Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000

Battlefield Earth A Saga of the Year 3000

There might be worse movies, but there are few worse posters

dir: Roger Christian


Amazing. Brilliant. Incandescent. Visionary.

But enough about me. This film is considered to be one of the worst films ever made, setting a new standard of shiteness for others to emulate or run screaming from. It’s the benchmark and the reference point for every film that has come out since this wretched new millennium began. Too often I’ve read the phrase “Almost as bad as Battlefield Earth”, or “Battlefield Earth - quality” used as the most scathing of insults aimed at nearly every mediocrity with the temerity to be foisted upon the silver or television screen.

I am here not to praise Battlefield Earth, but to bury it, but as well to bury it in its rightful place in the cemetery, the shallow grave, the unvisited plot or more appropriately, the potter’s field that it belongs in. Long after DVDs and stray videotapes of BE, as I shall refer to it henceforth, have biodegraded into lethal toxins in landfills the world over, its legacy will still be trotted out every time someone makes a crappy sci fi movie, and so it warrants scrutiny, analysis and final judgement even now, nearly a decade on.

The truth is, from my point of view, it’s really not one of the worst movies ever made, not even close. I’ve seen at least ten movies made this year (2008) worse than it, and hundreds since it was first birthed into an unfriendly world. The truth, as well, is that had John Travolta not been in it, and had not Scientologist and L. Ron Hubbard fan – apologists for the book not embarrassed themselves in such numbers and so completely trying to defend it, it never would have mattered. The flick would have gone straight to DVD, would have been watched on late night television by bored and half drunk guys hoping to see some skin, and it would have been mostly forgotten by now along the lines of Event Horizon, Supernova and Leprechaun 4: In Space.

As it stands, the extreme notoriety it has garnered ensures that it will eventually be considered a camp classic along the lines of Showgirls, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Animal House and The Passion of the Christ: each being a movie at the absolute top/nadir of their respective fields.

It’s bad, don’t for a second get me wrong, it’s just not the absolute fabric-of-reality tearing monstrosity it’s been painted as. It’s a D-grade movie with a C-grade script and B-movie acting, led by a supposedly A-list cast. Forrest Whittaker is a fucking Oscar winner, for crying out loud. Travolta, long famous for being one of the hammiest hams that are out there, has had the odd moment of credibility as an actor, and as such is one of the most successful crap actors out there.

These guys aren’t total chumps, they’re players. Heavy hitters. Important people.

And as for Barry Pepper, who plays Our Hero Jonnie Goodboy, well, he never really had enough of a career to be destroyed by this unintentionally hilarious film. His odd looks and even odder acting style have only ever meant that whatever roles Matthew McConoughey or Paul Walker didn’t want, Barry Pepper would get.

He has less range than a solar-powered torch, and all of it is on display in this unique, special role.

For those of you lucky enough to know nothing about this incredible movie, allow me to give you something of a synopsis. I assure you I am not making any of this up. It’s all up there in high definition for anyone desperate enough for two hours of self-inflicted punishment.

The earth, our Earth, has been conquered by an evil race of beings known as the Psychlos. They hail from a planet called Psychlo. Around a thousand years in the future, these evil beings who look like musicians from some kind of Scandinavian heavy metal band, push humans around like the cattle they are. Humans have degenerated to the point where they braid their hair, make grunting monkey noises, and generally get pushed around and killed with impunity by their overlord masters with nary a complaint or word of protest.

You know, just like in Planet of the Apes.

The evil Psychlos, swanning around with their Klingon foreheads and outfits and their platform boots with tubes dripping seductively from their noses, are raping and pillaging the earth of its mining resources. They use the human animals as slaves, digging up all the gold, GOLD I tells ya, that they can find.

Two of the main Psychlo charmers we get to spend time with are Terl (Travolta) and his even dumber underling called Ker (Whittaker). A great deal of movie time is expended on Terl abusing Ker. Travolta believes, probably to this day, that his performance as Terl is one of the great cinematic villains in film history, if not in human, animal, vegetable and mineral history. Where we might see an inexplicably shrill and camp screaming pre-op transsexual acting like it’s an average Saturday night in Manila, he sees a performance so nuanced and mercurial that Hannibal Lecter himself would eat his own face off out of envy that he didn’t get the role.

Lord Travolta’s character gets the genius idea that he’s going to train up a bunch of man-animals (as he calls them, alternating with ‘rat brains’) to mine gold on the sly solely for him up in the Colorado mountains. He selects, coincidentally, Our Hero Jonnie to sit in front of a knowledge machine that immediately pumps all the combined knowledge of the Psychlos directly into his head in order to be the mine supervisor.

