Screenplay : Corey Mandell (based on the novel by L. Ron Hubbard)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : John Travolta (Terl), Barry Pepper (Jonnie Goodboy Tyler), Forest Whitaker (Ker), Kim Coates (Carlo), Sabine Karsenti (Chrissie), Richard Tyson (Robert the Fox), Marie-Josée Croze (Mara), Kelly Preston (Chirk)
One of the biggest problems with American movie stars is that, once they reach a certain level of success, they think they can do anything. Rather than staying in front of the camera, they move behind it as producers, writers, and directors who push through questionable projects that, without their clout, would never get made. It's no small irony that the producing credits of some of the world's highest paid actors read like the jacket summary of "The Worst Movies of All Time."
For instance, Bruce Willis almost undid all his success in "Die Hard" (1988) when he pushed for the production of "Hudson Hawk" (1991), for which he wrote the original story. Arnold Schwarzenegger first ventured into the role of executive producer with "Last Action Hero" (1993), which was one of the biggest financial disasters of the early '90s. Needless to say, it was almost 10 years before he produced another film. And, although it is arguable that Sylvester Stallone got his start as much behind the camera writing the script for "Rocky" (1976) as he did in front of it starring as the titular boxing hero, his filmography shows that his first and last foray into the world of producing was the 1983 stinker "Staying Alive," which was the beginning of the end for then red-hot star John Travolta.
Which, of course, brings us to Travolta, who has enjoyed an incredible renaissance after bursting back on the screen in 1994 in "Pulp Fiction" after a long absence. As he is now in the elite category of $20-million actors, his clout in Hollywood is immense, which is the only explanation for how he could have pushed his sci-fi dream project "Battlefield Earth" through production and into theaters. His second film as a producer (his first was 1997's "She's So Lovely," a modest critical success), "Battlefield Earth" rivals the worst of the worst in filmmaking.
"Battlefield Earth" is based on the 800+ page sci-fi novel published in 1982 by proficient pulp writer L. Ron Hubbard, who also happens to be the founder of Scientology, a movement of which Travolta is a devoted follower. The story takes place in the year 3000, more than 1,000 years after the Psychlos, an invading alien race, defeated the humans in a nine-minute battle. Apparently, the Psychlos want to mine Earth of its resources (especially gold), which raises the first of many nagging questions: Why would an alien race of such technical superiority take more than 10 centuries to deplete Earth of its minerals? (Another unanswered question is, what do they want with the gold?)
The narrative's hero is a young man named Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper, who played the scripture-quoting sniper in "Saving Private Ryan"). Jonnie lives with a tribe of surviving humans who live like grunting Neanderthals in the Colorado mountains. He turns out to be Earth's savior when a small group of greedy Psychlos make the mistake of teaching him too much information in the hopes of using him and others as slaves to surreptitiously mine gold for their own profit.
This group of Psychlos is led by Terl, Earth's chief security advisor who is bitter because he sees himself conquering galaxies, not managing the imprisonment of "man-animals," as he calls them. Terl is played by John Travolta in what is surely the worst performance of his career. Travolta can and has played bad guys before (see his wonderfully wicked performance in John Woo's "Face/Off"), but here he is lost under pounds of make-up and costumes that make him look like a cross between a Rastafarian and a rejected Klingon. He cackles a stagey demonic laugh at the drop of a hat, perhaps because the dialogue he is saddled with is so awful. In the end, though, Travolta's performance isn't even bad enough to be campy; it's just bad.
Equally lost is Forest Whitaker as Ker, Terl's second-in-command who is constantly making ill-fated attempts to betray his boss for his own gain. It never works, which gives Travolta plenty of time to chew scenery and bark about Ker's incompetence and the importance of having "leverage" on others. In fact, Terl is obsessed with idea of leverage: "A human have leverage on a Psychlo? Hah! That'll be the day." "A woman have leverage on a man? Hah! That'll be the day." We know Terl is bad because he's not only racist, but also sexist.
"Battlefield Earth" was obviously an expensive production (some estimates put it at more than $100 million). A great deal of time and expense was spent on digital special effects that turn cities like Denver and Washington, D.C. into aesthetically pleasing ruins. Much of the action takes place in the bombed out desolation of Denver, over which the Psychlos have built a giant glass dome because they cannot breathe Earth's air. Granted, the matte paintings and digital effects that are used to create the atmosphere of a destroyed civilization are effective, but their visual interest wears off quickly.
The second half of the film is given over to Jonnie's revolution, which culminates in a seemingly endless, mind-numbing, badly filmed battle sequence in which we are asked to believe that a group of men with absolutely no technical knowledge can learn in less than seven days how to fly 1,000-year-old Air Force jets with speed and precision. The battle climaxes in a bunch of loud explosions and a great deal of confusion about who's where and who's doing what and why. And, when there isn't a lot of action, cinematographer Giles Nuttgens inexplicably films every scene with the camera tilted at an angle in some kind of bizarre attempt to give the film some style.
Director Roger Christian ("Masterminds") swings the camera back and forth in a bad attempt to ape the theatrics of Michael Bay ("Armageddon"), and the results are just as confounding and just as ugly. In fact, most of "Battlefield Earth" can be described as irredeemably ugly. Although most postapocalyptic films are known for their filth and decay, "Battlefield Earth" seems unduly obsessed with grime and ruin, all of which is filmed through murky blue and green filters to ensure that there is rarely a moment of clarity at any time.
Of course, as bad as it is, Travolta will likely survive this cinematic debacle. After all, Willis, Schwarzenegger, and Stallone are all still making films (even if Planet Hollywood turned out to be a bust). Travolta has a great deal of talent and he is a wildly popular actor; even his most mediocre films make millions of dollars. Unfortunately, these positives are what likely gave him the idea that he could pull off "Battlefield Earth." Let us hope he has learned his lesson because, after all, "Battlefield Earth" isn't L. Ron Hubbard's only novel.
©2000 James Kendrick