Battlefield Earth (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

The Horror, the Horror

They did it! They finally did it! God damn them all to hell!

They brought it into existence, this hellbeast of a movie, this monstrosity, this slap in the face of all that is good and right and beautiful and sweet and gentle. Oh, the humanity! Hide the children’s eyes!

It’s been about 36 hours since I stumbled from the theater where I was tortured with Battlefield Earth, and the psychic wounds are only beginning to show themselves. I may never fully recover. Though it shamelessly rips off Planet of the Apes, Independence Day, Total Recall, and almost every other science fiction flick ever made, this is mostly its own brand of hell on Earth. I was expecting bad, but Battlefield Earth far surpasses my wildest dreams of sci-fi turkeyness. Stick a fork in this one, man — it’s done.
Based on the L. Ron Hubbard novel — and there’s your first hint of the godawfulness to come — Battlefield Earth is “A Saga of the Year 3000,” we’re told right away, which left me half hoping that Bender and Fry, Leela and Dr. Zoidberg would show up eventually. Instead, the first half of the film left the audience with which I endured this flick flattened into their seats in a sort of stunned, horrified silence as the contextless action unfolded onscreen. We are told this movie was “directed” (by Roger Christian), but I have my doubts. There is much running about, shooting, and stuff blowing up as Stone Age-looking humans (the girls’ artfully plucked eyebrows are a nice, anachronistic touch) get chased by big, overgrown, Klingon-y looking dudes whom we later discover are aliens, but who look so human that I was thoroughly confused.

Actual human Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper: The Green Mile, Saving Private Ryan), apparently an escapee from an 80s hair band, is captured by the Klingon guys and stuns their leader, Terl (John Travolta: The General’s Daughter, A Civil Action), by being able to use one of their guns to kill a guard. This is pretty much where the jaw-dropping begins, and doesn’t let up until your chin is on the floor and threatening to drill right through. The idiot aliens, called Psychlos — this is Hubbard’s swipe at psychology and psychiatry — don’t think the humans are smart enough to handle weapons or even do basic manual labor like mining, yet they know that humans built the abandoned cities. But Terl throws the seemingly precocious Jonnie into a Psychlo teaching machine to see if he can be taught — something no one else thought to do in the past thousand years, I guess — and the teaching machine quite thoughtfully instructs Jonnie in how to read English so that he can later read, yes, the Declaration of Independence and be motivated to lead an uprising of humans against their alien overlords.

But just when you get to the point when you want to scream, “Dear merciful God in Heaven, make it stop!” Battlefield Earth turns side-splittingly funny. So hang in there. Because by the time Jonnie decides to take his band of Neanderthal buddies down to Fort Hood, Texas, you will be on the floor laughing. Here, houses still have brightly painted wooden shingles, power lines still droop nicely from utility poles, and there’s a ton of cool stuff just lying around waiting to picked up. I’m talking nukes, fighter planes, walkie-talkies, and the fuel and batteries to run them all. Yes, Ugh and Grok fly Harrier jet and kick alien ass. It’s indescribably hilarious.

The juvenile quality of the writing here is simply breathtaking. The aliens have no motive for conquering Earth that we can see, except perhaps a shortage of rebar, those steel bars used to reinforce concrete, on their home planet — the aliens are using slave “man-animals” to break down the abandoned Earth cities with sledgehammers. The Psychlos bitch about what a hellhole Earth is, which also makes no sense whatsoever because their planet looks like the industrial cesspool of Newark off the Jersey Turnpike, and here they are hanging around the verdant, snow-capped mountains of Colorado. And the script would have us believe that there is surface gold that has gone unmined in the general vicinity of what was once Denver.

But for sheer audacity, the stupidity of the Psychlos, as a species as well as on an individual level, has to win the Just Plain Wrong prize in Battlefield Earth. I suspect that they are intended to be a satire on corporate culture, but the writing is so appallingly awful that snickers of disdain are the only possible reaction to it. There is much debating and arguing among the Psychlos about employment contracts, memos, who is or isn’t an executive vice president, and how to get transferred away from Earth, with the kind of puerile hair-splitting that makes the movie simply unbearable. Terl tells a subordinate on whom he’s got some dirt, “I could forget to write the report, as a friend — but I’m not a friend. Bwahahahahahahaha!” It’s like listening to a bunch of squabbling eight-year-olds fight on the playground.

This is bad 50s B-movie sci-fi, where everyone, human and alien alike, talks and acts like they’re right out of mid-20th-century middle America — “piece of cake” seems to be the favorite term of the illiterate, cave-dwelling humans, and Terl derogatorily calls his new female secretary “missy.” The acting is uniformly deplorable, with special recognition going to Travolta for his jaw-clenching histrionics and to Forest Whitaker (Platoon) as Terl’s dim-witted assistant, just for being here. The science is horrendous, and I can’t even bear to go into that. This movie will leave you feeling pummeled, your defenses worn down till you’re trembling and babbling incoherently. Just bend over, put your head between your knees, and take deep breaths. The nausea will pass.

It saddens me that Battlefield Earth is John Travolta’s labor of love (he’s one of the film’s producers), his valentine to Scientology founder Hubbard. How dreadfully sad. How very… Ed Wood of him. It’s tragic, really.

[reader comments on this review]

share and enjoy