Far-Right Fellow Traveler Michael Medved, a radio host and former PBS movie critic, famously declared Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space the “worst” movie ever made. This, to the best of my knowledge, is the only true statement Medved’s made since falling into the clutches of now-Vice President Dick Cheney, back in the late-70s when Cheney was mere Chief of Staff to President Ford. Hopefully Battlefield: Earth’s mind-numbing atrociousness will send the insidious alien symbiote posing as Medved’s mustache into some form of toxic shock, finally freeing the poor man’s mind. He’ll stop writing stupid books about the “War on Traditional Values.” Because if he doesn’t, I might just have to declare a few nonsensical wars of my own…
How about a War on Scientology? Like any good disease, L. Ron Hubbard’s pseudo-religion dissevers to be eradicated with a full frontal assault, complete with Concerned Parent Groups and hearings before Senate Committees. Only this can prevent another Battlefield: Earth from polluting the planet’s imagination.
Sometimes I do things that most people, normal people, would consider deliriously stupid. Stupidity so grand that, if any of my friends were to witness it, I’d full expect them to look at me sideways and shout, “What the fuck are you doing?”
None of my friends saw me rent Battlefield: Earth. None of them suffered through it with me. If they had I’m sure that we would not have remained my friends. I’ve made them suffer through some ugly shit with me…but nothing this…tedious. I really can’t think of a more fitting way to describe Battlefield: Earth. “Boring” and “stupid” hardly cover it. Heralded as the Worst Movie of 2000, I can only hope it is…because it if isn’t…
Your Standard Helpful Titles tell us it’s the year 3000. Earth’s endured a thousand years of occupation by the Psychlos, an oppressive alien race that wiped out the whole of human civilization, we’re later told, in nine minutes.
Now, you’d expect the Psycho to be some ba-ad motherfuckers. Imagine my surprise when they turned out to be a race of money grubbing, petty, backstabbing, Evil Capitalists, with all the intelligence of your average inkblot. Fellow Trekkies have suggested the Psychlo are a sick hybrid of the Klingon and Ferengi races. I say, any self-respecting Klingon who overheard that would rip your heart out, take a bite from it, and spit it back into your mewing, mutilated face.
Our story begins with Johnny (Barry Pepper), a “Greener” (as in, “grass is always greener”), a great restless spirit with dreadlocks, stifled by the ways of his nomadic mountain community. None of this “stay inside the mountains or you’ll be captured by the Demons” crap for Johnny-boy. Oh no. He leaves as soon as his father dies, stumbling upon a city (the remains of Denver, still in remarkable condition…just look at all intact glass) after all of a day. The he’s captured by the Demons.
The Demons are Psychlos – hairy, make-up encrusted extras in Frankenstein lifts. This is the advanced alien race the conquered Earth? Right…The Psychlos consider gold “the rarest” element of all and use humans as draft animals. Their species-ism does not allow them to believe the “man-animals” they force to toil could possibly be intelligent. Only one Psychlo on Earth dares to buck conventional wisdom.
This is Terl (John Travolta), a fine specimen of Psychlodom. As Earth’s Chief of Security, Terl is a vindictive son of a bitch who’ll stop at nothing to get off-planet. Not I blame him. The Earth of 3000 A.D. pretty much sucks. But thanks to some trouble with Home Office (I assume Terl made “the beast with two backs” with the daughter of some Psychlo Senator) Terl’s consigned to forever languish on this mud-clotted rock.
While drowning his sorrows in the local Psychlo bar, Terl hits upon an idea: he’ll buy his way off Earth! Brilliant! And, hey, his loyal lacky (Forrest Whitaker…oh, Ghost Dog, how could you?) has just located a new spur of gold! Problem: the gold is inside an irradiated area, and contact with radiation causes the Psychlo’s atmosphere to spontaneously combust (!). Solution: Get some of those damn humans to mine the gold for him. Whom should Terl choose to head this operation? A weak-willed “man-animal,” easily controlled…or the single most dangerous human being on the planet Earth?
