When a movie attracts as much critical venom as Battlefield Earth has, I try to go against the grain if I can; I like to champion films nobody else appreciates. So, without further ado, here are the good things about Battlefield Earth:
(1) It has endlessly bad dialogue ripe for Mystery Science Theater 3000 ridicule. Right from the start, when the hero brings medicine back to his village only to be told “The gods took your father in the night,” I knew what we were all in for.
(2) It’s only 117 minutes long. It could have been longer.
Battlefield Earth is this year’s what-were-they-thinking? movie — a folly so supreme that it occasionally inspires awe, in the sense that so many people spent so much time and money on it without ever realizing how awful it is. John Travolta, the star and co-producer of this adaptation of a “best-seller” by his Scientologist mentor L. Ron Hubbard, has said that the movie only covers the first half of the lengthy book, which obviously leaves things open for — you’re sitting down, right? — a sequel. I have just one thing to say to that: You mean there’s more?
We’re in the year 3000, when humans have been all but wiped out by a warlike, Klingon-esque race called the Psychlos. A handful of humans, reduced to grungy caveman status, are still subsisting on the small wildlife of Earth. One of them, Johnnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper), steps forth and leads the enslaved humans in a mutiny against the Psychlos. Partially, this involves a ploy by the Psychlos’ “leader of security,” Terl (Travolta), who actually facilitates the mutiny so that he can make off with the gold he’s forcing the humans to mine for him. No dummies, the humans just travel to Fort Knox and bring back a bunch of gold bars for Terl, who never asks what technology the humans used to smelt the gold.
For long stretches, Travolta gets more screen time than the nominal hero; we get a few scenes of Terl grousing about orders from the “home office,” like a latex-laden Dilbert. I wouldn’t call Travolta’s performance bad, exactly — he’s fascinating here, because you constantly monitor him for signs that he realizes how silly the movie is. He doesn’t seem to notice. He tries to work up a diabolical head of steam, but I kept feeling that he was making some deep Scientological point with his character, some object lesson of how not to be. He seems, at least, to be having some fun, which cannot be said of poor Barry Pepper, whose strong supporting work in Saving Private Ryan and The Green Mile should remain pure in your memory, unblemished by his helplessly bland performance here.
The plot is so nonsensical as to be almost surreal — perhaps it came from the home office. Terl obligingly pumps Johnnie full of helpful data, including the Psychlonian language, so that Johnnie can eventually use it to teach his fellow humans how to fly centuries-old jet fighters and blow up the Psychlos. I would’ve loved just one human to say “I can’t believe how stupid these guys are.” Viewers may well say that about the movie, too. Believe it. Battlefield Earth isn’t the usual boring waste of resources. It’s a laughable waste of resources that, more laughable still, aspires to higher things. And there’s something almost touching about that ending, which so innocently, so trustingly leaves the door open for a sequel, as if this mess were going to make so much money and inspire such love in our hearts that we’d clamor for Battlefield Earth 2. I have every confidence that the second half of the novel will go unfilmed, and will also go as largely unread as the first half.