Let me begin by tipping my hat to Ms. Lianna Skywalker (if that is her real name). Ms. Skywalker wrote me back in July of this year, asking if I was planning to review what was the most universally shellacked movie of the last ten years. That being, of course, our current subject. Much embarrassed, I had to admit that I hadn’t yet seen the film. As you’d imagine, there was little I could say to justify such a lapse. At best I could mumble about my very real fears that the film would prove to be less stupid than advertised. That would indeed have been a crushing blow, and its certainly true that they don’t make bad movies like they used to.
Emboldened by these circumstances, Ms. Skywalker very kindly offered to let us post her own lengthy review. (Which we’ve now posted. Click here, or on the link at the bottom of this review.) She had also, it turned out, had past run-ins with the notoriously litigious Scientology Church. At the time we conversed she had a website, part of which was dedicated to explicating her qualms with the group and her subsequent harassment by them.
But back to our narrative. As I said, Ms. Skywalker had already written a lengthy piece on the film and offered it to me. At this, and the incident doesn’t speak well of me, I’m afraid, an immense wave of greed washed over me. What if Battlefield Earth was everything it was heralded to be? Could I give up such a plum, especially giving the rarity with which they appear in this day and age? Short answer: No. And so, feeling like a jerk, I told Ms. Skywalker that I preferred to prepare my own piece on the film. Despite this ill treatment at my hand, however, she did kindly allow us to post her review also, as indicated.
Our film opens with an expositional crawl. As I noted in my review for Robot Holocaust, outside of the Star Wars series this has seldom proven a good sign. Here we learn the following pertinent facts:
Following this we get the opening credits. Here we learn that the film’s full title is apparently Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000. And let the pompousnessâ€¦begin!
Using CGI effects of the sort now commonly seen on syndicated television shows, we zoom from an orbital view of Earth to a series of no doubt expensive helicopter shots portraying various mountainous settings. Here a last expositional sentence appears. “Man is an endangered species,” it announces. This helps to clarify things for those viewers confused by the assertion, seen ten seconds ago, that Man is “on the verge of extinction.” Presumably the follow-up, “You see, there are very few humans left anywhere in the world at this point, by which we mean the year 3000, about a thousand years from now, in fact; and if they were all to die, the humans, I mean, and it looks like they might, because of the Psychlos who are ruling the Earth, who are very mean and mining all our metals, especially gold, since that is more valuable than other metals, and teleporting them back to their home world, the Psychlos I mean, and yes, like how Star Trek teleports stuff, then there won’t be any human people left anywhere anymore, forever and ever and ever, which would be bad” was inadvertently left on the cutting room floor.
We eventually espy a primitive but surprisingly well-constructed wooden fortress. This, protected as it is by a barrier of sharpened logs, appears to be right out of an Ator movie. As is often the case, the village behind it is inhabited by a variety of well fed and quite fit people wearing the de rigueur fur ‘n’ leather caveman outfits. Also per tradition, their hair is scraggly but very clean and their teeth, when viewed in close-ups, are uniformly white and even. Odder is the fact that they would even have such copious amounts of hair and teeth (or, or that matter, musculature), given that they are living, per the expositional crawl, in an irradiated zone.
The tribe, or whatever, is entering the fort, presumably because evening is approaching. (An awareness of cave people tropes and terminology will prove quite handy here.) One woman, however, remains outside as her fellows file past. Obviously, and I mean obviously, she’s waiting for someone. Since she’s hot, and bold â€“ after all, she’s quite literally standing her ground against her tribe members — we pretty easily intuit that she’ll be the Hero’s Girlfriend.
Next we meet your typically hidebound â€“ in more ways than one, actually â€“ Conservative Tribal Elder. We can tell who he is because:
Per the ways of his kind, he crustily advises that the tribe can’t put itself at risk for the sake of one foolhardy soul who resists its age-old strictures. Unless he’s referring to Robert Vaughn, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that the guy he’s talking about will turn out to be Our Hero. Continuing tradition, the Hero’s Girlfriend, who sports hair not only oddly clean but also nicely permed, castigates the tribe’s collective cowardice. Because that’s her job, don’tcha know. After all, the Village Rebel always earns the true love and loyalty of the Village Hot Chick. (Unless there are two Village Hot Chicks. If that’s the case, then he’ll prove to love the Good Chick â€“ the blonde one â€“ while needing to beware of the wiles of the Evil Chick, i.e., the brunette.)
Two minutes into the film and we find the screenwriters already wildly spinning their Rolodex of ClichÃ©sâ„¢. For example, take this innovative exchange:
Bossy Village Elder: “He was a wild spirit, and this was always to be his fate!!”
Angry Girlfriend: “You talk as if he’s already dead!”
Still, she enters the walled area and the Elder closes the gate. The engineering on display here is pretty impressive, actually, given that one old man can yank on a rope and pull the massive door into place. Then the Elder advises Our Heroine that the yet unnamed Rebel is a “greener.” She’d do well, he continues, to look elsewhere for a husband. Unsurprisingly, she reacts negatively to this advice. Meanwhile, I reacted negatively to the fact that I’ve gleaned over a page of material from less than three minutes of the film, all with nearly two hours of it left to go.
I will now address one of the most annoying issues for those who review Bad Movies. Which is that bad movies almost always seem to wait forever before providing names for their characters. Sometimes you have to wait until the film is nearly over before some major character is explicitly identified. Sometimes they are only referenced while offscreen, or even after being killed, so that the viewer is forced to figure out who is being referred to. Sometimes you have to piece out who was who by looking at the names listed in the closing credits after the movie is actually over.
We face the same problem here. You’re introducing what is obviously the film’s heroine. Would it be that difficult to have the Village Elder call her by name? He’s following her around and lecturing her, after all. Stupid movie. And this time I’m not going to go back and type over all the “girlfriend” and “heroine” tags. I hate having to do that. You’re forced to make up a name for the character to keep the article smooth as you compose it. Then, sometimes at the very last moment, you learn that the guy you called Bob is actually named Harvey. Which means you have to go back and change all the prior references. Admittedly, you can use your word processor’s Replace function to do this. Still, you remain worried that you’ve missed one and will confuse your readers. So it’s still a pain in the ass.
We cut to a buff longhaired dude riding a horse. Gee, who’s that? Rather than demand the gate be opened (and why is it closed anyway, since it’s still bright daylight out â€“ what, do they shut it promptly at 5:00?), he canters his horse down a sandy graded hill into the village. Which, first of all, means their security sucks, and second, looks like an obnoxious thing to do to the horse. Stupid movie.
Dismounting, he hands the Heroine a bottle. This contains, he explains, “all the medicine I could find.” See, he’s the Good Kind of Rebel. The sort who Breaks the Rules Only So As to Help Others. (Makes the Village Elder guy look like sort of a jerk, doesn’t it?) Yet his efforts were for naught. “The gods took your father in the night,” Our As Yet Nameless Heroine gently informs him. Here we get our first taste of one of the film’s most annoying visual motifs, one that’s been a personal bugaboo for me ever since I reviewed The Holcroft Covenant. Yep, it’s Ye Olde Tilted Camera Frame, used to suggest disorientation or whatnot. I hope that you, unlike me, enjoy this sort of thing, because it’ll be employed with some regularity here.
In another stunningly original directorial flourish, we watch in exaggerated slow motion as Our As Yet Unnamed Hero — as opposed to Our As Yet Unnamed Heroine — twirls around his long flowing locks with a head spin, loudly yells one of those “NOOOO!!”” sort of deals (amazingly, the camera angle isn’t viewing him from above during this) and whips away the bottle of medicine. Presumably because no one else in the tribe will ever suffer from whatever ailment it was that killed his father.
By the way, am I the only one getting a whiff of Joseph Campbell-itis here? Thanks again, Joe.
We next see Our As Yet Unnamed Hero (or OAYUH, as I’m tired of typing all that) lay a stone on his father’s grave. This important three-second scene completed, we cut to the village cave. OAYUH is performing his Rebel duties, noting angrily that if the tribe remains where it is they’ll never have enough food. Perhaps this assertion would be more effective if anyone looked particularly skinny or malnourished, but who knows? Of course, the Village Elder rejects this Progressive Vision of a Better Life. Boy, that’s what we needed â€“ a remake of Clan of the Cave Bear by way of When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, Teenage Caveman and all the way back to One Million B.C.
By the way, isn’t it somewhat ironic that the various screenwriters for all these films continue to use the Village Elder’s stolid reliance on dusty old rules and strictures as a mark against them? Let’s imagine the following scenario:
Handsome Young Rebel Scriptwriter: “I don’t know, this all seems so clichÃ©. Maybe the lead should have the hots for the bad village chick instead of the good one.”
Bearded Elder Scriptwriter: “We dare not deviate from the ancient sacred screenplay the gods left for our forefathers! If we do, the Sky Demon will devour our gross profit participation!!”
OK, I realize that’s a little silly. I mean, how would a screenwriter get a piece of the gross?
Anyway. The Elder speaks of “demons” (told ya) who would destroy them were they to enter the surrounding Forbidden Lands. OAYUH challenges the others, asking if anyone has ever seen one of these creatures. As we already know from the set-up, the Elder is in fact right. There are ‘demons’ that would kill them if their existence became known. Even so, needless to say, the Elder will never be afforded points for this. Meanwhile, Our Designated If Yet Still Unnamed Hero will never have his clearly arrogant and wrongheaded skepticism held against him. Even after he does a fey little dance to mock the fears of his fellow tribe members.
In response — can’t you actually hear the Rolodex of ClichÃ©sâ„¢ hum as it continues to spin at top speed? — the Elder relates the Ancient and Vaguely Accurate But Cloaked in Superstitious Verbiage Litany. We in the audience are meant to nod in satisfaction as we ‘cleverly’ decipher what parts are basically true, like how the “demons” who “came from the sky” are the Psychlos. At the same time, we’re to feel smugly superior to the more religiously oriented assertions, such as the idea that Man’s downfall occurred because he had offended the gods. I’m not sure why we’re to consider ourselves so particularly sly, however. Again, this all follows the path of every one of these things, especially Teenage Caveman. So unless you’ve never seen a movie before you’d have to be half-goofy not to get what’s going on. Besides that, we all read the opening expository crawl, so we’re not even figuring all this out on our own.
OAYUH, needless to say, rejects the tribe’s purported ‘fate.’ He rides off on his horse, meeting his similarly mounted girlfriend as he heads out of the village. Here we actually *gasp* learn her name, which is Chrissy. He tells her that she can’t come with him. She responds by calling him an “arrogant greener.” Of course they don’t want us viewers thinking that OAYUH is sexist or anything. (A sexist male in a pre-industrial society? Please!). Therefore they have him forthrightly state that she can handle herself better than most men. That’s why, he continues, she must stay with the tribe and protect it. Realizing that he’s right — yeah, whatever — she gives him a necklace once owned by his mother. Which was such a big emotional moment that, frankly, I cried. And I’m not afraid to admit it, because the scene was that powerful. Maybe they could hide it under a rock and dig it up later for a big boffo ending, like in The Promise.
This emotionally devastating sequence concluded, OAYUH, who I will now refer to as OSAYUH, or Our Still As Yet Unnamed Hero, takes his leave. In case we failed to get how sad all this is, the soundtrack helpfully provides an “ahh-ahh”ing vocal to the background music. We then cut to OSAYUH riding through a forest. I’m assuming that this is why he’s been designated a ‘greener.’ He hears a noise from amidst the trees. This spooks his horse. It responds by leaping vertically over the facing-up-from-the-ground camera, like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. Then it runs off through some foliage. Eventually we go to slow motion â€“ which is easily the third usage of this in the film’s first six and a half minutes â€“ and OSAYUH is thrown.
Rising, the disorientated OSAYUH sees a looming monster of some sort. Panicking, he grabs a handy stick and begins assaulting it. After this burst of action he perceives, as do we, that the apparent beast is merely an ancient statue of a dinosaur from some amusement park or something. Which, I must say, looks pretty damn good for being a thousand years old, even if it is festooned with moss. We also see that the stick he found is actually a golf club, which, again, was apparently quite well constructed. Presumably the dinosaur was a mini-golf attraction. Again, I found this a little strange. In my experience, statues at mini-golf places start falling apart within a year or so, must less after a full millennia.
Laughing, OSAYUH smacks the dinosaur again. And now it crumbles, as it’s apparently only made of plaster. Albeit very hardy plaster. Looking around, he now espies the other novelties you’d expect to find on a mini-golf course. Apparently fearing that we might still not ‘get’ it, they include amongst the various statuary a gigantic golf ball. Hopefully by now everyone’s been able to put the pieces together and we can move on.
