Battlefield Earth (2000) -**½
I just got back from seeing Battlefield Earth, and Jesus H. Christ does my neck hurt! There are doubtless those among you who fail to grasp the connection between this movie and the throbbing stiffness in the tendons surrounding my cervical vertebrae. Rest assured that you thus mark yourselves out as never having seen Battlefield Earth; anyone who has would nod their heads in recognition, if only their necks weren’t so fucking sore! You see, in this movie’s entire two-hour running time, there are perhaps half a dozen shots in which the camera is not tilted on its side by an angle of at least ten degrees to the horizontal. Indeed, I repeatedly found myself wishing for a protractor, for I am certain that some shots were inclined at least 30 degrees! You try craning your neck back and forth with each change of camera angle for two hours, and tell me if your symptoms are any different.
And that, my friends, is only the beginning. Let’s face it-- this movie has my name written all over it. We have here a vast, corpulent ego-trip of a movie, produced by and starring John Travolta-- perhaps the world’s highest-profile Scientologist-- based on an equally vast, equally corpulent novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Since it appeared in theaters, I have heard it called the worst movie in recent memory, the worst movie in living memory-- even the worst movie of all time. The reviewer for The Onion said it was so bad as to make him feel ashamed to be of the same species as the organisms responsible for creating it. Now obviously the people who said these things need to go out and see a lot more really shitty movies, because that kind of hyperbole is in no way justified in describing Battlefield Earth. But at the same time, this movie certainly is the front-runner for the year 2000 You Paid How Much For This? prize, and in order to beat it, somebody’s going to have to come up with a flick that makes Waterworld look like the work of Roger Corman. Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so much money spent to so little effect, not even by Roland Emmerich.
As I describe the movie’s plot, it will become obvious that no such film could be made on a remotely sane budget, but to understand fully what little return director Roger Christian gets on the investment, you must realize that Battlefield Earth resembles nothing so much as the longest, loudest, most expensive athletic shoe commercial ever made. That really is the level of directorial aptitude that we’re dealing with here, and that inauspicious truth shines through from the very first shot. We see the Earth from orbit, with surprisingly cheap-looking titles reading “Battlefield Earth: a saga of the year 3000” superimposed over it. As the camera passes over a Rocky Mountain ridge, another line of text helpfully informs us that “Man is an endangered species,” and I start to wonder why the theater is showing me a trailer for the movie to which I have theoretically purchased a ticket. But no, this is no trailer. The film is just edited like one. The camera cuts to a man riding his horse in slow motion (about three fifths of this movie is shot in slow motion), his destination a mesolithic-looking mountain village. The man on horseback is named Johnny, though you won’t find that out until the movie is half over, and the only way you’ll ever find out that his full name is a wildly improbable Johnny Goodboy Tyler is to read the closing credits. (Johnny is played by Barry Pepper, who went from Saving Private Ryan to this in only two years.) He’s been out foraging, and it is his assessment that his people will surely starve to death if they do not move at the earliest opportunity to a more fecund plot of territory. The chief/shaman figure of Johnny’s tribe nixes the idea, though, saying it is the fate of their tribe to wait in the mountains and devote their energies to pleasing the gods, so that one day the gods will return to drive off the demons.
But that’s clearly a stupid plan, and Johnny knows it. His girlfriend, Chrissy (Sabine Karsenti), also knows it’s a stupid plan, but Johnny refuses to let her come with him when he sets off into the wilderness to find the tribe a new home; he says the village needs her. So Johnny goes it alone, at least until he encounters a small band of men in the ruins of a miniature golf course (and no, I’m not making that up). Their leader is named Carlo (Kim Coates, from Innocent Blood, The Amityville Curse, and-- that’s right-- Waterworld), and he offers to take Johnny to the village where the gods once lived in exchange for some of the food Johnny has brought with him. That “village of the gods” turns out to be the first of many ruined 20th-21st century cities that we will see before this is all over (listen to the legends Carlo tells Johnny as they explore; my favorite is the one about the temples with “arches of gold” where food for the masses appeared as if by magic), and it is there that Johnny gets his first look at one of those demons his chief warned him about. In a seemingly endless slow-motion chase, Johnny and his new-found friends are hunted down and captured by what look for all the world to be post-Star Trek: The Motion Picture Klingons, and taken to what another of those helpful lines of text identifies as the “human processing center” in Denver, Colorado.
