“Battle-charged excitement based on the multimillion-copy bestseller! In the year 3000, John Travolta leads the alien captors of Earth against human freedom fighters struggling to take back the planet in this explosive, eye-popping science-fiction extravaganza.”
Aw yeah, that’s right kids, today I’m talking about Battlefield Earth! The film that stomps ominously over the parched cinematic landscape of the dying days of the 20st Century, a true titan of terribleness, an ugly blockbuster behemoth that gobble up lesser, blander films that haplessly skitter across its path. But with two decades of distance, and countless Zack Snyder and Michael Bay films later, it hardly deserves to be feared. In fact, in the welcoming spirit of contrarianism, it can be labelled as … well, still a terrible film; but one that’s pretty bloody entertaining.
Forest Whitaker as Ker, “Terl’s right-hand Psychlo who will stop at nothing to garner the favour of those in power.”
In the year 3000, there are no countries, no cities… Earth is a wasteland. And man is an endangered species. As the leader of the evil Psychlos, Terl and his race have taken over the world’s natural resources and disregarded everyone and everything else. It’s up to Jonnie “Goodboy” Tyler, a brave human, to battle the Psychlos and restore normalcy to the world.
The film was a passion project for Travolta and was adapted from the book written in 1980 by L. Ron Hubbard, the infamously awful founder of Scientology.
Although the film has nothing to do with the Church of Scientology, Travolta’s membership of the group meant the two were inextricably linked, along with all the notoriety that entailed. Because of these negative connotations – and the fact the story was just plain bad – the property had languished in Hollywood development hell for years. With Travolta’s resurgence in popularity in the late Nineties, he had the clout to finally get it made, even if he had to forgo his usual $20 million fee.
The actor is clearly having a marvellous time pantomiming up the screen as Terl, the ambitious Psychlo manager of Earth whose plans to leave by thwarted by his asshole superiors and ends up stuck on our stinking backwater planet for another fifty cycles … with endless! Options! For renewal!
Terl uses a brain-ray on Barry Pepper so the humans can mine gold for them in areas they can’t reach (the gold-thirsty Psychlos find oxygen poisonous, you see). Tempting Pepper with fresh rat they increase his intelligence until he’s smart enough can turn the tables. He trains his fellow humans to pilot millennium-old Harrier jumpjets – still in working order of course – whilst tricking Terl by providing him with gold direct from the ruins of Fort Knox. The fact the it’s smelted into bars is handwaved away with one hilarious line of dialogue.
As camp entertainment it’s a classic. But when its bad, it is really, really bad. Every. Single. Shot is a Dutch Angle. A neck ache is inevitable, as is eye strain unfortunately, after you squint through two hours of very glumly lit scenes. This was presumably intentional; keeping everything dark in an attempt to disguise the frowsy sets and terrible computer effects.
The film was shredded by the critics. Ebert branded it as “unpleasant in a hostile way” in his half-star review. “A cross between Star Wars and the smell of ass” said Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.
Upon release it was quickly and gleefully branded a bomb, making less than $30 million worldwide, against a purported production budget of $75 million. It’s a struggle to see where any of those dollars went; everything looks cheap, from the costumes to the sets to the special effects. And for good reason, it turns out. That number, by some accounts, isn’t accurate. At all.
Here’s a very interesting pair of news articles dated four years apart to compare and contrast, regarding Elie Samaha, former owner of a celebrity dry-cleaning company and the owner of Franchise Pictures, a production company that claimed to finance over twenty films a year back in 2000.
To summarise, Samaha parleyed the success of Bruce Willis vehicle The Whole Nine Yards into … a scam where he fraudulently overcharged his business partners for production costs on other films, for which he was successfully sued for nearly $100 million. I get the feeling they didn’t actually receive any of that money, even though Samaha apparently still works in Hollywood to this day.
Anyway, back in 1998 he exploited Travolta’s desire to make the film and secured the rights, as well as a $200 million dollar credit line to take over production of the film. This figure apparently was eventually revised downwards to “only” $75 million. Once the cast members had been paid, the actual budget might have been closer to the $10 million mark; eventually Travolta reportedly had to pony up $5 million himself to get the film completed.
So much for all that.
Still, it gave Forest Whitaker a large payday (hopefully, although perhaps not considering those financial shenanigans), which is good because he’s great as Ker and fully deserved it for surviving this debacle. There was also real effort made by the crew behind the scenes to make the best film they could under trying circumstances. Director Roger Christian had some chops; was the set decorator for the original Star Wars, art director for Alien and second-unit director for both Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace; the passion he and his design team had for the project are evident in interviews.
Fair play to Travolta, too. He has no regrets over making the film. “I had the power to do whatever I wanted, and I chose to do a book that I thought was worthy of making into a movie.” He said in a recent interview. “Not a lot of people get that opportunity, and I did what I wanted to do.”
He definitely should regret Gotti, however.
Finally, how could you not love a film that was actually suspected of containing subliminal messages intended to convert you to Scientology?
Take care of yourselves, foolish man-animals!