OSAYUH, still wielding his golf club â€“ and why wouldn’t he? â€“ is surprised by Carlo and Rock, a couple of spear-wielding assailants. They prove to possess a fairly jocular nature, however, and after a *cough* tense standoff the two decide to resume their hunt for food. OSAYUH, meanwhile, is interested in their claims that the two have seen ‘gods’. He offers them some of his supplies if they’ll show him one.
We segue to OSAYUH and his horse walking through more woods. We know it was a segue because the film frequently uses wipes to indicate scene transitions. These are of one type, the ‘middle’ wipe. This is where the image parts in the center of the screen and scrolls off to each side, like Moses parting the Red Sea. (Apparently director Richard Christian doesn’t share Homer Simpson’s reverence for the ‘star’ wipe.) This is all very odd because the use of such wipes is extremely old-fashioned. Add their employment to the frequent use of slow motion and camera tilts when listing the film’s directorial oddities.
As the three break through the trees, OSAYUH is amazed to see a massive matte painting of a ruined city. Since this is supposed to be a weird experience, their subsequent meanderings are conveyed via predictably askew camera angles. Again, common objects have inspired superstitious explanations, here related by Our Hero’s companions. Statues and manikins are people frozen in place for angering the gods, that sort of thing. Unsurprisingly, the three end up in a mall. Like all ruined structures in futuristic movies — the Capitol Dome in Logan’s Run, a New York subway station in Beyond the Planet of the Apes, etc. — this is meant to chillingly invoke a sense that the world as we know it has irrevocably vanished.
Eating dinner that night (this includes sizeable portions of meat, oddly enough) in the mall, in front of a fire, the three get to know one another. A greener, we learn, is so named because of their belief that “the grass is always greener on the other side.” Not a metaphor I’d have thought would survive a thousand years, particularly in a community that lives in mountainous terrain largely devoid of vegetation. Still, what do I know?
Their idyll is interrupted when Carlo suddenly takes a ray beam blast. This picks him up and tosses him — in slow motion, natch — thirty feet or more across the room. Why an energy blast would have such an effect, and why it wouldn’t have an equal and opposite effect on whoever fired the weapon that produced it, is left unexplored. Here we get one of the film’s trademark Confusedly Edited Scenes. We see a series of elliptical shots showing (I think) ray gun bearing aliens stalking OSAYUH and Rock. We can see that the aliens are big, have clawed hands and wear their hair in dreadlocks, but that’s about it.
Much of this rather long sequence is shot, big surprise, in slow motion. Moreover, the lighting emanates from odd locations and is all green (!). For an abandoned shopping mall in a post-Apocalyptic dystopia, it sure is well equipped with strategically placed kleig lights sporting green filters. And the soundtrack features ‘eerie’ music played over the muted sounds of the pursuit. Presumably this is all supposed to be ‘cool,’ although there’s no actual evidence to back that theory up. Quite the opposite, in fact. This is literally one of the more dreadful big budget sequences I’ve ever seen.
Anyhoo, Rock eventually screws up his ankle and tells OSAYUH to beat it. Instead, Our Hero whistles. At this his horse comes running, a bit that was old hat when Gene Autrey and Champion did it in the ’30s. Unfortunately, Champion II takes a ray blast and bites it, as does Rock a moment later. OSAYUH continues running through the mall as ray blasts smash into things near him. He eventually takes one in the leg, but manages to get up again. (!!) Based on what we’ve seen so far, said limb should have gone flying off on its lonesome. Needless to say, though, this doesn’t happen. Meanwhile, we are provided with further oblique close-ups of the aliens. We see, for example, that their eyes sport yellow pupils.
Also, and this is an especially moronic touch, their ray beam pistols sport an odd U-shaped design. And the barrel from which the rays emanate is the one which projects out from under the hand gripping the weapon. In other words, imagine firing a pistol held upside down, so that the magazine butt was pointing upwards while the barrel stuck out from underneath your hand. How the hell you would hit anything with a gun configured this way remains something of a mystery. Actually, considering how rarely the Psychlos are allowed by the script to hit anything, maybe the awkwardness of the gun design was on purpose.
OSAYUH takes another blast in the back, smashing him in slow motion — what, you guessed? — through a glass wall or two. It’s hard to tell how many, as this bit is repeated over and over again in multiple cuts. Because, you know, it’s all so damn cool. Unfortunately, this stunt gag is as poorly filmed as everything else in this particular sequence. Then add in the fact that the visuals seem to have been *cough, cough* inspired by the shots of Joanna Cassidy smashing through a glass window, in slow motion, in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
This scene is worth chewing over because it cuts to the heart of the film’s main problem. (Other, that is, than the fact that it’s massively stupid and poorly acted.) Here the horribly misguided directing style is front and center. I doubt if there’s anyone who’s seen this film, even those who tend not to analyze movies, who didn’t feel that the sequence was downright ridiculous. Meanwhile, while I can’t ‘blame’ Christian for the exceedingly dubious quality of the script, the level of acting is partly the director’s responsibility. So make sure to save some of your more pungent tomatoes for him.
Realizing, perhaps, that this wasn’t a film that could rely on the appeal of its story or characters, the decision was apparently made to shoot it in a heavily stylized manner. Which, unfortunately, is fairly typical in this post-MTV age. The really bizarre thing, though, is that the stylistic tools they chose to employ here are, as I noted previously, laughably out of date. Believe me, I’m generally not a fan of the super-quick school of editing so often seen today. Yet it does reflect a genuine sociological fact: Audiences raised on such material process visual information much more quickly than those before them did. Films that seemed fast moving in the pre-Raiders of the Lost Ark era can now come across as positively stately.
The point being that there seemed to have been no awareness of this fact amongst the people who made this film. Sure, there’s some rather confusingly edited quick cutting, but much more prevalent is the near continuous use of slow motion. Now, if you’re an authentic visual stylist, like director John Woo, you can incorporate this sort of thing into a coherent and genuinely successful directorial approach. Christian, however, appears to be a hack who only saw a John Woo movie or two â€“ I wouldn’t be surprised if former Woo star Travolta showed him a couple of them and said “Do that” — and decided to ape some of Woo’s moves while exhibiting none of the sense of flow that makes those films work.
And as noted before, no one in this day and age should still be using the hoary old ’tilting the camera’ trick. Much less use it on a running basis throughout an entire film. Good grief, this technique was the subject of regular parody nearly forty years ago on the old Adam West Batman TV series.
Well, I guess we should get back to the film now. Dang it. We next see OSAYUH in a cage being lifted by an alien aircraft. He’s screaming because, don’tcha know, he’s a free spirit and can’t abide being confined. When you think about it, in that way he represents nothing less than The Human Spirit itself. Wow. Makes ya think, doesn’t it? Or it would, if one weren’t busy laughing at the appallingly bad bluescreen effect used to portray the aircraft rising up and carrying him off.
Turning around, OSAYUH sees that there are several other people in the cage, including Carlo. The aircraft, which is sort of a hover jet sort of deal, soon arrives at a matte painting, er, city encased in a gigantic glass structure, one which resembles a giant greenhouse. Again, the musical score is there to aid confused viewers, in this case alerting us that we should be feeling ‘awe’ at this sight. Some of the effects here are actually pretty impressive, which has the odd effect of emphasizing the more generally inept aspects of the film.
The humans are alerted not to breathe inside the Domed City, as the air here is poisonous. ‘Danger’ music alerts us that this is bad, as does dialog like “My chest is on fire!” Then, just when we’re, uh, very worried that Our Hero, named or not, might be killed â€“ oh, no, please, not that â€“ an alien appears and tosses them some nose clips. Somehow these allow the humans to breathe the poisonous air, which doesn’t seem very likely, but there you go.
A better look at the city reveals that it, too, is in ruins. Big flames randomly shoot up here and there. I guess because that’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see in horrifying dystopian cities. We sort of pan around the set, er, city, and the “Awe” music plays again to keep us apprised. We learn that these are the remains of Denver, and that OSAYUH (we’re over fifteen minutes into the film, and he’s met numerous characters already, so do you think they could give us his name already?) and his compatriots are being taken to the, what else, Human Processing Center.
You know, I get that the Psychlo overlords don’t care very much about the Earth and all. Still, don’t you think, if they were going to base themselves in Denver and run operations there for a thousand straight years, that they’d maybe fix up the city a bit more? Because even the spaces where they live and work, as we’ll see, still pretty much look like barely retrofitted ruins. Which, again, seems like something you could work on a bit over the span of ten centuries.
The aliens open the cage, and OSAYUH and Carlo attempt to run off. Our Hero is manually captured, while one Psychlo shoots down Carlo in his tracks. (And, why yes, this is shot in slo-mo.) A most impressive piece of shooting, I must say, to hit a moving target with a handgun that again seems to have been solely designed to keep it from being aimed properly. Meanwhile, a close-up of a switch on the weapon is meant to show us that there are two settings for it. One, presumably, to kill and the other to stun.
OSAYUH manages to break free of the Psychlo holding him, and actually ends up with the alien’s ray gun. (!!) He awkwardly fires the weapon â€“ which after all seems to be the only way one can fire it â€“ and the guard drops dead to the ground. This allows OSAYUH to run off again, this time through the hallways of whatever prison would have been located in downtown Denver. This sequence, innovatively, is shot through a tilted camera angle. And in slo-mo. However, some Maintenance Psychlos are currently hosing the area down. Our Hero slips on the wet floor and ends up sprawled at the feet of the piece’s villain.
This is Terl, as played (sorta) by John Travolta, the man whose vision made the movie a reality. This is our first real good look at a Psychlo. Basically, they’re about eight or nine feet tall, an effect achieved (sorta) by the actors wearing stilts in their boots. They have the previously referenced yellow pupils, raised foreheads, bushy eyebrows, long hair generally worn in dreadlocks, clawed hands and fangs. (Of course, they’d have to have fangs.)
Terl lifts OSAYUH into the air with one hand â€“ get it, the Psychlos are really strong — and walks him back outside to his keepers. Of course, Terl turns out to be the local Big Cheese, and he demands to know what the “man-animal” was doing running around loose. This is one of the films goofier running bits, and, typically, makes no real internal sense. Yes, we get it, the Psychlos consider humans to be just animals. However, the locution ‘man-animal’ is sort of clumsy, and later we’ll hear Psychlos referring to dogs without calling them ‘dog-animals’, so the whole thing is pretty silly. (See further examples of Psychlo conjugation down in IMMORTAL DIALOG.)
Here’s one of the bits meant to show us what a flamboyantly villainous sort Terl is. Told that OSAYUH escaped after shooting one of the guards, Terl expresses disbelief that a mere man-animal could use one of their weapons. Therefore he orders the gun returned to Our Hero, so as to prove that the guard is lying. (!!) He orders the guard to reach for the weapon, which the fellow is hesitant to do lest he be shot also. Terl, meanwhile, reacts angrily to the notion that he would be expected to believe such a fanciful tale. Of course the guard ends up being shot down. Terl responds to this with mild amazement and, being an evil sort of dude, a good villainous laugh.
Another wipe and we see the humans being hosed down in the previously established prison passageway. This is a bit that just might possibly be meant to remind veteran viewers of the original Planet of the Apes. (Reminding us of these other movies, by the way, ain’t helping this one any.) Boy, if I had a dollar for everyone who saw this in the theater and called out, “IT’S A MADHOUSE!! A MADHOUSE!!!”, I’d probably have, oh, twenty dollars. Not because so few people would know to make the joke. More that so few people saw this in a theater.
OSAYUH fights back by throwing a wet rag at one of his tormenters. This savage attack knocks his target slightly off balance â€“ after all, the guy’s standing on stilts â€“ but ultimately fails to achieve any real result. Maybe if he had a rolled-up towel to snap at them. Failing in this gambit, Our Hero instead wrestles away the (somewhat) high-pressure hose and uses it to douse their captors. In slo-mo. This all leads one to wonder how the Psychlos have managed to control humanity for all these centuries, given that they can’t hold onto anything in their hands. Guns, hosesâ€¦whatever. Actually, I think the idea is that only Our Hero has the fighting spirit to contest their will, and that this leads his opponents to underestimate him. Maybe, but I imagine the average viewer is instead drawing the conclusion that the Psychlos are a bunch of inept numbnuts.
