Battlefield Earth was the sort of film that needed to grossly exceed expectations if it was ever going to do well. An adaptation of L. Ron Hubbard’s book of the same name, critics were already suspicious that it was just going to be a Scientology propaganda machine. In retrospect, it looks like they were being a bit too hopeful.
A quick plot summary: the film takes place a thousand years down the line (indeed: the full title is Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000), where an alien race called the Psychlos have taken over earth and are mining it for profit, while mankind is on the brink of extinction – a fact that the intertitles remind us of twice in the first five minutes. During the course of the film, our human heroes are trapped, used for manual labour by the Psychlos, and eventually mount a resistance and destroy not only the Psychlo colony but their entire home world, thus making the entire moral point of the film completely murky by having its heroes commit genocide (oh, and the complete obliteration of a planet – we’ll come to that in a second).
The one merit of this film, and it’s one that a lot of people picked up on, is that the visual effects are stunning. Ignore how they’re filmed, and they’re fantastic; the CGI spaceships that dominate the bleak skyline, the elaborate sets, and the sweeping shots of the “dome” where the Psychlos live are all brilliant, if totally unoriginal – as it happens, it just looks like they’ve imagined the world of Blade Runner a few hundred years later, where the buildings are derelict and the only lighting available is unnecessarily harsh.
The good stuff stops there. The obvious thing to pick up on is the atrocious acting from everyone involved: John Travolta’s scenery-chewing freak of an alien overlord/Head of Security stands out the most, with brilliant lines like the drunken “while you were still learning to SPELL YOUR NAME, I was learning to conquer galaxies!” and “If man-animal likes his rat uncooked, that makes our job all the more easier!” You wonder what he thought he was achieving by half-screaming every single line; his role transcends villainy and ends up just being mental.
Not that he’s the only one: pretty much every character in this atrocious mess is horrifyingly insane, whether it’s the good or bad: Forest Whitaker looks stoned for the entirety of the film, the hero (played by Barry Pepper, in a way that raises the instruction to “look as desperately emotional and on the edge as possible in every single scene, especially the tender emotional ones” to new and undiscovered heights) and the supporting cast are either pathetically insignificant or one-dimensional and nuts.
Another quick note on the cast – it’s almost universally male. There’s a female love interest on the good guy’s side, but she gets around six lines and her only function is to be rescued by the hero; on the aliens’ side, John Travolta’s wife gets a cameo as a slutty alien with a huge tongue (I’m not kidding), but beyond that women are grossly underrepresented. This’d be fine if it was making a point, but it’s not: Whitaker’s character even goes to the lengths of saying “I’m gonna fire all my wives, and buy new ones”, and it’s clear that we’re supposed to find it funny in a sort of hurr-durr, Jeremy Clarkson way; it just comes across as grotesque.
Throw in the fact that it hilariously takes place for the most part in Denver (no, seriously – a big centrepiece is in the ruins of Denver Library), that you know the ending after three minutes, that the best visual elements borrow heavily from Blade Runner and Logan’s Run, that it’s grossly violent but contains no blood whatsoever, that every single shot is filmed from a ridiculous angle, and that there are huge plot holes – nerdy, but would universe-conquering aliens really attribute Euclidean geometry to Euclid? – that the aliens just look like really ugly humans, that the authority is referred to as the “Home Office” (as a politics nut, the line “the Home Office does not make any mistakes” had me chuckling), and that despite it being completely insane it’s the least compelling film you’ll ever watch, and this all makes Battlefield Earth the sort of film that not only deserves to be scorned; it’s not even worth elevating to the level of “cult classic”. That’s the saddest part of this film; despite everything, it just feels like a waste of time.
That said, Travolta does shoot the leg off a cow. That part was fun.