Which brings us to the subject of the aliens. They call themselves the Psychlos, and it would appear that they rule pretty much the entire universe. I don’t see how. Sure, they look tough-- seven feet tall, with big, bony foreheads and huge claws on their ungainly rubber hands (far and away Battlefield Earth’s worst special effect, on par with the rubber feet that Mary Vivian Pearce wears at the end of Mondo Trasho... and can anyone explain to me why some Psychlos have five fingers while others have six?)-- but looks can be deceiving. The Psychlos have organized their civilization as a single vast corporation (kind of like we humans are in the process of doing in the real world now), referring to their homeworld as “the Home Office” and giving their officers titles like “District Manager”. I suppose we’re meant to believe that this form of organization gives them some sort of advantage over species that use more conventional power structures, but in practice, it seems merely to make the Psychlos spend all of their time trying to out-maneuver each other for promotions and to get a leg up on their competitors-- “leverage,” they call it. And as we shall see, whatever the level of advancement which their society as a whole has attained, the Psychlos, individually, are as dumb as the proverbial bag of hammers. The most important Psychlo, for our purposes, is Terl (John Travolta), the security chief for all of Earth. He appears to be a sort of right-hand man to another Psychlo, known only by his title, the Planetship of Earth (Shaun Austin-Olsen). Terl will spend the entire course of the film in a desperate quest to make himself rich while obtaining the maximum possible “leverage” over the Planetship, and for that matter, over his own second-in-command, an especially Klingon-like Psychlo called Ker (Forest Whitaker, of Body Snatchers and Species, who should certainly know better).
Terl and Johnny cross paths when the human wrestles the gun away from his wrangler and shoots him dead. Because this scene also marks the first appearance of that bag-of-hammers problem the Psychlos have, it merits a close look. The wrangler, you see, was so careless of his gun because the Psychlos do not regard humans as truly intelligent life; they see us in about the same light that we see chimpanzees and gorillas. In fact, the Psychlos are so contemptuous of our intelligence that Terl demands that the assistant wrangler allow Johnny a chance to take a shot at him to corroborate his story! (Johnny, of course, takes the shot and kills the second Psychlo too.) Is it possible that I’m the only one who sees how incredibly illogical this whole premise is? When the Psychlos conquered Earth, they naturally did so over the resistance of the combined militaries of the entire world. Terl will later claim that the entire campaign of conquest took only nine minutes, but that’s really beside the point. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that one day a team of human explorers found a band of mountain gorillas that lived in mud huts, made pottery, and used bows and arrows as weapons. This hypothetical team of explorers could probably conquer the gorilla band in nine minutes, too, but the mere fact that the gorillas used technology, no matter how primitive, would tip the humans off to the animals’ intelligence. So please explain to me-- Mr. Mandell (our esteemed screenwriter), Mr. Hubbard-- how it is possible that the Psychlos could stumble upon a planet whose every coastline is rimmed with sprawling cities, and whose natives are armed with nuclear weapons, and yet somehow fail to realize that they had encountered intelligent life?!?!