The Revolution, unfortunately, proves short lived. The price OSAYUH pays is to have the briefly mentioned necklace from his mom tossed into a fire. Oh, the humanity. Needless to say, this is apparently meant to be a big ‘moment’ of some sort, and also needless to say, it ain’t. And that’s if you can even tell what was just supposed to have happened. All of the scenes taking place in the city here are all shot through a dark blue filter (to match the fact that Denver’s supposed to be enclosed in that greenhouse thing), making this entire portion of the film quite murky.
Cue another wipe. We cut outside the enclosed city, where the Psychlos have their teleportation set-up. They are currently sending a shipment of ore to Planet Psychlo. Following this a Psychlo muckity-muck of some sort beams in. He’s greeted by Terl and Terl’s assistant, Ker. Ker is played, sadly, by Forrest Whitaker, who’s much too good of an actor to be appearing in junk like this. So much so, in fact, that he proves a detriment to the film. (See my musings on this in AFTERTHOUGHTS.)
The visitor, referred to as His Excellency, offers his opinion on what a “craphole” Earth is. Terl, whose term as the Psychlo’s Chief of Security for the planet is nearly over, heartily agrees. His Excellency offers his opinion that once the planet is mined out (considering they’re still going at it after a thousand years, I’m not sure when that would be) they should “do the universe a favor” and exterminate all the remaining humans. This inspires gales of rather fruity laughter from Terl and Ker.
Next follows a scene that, to its detriment, recalls one from Woody Allen’s Sleeper. Waking in the future, Allen is shown artifacts from his (i.e., our) time, and we hear humorously misconceived theories of what the future’s historians believe them to represent. Same thing here. Terl shows His Excellency a photo of a human in a car with a pet. He explains that the “Clinko Historians” believe the animal to have been called a dog. This raises two questions: One is, again, why the Psychlos don’t refer to dogs as ‘dog-animals,’ as they do the humans. Second, are we to believe that dogs have been completely eradicated, but humans still walk the Earth? That seems unlikely. Anyway, His Excellency posits that the ‘dog’ must have been the superior race, since a “man-animal” was chauffeuring it. Ha. Ha.
The Psychlo Chief Executive for Earth, known as the Planetship, arrives to join the conference. His Excellency then raises the question of Terl’s long awaited transfer off the planet. However, Terl gets the rug pulled out from under him: His term has been indefinitely prolonged. This scene is played very weirdly. First, it’s accompanied by seemingly inappropriate ‘disorientation’ music. Even better is when the Excellency tells the enraged Terl that his term will have “endless options for renewal!” and the phrase is echoed around on the soundtrack. His higher-ups all begin to cruelly laugh at Terl’s fate (apparently he trifled with the daughter of some Psychlo bigwig), the shots of which are played under blaring Ominous Music. The whole scene’s tone is just bizarre. Whatever Christian was trying to do here, he failed.
We cut to Planet Psychlo, which is a dark world with a purple sky. We see a vast, crowded matte painting, er, city, again with plumes of fire randomly firing up into the sky. Basically, it looks like they just ripped off Darkseid’s planet Apokolips from the recent Superman cartoon show. Then we cut away again. Well, that was an interesting thirty seconds.
Back on Earth, Terl is vainly trying to drown his sorrows with booze. (Since they’re aliens, Psychlo booze proves to be green and to glow. See how different that is from human intoxicants?) We listen to him rant about how he was trained to “conquer galaxies.” Considering what a boob he is — in fact all the Psychlos are borderline morons — this is pretty funny stuff.
Another wipe — collect ’em all — and we head to the holding cages where the humans are kept. A guard is squirting green goo, presumably food, out of a hose and into the trough of a cell. The Prison Bully (c’mon, there’s always a Prison Bully) is explaining to Our STILL As Yet Unnamed Hero that his gang eats first. If there’s anything left, Our Hero can partake of it, just like the rest of the prisoners. Gee, where’s this heading?
The Bully sucker punches Our Hero, telling him then that any fight would be to the death. This leads to, duh, a supposedly brutal and thrilling but actually monotonous ‘epic’ fight sequence. Sadly, some people will just never learn the difference between coherent quick cutting and random quick cutting, and why the first works and the second doesn’t. Anyhoo, the Bully is, eventually, defeated. Then, to a manifold lack of surprise on the part of any viewer over the age of two, Our Hero spares his opponent’s life. Following which he addresses his fellow prisoners, and we see that Our Hero (boy, I wish they’d name that guy) is going to be An Inspirational Hero. Like Sparticus, only one in a movie that completely sucks.
Because we’ve about two hours to fill, and thus require various subplots to pad things, we now introduce another. This involves the ambitious Ker constantly trying to undermine Terl, but inevitably finding himself outfoxed in his attempts. Here, for instance, he tries to sneak a report onto Terl’s desk. Caught, he maintains that he’d in fact left it there a week earlier. Terl sneers at this, pointing to the camera lens visibly set in the wall. Ker is irate. “You said we use picto-cameras to spy on other offices,” he bleats. (Picto-cameras?! Oh, brother.) You know, Ker is a moron. Hellooo, doofus, the camera lens is set right in the wall of the security office. What did you think it was doing there? Not only that, but it makes a quite audible ‘snict’ sound when it zooms, which we saw â€“ and heard â€“ it doing.
Anyhoo, the report reveals that there’s been a major gold deposit found up in the mountains. Unfortunately, the same area boasts uranium deposits, making the ore unreachable. Ker’s plan was to sit on the report until Terl made his scheduled departure. Then he’d figure out a way to get the gold, and the subsequent credit from the Psychlo high command, for himself. Terl’s continued presence invalidated this scheme, however, so Ker was trying to cover his sizable alien ass by sneaking the report onto Terl’s desk.
Here we get to see actor Whitaker stumble over his lines, probably because they’re so moronic. (Still, you’d think they could have reshot the scene, or at least looped over it.) Due to the radioactivity, he explains â€“ presumably for our benefit, since you’d think Terl would also be aware of this â€“ “No Psychlo can get there without his breath gas exploding.” This moronic tidbit, that the presence of any significant level of radiation makes the “breath gas” (oh, bru-ther) of the Psychlos go boom, will prove to be one of the film’s major plot points. Again, I’m no scientist, but that just sounds idiotic. Still, we’ll eventually see why this is important to the *cough* script later on.[Segue wipe.] Terl engages in some half-witted scheming, all of which is apparently meant to impress us with his Machiavellian slyness. However, despite the dismal mental acuity of those he’s attempting to bamboozle, we get the idea that his plans work mostly because the script says they do. In any case, Terl’s plan is to convince the Planetship guy that the Psychlos workers â€“ none of who we ever see — are preparing to revolt. It turns out that they are being paid substandard wages so as to keep profits high, a fact that Terl weaves into the yarn he’s spinning. Should such a revolt occur, the Planetship would find himself missing twenty pounds of ugly fat. By which I mean his big ol’ Psychlo noggin. Fearful, the Planetship gives Terl full power to deal with the situation. Which, of course, is exactly what Our Villain was after. Oh, Terl, what a sly boots you are!
In case I’m not getting this across, the whole animating idea behind the Psychlos, assuming the words ‘idea’ and “Psychlos” can rationally be used in the same sentence, is that they are a metaphor, or a burlesque, or a simile, or some damn thing, for Capitalism Run Amok. (Gee, there’s a bold, fresh stance for Hollywood to take.)
Terl ‘casually’ drops the idea of training man-animals to do the mining, since they wouldn’t have to be paid. The Planetship and his personal lackey exhibit much mirth at the idea, as humans are thought to be far too stupid to be trainable. Which seems a bit odd, since all the Psychlos are living in the ruins of a vast human-built metropolis. But anyway. Terl suggests that he unofficially be allowed to take some humans to a hidden locale and see if they can be so trained. That way, if the Home Office finds out about the idea (teaching humans being technically illegal), the Planetship will have plausible deniability. This is followed by wrangling on Terl and Ker’s part, all meant to convince the viewer that some brilliant political brinkmanship is occurring here. Despite their best efforts, however, the Planetship shoots down the plan in no uncertain language.[Segue wipe] We cut to some raggedy humans directly outside the city, performing manual labor. Some other humans are being walked somewhere. Their ankles are chained [camera tilt] and an old man trips in exhaustion. Carlo helps the fellow up, letting us know that despite all adversity the Human Spirit remains alive. Then a passing Psychlo helicopter smacks into (!) and knocks over an industrial chimney. Say, how did they clods conquer Earth again?
The humans react by screaming in terror [slow-motion]. Tons of brick fall [tilted camera and slow-motion], and in the confusion OSAYUH uses a brick to shatter his manacle and yells out to the others to run. He then sets an example by [camera tilt and slow-motion] speeding off himself. His escape is cut short, however, when he is stun-shot by a guard. Sent flying through the air [camera tilt, slow-motion] he hits the ground in front of an approaching Psychlo guard. Declaring him to be more trouble than he’s worth, the guard orders him killed. For some reason this entails taking him inside [blue filter, camera tilt], and we next see an actor in his massively padded Psychlo costume hobbling along on his stilts while attempting to pretend that he’s pulling Our Hero around with one hand.
The reason they took him back inside the Domed City is so they could kill him by removing his poison-filtering nose guard. I guess this is easier than just shooting him on the spot with their sidearms. Gasping, Our Hero runs off [camera tilt]. The guards let him, which is odd as they were supposed to have a bet over how long it would take him to die. With the musical score blaring away too loudly, as it is prone to do in this film, he runs into some human slaves doing â€“ something â€“ in a factory. He begs for their help, and one guy begins sharing his nose guard with him. Which seems like sort of a short-term solution, but there you go.
The guards, following up on their bet, now make an appearance. [Camera tilt] They fire at Our Hero and he again runs off. [Camera tilt, slow-motion] Meanwhile, we see Terl and Kerr walking down a corridor. [Camera tilt, blue filter] Terl remarks on his belief that the Planetship is up to some scheme of his own. An idea, by the way, that once introduced goes nowhere. Meanwhile, we here get some full body shots of the two, and we can clearly discern the difficulty the actors have walking around in their stilted boots.
Terl threatens to cut Ker out of the gold plan, at which his subordinate naturally protests. “How do I even know you understand the plan?” Terl asks. Here we see Terl push a concealed button, activating the wall camera. Again, it produces a fairly loud noise as the lens telescopes. Yet Ker has an I ITS moment and fails to notice this. Instead, he attempts to reassure his boss by relating back the plan in detail. Which is that humans, immune to the radioactivity in the gold region (more or less, anyway), will be surreptitiously trained to mine ore. They will then secretly mine the gold, which Terl will use to buy his way into a better assignment. Terl films his underling blabbing all this, which will set up Ker as a fall guy should things go awry. (Terl, you magnificent bastard!!) He then informs Ker of the tape, so as to keep him from attempting another double cross.
Oh, the second reason Ker rehashes the plan is for those in the audience haven’t been able to follow things. For example, some of us might have nodded off earlier in the film â€“ and who could blame us? â€“ so this clunky wad of exposition would allow such viewers to get back up to speed. Following which they could safely resume their nap.
Let’s pause for a bit. Because this scene right here, a simple dialog sequence, aptly sums up why the film’s such a tedious chore to watch. First there’s the use of the blue filter. Used for upwards of half the film, if not more, it produces an effect akin to watching your TV with the brightness control turned down and the blue on the color scale turned way up. Then there’s the nearly omnipresent camera tilting. This is bad enough on it’s own. More obnoxious is the fact that here the tilt continuously seesaws from a left angle to a right angle to a left angle and so on, over and over again. And again, all these ‘stylistic’ flourishes are used during a scene featuring two characters talking to each other. Cripes, it’s annoying.
Perhaps now is the time to examine why this is the case. First, there’s the fact that Richard Christian is, at best, a modestly talented director who’s in way over his head here. (At worst he’s a complete hack who’s in way over his head.) Second is that this film, given the inherent nature of the project, is unduly heavy on exposition. The novel Battlefield Earth runs about 1,200 pages long. Hubbard might not have written well, but he wrote exceedingly long. And yes, I comprehend the irony of me, of all people, saying that.
The adaptation was long a pet project of Travolta’s. So long, in fact, that he originally planned to play the hero. As time went along, though, he realized that he had grown too old to play the lead. And so he instead decided to assay Terl. Still, there was the problem of adapting such a long book to the screen. Much like Dune, the book probably demanded a more expansive format, such as a five or six hour mini-series. Given the amount of padding in Hubbard’s prose, the smart thing would have been to ruthlessly pare the story down. They no doubt did this to some extent, but one assumes that Travolta kept them from overmuch, uh, tampering with the original text.
