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Battlefield Earth

Director: Roger Christian
Cast: John Travolta, Forest Whitaker, Barry Pepper, Kim Coates, Richard Dyson, Kelly Preston

(Franchise Pictures; 2000)

A Huge Visual Feast

It’s hard to say which is the most embarrassing moment in this fever dream of a movie. But one of the frontrunners must be when the diabolic alien played by Travolta, Terl is enjoying the seductive charms of a high-foreheaded female alien by the name of Chirk and played by Kelly Preston, a.k.a. Mrs. Travolta. It’s a singularly strange scene, predictable, stupid, and just a tad revolting. The aliens (called Psychlos) are cavorting in a bar, and she’s all over her male’s big plan to grab up a cache of gold and skeedaddle off the planet earth, which is, apparently, the armpit of the universe as far as overseer assignments go. Chirk demonstrates her interest with a caress from of her three-foot-long tongue and the promise to make him “as happy as a baby Psychlo,” eating something that sounds just awful. Out comes her monster tongue, lap-lap-lapping all over the big lug’s uniform-encased body, as he squirms and squeals with pleasure.


Ridiculous on its own, the scene becomes — in the pseudo-grand scheme of Battlefield Earth‘s retarded politics and retro aesthetics — slightly heinous, in that it underlines the Psychlos’s monstrous and insatiable appetites. Then again, if you’re going to set up a plot where humans are weak and trembling, just waiting to be saved by any joe (or, in this case, “jonnie”) who comes along with even the slightest bit of gumption and restlessness — the “everyman” version of christ come back — then it probably makes sense to make the humans’ situation as dire and ugly as possible. And the Psychlos make the situation look very dire indeed, cartoonish spokesmodels for the dastardly unpleasantness that aliens will wreak upon the earth. This unpleasantness, not incidentally, resembles that narrated by L. Ron Hubbard in his Scientology tracts, in which aliens have poisoned earth and its inhabitants long long ago, and so caused the need for much “cleansing” of spirit and mind, monitored by experts for regular fees, of course. Battlefield Earth, originally Hubbard’s novelistic SF version of this story, reportedly attracted Travolta as soon as he read it back in 1982, and it’s taken him some time to bring it to the screen. As one of four producers for the film, he helped to secure the $100 million independent financing, most of which seems to have gone into the Psychlos’ elaborate dreadlocked wigs and the enormous platform boots that make the big meanies look eight feet tall and terribly slow on their feet.


But the Psychlos’ stature is only one factor in the film’s general bloat. You will have noticed by now that Battlefield Earth is being advertised (in incessantly rotating TV spots) as an FX extravaganza, a “huge visual feast.” This might suggest that there is nothing else that anyone is talking about in the film, in even a semi-positive way. It’s true that the movie does offer a kind of video-gamey visual excess — multiple explosions, point-of-view fighter-plane shots, affected wipes from the screen’s middle to transition from scene to scene — but for all the money and hype, these effects aren’t very convincing or fabulous. They do, however, constitute something of an archival spectacle, lifting liberally from just about every futuristic effects film in recent memory, including big daddy Star Wars (the x-wings force-be-with-you scenes in particular), Star Trek‘s Borg (the Psychlos as a race that enslaves entire populations as “resources”), T2 (the dreary post-apocalyptic earth and the noble-suicide-to-save-the-world scenes), Planet of the Apes (the discovery of the previous human civilization that was annihilated 1000 or so years before, indicated by hoary old white guy statues), ID4 (the plant-a-bomb-in-the-head-office scene), and Predator, in some wavy-invisibility effects and the fact that the supertall Psychlos resemble that dreadlocked creature who gave Arnold and them such a hard time.


Actually, the threat the Psychlos pose to their human slaves in the year 3000 is explained only obscurely. It appears that the Psychlos have superior intellect, or at least, superior technology, while the humans are riding horses and wearing long hair and beige leather clothing, the way that the good folks do in Road Warrior or old Star Trek Kirkisodes. Most of the humans look a little scruffy, with matted hair, scraggly beards, or dirt on their cheeks. This allows your hero to stand out, because he never shaves and yet always sports a completely smooth face and hair that is variously braided and ponytailed for each scene, as if he has a stylist offstage. This well-groomed boyish wonder would be Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper, affecting a Kid-Rock-who’s-been-to-the-gym look), as white as they come and as determined to conquer his captors as any hero must be. Jonnie has a “woman” named Chrissie (Sabine Karsenti), though she’s not so conventionally girly as her name would suggest (during the climactic battle scene, she appears for about three seconds handling a really big gun). However, for the most part, the woman serves as “leverage”: Terl apprehends her and locks an explosive device round her neck in order to ensure Jonnie’s cooperation.


