[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
“Man is an endangered species,” alerts the introductory card to this adaptation of L. Ron Hubbard’s Star Wars inspired epic sci-fi novel. It should have warned us that logic was also hitting hard times.
The year is 3000 and the place is Earth. After a millennium of brutal subjugation by the Psychlos (seemingly an unholy mating of Star Trek’s Klingon and Ferengi races), humans live like cavemen in the irradiated wilds, foraging through a dying Earth. Rebellious young Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper, in flowing locks and an unchanging expression of determined sincerity) searches for a better land and discovers a race of intergalactic corporate pirates, eight foot alien slavers sucking the planet dry of resources in the name of profit.
Terl (John Travolta) is an especially devious Psychlo with a plot to make a fortune mining a cache of gold discovered in the wilds. Psychlos can’t breath the air – they live under a dome pumped full of their homeworld gasses – and the radiation reacts with their chemistry, so greed and arrogance gets the better of common sense. Terl teaches scrappy Jonnie the whole of Psychlo knowledge, gives him a space-ship, and sends him out with a pack of human to secretly mine the vein virtually unsupervised. Cocky is one thing, but this egocentric complacency stretches credulity even for these swaggering space pirates.
Jonnie uses the time to search for American military bases (amazing how well those planes and armaments survive the centuries intact and juiced up), turn lifelong savages into expert jet pilots on the seven day training plan, and plot the freedom of humankind from the vicious slavers. Can’t you just see Mel Gibson in the role screaming “Freedom!!!” to a bunch of primitive guerrillas wielding machine guns and lobbing missiles?
Travolta has the time of his life as the blackmailing Terl, tossing head back to cackle every time he achieves the perfect double cross, and Forest Whitaker, as his dim assistant, fumbles and grovels as a junior league con-artist constantly outmaneuvered by Terl. This toxic Abbot and Costello team provide much needed comic relief in an otherwise humorless paean to freedom.
Director Roger Christian, a former production designer and set decorator, creates a world of crumbling dead cities and empty malls turned into human hunting grounds but constantly trades logic for effect. After a thousand years of occupation we’re supposed to believe this technologically advanced, supremely crafty, and ruthlessly efficient race is still holing up in the decaying remains of human civilization? These guys can’t even fit through a doorway!
They’re also not very bright. They can’t be – the plot depends on the most ludicrous decisions and senseless actions ever made by a thinking race. How else can a plucky tribe of hunters and gatherers defeat the most powerful race in the galaxy? Heart, soul, and courage will get you only so far – what you really need is an enemy so stupid they invite their own demise. And a few Harrier jets don’t hurt either.