Their solution was to design Battlefield Earth to be the first of two movies, with more to follow should the box office warrant it. (Amusingly, months after the film was an evident financial and critical disaster â€“ see The Critics Rave section below â€“ Travolta was still talking of making the sequel.) Therefore the film covers the events of, more or less, the first half of Hubbard’s novel. Now let me point out again, the sci-fi devices that up the book are pretty generic. So the smart thing would have been to use a sort of shorthand and let the audience fill in the background. Look how successfully Star Wars created a universe in its terse running time.
Instead, the universe of Battlefield Earth is treated like it was that of Dune. By which I mean one so utterly unique that it would be impossible to accurately bring it to life in a meager two hour running time. Unfortunately, Travolta â€“ I think it’s safe to assume that he was the guiding light here â€“ apparently thought the book rather better or more original than it is. Therefore we spend much more time establishing the film’s milieu than was necessary, much less advisable. Meanwhile, the political backbiting aspect, which is portrayed in much too great detail, calls to mind a poor man’s Foundation Trilogy. Travolta and company might have profitably ruminated on how that far superior trilogy has resisted decades’ worth of attempts to adapt it to the screen.
In sum, they acted like they were David O. Selznik adapting Gone With the Wind. Margaret Mitchell’s novel was rabidly beloved in its time, to an extent that we probably can’t even imagine today. So much so that Selznik knew any attempt to alter or shorten the story would result in a public uprising. Indeed, newspaper accounts of the film’s production, especially regarding the casting of the various roles, remained a national public obsession for years. In the end, though, Selznik took Mitchell’s massive tome and produced a classic film out of it.
Of course, other similarly dense books have not been as well served. We’ve already mentioned David Lynch’s, uh, unique take on Frank Herbert’s Dune. Then there’s Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of The Lord of the Rings. In two hours he attempted to present a world that author J.R.R. Tolkien had lovingly detailed through hundreds and hundreds of pages of expert prose. Not only dozens of characters but numerous kingdoms, races, whatever had to be established and then explicated to whatever degree possible. Covering various events of the first book and parts of the second, Bakshi’s film has been largely disdained by the fan community for years. Such dangers also face this fall’s adaptations of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and, here we go again, The Fellowship of the Ring. In those cases, the films’ respective directors have taken care to repeatedly express their fealty to the source materials.
Ironically, though, with Battlefield Earth having a fan on board probably crippled the movie. If cinematic history teaches us anything, it’s that books do not effortlessly translate into films. The demands of the mediums are too different. The balance between producing both a good film and a faithful adaptation of a source book often proves impossible to find. Here the fixation on remaining true to the novel overwhelmed the idea of producing a good motion picture.
In attempting to lovingly detail the, uh, richness of Hubbard’s universe, much of the two hour running time is, of necessity, devoted to exposition. This, in turn, is presumably what motivated the filmmakers into employing all of their distracting directorial motifs. In other words, they feared presenting us with numerous scenes of characters talking to each other. That, after all, might be boring. Instead, we get numerous scenes of characters talking to each other as viewed through tilted camera angles and blue filters and such. Which unfortunately results in scenes that are both boring and markedly annoying to watch.
What this all means, ironically, is that there’s a very real chance that a second film might have actually worked better. With the movie’s universe already established, the sequel could have been significantly leaner. Plus those making it would have the advantage of knowing what didn’t work the first time. Travolta could have sliced the ham a bit thinner, the directorial style could have been cleaner and pithier, plot holes could have been more assiduously filled in, the Psychlos could have less blatantly stupid and employed fewer goofy compound words. In other words, the second film could well have been better simply because the first film is so bleeding awful that some level of improvement would almost be a given. After this there was nowhere to go but up.
And now, back to our Feature Presentation.
We cut to OSAYUH clambering through a sewer system, still sans nose guard but somehow able to run around with little apparent ill effect. Like the mall earlier, this set is shot through a green filter. I’m sure that means something but I don’t know what. Anyhoo, Terl (back to the blue filter) is putting his blackmail recording in storage. Thus he just happens to see Our Hero via a convenient sewer monitor camera. This, actually, is one of the film’s most gut-busting moments, for we see that the closed-circuit display itself shows things at a tilt!! If this had been a bit of satire, it’d be downright brilliant. Instead, it’s one of the most idiotic things I’ve ever seen.
Our hero continues running [green filter, camera tilt]. A guard appears and forces him into a sewer conduit. This, in a bold streak of artistic originality, leads to a lower level sewer that’s filmed through a gold filter. Bravo!! Auteur, Auteur!! This in turn leads to a gate to the outside world, allowing our hero to breathe again. Whew, and just when he was down to his last half hour’s worth of air! More Psycho guards pop up [camera tilt] â€“ the suits are too awkward to let the actors move very much, so they often just offscreen teleport their way into scenes — and prepare to kill him. (Does it really make economic sense for these capitalist aliens to send all these guards after one lone escaping slave?) Our Hero is saved, however, when the two are mysteriously shot in the back. Then, stepping from the shadows, we see *gasp* Terl.
Even for this movie this is pretty retarded. I mean, Terl’s the head of security for the entire planet, right? So couldn’t he just order the guards to leave Our Hero in his custody? Other than to provide a lame ‘shock shot’ wherein we learn that Terl was the shooter, this makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re looking for a classic definition of an “It’s In The Script” moment, here it is.
Terl wants Our Hero because he’s obviously unusually intelligent — for this universe, anyway — and thus would prove a good subject for the “teaching the man-animals to mine” thing. Here we get another purportedly whimsical moment concerning the Psychlo inability to figure out humans. (Despite the fact that they’ve been using them as slave labor for a thousand years.) Terl figures that food can be used to gain leverage over humans. His brilliant plan is to take Our Hero some others up into the mountains, away from prying eyes, and “watch it choose its favorite food.”[Segue wipe] ‘Up in the mountains’ proves to mean way the hell up in the mountains. We see Our Hero, sidekick Carlo (of course) and Another Guy struggling along a snowbound cliff face. Presumably Terl allowed them to ‘escape’ and is now covertly monitoring their actions. Within seconds our Intrepid Three espy a matte painting of another decaying human city. Meanwhile, we see that Terl and Ker are indeed watching them via teeny cameras hidden on the subjects themselves. Hilariously, the two are still attempting to figure out what humans would, as Terl asked earlier, “consider a treat.” (Uh, not having to watch the rest of this movie?) To their frustration, the humans haven’t eaten anything in the three days (!!) since they escaped. Hey, dudes, I’m with you. Believe me, I know what it’s like to watch a monitor for what seems like days on end and never see anything remotely interesting going on.
Terl, in any case, believes that the answer is finally at hand. “Now that the man-animals feel that they have a safe enough distance from us,” he theorizes, “soon they’ll find their favorite food and celebrate.” Then it’s back to Our Intrepid Three — forty-five minutes in and we still haven’t been told Our Hero’s name — who are stumbling through a snowbound but surprisingly well-preserved building. Here the guys see some rats, which represent the first sorta food they’ve seen in days. Hence they catch some and eat them raw. Which, no doubt, was meant to make us go “Ewwww!” Instead, it provokes us into say “Zzzzzz!”
And so end point of this exceedingly lame shaggy dog story is that Terl now believes rat to be the favorite food of humans. Because, you see, he’s just too stupid to perceive that the men have lacked any opportunity to eat anything else. In fact, Terl notes that rat must be their very favorite food, as “They could have selected anything they wanted.” He also attributes the fact that the rats are being eaten raw to general human barbarism, apparently not being able to deduce that they have nothing to start a fire with. But the punch line itself, which I don’t want you to miss, is this: Despite Terl’s three solid days of observation and theorizing, humans actually don’t like eating rats. Get it?
Because I ITS, Our Hero suddenly hears the tiny camera in his coverall button as it telescopes. Somehow he’s able to figure out that it’s Nothing Good and he rips the button off. Oddly, this causes it to stop transmitting. Soâ€¦what? The threads holding it on were its power source? This is followed by some more ‘comedy.” First, Terl expresses sheer disbelief in the idea that humans could possibly figure out what the cameras are. (And you know what? He’s right.) To Ker’s amusement, though, the monitors all go dead. Terl rears up in frustration and stalks across the room, whereupon he bumps his head on the sloping ceiling. All he needs to do at this point is tell Ker that he can’t see, and then reveal that it’s because he has his eyes closed. Instead, he complains about the low clearance and tells Ker to get some man-animals to fix it. Because, you see, none of the Psychlos who had used the office over the last thousand years had ever thought to do that.[Segue wipe] Having no further way to track the fugitives, Terl and Ker take a jet-copter to pick them up. However, the cagey humans have already left the city [camera tilt], which an un-artfully placed prop informs us was *choke* the remains of Aspen. Luckily, we see, it’s suddenly snow-free and actually quite warm out all of the sudden. Their path, however, leads them to — three guesses — the edge of a cliff abutting a raging river far below. Then, Quite Out of Nowhere, the jet-copter lands directly behind them. Actually, a miniature jet-copter lands next to a miniature version of the previously seen Aspen sign, but close enough.
This proves an historic moment, however. Our Hero responds to the craft landing behind them by gazing down to the river below. Carlo sees this and says, “Jonnie, don’t even think about it.” Get it? Carlo said his name!! We finally have been given a name for Our Hero, and only forty-six minutes into the film! And I had so little faith. Well, that shuts me up. Of course, Jonnie — see, I know his name, Jonnie, Jonnie, Jonnieâ€¦come on and say it, it’s fun!! — decides to do a Butch Cassidy and runs for the edge of the cliff [slow-motion]. He’s stopped, however, when the ‘copter suddenly rises up directly in front of him. Now, we just saw the ‘copter behind the three not even a minute ago, so it must have Offscreen Teleported to its present locale. Then there’s the odd acoustical nature of the ‘copter, in that you apparently can’t hear its engines until it rears up into your sightline.
The ‘copter chases Jonnie — Jonnie, Jonnie, Jonnie — which we watch in slow-mo, waiting forâ€¦yes, a camera tilt!! Thank you, Mr. Christian. Oh, and where are my coconuts? (The Official Jabootu Obscure Joke of the Weekâ„¢ has been brought to you by Pennzoil.) Anyhoo, Jonnie quickly ends up surrounded, for we now see that there are two ‘copters. Which explains the previously referred to positioning problem, but not the mysterious noise abatement issue. In any case, the exhausted Jonnie falls to the ground.
Amazingly, they don’t use a segue wipe here. Instead, we go to the next scene via a traditional cut. Here we get one of the movie’s few moments of genuine wit. (Assuming it’s not just a coincidence.) For we cut to our characters entering a room through double doors. These open from the middle and slide to each side. In other words, the middle wipe that has been used to open practically every scene has been mechanically produced with a prop rather than with an optical effect. Don’t get too excited at this bit of cleverness, though. For we watch all this a tilted camera adorned with a blue filter.
A guard pushes five humans, including our regulars, into the room and leaves. One guy has gone through this before. He tells the others to grab the provided sledge hammers and start whacking at the walls. Get it? They’re being trained to mine. Also in the room, oddly enough, is a wall-sided Psychlo computer terminal. Jonnie, which is the name of our hero, by the way, immediately walks over and starts monkeying with it. Luckily it’s touch activated and starts right up. Hmm. As the planetary Head of Security, Terl might want to look into setting up some sort of password commands on those.
The Guy Who’s Done This Before is old. Thus we’re not surprised when he angrily tells Jonnie — Jonnie, Jonnie, Jonnie — to get away from that, you know you don’t know nuthin’ ’bout machinery. Here Terl suddenly Offscreen Teleports himself into the room and for about the eighteenth time grabs Jonnie around the neck and chokes him. Yeah, like it’s Jonnie’s fault â€“ dude, you don’t even have to know where the on-switch is to activate that thing.
We cut to Jonnie sitting in a chair in an otherwise empty chamber. A nearby device turns out to be a Psychlo “Learning Machine.” Well, isn’t that convenient? Even more convenient is that the chair the equipment is hooked up to is human sized. Which seems a bit strange, given that only Psychlos are allowed to use the this thing. Hmm, perhaps I wasn’t supposed to think about that. Anyway, as the device it activates we see a matte image, er, hologram of a being of some other alien race. He’s a holographic teacher, we learn. As you might have guessed, he’s also a “Clinko” (snort), like the historians the Psychlos earlier referred to. No word yet on whether we’ll be seeing a ‘Hogano’ later.