Terl, alone among the Psychlos, at least has a couple of working ganglia in his frontal lobes, because he recognizes that Johnny, for one, is intelligent, and this gives him an idea. Earlier, he had learned that Ker’s reconnaissance teams had located a rich vein of gold somewhere in the Rockies, in a region where the Psychlos cannot go. (We will later learn that the aliens are kept out of certain areas because the gas that they breathe reacts violently to radiation-- so violently that it will explode in contact with the products of radioactive decay. [Never mind the fact that the ubiquity of such radiation in the universe would prevent a planet with such an atmosphere from lasting long enough to spawn even the simplest of microorganisms.] It is for this reason that wild populations of humans still exist; they live in places like Utah, Nevada, and Kazakhstan, where their ancestors’ nuclear hobby contaminated the landscape. The Rocky Mountains are Psychlo-free because that’s where most of America’s nuclear arsenal was kept.) Terl’s big plan is to train Johnny (and any other intelligent humans he can find) to mine, ship them off to the site of the gold vein, and make himself one rich motherfucker. To that end, he hooks Johnny up to a “learning machine” which imparts to him a fairly comprehensive knowledge of just about everything-- the Psychlo language, the natural sciences, mathematics, gold mining-- and has him enlist a team of humans to help him dig. Terl then sends Johnny and his team to the mountains, and gives them 14 days to dig out enough gold to half-fill the cargo hold of the aircraft that he used to take them there. And just to make sure there’s no funny stuff, Terl leaves a robot spy plane in the area to keep an eye on the proceedings.
Fortunately for Johnny and his team, Corey Mandell is the laziest screenwriter alive and forgot all about that spy plane, so there is nothing to stop them from going to Fort Knox to pick up all the gold they need. This leaves the rest of their time free for plotting revolution. And plot they do, making excursions not only to the Library of Congress (which the trained chimp responsible for the matte paintings has located inside the fucking Capitol building!) for a crash course in Jeffersonian political theory, but to Fort Hood as well, where they steal a squadron of Harriers (they’re supposed to be the Marine Corps’s AV-8B version, but actually, they’re British GR.3’s) and the physics package from a AGM-86 air-launched cruise missile. While they’re at it, they use Fort Hood’s flight simulators to teach a nearby tribe of post-historic hunter-gatherers to fly the Harriers. (Good thing all this military hardware still works after sitting idle for a thousand years, huh?) So what’s Johnny’s plan? Remember, the Psychlos can’t breathe Earth’s air, and the air that they do breathe reacts violently when exposed to radiation. Johnny means to stage a revolt in Denver, destroy the dome over the city that keeps the Psychlo air in and the Earth air out (apparently killing thereby all the Psychlos on Earth), and then use the Psychlos’ matter transporters to send the H-bomb to the Psychlo homeworld, where its detonation should cause the entire atmosphere to explode, solving not only Earth’s, but the entire universe’s Psychlo problem once and for all. And when he gets around to carrying out that scheme, it’s every bit as ridiculous in the execution as it is in the conception. By the time this movie is over, we’ll have been witness to an aerial dogfight between alien VTOL fighters and Harriers piloted by cavemen, and seen Denver, Colorado, and an entire planet explode in slow motion.
I’d like to tell you more, but I just don’t have the stamina. Should you feel up to the challenge of watching Battlefield Earth for yourself (bring a neck brace!), the main attraction will, of course, be John Travolta’s Shatneresque overacting, but keep your eyes open for the little things, too. The scene in which Terl and Ker conclude that the favorite food of humans is raw rat, for example, which gives by far the best illustration of my point that the Psychlos must have had God on their side-- there’s just no other way for a species this stupid to overrun the entire universe! Or the many in which Johnny gives a speech which suggests that he’s channeling the spirit of William Wallace, as portrayed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Nor could I claim to be doing my job properly if I failed to draw your attention to the feeding-time-at-the-human-management-center scene. (Am I the only one whom this sequence reminds of the Puke Eater from Multiple Maniacs?) And while you're at it, notice the female Psychlo with the 20-inch tongue. That’s Kelly Preston, John Travolta’s wife (she’s a Scientologist, too, by the way), whom some of you may remember from such big-name movies as Jerry Maguire and From Dusk Till Dawn, but whom I prefer to think of as that chick from Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn.