Friday, July 2, 2021

Blast from the Past Movie Review: BATTLEFIELD EARTH (2000)

The Myopia Movies pain train rolls on with this Scientological "classic" Battlefield Earth, in which longtime Scientology devotee John Travolta finally gets to adapt Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's science fiction novel (well, the first half of of it), to rather lackluster results. Per Box Office Mojo, it grossed $39M against a $73M budget and is considered one of the worst movies ever made.

(A pity, since the book was all right, or at least had some interesting concepts. Then again, if the movie did well, that's more money for Scientology. As you can no doubt tell, I have an extraordinarily low opinion of the organization.)

I don't remember seeing it in theaters, but I did read the book around the time the film came out and I'm pretty sure I saw at least a large chunk of it on television somewhat later. Here's the Myopia episode, which is probably one of the most hilarious and over the top episodes we've ever done. And now for the review...

The Plot

It's the year 3000 AD and Earth is under alien occupation. The greedy Psychlos are strip-mining the planet for minerals and the dwindling human populations are reduced to essentially cavemen. In this bleak environment, Psychlo Terl (John Travolta) enslaves Johnny Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper) as part of an off-the-books scheme to make himself rich mining gold in areas too dangerous for the aliens to visit. Trained by Terl to operate Psychlo technology, Tyler ends up leading the remnants of the dying human race in one last battle for freedom...

The Good

*It's not boring, most of the time. A lot of the unintentional hilarity means it'd work as a comedy. Maybe Mystery Science Theater 3000, Rifftrax, or Cineprov can get their hands on this.

*Travolta's campy performance as Terl is pretty funny. Listen to the podcast episode, especially the parts where Daniel is talking, to get a hint of just how horridly glorious (gloriously horrid?) it is. Imagine John Travolta with dreadlocks and costumed to make himself look nine feet tall angrily lisping about "man-animals" and calling people "rat-brain."

*They wisely kept out the whole "psychiatrists made the Psychlos evil" plot from the book, although given how that doesn't show up until the second half (which was supposed to be a sequel film) maybe it wasn't wisdom on the producers' part.

The Bad

*Pretty much everybody in the movie is an idiot. And that's to put it mildly. Terl knows that Johnny is rebellious and has attacked him and other Psychlos several times, but still chooses to entrust him with his off-the-books gold-mining scheme. There are many situations where he should at least be suspicious about what Johnny and/or other humans are up to, but he just goes along with it. His greed and arrogance blind him to an absolutely ridiculous degree. Terl and the various Psychlos keep screwing with each other in order to always have "leverage," to the point TVTropes called it the film's "arc word." One wonders how their society can even function when pretty much everybody has Chronic Backstabbing Disorder. Meanwhile, Johnny is openly discussing his plans in front of Terl, betting on Terl being so arrogant that he never learned to speak English.

*There is some really bad acting on the parts of people who've performed better in other films. That's one cause for the unintentional hilarity.

*The humans, at least in Colorado, have totally forgotten their history and anything above essentially a Neolithic level. When Rome fell, even though most people couldn't read and write, there was still enough of a literate class to preserve quite a bit of knowledge about what came before. If the modern US were destroyed by aliens, the survivors would be almost entirely literate and I imagine they'd at least make some effort to teach their children, and their children's children, etc. Instead all Johnny's tribe seems to know is that in the distant past "demons" came from the sky and punished mankind and they currently live in fear of a dragon outside their village that it turns out is a mini-golf statue. In the book the descendants of Scottish survivors, though they've regressed to a largely medieval state, still know the true story of the alien invasion and how their ancestors managed to protect their homeland. More on that later...

*There's only one major Psychlo base? In the book there were 15, scattered all over the world. That makes a lot more sense. Given the crap that's just lying around (more on that next), this could've been handwaved if Johnny and friends have reactivated some long-dormant intercontinental ballistic missiles and blew them all to hell offscreen. We could have had a nice orbital shot of alien bases getting nuked like the end of Terminator 3 as Johnny and his allies descend on the panicking Psychlo main base in Denver.

*The back-story for the Psychlo conquest of Earth makes little sense. Terl claims the aliens had wiped out all of humanity's military forces in nine minutes, but even 1,000 years later there is an absolute crap-ton of hardware lying around that is still usable, including nuclear weapons. The book's depiction of the conquest of Earth--the Psychlos used a nuke-proof gas drone to wipe out human population centers, then sent in ordinary military forces to mop up any survivors--makes more sense. And given Psychlo vulnerability to uranium--it ignites the gas they breathe--there were surviving human populations in areas where nuclear weapons were used against the aliens or where there were natural concentrations of it.

(In Scotland, for example, a British military force lured Psychlo tanks into a nuclear minefield and the whole region became contaminated with uranium dust, allowing for a medieval-ish Scottish civilization to survive in the Highlands. Our hero's hometown is in a valley where there were either natural uranium deposits or a nuclear cache that's been leaking, which explains the population decline due to sterility and cancer as well as why the Psychlos never bothered them.) 

Given how the final confrontation with the Psychlos goes down, it should have been at least implied Terl was lying about how easily they'd conquered Earth. I hesitate to do a "how I would have done it" for Battlefield Earth lest I give Scientology more time and attention than it deserves, but I would have had a prologue depicting the original Psychlo attack. We'd see the book's last stand of the U.S. Air Force Academy cadets in chemical-weapons gear against massive high-tech Psychlo tanks, since geographically that's nearest to where our hero and friends live. Maybe they're buying time for some civilian refugees (implied to be Johnny's tribe's ancestors) to escape into the mountains. During the last battle, there could be conversations among the soldiers and/or communications from outside, revealing what's happening--some kind of Independence Day-sized craft that can shrug off nuclear hits appeared over Britain and traveled around the world gassing population centers, followed by mysterious detachments of tanks and super-advanced planes teleporting in and hitting surviving cities and military bases. Rumors about nuclear counterattacks in Britain (our friend the Scots) and that the invaders aren't even human. The cadets eventually go down (perhaps killing Psychlo infantrymen or destroying a tank, revealing that the invaders are in fact nine-foot aliens), but they're able to blow up vital bridges or something so the civilians can escape. Then jump to the "present" day of 3000 AD.

The Verdict

If you want alien-invasion movies with varying degrees of cheese, check out Skyline and its two sequels, Battle Los Angeles, Battleship, or Signs instead. If you want alien-invasion books, check out Footfall, which is the most realistic alien-invasion scenario where humans actually win, or my own The Thing in the Woods and its sequel The Atlanta Incursion.

4.0 out of 10. Better  than Spawn, but that's not saying much.

1 comment:

  1. The book is definitely a better book than that awful adaption. The first time I read the book was on my first ship assignment after boot camp, mid 1983. It was a page turner for me. I have read it visually and listen to the audio adaptions. I prefer the unabridged reading over the new production, as I enjoy the details of the story.
    I hated that after waiting for the sucky adaption over 16 years for the "soon to be a major motion picture" stamp that was embossed on my first copies of the book.
    I convinced friends and coworkers to go an see it with me.
    A few seemed okay with it.
    The rest said it was hard to follow, and I agreed as only I had read the book in that group.
    A few drinks later, they forgave me. I'll never forgive myself for torturing my friends.