The hologram reveals that many races have been exterminated by the Psychlos, who used “gas drones” to accomplish this. (And, presumably, to write their movie scripts.) Then, to speed things up, we see that knowledge is basically just being fired into Jonnie’s head via a laser, or some damn thing. As we shall see, Jonnie will end up getting quite an expansive education. Which is odd, when you think about it. How educated does a human have to be in order to mine gold? Other points that may occur to the viewer at this juncture include wondering why a Psychlo education machine teaches one to read and write not only Psychlo but also in English; why Jonnie ends up knowing so much more than any of the actual Psychlos do, since he’s using their education machine; why Psychlos call the Clinkos “Clinkos” and not “clinko-animals”‘ and why Clinkos teaching Psychlos use the phrase “Euclidian Geometry” when teaching Euclidian Geometry.
So Jonnie sucks up some knowledge. Terl stands outside, watching the other humans practice their wall hammering. Which, again, raises the question of why Jonnie is being fed all this advanced technical data. (Well, so he can become the leader who will vanquish the Psychlos. But beside that.) Then Terl heads back inside to see if Jonnie has been able to learn the Psychlo language. Which he has, we learn, although Jonnie keep this a secret from his captor. The machine worked!! Which seems pretty amazing, unless Psychlo brains and human ones are constructed in exactly the same fashion.
At night Jonnie begins covertly teaching his fellow humans advanced mathematics and molecular biology. Man, it’s lucky that the human holding cages are the one area in the city, including the sewer systems, that’s bereft of security cameras (?). Or that none of the guards ever notice the yards of complex mathematical formulas Our Hero scratches in the sand floor of his cell. Meanwhile, one of the men asks how learning all this stuff will help them escape. Which is exactly what I was thinking. Jonnie assures them, though, that it will. Presumably because, you know, Knowledge is Power, and The Man can’t hold you down when you, like, know stuff.[Segue wipe] During the days, meanwhile, Jonnie and his compatriots scavenge through the unencoded security computer and manuals that Terl has fortuitously left in the training area. OK, I understand how contemptuous Terl is of human intellectual capacity. I ‘get’ that he wouldn’t even consider it possible that they’d be able to do all this. Even so, since Psychlo society seems to be patterned on screwing one another over, shouldn’t their computers have fairly sophisticated security protocols? Or how about a simple mechanism that would alert the owner when a computer’s been used? I’m not even talking an alarm, I mean more like a log. Also, why isn’t Terl occasionally checking them out on the security cameras? I mean, he spent three solid days monitoring the human to see what they like to eat. Surely he could spare a moment to look in on them once in a while. Of course, then the humans would be found out and never learn enough to mount a challenge to their oppressors. So never mind.
OK, just when I was writing all thatâ€¦ Jonnie is looking over a Psychlo security manual. (Psychlo reports are stamped onto metal sheets â€“ because it’s just so friggin’ alien!!) This notes that secure field vaults, like the one sitting right next to the computer, should require an eight-digit code to access. Terl’s employee identification number is also listed on the sheet â€“ gee, that’s convenient — and Jonnie punches it in to see if it opens the vault. It doesn’t. (However, no alarm goes off either.) Then Jonnie decides to see how ‘clever’ Terl is, and punches in the ID number backwards.
At this the vault springs open. (!!) I’d like to remind everyone that Terl is a planetary Security chief for a galaxy-spanning conqueror race. Because it’s pretty hard to remember at times, considering what bumbling idiots he and his entire race are. The humans enter the vault and find it full of ray beam pistols (!!). Jonnie also recognizes the machine that records the data from the security cameras. Again, I’m not sure why Terl would want to program this sort of info into someone he was planning to turn into a manual laborer, but there you go.[Segue wipe] Back to the mountains, where we see a mournful Chrissy sitting out by herself. I must admit, this was actually sort of shocking. We haven’t seen this character for nearly fifty minutes and I had more or less forgotten she existed. Looking down, she sees Jonnie horse [slow motion] come galloping into the fortress. As with Chrissy, I had also forgotten the horse. In fact I had assumed it died when the Psychlos shot it. Soon we see Chrissy on her own horse, preparing to ride from the village. The Elder tries to stop her, but she’s adamant. In a rather goofy ‘action hero’ moment, she tosses a hand ax and cuts the rope holding the gate closed. It springs open and she rides out.
Back to Jonnie, who is again hooked up to the knowledge machine. Terl, meanwhile, is still trying to bribe Jonnie with a rat. (By the way, exactly what is he feeding the humans anyway?) Aside from the rat thing, Terl still hasn’t figured out that Jonnie has learned stuff. So he proceeds to brutalize Jonnie a bit, just so that we don’t forget that he’s EEEE-vil. Ker, however, wonders is perhaps Jonnie has learned Psychlo and is only pretending not to understand them. “Maybe it’s secretly listening,” he suggests, “trying to get leverage over us.” This is sort of odd, because Ker’s been more or less a complete doofus up to now. Terl, of course, is too arrogant to even consider the possibility. That’s his fatal flaw, you see. (That, and the utter moron thing.)
Ker is right, though, and even as the Psychlos converse Jonnie begins secretly taping their conversation. Needless to say, though, neither Terl or Ker hear or otherwise notice the camera lens telescoping out from the wall. Of course, the whole telescoping lens thing is, from an internal standpoint, patently stupid. I think we can safely guess that the filmmakers designed things this way for the sole purpose of letting us in the audience know when someone is taping someone else. Even so, let’s go with it. But then we have to wonder why being from such a paranoia-inducing culture haven’t trained themselves to listen for the camera activation noise.
Nor, amazingly, does either of them notice that all the other men are passing each other ray beam pistols. Meanwhile, Terl has decided that his scheme isn’t going to work. Therefore he draws his sidearm, preparing to execute the humans and cover his tracks. Jonnie now reveals that he can speak Psychlo, informing the two that they are his prisoners. Terl sneers, asking how he plans to hold them. Jonnie gives a signal and his followers rush out whilst triggering their weapons. (Why? I thought they were trying to take them prisoner?) However, the guns won’t shoot. Terl disdainfully explains that Psychlos “never store loaded weapons.” First, I don’t know what ‘loaded’ means in the context of beam weapons. Shouldn’t the term be ‘powered’? Second, are they telling us that Jonnie learned enough to operate all the various security systems, but somehow failed to glean this one fact? Or bothered to test the weapons before trying to use them? Whatever.
Terl begins choking one of the humans. Jonnie tells him to let the guy go, or else they won’t mine the gold. As he points out, Terl wouldn’t have time to train another crew. The Home Office will eventually learn of the deposit and then Terl will be cut out of any profits entirely. Agreeing, his captor grudgingly accedes to his demand. Still, the Psychlo decides to teach the uppity Jonnie a lesson.[Segue wipe] We cut to a matte painting, er, I mean, another ruined building. A sign out front [camera tilt] reveals this edifice wrecked to be the remains of the “Denver Library.” (A city the size of Denver only has the one library? That’s weird.) Terl hauls his shackled prisoner inside. He intends to show Our Hero that human resistance to their Psychlos betters is futile. Or something. I don’t know. This allows for another wad of exposition, wherein Terl explains how the Earth fell to the invaders in nine minutes (!!). Apparently when the Psychlos invade a planet they teleport in millions of “gas drones” to suppress any resistance. And so, despite the fact that we keep getting told that time is of the essence, Terl has brought Jonnie here to poke around as he will. “Everything you humans knew is here,” Terl chortles. “And you can look at anything you want, because there is nothing that will help you.”
Jonnie isn’t listening, however. He’s too busy being inspired by a dusty bust of, I think, Thomas Jefferson (!!). This is another scene, by the way, that highlights the film’s incredibly overbearing musical score. As Jonnie examines his surroundings, some of the most generic ‘inspiring’ music you’ve ever heard, “ahh-ahh” singing choir and all, comes blaring over the soundtrack. In a downright hilarious montage, we watch Jonnie has he looks through various books. Which I must say are quite well preserved for being in an open-air environment for the last thousand years. In the end we see Jonnie reading over the Declaration of Independence (!!). In case we don’t recognize this document â€“ a good bet, unfortunately, given our educational system — they have him the book’s title page explicitly state what it is. It’s here we learn that the Psychlo knowledge machine taught Jonnie the English language, which is utterly unlikely. The Psychlos don’t strike me as a race that would bother learning the languages of the races they conquer and/or exterminate.
By the way, what are the odds that Jonnie would just happen to stumble across the founding document of our governmental system in the hour or two that Terl gives him to look around? I myself work in a public library, and one quite a bit smaller than Denver’s. (Especially since they apparently only have the one.) Believe me, the odds of randomly coming across the Declaration of Independence instead of, say, multiple copies of the eighty-nine novels of Danielle Steel are pretty slight. In any case, Terl’s plan backfires. Rather than being demoralized, Jonnie ends up being all the more inspired. Big surprise.
Terl provides one further demonstration of his power. This entails taking Jonnie and the others out to a meadow, one containing a herd of none-too wild looking cows. Terl’s brought them here to show them what a great shot he is. Then — and I had to stop writing his sentence because I was laughing so hard — he demonstrates his marksmanship by, and I swear this is what happens, blowing legs off some of the cows and toppling them over. We only actually see this once. Then we watch as he squeezes off further shots, each of which is followed by a “moo!” sound and then a thud. I realize that this is meant to show us Terl’s manifest cruelty, but I can’t help it, it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Really, it’s right up there with the sheep catching a LAWS rocket in Bad Taste. The only difference being that that was meant to be funny.
Terl continues to show off his proficiency, even firing from behind his back (!). Watching this I could only ponder the fact, when I wasn’t laughing my ass off, that is, that no other Psychlo we’ve seen has been able to hit the side of a barn. This all finally comes to an end when a scream of rage is heard. At this, a bunch of fur-clad humans come bursting out of some nearby bushes. Perhaps they own the cows Terl is shooting down, not that it matters, and they rush forward and manage to knock him to the ground. (How hard can that be? Again, Terl’s up on stilts.) This allows Jonnie to grab Terl’s gun and take him hostage.
By the way, I just noticed here is that Terl’s gun hasn’t been shooting ray beams when it’s fires. Which is what the weapons have consistently been doing up to now. Also, it’s making loud ‘bang’ sounds, like a regular projectile weapon. So what the heck?
OK, I went back and investigated this. Remember how I said that the Psychlo pistols were more or less ‘U’ shaped? Well, if I’m following this correctly, the bottom barrel fires ray blasts while the upper barrel shoots conventional projectile rounds. I guess the energy beams are used to incapacitate — although it still seems to me that anything with enough mass and kinetic energy to pick you up into the air and fling you twenty feet or more would probably do you in — while the projectile rounds are used to kill. I guess.
The primitive woodsmen, who carry spears and are dressed in animal skins, yell for Jonnie to “shoot!” Which seems odd. (Their leader, the aptly named in the credits as Wild Woodsman, is played by Richard Tyson, the hunky star of the perennial cable sex flick Two Moon Junction.) Since they’re presumably never had any experience with guns, how would that piece of vernacular have hung around? Anyway, Jonnie resists their entreaties. Unlike them, you see, he is armed with Knowledge. Unlike his fellows, he knows that the stars in the sky aren’t gods. Man must fend for himself if he’s to achieve his freedom. In a scene that won’t exactly have Braveheart looking over its shoulder, much less Henry V, Jonnie rallies his fellows with a none-too inspiring speech. You can almost hear the screenwriters trying to write around him screaming “FREEDOM!!”
The woodsmen pledge their featly to The Fight and then run back into the woods. After which, to the shock of his regular companions, Jonnie submissively returns Terl’s pistol. Terl does the grabbing-the-human-by-the-neck-and-choking-him thing for about the eightieth time and tells Jonnie that he has something else to show him. They fly back to the training area and we see that *gasp* Ker has Chrissy in a slave collar. (Since this is a sci-fi film, and a deeply unoriginal one, I’m assuming there’s an explosive device in it.) Jonnie pretends not to know her but his subterfuge comes to naught. It turns out that Chrissy was carrying a sketch of Jonnie (!!) when she was rounded up, and somehow this came to the attention of Terl and/of Ker. Which makes no sense, but hell, why start now?