This “leverage” idea is the film’s sole remotely interesting one, in that it comes up repeatedly among the Psychlos as they grumble and chuckle and jockey for power and position. In a word, they are oldschool capitalists on the order of Jabba the Hutt, trying desperately to manipulate the “free market” they’ve concocted in their minds, by way of exploiting resources, both human and, rather quaintly, gold (their pettiness in the midst of their supposed universal domination recalls Dr. Evil’s eccentric demand for a million dollars). Indeed, if the Psychlos get a hard-on for anything, it’s gold. Their other fixation is surveillance, and they have all kinds of auto-zoom lenses installed everywhere on earth — in tunnels, offices, slaves’ buttons (how fiendish is that!?) — to keep a watchful eye on all activities. While these themes — capitalist loutishness and video-addiction — might make for a reasonable (if familiar from any James Bond villain) plot, they go nowhere and not very fast.


The most striking characteristic of the Psychlos is that they are fantastically dumb (which makes them silly adversaries). When Terl finds himself bested by one of his own superiors and consigned to earth for the rest of his life, he immediately begins scheming to get off. (There’s a suggestion made that he’s being punished for bedding a Psychlo mucky-muck’s daughter, but it’s hard to say exactly what happened.) In an effort to get rich quick, Terl devises a plan whereby he will quit the Corporation (for whom he has admirably served, ransacking and plundering resources wherever he can find them, much like the workers for Alien‘s Company). teaches Jonnie (whom Terl affectionately calls “rat-brain”) the vaunted Psychlo language (which is mostly grunts, another bite off the Klingons) and history (via a zap-beam that downloads info straight to the cerebral cortex), which — duh! — grants Jonnie just the expertise he needs to be able to mess with Terl and the entire Psychlo civilization, on and off earth (they have a huge Skynet thingy orbiting somewhere, just waiting to be destroyed). This makes you wonder how moronic all the Psychlo-conquered races are or have been, humans included.


And then you have to wonder again, when Terl sends Jonnie and his increasingly fidgety crew off to do some mining, but the rebels are plotting to stockpile ancient weapons — tanks and bazookas and such — that Jonnie’s read about during his schooling. Jonnie’s trip to the library — all filtered light and romantic — recalls Malcolm X, as he discovers the Constitution and ruminates for a minute on the concepts of freedom and equality. And it’s this little plot item that makes Battlefield Earth not merely laughable, but startlingly ignorant. We might imagine that everyone’s heart is in the right place, but the slave-master reversal is never very instructive or productive (as Travolta should know, having starred in White Man’s Burden a couple of years back). Any imaging of white folks as slaves has to lead to their successful revolt; otherwise white folks won’t pay to see it. And this means that the plot is set as soon as you see Jonnie in chains.


The humans’ mutiny is as simplistic as you’d expect, but it’s aided by some amazing conveniences that drew derisive laughter from the preview audience. While they’re supposedly “mining,” Jonnie and the boys actually take off cross country to gather up the gold bars from Fort Knox to present to Terl at week’s end, and so, buy themselves time to run around and accumulate their weapons cache (apparently, travel in the year 3000 is pretty speedy, despite the fact that it concerns huge military-transport-style aircraft, so that you can get cross country and back before your slave masters notice you’re gone). Terl shows up to check on the guys’ progress and is only vaguely surprised to see the hundreds of gold bricks piled up and shiny. Terl, being the arrogant asshole that he is, only worries that Jonnie et. al. have too much time on their hands, since they’re able to smelt the ore. And so he only orders that they go back to work, doubletime.


It’s plain by now, I’m sure, that all the Psychlos are all buffoons, grotesque and hairy and cruel, like the old style Klingons but less persuasive. They tend to laugh loudly at the travails of others, say, when Terl drops a human off a cliff to see if he can fly, and oops!, he can’t. Ha ha ha: the body plummeting away into a big blue-screen-effect of a ravine elicits a huge guffaw from Terl and his minion, Ker (Forest Whitaker, who, though he has accumulated a pile of get out of jail free cards for his past work, yet has landed himself in a serious doghouse participating in this disaster). All the Psychlos’ dick-swinging is represented repeatedly as preposterous, because not a one of them can see far enough ahead to see what we know is coming from a mile away. But the humans, by contrast, are all good, earnest, hardscrabble fellows who play as a team to make the cretinous Psychlos regret they ever came to earth. In the end—or really, anywhere along the line, it’s really hard to care whose leverage is bigger.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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