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by Tom Baker about a year ago in scifi movie · updated 6 months ago
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A Review of Battlefield Earth (2000)

Ker (Forrest Whitaker) and Terl (John Travolta) in Battlefield Earth

Battlefield Earth (2000) is a movie that is so unremittingly awful it has been labeled one of the "ten worst films of the Twentieth Century." That's not true at all, but it does go to show that once the tastemakers of the media machine have "decided" on the relative value or worth of a product, they'll waste no time in piling on the said product if they find it to be wanting, often for unspecified reasons.

Is Battlefield Earth shlock? Yes. Does it contain absurdities, horrible dialog, hilarious ham acting, poor special effects, and an overall sense of Saturday morning silliness? Yes, yes, and yes. Does it still manage to be as entertaining, slam-bang, action-packed, loud and furious, and weirdly endearing? Well, yes. At least in the estimation of this author.

Based on the mammoth one thousand page lap-crusher by author cum religious cult leader L. Ron Hubbard, Battlefield Earth was undeniably doomed for contempt, hatred, and scorn right from the get-go. Love Scientology or bitterly despise it (or feel completely neutral), Battlefield contains not much in the way of any discernible religious or cult philosophy. The name of the lead villains, Psychlos, is most certainly a jab at the much-hated psychiatry profession, the bete noir of the Scientology philosophic worldview. Here, they look like tall, stiff, off-brand Klingons with rasta dreads and huge KISS boots. They stroll about as if wearing stilts (indeed, I think I read somewhere the actors actually were), wearing leathery still suits and long, weird nose tubes borrowed from the equally-maligned Dune (1984). They use terms like "rat brain!" and "crap nebula!", have six-fingered taloned hands, and are gleefully cruel, sadistic, and grotesque. When not scheming against each other, they get drunk on a green liquid substance called "Kerbango."

Battlefield takes place in the far future, in which the alien invaders, a thousand years before, defeated the Earthmen in a measly nine-minute fight. Man reverted to a Clan of the Cave Bear style of existence, becoming primitive and tribalistic, fearing "demons" (Psychlos, naturally).

Johnny (Barry Pepper) and his girlfriend Chrissy (Sabine Karsenti) are part of a tribe somewhere in the Colorado Rockies, a tribe that is dying off. Johnny, a "greener" (as in, "the grass is always greener on the other side"), decides to leave the tribe, to go off alone and search for a way to save his people from extinction.

Passing through the wasteland of what has become of civilization, he meets up with two other primitives, one of whom, Carlo (Kim Coates), he befriends. The other guy looks as if he might have just crawled off a Harley and is zapped quite quickly, at any rate.

Taking a tour through the thousand-years worth of wasteland, Carlo explains that "demons" (Psychlos) can zap people and turn them to stone. Johnny, ever the thinker, doubts this while looking at a statue in the city center. Later, the two of them are captured by marauding Psychlo hordes and transported to Dante's Inferno-like slave pit, imprisoned behind cages and forced to break rocks.

This is the point where we are introduced to Terl (John Travolta), the chief security officer in the Psychlo's domed city, which is domed because Psychlos cannot breathe oxygen. Terl, who badly wants a transfer back to his homeworld, is instead punished for an indiscretion with a senator's daughter. This delights His Planetship (Shaun Austin-Olsen) or somesuch, who, like all Psychlos, seems to be infused with predatory, sadistic glee and a heavy dollop of schadenfreude.

It does little to delight Terl, however, who begins to plot and scheme his way back to his homeworld, Planet Psychlo (naturally enough). His underling, Ker (Forrest Whitaker), discovers a recon drone photo of an area highly radioactive but with a rich vein of gold below. Since the Psychlos invaded Earth simply to rape its mineral resources and gold, this is precisely what Terl needs. The problem is that the area, highly radioactive, will cause Psychlo breath gas to explode. How to mine the gold for himself then? Terl ponders.

Terl, a sort of Snidely Whiplash of moustache-twisting, shrill and merciless villainy, who was "groomed to conquer galaxies!", hits upon using the rapidly disappearing race of "man-animals" to mine the gold. Noting the brilliant and resourceful Johnny, who, like a true legendary messiah, attempts to teach his fellow slaves to share food (and even himself almost escapes), Terl takes Johnny and sticks him into a brain-zapping learning machine.