In an innovative twist, we learn that the collar around Chrissy’s neck is impregnated with explosives. I wish I knew where they get their ideas. Anyway, a control unit in Terl’s possession will activate the device from “anywhere on the planet.” Man, that’s quite a range. To show that the device works, and that Terl is evil — has everyone gotten that part yet? — a duplicate collar is put onto one of the other guys. Jonnie begs for Terl not to kill the man, and the Psychlo unexpectedly agrees. There’s a price, however: Jonnie must never ask anything else of him. Jonnie agrees, relieved that his friend will live. Then, big shock, Terl turns and hands the remote to Ker, noting “As I said, I won’t kill him.” Ker activates the device and the fellow bites it, albeit discretely off-camera. (So discretely, in fact, that he doesn’t even spray any blood on his companions, all of whom are standing nearby, and despite the fact that the device supposedly would have blown his head right off of his body.) Hey, wait, now I get it!! Terl is evil.
Back to the cage area, where Jonnie sits guilt stricken over the fate of his comrade. (Who, typically, has belatedly been provided with a name, to wit Sammy.) Carlo and the others attempt to comfort him. See, this is the obligatory scene where Jonnie’s companions convince him that they are ready to take up the banner yada yada. In a token of something or another, Jonnie cuts off a lock of his hair and gives it to Mickey, Sammy’s brother. I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, although apparently it means something since it gets a big musical cue. Anyhoo, this is followed by what it meant to be one of the film’s big ‘moments’, what with all the prisoners taking up the fight and the musical score triumphantly blaring and the camera all atilt and whatnot.
[Segue wipe] Back in the Psychlo bar, Terl is introducing Ker to Chirk, a Psychlo female. All the alien women we see, by the way, seem to be concubines or prostitutes or something. Yet another sign of how Bad & Wrong the Psychlo society is, I suppose. Speaking of Bad & Wrong, the introduction of Chirk has no purpose other than to provide a cameo role for Kelly Preston, aka Mrs. John Travolta. As a sign of Psychlo sexual decadence, Chirk sluttishly wags her foot-long CGI tongue. Thanks, there’s another image I’ll want to scrub out of the old brain box.
Later, the Planetship returns to his office. He’s surprised to find Terl and Ker waiting there. Terl explains that he has proof of financial malfeasance on The Planetship’s part. This knowledge gives Terl the right, in fact the obligation, to execute him. Of course, Terl has no such intention. Instead, he plans to exercise power from behind the throne, as it were. ‘You would be running the planet,” the shocked executive expositories upon learning Terl’s demands. “I would be nothing but a puppet.” Hmm, you know, I think I’m beginning to see where they’re going with this. Perhaps if they could explain it all a bit more clearly, without all this subtletyâ€¦
Now equipped with carte blanche authority — he had the Planetship sign blank order forms, so that he could fill in anything he wished â€“ Terl is soon requisitioning the mining equipment he needs to carry out his plans. Moreover, he makes sure to inform others of the scheme, all while attributing it to his superior. That way the Planetship would be in the hot seat should things not go as planned.
Next we see Terl teaching Jonnie to fly an ore transport. This takes place in a VR flight simulator, one that oddly teaches you to fly the craft while rapidly twisting and turning through small narrow spaces. Like, oh, I don’t knowâ€¦the corridors of the Death Star that the X-Wing fighters flew through in Star Wars? This VR thing is undoubtedly another bit meant to be ‘neat,’ yet as always with this film that’s at best a hunch. Anyway, Our Hero proves predictably adept. After ‘crashing’ one time, he manages to get through the simulation on the second try. As we’ll eventually see, Jonnie’s training will allow him to fly just about anything with wings. This will prove convenient to the script later on.
Stray thought: If the area where the gold rests is so radioactive as to prove fatal to the Psychlos, then wouldn’t the gold itself be fatally tainted? Just wondering.
Terl sends the humans off to mine him the gold. Jonnie is to return in two weeks with the transport ship at least half filled. Terl also warns that he’ll be monitoring them via satellite. However, as Jonnie subsequently reveals to Carlo, Our Hero has prepared a brilliant plan. See, half the guys will stay and work, while the others will go off and prepare for the revolution. Ordinarily, this would seem a ruinously stupid plan. How could Terl, via his satellite recognizance, not notice the missing workers? However, this is where the film’s careful attention to characterization pays off. Given what an idiot Terl has been shown to be, we have little trouble believing that even such a half-assed ploy might work.
Still, you might ask, how will Jonnie make sure that Terl gets his gold? Well, Jonnie’s “read about” Fort Knox. I guess he means during the hour or two when Terl took him to the Denver library, in between digging up copies of the U.S. Constitution and the Magna Carta. Anyhoo, this means that they don’t even have to mine any gold, they can just retrieve some from the Fort and hand that over instead. It might be thought odd that the Psychlos, who lust after gold and have had possession of the Earth for a thousand years, haven’t stumbled across this huge repository of the metal in all that time. But hey, there you go. Carlo points out that they don’t have enough men to split into three groups â€“ one to pretend to mine, one to find Fort Knox and get the gold, and one to search for weapons and supplies they can use against the Psychlos. Right on cue, however, the woodsmen make their appearance. Boy, that’s convenient.
(The thing they sort of ignore is, even assuming they have enough guys, there’s no reason for Jonnie to be taking the ore transport ship anywhere. So it seems kind of likely that Terl would notice the vehicle’s absence.)[Segue wipe â€“ by the way, I’m not recording all of these, just the ones I notice] So Jonnie takes Carlo and Mickey and they fly off, guided by, get this, a road map (!!). One that would have to be over a thousand years old! Where the hell this artifact came from, well you got me. This leads to some ‘humor’ wherein they guys wonder why they haven’t crossed any “lines,” i.e., the state border outlines shown on the map. Soâ€¦the knowledge machine taught Jonnie Euclidian Geometry (and how to read and write English, which is still just ridiculous), but not how a map works? Whatever. Meanwhile, Jonnie tells Carlo to “watch what I’m doing, you’re going to have to fly [the transport] on the way back.” (!!!) If it’s that easy to learn how to fly one of these things, you can only wonder why Terl bothered with the simulator.
Now we get the obligatory “finding the ruins of Washington D.C.” scene. Which, last I checked, wasn’t really anywhere near Fort Knox, but there you go. “This great village was the capital for all of our tribes,” Jonnie notes. Boy, he’s just a fount of information, isn’t he? They land and then we immediately segue to them looking over military maps. (!!) “When the Psychlos attacked Earth,” he explains to his two sidekicks, “they sent out flying gas drones.” The maps mark irradiated areas where the humans fled after the attack. The Psychlos couldn’t follow because at a certain level of radiation their “breathing-gas” explodes. (!!)
This, of course, raises a couple of points. Well, lots and lots of points, actually, but two main ones. First, if the Psychlo “gas drone” attack defeated mankind in the oft mentioned nine minutes, then who the hell printed up the map showing the irradiated areas? Second, again, it’s pretty lucky that all humans have lived in radiation-saturated areas for a full thousand years and yet remained so wonderfully fit and healthy. Nope, no genetic damage here, by golly.
To make sure, again, that we ‘get’ one of the major plot points, Jonnie once more explains that while the irradiated zones are safe from the Psychlos, the radiation is also deadly to humans and will eventually kill them off. This is a point they should rather be avoiding, however, since it keeps bringing up the “although we’ve survived it for a thousand years” thing. By the way, just how irradiated did things get? I mean, the current populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have only statistically normal levels of cancer and such. And that’s after only fifty years and change. So why are these particular areas still screwed up after a thousand years, and then why only some areas?
Back at camp, Jonnie explains his master plan to his assembled warriors. They will stage a low-level revolt inside the domed city. Then, while the Psychlos are herding them up, Carlo will shatter the dome. This will release the contained Psychlo atmosphere. Since the aliens wouldn’t be carrying their breathing devices inside the city, they should all asphyxiate. Carlo seems surprised to learn of his role of this, but quickly gets with the program. “Piece of cake,” he announces. (“Piece of cake”?!) This is only the first part of the plan, though. For once the dome is ruptured, a second stage alert will commence. This will bring legions of troops and gas drones from the Psychlo home world. Jonnie, however, doesn’t plan to let it get that far. He has a plan, we learn, involving a “radiation bomb.” Now, I’m not Nostradamus or anything, but I think I can see where this is goingâ€¦
We cut to the guys strolling the hallways of Fort Hood, down in Texas (!!). You know, one of the best things about this film is that it starts out dumb and then continues to grow more moronic at a nearly geometric rate. Here the men find vast supplies of just about every type of military equipment and ordinance you can imagine. And here’s the fortuitous part: After sitting around for a thousand years, everything still works perfectly. As, disbelievingly, we shall see.
This includes a simulator for a, get this, Harrier Jet (!). We know it’s still working because Jonnie finds it bucking around as his panicking spear-wielding comrades poke away at it. (By the way, even assuming that the computer boards and wiring and microchips and whatnot were still functional after a thousand years, just what the hell is powering the damn thing?) Harrier jets are the ones featured during the climax of True Lies, planes that actually have the ability to hover. They are also famously about the hardest possible vehicles to pilot. Buy, hey, the cavemen have a simulator, right? Right?
Meanwhile, as the guys take the time to train on all this stuff — which might, after all, take days or maybe even a week or two — they still have to deliver some gold to Terl. Who, presumably, hasn’t noticed the missing transport or anything else suspicious during his satellite surveillance. At least the simulator training is going well. “It’s like breaking a horse,” one atavistic trainee notes. Oh, yes, it’s just like that. As to whether he thinks the men will have trouble mastering the jets, the trainie inevitably answers “Piece of cake!” To our disbelieving amusement, this will be the Revolution’s official ‘cool’ motto from here on out.
The men have also managed to dig up a nuclear warhead, one still all shiny and stuff. Of course, it would be silly were it just sitting around armed. So they explain that Jonnie’s found a “book” that explains how to get it ready. Yes, that’s much more believable. I’m sure they’d have a hardcopy text on that procedure sitting right close to hand. One easy for the layman to understand, of course, like “Nuclear Devices for Dummies.” I mean, wouldn’t you?
I’m not saying that there wouldn’t be such a manual. (Although you’d think that maybe the nuclear warheads and their operating instructions would perhaps be kept in a vault or something.) Still, anyone who’s had experience with the military knows that there would be thousands and thousands of regulation black binders scattered all over the base. These would promulgate instructions on, for instance, how to perform a military haircut, or flag raising procedures, or regulations on checking equipment out of the motor pool, or how to fill out a no-shaving chit request. Or about a million other things. So it’s lucky that Jonnie was able to quickly dig up the right one.
As if anticipating these objections, Jonnie’s arming of the warhead soon comes to a halt. His binder, he realizes, doesn’t include the essential “Appendix A,” which details how to finish the procedure. Which, I must admit, sounds a lot more like the military as I remember it. Still, I know that you, the reader, are like us, the viewers, impassionedly yelling “No!” at this juncture. For if Jonnie and his comrades are thwarted now, how will plucky Mankind ever throw off the shackles of the Psychlos? Fear not, though, gentle correspondent. All will be revealed.
Jonnie and Carlo search through the various volumes the room contains. Then, in a stunningly believable moment, Mickey accidentally turns on one particular piece of equipment in the room. (Should Mickey really be mucking around with stuff in a room that contains nuclear warheads?) Anyway, the device he turns on isn’t a coffee maker. Or a photocopier. Or a phone answering machine. Or a pencil sharpener. Or an electric fan. Or a radio, or computer monitor, or whatever.
No, he’s somehow managed to turn on a slide projector. Man, you’ve got to love the thousand-year light bulbs they used in those things. And, get thisâ€¦the slide that’s right in the projector happens to show Appendix A!!!! What an amazing stroke of luck, eh? Although I’m really starting to wonder where all this electricity is coming from. Anyway, I’ve done some mathematical calculations on the odds of finding this one bit of information this way, and it’s at least three-to-one against. So, whew, lucky huh?
Then it’s on to Fort Knox. Here again the doors fall open quite easily, and the main vault proves to be somewhat conveniently ajar. (!!) Boy, it’s lucky that the sophisticated electronics of all those weapon systems and stuff still work, including the overhead lighting in the gold vault, but that giant metal doors no longer function as barriers. Inside, we see that although the gold bars stacked on each other are extraordinarily heavy and soft (for a metal), they’ve haven’t begun flattening out. I’d also be interested in seeing how three guys on their lonesome manage to carry out enough gold to fill up the large holds of the ore transport. I’ll bet they were sore when that job was done.
