First of all: yes, this film based on the novel by L. Ron Hubbard is influenced by his famous cult Scientology. It stars, and was propelled into production, by its star, prominent Scientologist John Travolta, who probably wouldn’t have read the book if it wasn’t on the shelf next to Dianetics. It probably never would’ve been made if not for the community of Scientologists in Hollywood. And Steven Spielberg made Schindler’s List because he’s a Jew.
There – bet you’d never think you’d see anyone compare Battlefield Earth to Schindler’s List. Don’t make me pull out my charts and graphs!
BE is about Earth in the year 3000, after a bunch of big Klingo- uh, sorry, “Psychlos” have conquered the planet (“in 9 minutes”) and sent humanity back to the stone age. A cave man named Jonnie Tyler (Barry Pepper from The Green Mile) decides to challenge tribal taboo and try to find out if the demons beyond the mountains really exist, or are just fairy tales.
After meeting up with some fellow travelers, they find a ruined city – apparently the Psychlos invaded at the beginning of the 21st century, since the buildings are all of recent design, not from hundreds of years in the future – where they are easily captured by the evil aliens. Shoved into cages in a roaring flying machine, they are taken to Denver, where apparently the entire occupation force of Psychlos is living under a thick glass dome (actually more like a greenhouse), protected from the unbreatheable Earth atmosphere outside.
This is when the movie starts to get fun. The Psychlos are very enjoyable aliens, a mix of Klingons, Ferengis and Planet of the Apes. They move slowly and clumsily, as if wearing heavy make-up and bulky, uncomfortable costumes and wigs. They’re not any smarter than humans (and their hair isn’t any cleaner), but they’re very crafty, have superior technology, and are too arrogant to consider the gibbering “man-animals” anything but beasts.
Interim Security Chief Terl (Travolta) is the craftiest of the lot – but he’s not crafty enough to keep his bosses from denying his transfer to a more engaging planet. Terl, aided by his none-too-bright aide Ker (Ghost Dog Forest Whitaker), plots his revenge. He plans to steal gold from a mine, blackmailing the governor to keep his mouth shut.
Since he can’t use union labor without attracting attention, he comes up with a scheme to train humans to do the work in secret. The first human he picks for his project is our boy Jonnie, who’s been occupying himself with failed escape attempts. Hooked up to a flashy “learning machine”, Jonnie learns the Psychlo language, their history, technology, and becomes an expert in nuclear physics and advanced calculus. Playing dumb, he uses his knowledge to plan another escape, which again fails.
So what does Terl do when he foils the plot? He teaches Jonnie to drive and gives him the keys to his flying car!
This is only one of many lapses in logic in a script that features a bunch of cavemen who, after finding a hangar full of Harrier jets without as much as a layer of dust on them after hundreds of years, learn to fly them in a few days. Perhaps these flaws are a result of adapting a thick novel into a two hour movie, but after a while I strongly suspected that it’s more a product of Hubbard’s wry sense of humor. It plays more like a syndicated sci-fi TV series than a big budget summer blockbuster. The human characters are determined but empty, the plot is reminiscent of the captures and escapes of an old Flash Gordon serial, and the invincible aliens have an easily exploitable weakness.
The f/x and make-up are great – spectacular, but somewhat understated, the film’s setting succeeds as in portraying a very natural world. Director Roger Christian began his career as set decorator on Star Wars and moved on to art director for Alien, so he knows how to make the unbelievable commonplace. Aiding him is designer Patrick Tatopolous, one of the true stars of Independence Day and Godzilla (1998).
Don’t go to this expecting another ID4 though. This is a pretty bad movie, but one well worth catching, if only for Travolta’s amusing performance.