It’s a sad, sad thing…but Johnny really is that human being. During transfer, Johnny managed to get hold of a gun and shoot one of his Psychlo captors. Now, were I the head of security for a world-conquering, tyrannical race, I migh’ve shot Johnny on the spot in front of a few other “man-animals” as an example. Instead (after wasting forty-odd minutes on internal Psychlo politics) Terl plugs Johnny into a “teaching machine,” ensuring the doom of the entire Psychlo race. With his new knowledge, beamed directly into his head, Johnny manages to train and motivate an entire resistance force of “man-animals,” who gallantly retake Earth through a flagrant rip-off of Independence Day, cleverly disguised as a Climactic Action Sequence.
This movie has all the energy of a turtle race in February. Director Roger Christian (who’s previous film was a mindless little yawn-fest called Masterminds) seems to believe filming everything at Dutch angels injected some sense of drama into these pretentious proceedings.
Sadder still, this film’s Dutch angle disease is its only interesting element. It’s like a Pinto with the engine stolen and its stereo system gutted. All flash and no bang. All style and no substance. That’s the problem with today’s films. “Throw enough money at it and somebody will like it,” has become Hollywood’s mantra. No one stops to wonder about quality before whipping out their checkbooks. Why should they? Nine times out of ten, the magic works. Look at Armageddon. Highest grossing movie of 1998. Beloved by rednecks and flag-wavers everywhere. $150 million down the pike while cancer, AIDS and George Bush run unchecked through the world. Not exactly money well spent.
The sucker we’re speaking of today cost $80 million, and John Ravolta no doubt laundered most of that. Where it went, I have no idea. Special effects shots are on level with of Playstation video game trailers. Obvious, numerous Matte paintings and painful Psychlo make-up make the whole thing a laughable experience.
Travolta, of course, stinks up the screen, hamming it right up to the top of the dome the Psychlo’s built over Denver. That much is obvious from the get go. No matter how much make up you slather on his face, he still looks like an asshole. Barry Pepper, our lame duck version of Yor, fumbles through his role with all the range of expression you’d expect from a cement brick.
But the real fault lies with the director and Battlefield‘s twin screenwriters, Corey Mandell (in feature debut…obviously) and J.D. Shapiro, who won awards for writing Robin Hood: Men In Tights in my imagination. The two have obviously taken a hatchet job to Hubbard’s thousand-page kudzu vine of a novel. Rumors are the sequel, due in 2002, was scrapped as soon as the universally negative reviews poured in from all corners. Even Roger Ebert and I agree here. This is a soul-sucking film, the blockbuster’s Jungian Shadow. It exists because the universe instinctively seeks balance, just as the makers of this film sought to balance out the story itself by splitting it in half and padding the first film until not even the harshest Women’s Self Defense Course on the planet could take it down. God only knows how long the sequel would’ve been, or how long it would’ve felt.
This film feels like it takes days. The viewer’s left in the same dull, semi-comatose state as any accident survivor. It’s alright. Just the shock. You didn’t think they made them like this anymore, did you? But Hubbard was a pulp writer of the very, very old school. In his hands, the form occasionally gained dignity, even fun. In Mandell and Shapiro’s, the pulp-adventure elements that made the book anachronistic back in 1985 come across as the designated hack fallback positions that they are. Even the Psychlos themselves are thinly veiled metaphorical caricatures in the great tradition of 1930s, Golden Age sci-fi preachiness.
Hubbard’s long battle with Behaviorist Psychology is well-documented, and played out here. The space in his book (taken up here by Christian’s areal pans of the Rocky Mountains) allowed him to paint a picture of Psychlo as a planet long-enslaved by evil psychologists. Get it? That’s why they interminably call us “man-animals” and “rat-brains”. Hence all the talk of “leverage.” ‘Cuz Behaviorists, like B.F. Skinner, used the results of their rats-pushing-levers experiments to push the idea that human beings are nothing more than big, dumb animals, so obviously everything is meaningless and we should all lie down and die. Or something like that.
In its eagerness to be loved, Battlefield Earth ended up universally reviled. After fifteen years of pushing for this film to be made, its obvious the makers threw up their hands and cried, “Screw it! Throw enough money at it and somebody will like it!” Thankfully, for once they were wrong. They gave us what is indisputably the last great Bad film of late-twentieth century Hollywood, and thus pass into history, like the man who escaped the Titanic by dressing in woman’s clothes.