And so Jonnie presents the perfectly formed bricks of purified gold to Terl. Terl, ever on the ball, immediately asks why the gold is in bars. Jonnie replies that he just assumed Terl would prefer that they smelted it into ingots after it had been mined. Terl’s only comment at this is to complain that if they had enough time to smelt it down — not to mention building a furnace and molds and all that, which you’d think they’d have had to have — then they should have dug up more gold. Whew. That was a close one. For a second I thought he wasn’t going to buy Jonnie’s clever explanation. Despite my sarcasm, this is one of about fifteen different scenes in the film that are so individually stupid that you just have to give up on the damn thing. I really have to say that this is one of the dumbest movies I’ve ever seen in my life.
Next, in another scene like the one I just mentioned, Jonnie smuggles himself back to the holding cage area. This is unguarded as usual, but Ker just happens to be around. (?) Jonnie informs him that Terl is planning a double cross. Our Hero knows this because he’s gotten into Terl’s private vault of blackmail recordings, which was the same vault Terl had the humans training by (!). You know, even if Jonnie could somehow do all this, where the heck is he finding the time? This is supposed to be less than three weeks since the mining operation began, and look at everything they’ve done already. Anyhoo, Jonnie offers Ker an incriminating recording he can use against Terl, but he wants something in return. Ker refuses, telling Jonnie to hand it over or he’ll shoot him. Jonnie instead passes the recording to one of the caged humans, who begin to pass it around to each other. Defeated by this brilliant tactic, which in second grade we used to call “keep away,” Ker accedes to Jonnie’s demands. What he wants is the keys to Chrissy’s collar and to the cells. Soon everyone is free.
Meanwhile, Terl is filling already occupied, but conveniently roomy, Psychlo caskets with the gold. This apparently will be how he smuggles the ingots back to the Home World. (Gee, smuggling stuff in a coffin. That’s a new one.) Luckily there’s a huge warehouse of dead Psychlos waiting to be teleported. Even more luckily there are no personnel in the warehouse, so Terl’s work is unimpeded. And, presumably, when the caskets are physically transported to and from the teleportation pads, no one will notice all the extra weight. Yes, it’s really a flawless plan.
Terl returns to his office to find Ker lounging about in an insolent fashion. Playing on the wall monitors is the incriminating recording Jonnie provided. Ker, of course, begins to gloat, believing that he now has his boss over a barrel. However, since Ker is also the picture’s Designated Doofus, we know this situation won’t last. Especially ridiculous is when Ker demands 80% (!) of the gold.
Here we get another staple problem with the film â€“ get one, get ’em all, kiddies — which is that it falls prey to the Dumb Watson Paradoxâ„¢. This is when a work presents two characters, the function of the second being to make the first look like a mental giant. The quandary arises when we in the audience notice that the second character is a complete moron, and thus fail to be impressed with the first guy for outthinking him. Battlefield Earth illustrates this trope perfectly. Terl is meant to be this wily, seemingly unbeatable mastermind. Which, if we believed it, would make Jonnie’s triumph in the end (oops, sorry) all the more inspiring. However, since the only evidence we’re shown of Terl’s purportedly massive intellect is that he continuously outmaneuvers his complete dolt of an assistantâ€¦well, you see what I’m getting at.
Even funnier is the way Terl supposedly proves his greater intelligence here. He draws his weapon, but Ker reveals that he gave a copy of the recording to a confederate. Should anything happen to himâ€¦ Terl admits that he’s defeated, noting that Ker’s accomplice could be anyone. “It could even be,” he notes, “our friendly bartender!” Here he reaches into a (wide open) box of some sort and whips out this fellow’s head. (Note to zenobiologists: Decapitated Psychlo noggins quickly gain a very rubbery appearance.) Ker begs for his life, and so Terl just blows his hand off.
Outside, we see Jonnie and some men lurking near the teleportation pad. Then Carlo arrives in the Psychlo transport ‘copter. He’s bringing in the nuclear bomb they mean to teleport to planet Psychlo, as well as general explosives and weapons. Meanwhile, some rather oblivious Psychlo guards – I mean, they didn’t even notice the landing transport vehicle — prove themselves surprisingly vulnerable to attacks with metal pipes and are quickly disposed of.
An alarms sounds and a rebel reports “Five guards from the south, heavily armed and moving fast.” We then see said guards via an overhead shot. They prove to be moving comically slow, given the description we’ve just heard and all. So slow, in fact, that I suspect the shot might be a slow-mo one. If so (or in either case, really) it’s a rather goofy editing decision, given that a character onscreen is talking about the rapidity of their movements. Not only is that aspect incorrect, but “heavily armed” proves to mean that they’re carrying the standard sidearms the Psychlos always carry.
Inside the city a mass of humans are assembling to provide the diversionary riot. This initially involves them smashing windows, which calls up memories of Seattle more than anything else. And why would the Psychlos care about windows being broken in old abandoned buildings? Still, I am impressed that there’re so many hundreds of intact thousand year-old display windows sitting around.
Meanwhile, Jonnie is doing that thing where one runs in slow-motion as you are shot at and explosives squibs go off to your left and right and artfully scatter debris all around. In other words, it’s a rip-off of The Matrix, and a rather blatant one at that. Only in that movie the hero was hard to shoot because he was literally bending the laws of reality. Here Jonnie is hard to shoot because the Psychlo guards couldn’t hit the broad side of a domed city from the inside. In fact, Jonnie not only doesn’t get shot, but none of the literal clouds of flying fragments blind him or even cut him up a little. This goes on for a while, getting funnier every second, especially with the generic ‘ahh-ahh’-ing triumphant music playing in the background.
The guards are sent to corral the humans, as per the plan. Meanwhile, we see Terl flying around in an Psychlo jet, surveying things. Jonnie, for his part, is still engaged in his running slo-mo gun battle with ever more multiplying guards. All of who manage to miss Our Hero even as he himself mows down opponents like wheat. Soon various ‘exciting’ nonsense is going on. Jonnie ducks into a ship and Psychlo gun bursts start blasting through the walls and kicking up more supposed shrapnel. Meanwhile, Carlo’s set the explosives to shatter the dome, but has been spotted from above and is ducking air-to-ground laser blasts. Luckily he has a magic LAWS rocket launcher that fires heat-seeking projectiles or something and takes the airship down.
Then more ersatz John Williams music plays as a whole fleet of Harrier jets arrives on the scene. One even manages to shoot down a Psychlo fighter as it approaches. Apparently Jonnie trained like twenty cavemen to fly these things in the last week or two. Of course, they did have a simulator. Now, you might be asking, OK, if they have a whole fleet of functioning Harrier jets, why not fire a bunch of air-to-ground missiles into the dome and shatter it that way, thus avoiding this whole elaborate plan? There is a logical answer, though, and it’s, uh, it’sâ€¦.Hey, look over there!! (Please image the initially loud but rapidly diminishing sound of running feet at this juncture.)
More dumb action stuff. For instance, two Psychlos enter the ship Jonnie’s hiding in. Jonnie shoots the first one, after which the second politely waits until Jonnie’s in position to shoot him too. Then there’s a dogfight as barely trained savages in millennia-old but immensely complicated jet fighters shoot down a series of trained pilots familiar with their crafts. One especially prime moment has a guy aiming his Harrier at a Psychlo fighter and hitting the eject button as his plane continues on to smash into his opponent. Yeah, that’d work.
I have to admit that some of the special effects here are pretty neat, albeit highly derivative. Not just of Star Wars and all the other films that ripped-off its dogfights, but of other flicks as well. For instance, one human pilot chasing a Psychlo fighter notes, “Hang on, I’m right on his tail,” and you sit there waiting for somebody to call someone else ‘Maverick.’ Given that these are perhaps the only genuinely cool moments in the movie, it’s a shame that the entire scenario is so ridiculous as to defy suspension of disbelief.
Jonnie activates the transporter equipment — is there anything Terl didn’t teach him? — and prepares to send the nuclear device to Psychlo. For some reason (My guess? IITS), someone has to manually carry this to the Psychlo home world, and so Mickey goes. And thus is the audience provided with a martyr for a little pathos action. (Very little.) Meanwhile, we get some standard race-against-the-clock stuff. See, some guards have found Carlo’s pile of munitions, that which is to bring the dome down, and begun to disarm it all. But Carlo can’t trigger them until Jonnie gives the word, because shattering the dome will instantly result in zillions of troops and gas drones being zipped in from the home world â€“ I guess they always have these legions of guys standing by â€“ and until Jonnie is ready to transport the nuke there they can’tâ€¦.
Well, Jonnie is now ready, and the word is given, but then Terl shows up (IITS) and grabs Jonnie before he can activate the transporter, and then Carlo sets off the bombs, and the guards fly whoosh! through the air, and big orange plumes of flame erupt, and the glass panes of the dome fracture but don’t actually break apart, and then Terl gives the order to wipe out the humans entirely, and the people start getting slaughtered (we can beat their piloted ships one-on-one, but suddenly our armed people can’t outshoot their armed guards), and then Carlo does a Kamikaze routine with the transport, but they figure even that isn’t dramatic (or perhaps goofy) enough, so then he somehow survives the crash with his craft wedged into the dome, and all looks lost, see, and then Carlo, who’s only alive because he’s strapped in his pilot’s seat way above the city, triggers the remaining explosives in the hold of the ship with another LAWS rocket â€“ the launcher amazing didn’t fall out when the canopy of the plane fell to Earth â€“ and at the cost of his own life, and this finally does the job, and the glass dome and many of the ruined buildings crumble to the ground in sometimes spectacular and sometimes patently bogus fashion (it should be noted that this particular sequence, like many others from past films, draws uncomfortable and unwarranted power from recent events), and thenâ€¦
OK, let’s slow back down. Terl activates the teleporter, presumably to get the troops and gas drones here to Earth. Being Terl, of course, he doesn’t stop to consider that he had just found Jonnie himself trying to activate the unit. Good thing Terl’s such a moron, eh? So on the home world we see a multitude of soldiers and drones ready to teleport. Again, we can only assume that all these guys stand there at all times, ready at any moment to deploy. Jonnie then stabs Terl with his trusty Plexiglas knife, the one he’s been carrying around for the entire movie.
With Terl thus distracted, Jonnie surreptitiously fastens an explosive collar around the Psychlo’s arm. (Because it’s safe to assume that anyone still watching all this is a little light in the IQ department, they show a quick flashback to Chrissy wearing the collar, so that we ‘get’ what it is.) Jonnie gets pummeled and pretends to be beaten, begging for Chrissy’s life. This reminds Terl about the remote detonator he’s carrying. Since he’s so EEEEE-vil, he decides to activate it as Jonnie watches. And so Terl finds himself disarmed. (Ha, I’m so funny.)
Meanwhile, Mickey and the nuke beam out. I still can’t figure out a reason why they couldn’t have just left the bomb on the transporter pad, but there you go. Back on Psychlo (couldn’t they have given the home world another name, so as to cut down on the confusion) guards see Mickey appear and laugh as they prepare to shoot him down. Then he triggers the bomb â€“ I guess someone had to go to push The Button â€“ and boom, the entire atmosphere of the world ignites in about five seconds. This is sort of a cool sequence, if you ignore the fact that theoretically billions of sentient beings were just snuffed out. But then, they were EEEE-vil, so I guess we’re not meant to worry about it.
You know, considering how easy the ‘exploding the atmosphere’ deal was, you have to wonder why none of the supposedly numerous other races the Psychlos conquered had done the same thing. This is especially relevant in regards to the gas drones. Since the Earth was surprised by their appearance, so much so that all our defenses fell in nine minutes, then you must assume that you don’t need teleportation equipment on both ends. In other words, it must work like ‘beaming’ on Star Trek, as opposed to the portals in Stargate, where you need to go from one to another.
Assuming this is so, then the only way that a nuclear bomb, or just a radium rod, wouldn’t be teleported into Psychlo’s atmosphere by their enemies would be if they were the only race to have transporter technology. Which, given what a bunch of unambitious idiots they are — hey, they lived in the same ruined Earth city for one thousand years and never bothered to do any repairs! — seems a bit unlikely.
Their mission accomplished, the humans come together to contemplate their victory, and Jonnie hugs and kisses Chrissy â€“ oh, yeah, I remember her. Then we cut to Fort Knox. Rather than killing Terl (yeah, right!) Jonnie has, oh the irony, put him in a cage surrounded by the very tons of gold he lusted after. Gee, it’s like the worst written Twilight Zone kicker ever. Just to make the characters even more unbelievable, Terl exhibits not the least bit of sorrow, or anger, or even embarrassment that his scheming and all around general incompetence has resulted in the outright destruction of his entire home planet.
