stuff-knowing and lingers in a caveman-like state of superstition and ignorance. Rather than invoke the wrath of demons and monsters, men hide in caves and eschew all but the faintest traces of civilization. They're like gullible souls waiting for a second-rate sci-fi writer to reveal all the mysteries of the universe to them in pseudo-religion form and charge them dearly for the privilege.
In a performance as big as Kanye West's ego, Travolta plays the head villain, a cackling dandy named Terl looking to maneuver his way out of an unwanted position as the head of security for an obscure mining planet called Earth. Where other, less visionary sci-fi movies waste their times with laser-gun battles, thrilling chases and exotic worlds exploding with eye candy Battlefield Earth devotes much of its running time to the infinitely more exciting and kid-friendly subject of corporate and political maneuvering amongst nine-foot-tall alien management types. This brilliant choice reaches its apex when Travolta's superior cackles that rather getting a reprieve from doin' time on planet Earth "We've decided to keep [Travolta] here for another 50 cycles. With endless options for renewal!" Director Roger Christian thinks so much of the "With endless options for renewal" line that he repeats it three times for effect. Who needs Wookies or Ewoks or a plot not stolen from a third-rate comic book when you have characters talking about endless options for renewal? Sadly, Battlefield Earth really is all about Travolta's plans to move up the Psychlo hierarchy through Machievellian politicking, deceit and blackmail.
Rather than wait out his fifty cycles and subsequent endless options for renewal, Travolta concocts a hare-brained scheme: He'll trick puny man-animals like Barry Pepper's intrepid hero into mining gold for him, then use the rewards to fund a lavish life back on good ol' Planet Psychlo. But since no one believes a race as primitive as man-animals can operate complicated machinery Travolta hooks Pepper up to a sort of deus ex machina machine that teaches him about flying and the Psychlo language and throws in the collective knowledge of the universe as a bonus. In a wildly plausible turn of events Pepper goes from caveman simpleton to mega-ultra-super-genius-from-beyond-the-grave pretty much overnight.
Who could have guessed that Travolta's savvy plan to give Pepper all the tools necessary to destroy him and Planet Psychlo and reclaim Earth as a means of increasing gold production would backfire? But that's just what happens: Pepper decides to embiggen humanity by sharing his knowledge and it isn't long before the puny man-animals have hatched a plan to cast off their alien slave-masters once and for all.
Obviously any movie that needs to rely on a plot point as ridiculous as the convenient presence of an all-the-knowledge-in-the-universe machine isn't distinguished by brilliant plotting. So what is Battlefield Earth's strength? It's certainly not dialogue either. Here are some particularly choice lines from the script:
"I am going to make you as happy as a baby Psychlo on a straight diet of Kerbango"
"Those corporate crapheads won't know we stole it"
"Hope is an admirable quality but foolish isn't."
"You are out of your skull-bone if you think I'm going to write on the report "shot by a man-animal" as the cause of death until I see it!"
Nor is humor the film's forte: Travolta's bickering banter with Iago-like sidekick Forest Whitaker is the stuff of middling sitcoms. ("After Homeboys From Outer Space the out-of-this-world laughs continue with Terl and Ker in Those Crazy Psychlos!, only on UPN!") In the audio commentary Christian defends Battlefield as a live-action comic book but even as the cinematic equivalent of a medium where legendary writers finish damn near every line with an exclamation point the dialogue in Battlefield Earth stands out as egregiously idiotic and simplistic.
Christian huffs throughout the commentary that it is the sad existential fate of forward-looking sci-fi films to be underrated and misunderstood. But the problem isn't that Earth is pulp or an adaptation of genre fiction: it's that it's jarringly, unforgettably awful pulp and a dizzyingly dumb adaptation of genre fiction.
Yet Battlefield Earth stayed with me all the same, especially the theatrical lunacy of Travolta's deliciously terrible performance: apparently when you're playing a dreadlocked nine-foot-tall alien sociopath in leather gear there's no such thing as going "too big". I find myself calling people "rat brains" and "puny man-animals" on a regular basis. A talking Terl figure that spouts "Rat-brain!" and "Man-Animal!" at the push of a button occupied a place of pride in the old A.V. Club office back in Madison.
[Editor's note: And one still occupies a place in my house, courtesy of one Nathan Rabin.]
It's a measure of the public's indomitable affection for the icon behind Vinnie Barbarino, Vincent Vega, Tony Manero, and Danny Zuko that not even Battlefield Earth could kill his career. And heaven knows that if Earth couldn't destroy Travolta's career then nothing can, including questionable forays into fat-suit-based cross-dressing and sharing the screen with both Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?: Fiasco