[Written for Film.com]
A thousand years from now, things haven’t changed all that much. Oh, the Earth is rubble, and mankind is reduced to a small band of ragged tribesmen. The planet is ruled by the Psychlos, a tall race of alien meanies who breathe acidic air in their huge biodome enclosing what used to be Denver.
For all the apparent differences, however, life is still a series of bureaucratic frustrations and thwarted ambitions. This is what we learn from Battlefield Earth, a dismal sci-fi epic that recalls the tired-blood landscapes of Saturn 3 and Solarbabies.
The sole source of fun in the film is star-producer John Travolta’s turn as Terl, a mid-level Psychlo functionary with delusions of grandeur. Although he insists he was groomed for greater things — conquering worlds, stuff like that — Terl is stuck on Earth, serving as Chief of Security. Miserable at being passed over for a promotion off this burned-out planet, Terl is just plain cranky, whether playing semantic games with a stool pigeon, cornering his deputy (Forest Whitaker) in a blackmail trap, or humorously contemplating his own death. Travolta, with a giant skull appendage and foot-high heels, makes the most of the character, savoring Terl’s exasperation with the fools who surround him.
What’s amazing is that Travolta, in the years he was developing the project, originally wanted to play the nominal hero of the movie, a “man-animal” played here by Barry Pepper. This longhair is the leader of a Braveheart-style band of Earth renegades, and he makes Luke Skywalker look like a paragon of fascinating personality shadings. But that’s the problem with Battlefield Earth: it is generic sci-fi right down to the last detail. The source is a thousand-page novel by L. Ron Hubbard, one of the mainstays of pulp magazines in the glorious early days of science fiction. Lately, of course, Hubbard is better known as the head guru of Scientology, an avocation for which Travolta has been a prominent spokesman.
The film is Travolta’s baby, but indifference and boredom is everywhere. Roger Christian, a second-unit director on The Phantom Menace, evinces no feeling for how to stage a scene, place a camera, or cut a sequence together. The scenes with the rebels are so awful, it’s tempting to infer that Travolta helped direct his own scenes, since they carry the only snap the movie has to offer. Everything in the story, and in the bombed-out landscapes, seems borrowed, whether or not we notice the ripoffs of Planet of the Apes and The Matrix.
The movie also has that Dune-ish sense of a massive novel being shredded down to manageable size. Characters and references flash by without set-up or follow-through, adding to the generally incoherent nature of the thing. As was the case when Dune was released, plans for a sequel are already in the works (the movie only covers the first half of Hubbard’s opus). The public never did clamor for that Dune sequel, and Battlefield Earth seems likely to repeat that story — but then everything else about it seems like a repeat, anyway.