“A disaster of epic proportions” – Ian Nathan, Empire
“A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous….” – Rita Kempley, The Washington Post
“Clumsy plot, misplaced satire, unbelievable coincidences and a leaden pace.” – Leonard Malton’s Movie Guide
“This is disjointed, tedious and every bit as bad as its reputation.” – David Blieiler, TLA Video & DVD Guide
“A cross between Star Wars and the smell of ass.” – Jon Steward, The Daily Show
Battlefield Earth. Probably the worst film ever made, at least in terms of films that actually took themselves seriously and were trying to be actual blockbuster hits. A film so bad the screenwriter actually issued a public apology for his work.
The movie is based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s magnum opus of science fiction written in 1982 and finally brought to the big screen in May of 2000, it was directed by Roger Christian and stars John Travolta, Forrest Whitaker and Barry Pepper.
What can I say that has not already been said? Probably not much, but there are some tidbits of fun connected with this film that are worth talking about.
First, Hubbard himself was the first to imply that his bloaded sci-fi monstrosity might make it to the big screen when he gave an interview to the Rocky Mountain News in 1983. It was the Church of Scientology which tried to directly get the movie project going later that year with a $30-million dollar, two-picture deal put together with Salem Productions. As with everything Scientology touches in the real world, that deal soon collapsed.
Travolta wanted to be part of this but his career in the mid-to-late 80s was on the rocks after a series of flops and it wasn’t until 1994’s Pulp Fiction that he had enough cred to get his pet project resusciated. He lobbied Bill Mechanic, the head of 20th Century Fox at the time, but the Scientologists connected to it again ruined the project. In fact, it was that connection which kept the project from taking off for many more years. As one movie studio exec is quoted “On any film there are ten variables that can kill you. On this film there was an eleventh: Scientology. It just wasn’t something anyone really wanted to get involved with.” (Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema)
However, Travolta eventually prevailed and got Franchise Pictures to primarily fund it, even putting in $5 million of his own money and taking a pay cut on his usual $20 million acting salary. Reportedly, Tom Cruise even said that making this movie was a bad idea, but his reps later denied this.
At one point after filming was completed, Mean Magazine got hold of the screenplay and changed the title and screenwriter’s name and then sent it around to different production companies to see what they had to say about it. It was panned with comments like “it’s as entertaning as watching a fly breathe.”
When the film was released on May 12, 2000, I was working for Scientology’s Sea Organization in Los Angeles. All told, there are probably around 5,000 Sea Org members worldwide and all of us were given ticket money and all weekend long we were sent in to local theaters to see Battlefield Earth over and over and over again. The sole reason for this was to make it a blockbuster hit. I had to sit through five screenings and I can tell you that after the second, I wanted to claw my own eyes out. Many Sea Org members were so disgusted by it, they couldn’t stand to sit through another showing and they theater skipped or simply took off with the ticket money and did something else with their time off.
Financially, Battlefield Earth was a total bomb. It cost $73 million to make and had $20 million in marketing costs, but only made $29 million internationally, falling far short of even the most conservative projections.
As a film, Battlefield Earth is an unmitigated trainwreck. Director Roger Christian’s overuse of Dutch angles and curtain screen wipes is matched only by Travolta’s horrifyingly bad over-acting. Actually, it’s not just Travolta’s over-acting. Everyone in this movie overacts to the point of ludicriousness. I have to say that one of the most accurate reviews which paralleled my own thinking was from Roger Ebert, who said the film is “like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way. I watched it in mounting gloom, realizing I was witnessing something historic, a film that for decades to come will be the punch line of jokes about bad movies.”
There is literally nothing good or memorable or entertaining in it’s entire 117 minutes. The scripting, pacing and dialog are all inconsistent to the point of distraction. The cinematography might not have come across so poorly if the director hadn’t insisted on color filtering almost every scene in some ghastly shade of gray or purple or green. That and the lame camera angles were his attempt at giving the movie a comic book feel but all they really induce is nausea. It’s painful to watch how derivative most of the scenes are, with the director just plain ripping off bits from Star Wars, Blade Runner and especially The Matrix.
The villains come across more like Abbot and Costello caracatures then real bad guys who are menacing or at all believable as galaxy-conquering warriors. All they ever do in the movie is drink and laugh maniacally. Literally. That is all they do.
Given that at the time the movie came out, I liked the book it was based on and was an active Scientologist, the disappointment was even more biting. It is painful for me to say this, but we had been hoping that this was going to be a real blockbuster, a Hollywood major motion picture showcasing L. Ron Hubbard’s talent and would finally show the world what a genius he was. I can only look back at that and marvel at how delusional I was. Yeah, Scientology does that.
Over the years and especially since coming out of Scientology myself, I’ve reflected on the source material for this film and have come realize its many shortcomings and how much Hubbard overtly injected Scientology into the story line. When I first saw it, I thought the movie was so bad because they had changed much of the original book’s story points. There is something still to be said about that, especially in the way they reduced the main character’s transformation and the human rebellion against the Psychlos so that what took over a year in the book takes just about month in the movie. The rebellion itself is also a complete joke, wholly unbelievable in every aspect and making it nearly impossible to sit through. As bad as the book is, at least he didn’t have stone age humans learning to fly combat jets in a couple of days.
However, Battlefield Earth the book also leaves much to be desired as a literary piece. Given that Scientology is now on a roll with a new re-release of this turkey, I thought a few words about it might also be in order.
None of the characters in the book expand beyond one-dimension, even the main character, Johnny Goodboy Tyler, or his alien nemesis, the evil Psychlo, Terl. The alien bad guys are obviously named in honor of Hubbard’s most hated rivals, psychiatrists, who he believes have actualy been around in the universe for millions upon millions of years, doing their best to destroy the sanity and livelihood of everyone in the galaxy. Yes, I mean that literally.
Given the low IQ and self-destructive behavior the Psychlos demonstrate at every turn both in the book and in the movie, there is no way that it is believable for a second that these creatures have taken over the galaxy.
Later, in the second half after the Psychlos have been destroyed, Hubbard tries to satirize the banking and finance industry, representing them as a species of shark-like creatures who drink tea and calmly repossess whole planets which have fallen into foreclosure. As Hubbard does throughout his Scientology policies and materials, he oversimplifies politics, economics, science and human interaction to caracatures and stereotypes and expects everyone to see things his way.
By the end of the book, the humans have not only rid themselves of the Psychlos but have gained their economic independence from the galaxy’s burdensome, literally shark-infested, banking structure, have shown the universe that humans are not to be trifled with and Johnny and his main squeeze escape to some hidden retreat away from the rest of humanity to presumably be left alone for the rest of their lives, I guess because in his heart of hearts, Johnny is a misanthrope and just saved the human race so that he wouldn’t have to have anyone bothering him.
I could go on for hours about all the awful details but I think you get the idea by now. If you are looking for entertainment, avoid Battlefield Earth as a movie and book. Both do not even rate a “craptastic” label. They are just horribly horribly bad and will leave you disappointed that you invested any time or money in either. They both get a rating of “total suckage.”
Thanks for watching.