Jonnie visits for a little rubbing in of the salt, not to mention some last minute wrap-up-the-movie exposition. Which Our Hero provides while circling the cage, so that the camera can pan around in a circle, presumably in what they thought would be a neat fashion. Terl asks why he aren’t dead â€“ good question â€“ and they just gloss over the real reason. Which is, frighteningly enough, that the film we just saw only covered half of Hubbard’s novel, and that everyone, Travolta especially, thought there would be a sequel for Terl to appear in.
Instead, we get a typically ludicrous response, which goes something like this: Terl is being kept alive for insurance. If there are other Psychlo colonies, Jonnie explains, they could still send gas drones and exterminate human life. (Which I find hard to believe, but anyway.) However, and this is the goofy part, if Jonnie provides evidence that everything was Terl’s fault, because of his greedy plans, then the wrath of any remaining Psychlos would fall only on his head. Uh, yeah, because it’s either the kill-Terl or destroy-the-humans thing. You couldn’t possibly do both.
Then Terl does his Snidely Whiplash laugh, and we see a pistol-wielding Ker standing behind Jonnie. However, in a boring twist, Terl (and we) learn that Ker is now working for Jonnie. And why not? He’s both more humane and a lot smarter than Terl. “Look at the bright side,” a laughing Ker tells his former boss. “At least you finally got your gold!” Oh, the irony, eh? And then the camera pans back to show that Terl’s in, not a room full of gold, but a vast warehouse full of gold. Yes, that’s right, the last shot of Battlefield Earth rips off the last shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And on that highly original note, we cue the end ‘credits.’ All seven minutes of them. I guess it takes a lot of people to create such a giant pile of crap.
First, I’ve heard that the film was actually somewhat altered before being put on disc, presumably to make it less bad. If so, the procedure was as successful as those of Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeons to make him look less weird. If anyone has some details on this topic, please send them in.
As for the influences of L. Ron Hubbard, in terms of scientologists, I really don’t think there are any. At least not any that someone unfamiliar with his ‘religion’ could perceive. Still, I’m sure there are more knowledgeable folks out there who have researched this at greater depth. I’d imagine a quick trip to Google.com would provide such pieces for anyone interested in them. My personal take is that, while Travolta is famously a Scientologist, he didn’t have particularly theological reasons for making the movie. He just wanted to adapt a work by his primary source of inspiration. After all, if Jesus wrote bad sci-fi novels, chances are some Christians would make a movie out of them, too.
Let’s get back to a few points about this movie that can’t be overemphasized. First, one of the big problems here is that the Psychlos are, to be charitable, nitwits. Really, how could these guys take over one planet, much less the huge number of them indicated. Moreover, this lessons the impact of the hero’s success. Of course he’s going to beat these boobs. We have as much doubt about that as we do that Col. Hogan’s men will outwit Col. Clink and Sgt. Schultz.
Also, it’s time to beat on Roger Christian one more time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a director so mercilessly flogs an all too limited collection of hackneyed directorial gimmicks. Segue after segue is heralded, not only with wipes, but with the same boring wipe used over and over again. Numerous scenes are played with the ambient sound muted while the musical score blares away. A third of the movie, is seems like, is shot in slow motion. And those camera tiltsâ€¦ The worst idea, though, was the decision to shoot so much of the film through a dark blue filter. In conjunction with all his other little devices it created a picture that’s literally uncomfortable to watch, in the same way that people who wore 3-D glasses often got headaches.
Nor is he any more successful at imposing a unifying vision on the actors and their performances. Barry Pepper, the fellow who plays Jonnie (actually, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, although he’s never referred to as such in the movie), is more or less a nonentity.
Unsurprisingly, Forest Whitaker provides the closest thing to a decent performance here. A real and actual actor, he gamely attempts to bring his role as it’s written to life. Which is as someone who, despite being incredibly dense, persists in believing that he’s slyer than those around him. (And considering how smart Terl and the rest come off, you can’t really blame him.) Rather than helping, however, Whitaker’s efforts serve instead to throw the film further off-kilter. The problem is that the cast brings so many different sensibilities to their performances. Whitaker, for his part, nobly tries to bring some depth and weight to his role. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast, all pretty much novices except for one obvious exception, brings a stolid, uninspired seriousness to their roles. This, in turn, serves mainly to amplify the script’s already prodigious unintended humor factor.
Past all doubt, though, it’s Travolta who’s the primary guilty party here. He is, after all, the Big Cheese in this vicinity, and he criminally allows himself to flounce around in an outrageously self-indulgent manner. (As, in fact, he generally does when playing villains. Only here he does so even more than usual.) Of course, for those of our predilections, such a performance is manna itself. Indeed, Travolta’s turn as Terl is so unrelentingly awful, so epically bad, that it to mind no less a luminary than the great Burton himself. It’s truly one for the ages, if only for its almost limitless self-indulgence.
And so back to Whitaker. Part of the problem with his performance is that practically all of his scenes take place directly opposite Travolta. These sequences amount to watching two actors attempting to play off one another, only with one believing he’s in a drama, the other thinking he’s in a comedy.
And really, who here could have told Travolta ‘no’? Battlefield Earth is my train set, he seems to be saying, and no one was going to tell him that he was ruining the movie for the rest of us. Being the man responsible for movie even existing, he’s akin to a multi-million dollar sports star who can ignore his teammates and coach and do whatever the hell he wants.
Moreover, he’s one of those rare individuals who’s been in the position to make whatever the hell movie he wanted, without any tangible sort of oversight. I’ve previously expounded on how these vanity projects are about the only mechanism left in modern day Hollywood that can spawn such utterly grotesque progeny. (See my reviews of William Shatner’s Star Trek V and Steven Segal’s On Deadly Ground and The Patriot for more on this subject.) And boy, I couldn’t have asked for a more textbook example of what I was getting at than this movie here. In Hollywood as in few other places, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
One doubts, for instance, that Christian even attempted to rein Travolta in. Basically a hired hand, he had to be aware that, has dissension occurred, it was that director, not the star, who was going to be pushed out the door. If he’d been a better or more experienced director, perhaps he would have realized that Travolta’s performance would create an immense gravitational field that would warp the path of anything acting near him. And if he lacked the power to bring Travolta in line with the sensibility of the rest of the cast, he could have at least tried to bring everyone else into line with Travolta. Instead, everyone plays things in radically different fashions, and the clashing sensibilities quickly overwhelm the film.
So what we have is Travolta unleashed, which has seldom proved a pretty sight. We’re talking the man, after all, who followed up Saturday Night Fever and Grease with Moment by Moment. Obviously seeing this film as a complete and utter lark, he portrays Terl in a manner probably meant to suggest the plummy qualities of a Vincent Price. Unfortunately, Travolta completely lacks Price’s razor-honed ability to judge just how hammily a part can and should be played. Nor does Travolta’s high-pitched voice help, serving to further exaggerate an acting style that can only be described as overripe to begin with. Imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger’s failed attempt at camp in Batman and Robin, only more so, and you’ll be in the right ballpark.
Lewd innuendo, Psychlo style!!
Chirk to Terl, breathlessly: “I’m going to make you as happy as a baby Psychlo on a straight diet of Kerbango!”
Those Psychlos and their goofy compound words:
Bureaucratsâ€¦of the Future!!
A disbelieving Terl is told that a man-animal has shot a guard, and responds angrily:
Terl: “You are out of your skull-bone if you think I’m going to write on the report “shot by a man-animal”!”
Terl: “You were waiting for me to be transferred so you could turn it in and get all the credit for yourself.”
Ker: “I didn’t think you’d mind!”
Terl: “I don’t mind. Turn it in. But before you do, pretend you’re not a complete imbecile and check the compo-gradients!!”
Lack of Multicultural Insight!!
Our Hero is monitored as he inspects his companions’ clothing:
Ker: “They know about the button camera!”
Terl, in disbelief: “Don’t be a knot-head! He’s a man-animal!”
More Lack of Multicultural Insight!!
Terl, reacting to an attempting coup: “If any of you rat-brains knew anything about firearms, you would know that we never store loaded weapons.”
Planetship Lackey: “Nobody works for free.”
Terl: “Man-animals do. What if we were to train them how to mine?”
The Planetship, with much dismissive laughter: “Man-animals operating machinery?! Have you blown a head-gasket?!”
Jonnie slyly pretends to acknowledge Terl’s superiority:
Terl: “Damn right, rat-brain! That’s the first intelligent thing you’ve said!”
The Critics Rave:
You don’t watch this movie â€“ you survive it.
— Steven Rosen, Denver Post.
That stampede you’ll hear will be audiences racing to the box office for a refund.
— Paul Clinton, CNN.com.
My thesaurus lists several synonyms for the word “dumb,” but I’ve crossed them all out and printed just two words in their place: Battlefield Earth.
— Jon Popick, Planet-Sickboy.
Battlefield Earth is so stupid it defies explanation. Not even Evel Knievel could hurdle the rifts in reasoning.
— John Powell, Jam! Showbiz.
This is the funniest movie of the year. Period. It’s so unbelievably and egregiously bad, you have to wonder if they really meant for it to turn out this way. I’m serious. We’re talking Yor, The Hunter From The Future bad here.
— Widgett Walls, Needcoffee.com.
It may be a bit early to make such judgments, but Battlefield Earth may well turn out to be the worst movie of this century.
— Elvis Mitchell, New York Post.
Roger Christian has learned from better films that directors sometimes tilt their cameras, but he has not learned whyâ€¦Some movies run off the rails. This one is like the train crash in The Fugitive.
— Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times.
Christian shoots every scene in a weird Dutch angle titled left or right for every frame of the movie! And every scene in the movie ends with a middle wipe — really.
— Max Messier, Filmcritic.com.
Roger Christian’s predilection to tilting the camera in every shot gets old quickly.
— Anthony Leong, Reel Site.
— Robin Rauzi, Los Angeles Times. [Christian] probably has no better idea than I do of why he occasionally tilts the camera or uses slow motion. Maybe he thinks it looks cool.
— James Berardinelli.
Each scene has been shot from a canted angle, forcing more literal-minded viewers to tilt their heads in order to follow the story and determine which of the alien baddies is roughing up what humanâ€¦ With his bad skin, uncouth dreds and ridiculous, ornate costumes, Travolta looks like an extra on the greatest White Zombie-GWAR music video everâ€¦ The aliens kill with big clunky guns that look like drainpipes and wear bulky uniforms from the Michael Jackson Gestapo collection. You’d think a full millennium from now, aliens would be killing with their Palm PDAs, picking up their weapons of mass destruction at Staples without having to worry about whether the camera’s crooked
— Wesley Morris, San Francisco Examiner.
You’re unlikely to see as hilarious a sight this year as the vision of pudgy star John Travolta wobbling on mini-stilts, trying to deliver bad dialogue as if it had been written by Shakespeare.
— Jeff Vice, Deseret News.
Travolta gives a performance that would make William Shatner wince.
— Edward Johnson-Ott, Nuvo News.
Travolta’s Terl is the Snidely Whiplash of sci-fi, a laughable villain who would twirl his moustache if he had one.
— Jack Garner, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
Travolta plays Terl as a sort of evil aristocrat, but overacts the role at every opportunity. It’s like he went to the Brian Blessed School of Subtle Performance but was thrown out for laughing too much.
— Chris Holland and Scott Hamilton, Stomptokyo.com.
Forest Whitaker [looks] like a cross between George Clinton and the Cowardly Lion.
— Scott Van Doviak, Culturevulture.net.
Ker comes off looking like the offspring of Chewbacca and Yogi the Bear.
— Michael Elliott, Movie Parables.
— Eric D. Snider, Daily Herald.
Ker, played by Forest Whitaker, [is] coiffed to resemble the Cowardly Lion in The Wizâ€¦ [The film] could be renamed Ed Wood’s Planet of the Apes if that title didn’t promise more cheesy fun than the movie actually delivers.
— David Edelstein, Slate.
Battlefield Earth is the film Edward D. Wood Jr. might have made if he had been handed $100 million.
— Joe Baltake, Sacramento Bee.
If 1950s sci-fi schlockmeister Ed Wood could have gotten his hands on $60 million and CGI special effects, he might have made a movie as hilariously gawdawful as Battlefield Earthâ€¦ When the credits rolled, my cheeks hurt from laughing. I hated this movie, and I had a great time doing it.
— Rob Blackwelder, SPLICEDwire.
Ha! Suckers! Now that you’ve wasted your time, go to Lianna’s much funnier review of Battlefield Earth.