Not only does this wispy machine teach him their language, and everything to do with science and technology and which fork to use at the dinner table, but also, strangely, teaches him how to read English and all about Earth as well. Hoping to depress Jonnie and convince him of the futility of trying to match wits with him, Terl takes him to the decrepit Denver Museum of Everything to show him that the sum and total of human knowledge and technology were no match for the Psychlos when they invaded, since the fight was over nine minutes in.

Jonnie then, I shit you not, sits in the dusty, murky depths of the museum long enough to read the Declaration of Independence, which inspires him to come up with a plan to defeat the Psychlos permanently.

This plan involves getting bars of gold from Fort Knox, machine guns and harrier fighter jets from Fort Hood that work perfectly despite the thousand years that have passed, and a nuclear device the instructions for which helpfully are projected onto a screen when someone accidentally bumps into a slide projector.

A working slide projector. Working after a thousand years. Powered by… Containing the relevant ‘Appendix A’ slide with the diagram he needs because… People watching this won’t want to kill themselves because…

Jonnie hopes not only to defeat the Psychlos on Earth by destroying the dome over some headquarters city, thus letting out all the precious noxious gas that they breath when they don’t have their nose plugs in, he wants to send a nuke to their home planet which will magically blow up the entire fucking thing by reacting with their atmosphere.

And the reason that Jonnie can do all this stuff and hopefully save the day for humanity? The knowledge machine.

Not ‘knowledge’ itself, but this powerful knowledge machine, which can virtually transform someone from an ignorant savage to a supergenius action hero with only a few hours of wispy radiation wafting through the air directly into their brain.

If only there was some kind of comparable technology or technique available to us on this planet in this timeline. Wait a second, doesn’t a certain Church of Science-something claim to have similar technologies at their disposal for those who are “ready” for the difficult but uplifting process that can raise a person from the lowly status of a man-animal to that practically of a God?

No, can’t think of it.

Perversely, it’s easy to point to Travolta’s devotion to his beliefs and to his guru L. Ron Hubbard, who wrote the monstrous tome half of which the movie is based on, as being the reason why, to use the official film school term, the film sucks dog’s balls. The reality is, as with the Narnia books, unless you know what to look for and already have a passing familiarity with the religious crap the authors were thinking of, it’s not really going to leap out and indoctrinate you.

At the very least, it’s virtually certain that no-one who has become a follower of this bizarre cult has done so since the year 2000 because of BE. The only thing this film has inspired is a poisonous hatred in anyone that’s seen it, and withering contempt on a global scale for a film whose reach so tremendously exceeds its grasp.

There’s something almost tragic about the painstaking attention to detail and yet complete incompetence on display here in almost every facet of the film, from the editing to the direction to the acting to the crappy effects. Director Roger Christian hasn’t directed a film in the mean time, and with good reason. Sometimes films go off the rails for reasons outside of the control of the directors and producers. Just ask Terry Gilliam, and marvel at the sheer number of his projects that have died on the vine. It’s more than likely that we’ll never know just how good or bad Christian is as a director, because quite rightly Hollywood has blackballed him like it’s the 1950’s, McCarthy’s back in power and Roger Christian has been outed as a flaming Communist.

I’ll give Christian the benefit of the doubt (one which I rarely extend most directors), and acknowledge that in competing with egos and agendas as powerful as the ones involved here, telling the producers or the ‘star’ anything would have been impossible. They would have overruled any decisions on his part, relegating him to the status of a hired hand, and Travolta especially is famous for having tampered with every facet of this most crapulous production.

The claimed budget for this flick was around $75 million, which would be ridiculous even if $50 million of that was spent just on high quality girdles for Travolta. It came out that the production company overstated the budget by about $40 million in order to bilk the investors, which resulted in a court case and even further ignominy for the shmucks involved. Not only did they make a terrible film, they had to add fraud to their long list of crimes.

And it is a crime. Battlefield Earth fails on almost every level except that of the average action/sci-fi genre that makes practically no sense and insults the audience almost as much as it insults the laws of logic and plausibility. But it is so staggeringly ill-considered that it almost justifies watching. It actually causes your lower jaw to detach and smack on the ground a number of times. To put it in Sunday school speak, you just will not be able to fucking believe some of the shit they serve up here.

Which makes it almost hilarious. Hubris is inherently funny to me, and there’s just soooo much of it on display here, ripe for the viewing. It is oh so very ripe. It will remain the ripe touchstone of shiteness at the very least until the year 3000.

3 times Travolta should never have been allowed in front of a camera ever again after this debacle out of 10

“I hate these puny undersized planets. The gravity is so... different.”
- “Well, one does get used to it.”
“And the human animals, grossly undersized.”
- “They don't make very good eating, your Excellency” – Battlefield Earth