Johnny becomes even more super-intelligent (and, of course, he was a few notches above his fellow humans already), and Terl teaches him to fly Psychlo ships, with Johnny, in turn, attempting to teach his fellow humans calculus, astronomy, and maybe quantum physics for all I know. They are sent to mine the gold.

Terl, who has a camera device spying on everyone, has enough dirt on His Planetship (who is involved in corporate corruption and embezzlement to a high degree--like every one of the Psychlos apparently) to keep his illegal operation going. He plans to smuggle the gold back into the coffins of dead Psychlo miners.

Cut to the chase. Johnny, the Rebel Leader, teaches his people (or most of them) to operate F-15 fighter planes (still operational after a thousand years!) using a flight simulator; robs Fort Knox to get Terl his precious gold (passing it off as what they have mined and even smelted); and manage to get that back on the transporter pad along with a convenient bomb. I can't remember the sequence of all these events, and I doubt it matters. Terl has Chrissie, Johnnie's girlfriend, in a cage with an exploding collar. However, she eventually gets away.

The human slaves revolt. There are aerial battles around Psychlo City. Carlo dies, stuck upside down in his plane, but "blows the dome." Huge, ambling Psychlos stumble around while things explode all over the place. Terl gets his arm blown off by Johnny. Planet Psychlo (which comprises highly explosive breath gas) is blown up like the Death Star. Terl is imprisoned in a cage. Ker, a surprisingly affable Psychlo with a vaguely Cowardly Lion look to him, is made "Head Psychlo" by the new conquering human overlords. Jokingly, he tells his caged former boss, "At least you got your gold!" Terl, you see, ends the movie imprisoned in Fort Knox.

Battlefield Earth is loud, is filmed at weird, tilted, comic book angles, and features scenes that are visually grungy. Essentially, a Saturday Morning television sci-fi show, that, were it broken into thirty-minute segments and had it aired, say, in 1979 or 1980, might have fed the fond, nostalgic memories of many an exuberant eight-year-old kid. It is loads of stupid, mindless, illogical fun, threadbare special effects, cool, ugly, criminal aliens, and heroic humans who surry on and conquer against all odds. It's a helluva lot more entertaining than anything cinematic ever labeled as Star Trek.

Not every movie has to be brilliant; some are just entertainment, after all (well, really ALL of them, really, except for documentaries, but they exist in a nebulous grey area between propaganda and art). Battlefield Earth is a movie so universally hated and scorned for so many reasons, on so many levels, it gets to the point that the average viewer may start to ask themselves, "What in the Crap Nebula are all these people on about?"

It has a distinctive visual look. Pepper, Karsenti, Whitaker, and Travolta are all good-looking and entertaining as hell. The movie will leave many filmgoers hooting and hollering, if not at the stupid, gaping holes in the plot and the seeming illogic of the story's twists and turns, then at the battle scenes and the sheer, stupid, cartoonish evil of Terl, which is quite memorable.

I've seen Battlefield numerous times. It never gets old. As far as bad movies go, it's head and shoulders above Manos the Hands of Fate; those proclaiming it one of the "ten worst" have never seen films such as Bloodsucking Freaks, The Toxic Avenger, Blood Freak, or (God help us) Hollywood Zap. Compared with these other cinematic turd balls, Battlefield Earth is rather exceptional, a popcorn flick "too dumb for the peanut gallery" (to quote one reviewer) yet one that, despite all its shortcomings, still manages to retain the distinctive charm of truly awful kiddie intellectual offal. Am I making any sense here? No? Well, neither does Battlefield Earth.

One interesting subtext here is the implied satire of predatory capitalism and corporate corruption. The Psychlos are complete psychopaths, double-crossing and destroying each other gleefully; their entire philosophy is fascist imperialist domination. They plot, scheme, kill each other, engage in embezzling, murder, and other vices we'd only expect from the average big-money predator. Is this a critique of capitalism, then? Probably overstated, but the viewer could almost interpret it as such.

Love it or hate it, it cannot be denied that Battlefield Earth is more entertaining than many, many films which are lauded with accolades, awards, and critical praise. That, however, is more than enough words to write about this much-maligned, though admittedly entertaining flick.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm flying off to the Crap Nebula. Don't take any shit from Psychlos, rat-brains, or man-animals. Bella ciao!

scifi movie

About the author

Tom Baker

Author of Haunted Indianapolis , Indiana Ghost Folklore, , Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales, Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest : http://tombakerbooks.weebly.com

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