Thursday, April 29, 2010

Battlefield Earth (Warners, 2000)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles made a casual remark last night that we had a copy of the 2000 film Battlefield Earth with a “Rifftrax” soundtrack — Rifftrax ( is the latest operation of the final principal cast of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett), recording soundtracks ridiculing popular movies of today which can be played in synch with DVD’s of the film. Battlefield Earth is the legendarily awful movie that began life as a novel by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who had been a pulp science-fiction writer (a contemporary of major names like Robert A. Heinlein, A. E. Van Vogt and Ray Bradbury) before he got into the religion biz with the publication of his 1950 book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (a publication sponsored by his favorite editor, John W. Campbell, who also wrote “Who Goes There?,” the story that inspired both the 1951 and 1982 film versions of The Thing), and who wrote quite a lot of pretty mediocre pulp stuff as well as one series, “Old Doc Methuselah,” which is considered better-than-average by the sci-fi cognoscenti.

Apparently Hubbard wanted to show that just because he’d done a highly successful career change (Russell Miller’s “black” biography of Hubbard, Bare-Faced Messiah, opens with a scene that supposedly took place in 1938, a luncheon with Hubbard and several other pulp sci-fi writers in which they began sharing get-rich-quick schemes and Hubbard supposedly said, “Actually, if you wanted to make a million dollars, the thing to do would be to start your own religion”) didn’t mean he’d lost his sci-fi writer’s chops. (Just about everybody who has written critically of Scientology has noted the similarity between the writings Hubbard offered as the scriptures of Scientology and the writings he published as ordinary science fiction.) So in 1969 Hubbard’s own publishing house brought out Battlefield Earth, and it became a best-seller — Hubbard’s critics said because he was sending out small armies of brainwashed Scientologists to buy it out at all the stores surveyed by the New York Times for their best-seller list — and for decades, ever since his own adoption of Scientology as his religion, John Travolta had harbored ambitions to make a movie of Battlefield Earth and star in it as hero Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, who in the year 3000 leads a successful revolution to liberate Earth from the dominion of a particularly nasty group of interplanetary invaders called the Psychlos. (The name sounds dorky but was probably also a nasty Hubbard slap against psychologists, a group of people he particularly hated.)

He finally got his chance at the end of the 1990’s, when a neophyte producer named Elie Samaha became one of those people who’d made a lot of money doing something else and thought it would be fun to make movies. His strategy was to attract major — or at least semi-major — stars to his enterprise by offering them money to make the big film they’d always dreamed of doing but had never been able to sell to a studio or a financier in the normal course of moviemaking. The result was predictable: Samaha ended up spending a lot of his own and his investors’ money on movies no one but the stars and their cults particularly wanted to see, and within a couple of years he became one of the many people with money who’ve slunk out of Hollywood, poorer but wiser from their flyers in filmmaking. By the time Travolta finally got backing for his dream project, he realized he was too old to play the almost terminally boyish hero, so instead he cast himself as the principal villain, a Psychlo named Terl (virtually all the Psychlo language we hear is guttural grunts and groans, and the Psychlos get grunt-like names like Terl, Ker and Chirk). Like Pontius Pilate, Terl has been stuck in a low-status post on a provincial territory by Psychlo Central, and he’s supposed to be responsible for bringing in Psychlo workers to mine Earth’s remaining riches — at least the ones the Psychlos haven’t already looted in the 1,000 years Earth has been under his occupation. His assistant Ker — played by Forest Whitaker, who later apologized for having been in this film (and I couldn’t help but savor the irony that the two main bad guys here were actors who’d played Bill Clinton and Idi Amin, respectively) — is suspicious of him and there are intrigues between them which, like so much else in this maddening film, never quite get explained.

Hero Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper, a tall and twinkie-ish but still attractive actor who, as I joked to Charles later, would have looked quite good in blue skin in someone else’s sci-fi epic with a plot that actually made sense) is growing up with a group of cave people when he runs away to explore the big bad world outside — and he ends up being taken prisoner by the Psychlos, from which he continually manages to escape, only to get himself re-captured so he can recycle the process and we can get a lot of barely motivated and badly staged action scenes. Eventually Tyler and his human confederates — including his girlfriend from the caves, Chrissy (Sabine Karsenti) — take over Fort Knox and Fort Hood and figure out how to use the weapons stored there to conquer the Psychlos on earth and fly a nuclear weapon to the Psychlos’ home planet, thus destroying it. Believe it or not, the film encompasses only the first half of Hubbard’s novel — Travolta, Samaha and their co-producers actually expected this film to do well enough to merit a sequel, which needless to say it didn’t — and in addition to the basic plot it has a number of side issues, including a sort of combination teaching machine and ray gun that beams information directly into Jonnie Goodboy Tyler’s brain (including teaching him to speak Psychlo, an ability cheerily ignored through most of the film).

Battlefield Earth didn’t necessarily have to be a dreadful movie — the premise, though hackneyed through overuse, could have set up a reasonably entertaining sci-fi film — and it might not have been if the original screenwriter, J. D. Shapiro, had had his way. According to an “trivia” item, Shapiro turned in a script that was “less serious and a much looser adaptation of the original novel” than the one that got filmed — which I take to mean that Shapiro realized that the material was so overwrought and silly that the best way to make an entertaining film out of it was to treat it as camp. (Shapiro found himself in the same bind as Salvatore Cammarano, the librettist of Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore, who realized that the play he was supposed to be adapting made no sense and pleaded with Verdi to be allowed to reshape the material into a coherent and sensible story. Verdi sent him a famous letter in which he wrote, “If we can’t make an opera that has the bizarre quality of the play, we might as well give up.”) Unfortunately for Battlefield Earth the movie, the co-producer and star was someone who regarded the author of the source novel as a prophet — literally — and so Shapiro got fired and another writer, Corey Mandell, was brought in and gave Hubbard’s book the holy-writ treatment the people who were making the movie wanted.

The director was someone named Roger Christian (I’d like to think he resisted pressure from his employers to change his name to Roger Scientologist) who’d actually won an Academy Award for art direction on Star Wars (and subsequently won another nomination for Alien) — though the sets on this one look so drab and dull one would never guess this film was being helmed by an Oscar-winning art director! Battlefield Earth is that rarity — a legendarily bad movie that’s actually worse than its reputation; any appeal, even camp appeal, it might have had is destroyed by the relentless seriousness with which the material is approached, the utter absence of any sense of lightness or humor, and the drabness of the film’s visual look which all too accurately matches the ridiculously heavy and somber nature of the story. The drabness of the acting matches the drabness of everything else — John Travolta looks less like an actor doing the lead role in the dream project of his life than like someone encased in way too much makeup to allow even his limited acting skills to shine through; Barry Pepper is good-looking but hardly a charismatic enough screen personality to make us believe he could lead a successful revolution with 1,000-year-old equipment against an enemy that had utterly defeated the Earth despite defense forces that had access to the same equipment Jonnie’s crews are using now; and Forest Whitaker goes through the whole movie seemingly wishing somebody would stick a saxophone in his mouth so he could relive the best role he’d played to that time — as Charlie Parker in the Clint Eastwood-directed biopic Bird (to my mind the best movie ever made about jazz).

The Rifftrax crew did a quite good job ridiculing this one — though sometimes it was hard to tell their deliberately silly comments from the unwittingly silly dialogue of the actual movie — and their best joke was one about wanting to invent a time machine so they could have John Travolta die in a fire on the set of Saturday Night Fever so he wouldn’t be alive to make Battlefield Earth — though that probably wouldn’t have prevented this movie from existing: they just would have done it with Tom Cruise.