Battlefield Earth (2000)
Of course, when talking about anything L. Ron Hubbard related, the first thing one is obliged to do is to categorically deny any involvement with the Church of Scientology. Consider it done. Nevertheless, Hubbard was a science fiction writer long before he founded Scientology, and as a science fiction fan I am interested in looking at his SF work for its own sake. I have read a couple of his science fiction novels, and I have actually liked them quite a bit and fully intend to read more.
Many of Hubbard’s SF books (like the Mission Earth series) are very effectively humorous – and it is a black, cynical humor, sometimes a delight, other times rather unpleasant – while others (like To The Stars) are just cynical and harsh, but very solid sci-fi which remains remarkably fresh half a century after it was written. It has an ebullient pulp-like quality which in my view is quintessentially in and of the genre, and seen far too rarely in more recent SF (incl. movies). Based on my limited experience with Hubbard’s SF output, I have to say that he is an underrated, above-average and very worthwhile science fiction writer. Seriously.
What, then, of the Battlefield Earth movie? Is it as awful as they say? Of course it isn’t. In fact, anyone who claims that this is one of the worst movies of all time does not know what he is talking about – and I can prove it with graphs. This movie, like everything associated with Scientology, is enveloped in a mist of popular myths. When a fairly decent sci-fi movie which should be judged on its own merits is being victimized by people who see it as an extension of Scientology, then I must protest.
The movie is based on a brick of a book of the same title (which, however I haven’t read, but I still may), and to a great extent it is a humorous work. The movie is quite big-budget for its time (clocking in at an estimated $44 million), and indeed it has generally excellent production values.
The story is set in a future (perhaps not a very far-off one) where the ruthless and corrupt alien race called the Psychlos have razed planet Earth. They took out our entire military in a matter of minutes, bombing the few surviving human beings back to the stone age. The greedy bastards needed the Earth for its gold, and put some of the human survivors to work in the gold-mines.
Johnnie-Boy – yes, that is his name – lives in a peaceful village far away from the mines, but for a reason which is unlikely to become clear he decides to go to the Psychlos to try and throw off their yoke of the human race. Which promptly gets him captured by them, of course. Johnnie-Boy is a resourceful one, but he never has much success with his rebellion until the Psychlos happen to put him into one of their learning machines, which pumps him full of knowledge. Armed with new insights and feeling like a shiny new messiah, he quickly organizes a successful rebellion and teaches his stone age peers to fly some left-over jet planes that they found.
Okay, logic and coherence are not hallmarks of this story. I’m certain it worked better in the book, but a lot can be forgiven because the movie is simply overbrimming with acerbic attitude. It is plain that the humor from the original book, dripping with satire and sarcasm, is very well transmitted to the movie, which is enormously self-satirical, esp. on the part of the alien Psychlos. Apparently, this self-satire is far too intelligent for most audiences, who are consistently misinterpreting it as garden-variety suckiness. It’s campy, certainly, but 95% of it is entirely according to intention. That means on purpose.
The Psychlos are very well realized; larger-than-life in most senses, with ridiculously self-serving morals and off-the-scale arrogance. They deceive and blackmail each other like it’s their national sport, seeming to be some amalgam of backstabbing bankers and gambling gangsters, all the while hardly ever acknowledging that human beings are at all intelligent. They are fantastic villains, the Psychlos. Über-entertaining.
To what extent, if any, the movie is tying in to Scientology, using concepts from there, or espousing views from there, I don’t know and I don’t care. I am looking at it purely on its own merits as they appear to me. My conclusion is that, despite some notable shortcomings, I think the movie is surprisingly interesting and well-produced, and does not by any means deserve the ridicule it has been subjected to for over a decade by those (almost everybody) who cannot dissociate it from Scientology, and who seems to have made up their minds that the movie is ridiculous long before they saw it (if they even saw it).
However, while not very bad, it is also some ways from being a very good movie. When I first saw it in theaters, my expectations were very low, meaning that it surprised me positively. I rated it a 5 out of 10 at the time. When I got it on DVD and watched it again, I was once again impressed and gave it a 6. The next time I watched it, that rating climbed to a 7! It was on track to become one of those movies I like more and more the more I watch it. But, then I watched it once again with a friend who had actually read the book, and explained to me how the movie and the book related to each other. Sadly, a lot of plot substance from the book has been conflated and squashed to mush in the movie, which is why my rating is once again down to a 6. Still, in spite of its many egregious shortcuts, it’s a decent, entertaining and often thought-provoking movie which I fully intend to buy if it comes out on Blu-ray. The DVD has very nice extras.
Finally, let me recommend you a little something. Back in 1990-91, hot on the heels of the success of the Back to the Future movies, Hubbard wrote a time-travel screenplay which was never filmed, but in 1999 it was novelized by sci-fi scribe Dave Wolverton under the title “A Very Strange Trip”. It’s a fantastic romp. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, an experimental Russian time machine sends an American soldier back in time in the truck he was transporting the time machine in, and he now has to drive his way back to the future through various eras of (Native) American history. It’s great fun. Anyone who liked Back to the Future will like this book. Just sayin’.
Director: Roger Christian
Cast: John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forrest Whittaker and others
Runtime: 118 min.