How did this movie get made?
It’s a question with many different answers, depending on the movie. Jurassic Park 3 was made because someone thought another sequel capitalizing on the (admittedly successful) rampaging-dino franchise would be a good idea. And yes, I’m going to go see it, because I like dinosaurs, and I like Sam Neill getting chased by dinosaurs. So they have the right idea there. While sequels may not always seem a good idea to the rest of us, to Hollywood they represent a fairly good chance to make a lot of money.
With other movies, the answers are less clear. Take Maximum Overdrive, or any number of Stephen King flops. What possessed them to make 90-minute movies out of twenty-page stories? It doesn’t work. The same goes for King’s 500-page bestsellers; they don’t translate to screen. But someone looked at the name on the front cover and the synopsis on the back cover (killer clown, killer car, killer wombat, whatever) and said “You know what? That’d make a good movie. And it’s got Stephen King’s name on it! It’s great!” Again, this has worked in terms of money, and “Children of the Corn” certainly spawned itself a succession of low-budget, high-gore shockers.
Then there are vanity projects, like Battlefield Earth. John Travolta, a prominent member of the Church of Scientology, wanted to make a movie of the L. Ron Hubbard novel ever since he read it nearly 20 years ago. At that time, he pictured himself as the dashing young hero, but as the years went on his weight gain and declining popularity made that impossible. His turn in Pulp Fiction brought him back to the mainstream of “respected” stars, and he had enough money and clout to get his vision of Hubbard’s work put on screen, appearing as the psychotic villain.
There’s one problem with vanity projects: the vanity. People who have devoted themselves to a cause with the single-mindedness of Travolta will often become blinded to that cause’s flaws. Travolta had wanted to make this movie for so long that he wouldn’t take no for an answer. And so it was made.
And it sucked.
This is truly a movie where one asks “How the HELL did this get made?” It defies comprehension. That someone would look at the script, or at the finished product, and decide that it was something to be distributed in theaters… it has to be Travolta’s doing. I can’t conceive of the major studios wanting to release this steaming pile of cowflop. Then again, we’re talking the people who are making a live-action version of “Scooby-Doo”, so you never know.
One more thing before I start the review proper: this movie’s been compared in dozens of reviews to the Ed Wood masterpiece Plan 9 from Outer Space. This is totally unfair. Plan 9 was produced on a budget of about three dollars. One of the “stars” (did anyone really star in that movie?) died halfway through filming*. But despite its problems, Plan 9 has a goofy kind of charm. It’s really quite entertaining, and you have to make allowances for the times and the lack of funds.
*Sorry to butt in, but actually Bela Lugosi died before the movie was even conceived of. A few minutes of footage shot with the late actor was sitting around in Ed Wood’s closet for some period, and he finally decided to build a movie around it.– Ken, HPoJ
Battlefield Earth has no such excuse: the budget has been placed somewhere between fifty and seventy-five million dollars. And it still sucks. Worse, it’s boring. It manages to be tedious and irritating at the same time. It was supposed to be a rousing shoot-em-up scifi extravaganza, but it just isn’t fun.
The opening scene is blatantly stolen from Star Wars, a scrolling green prologue on a black screen. Not only is it hard to read, but it explains way too much, helpfully telling us that aliens called Psychlos have taken over the planet and men are living in irradiated areas, having regressed to a tribal state. The movie makes all these things quite clear as it progresses, leading me to believe that the producers thought we were stupid. Either that, or they realized just how damn incoherent their film is.
The full title is “Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000”. As a standard shot of Earth pans down through clouds, the movie further informs us that “man is an endangered species”. Thanks, I think we probably saw the tagline on the video box. The mountain scene before us flashes in and out of negative for some odd reason, rather like Robot Monster, before the dramatic music starts. Very dramatic, as they establish the hell out of some mountains.
Abruptly, we cut to some standard post-apocalyptic leather people, a la Planet of the Apes, filing into an enclosure whose walls are lined with spiked logs. One girl, Chrissie (Sabine Karsenti, who looks like Alanis Morrisette’s little sister) waits, watching the mountains. The obligatory Crusty Old Tribe Leader (Michael Byrne, who according to the credits is playing “Parson Staffer”, though they never call him this) tells her not to wait, as she’s endangering the whole tribe for the sake of one man — “he was a wild spirit. This was always to be his fate. Best to set your sights elsewhere for a husband.” To which Alanis… er, Chrissie… replies, “I will never set my sights elsewhere.” This should be dramatic or something, but she just seems to be pouting.
We soon see why. Jonnie “Goodboy” Tyler (Barry Pepper, who played a sniper in Saving Private Ryan) comes riding down the mountain. On his white horse. With his blonde locks flowing in the wind. Subtlety, thy name is Goodboy. I don’t think anyone actually calls him this in the film, but that’s how he’s listed in the credits, because L. Ron Hubbard called him that. I’ve never been fond of how sci-fi movies tend to do their characterization with a large club, but this is the most egregious example I’ve yet seen.
Anyway, Jonnie (yes, that’s the rather twee way they spell it) has brought medicine for his ailing father. Unfortunately, Alanis tells him, the gods took Dad in the night. Jonnie looks down, up, and then hurls his medicine bag at the sky while screaming “Noooooo!” For some inexplicable reason, this is rendered in loving slow-motion.
After Jonnie buries his father (what, they didn’t bury the corpse until his son got back?) in a completely useless scene, a screen wipe stolen right out of Star Wars (again) takes us inside the tribe’s cave. Jonnie complains that they’ll never have enough food in the mountains, and that they should move. Crusty Old Tribe Leader chastises him for this, saying that the “demons” will kill them all. “Have you ever seen one?” Jonnie asks. This is a good point, but he ruins it by jumping around and throwing sand, shouting “A demon? A monster? A beast???”
The extras are obviously unimpressed by this display, but COTL is ticked. Seems the gods once lived among man, but man grew selfish and arrogant, and the gods left, letting the demons “descend from the sky”. To illustrate his story, COTL grabs a torch and swirls it around, illuminating a cave painting of a hideous beast. The survivors, he says, must dedicate their lives to pleasing the gods, in hopes that they’ll return. “That is to be our fate,” he says.
“Only if you believe in fate,” Jonnie shoots back. (wow!)
The next morning, Jonnie (who’s awfully clean-shaven through this entire picture) decides to leave. On his way out, Alanis confronts him. They go through the standard “no, you’re a woman” — “I can handle myself” — “you need to stay and help the tribe” rigmarole. Alanis calls Jonnie an “arrogant greener”. Then she relents and gives him a necklace his mother gave her before she died, in hopes it would be passed down to his children. Gee, I wonder if this necklace is going to show up as a plot point later on?
I gather that Jonnie and Alanis… sorry, Chrissie… are supposed to be in love, but there’s a total lack of any emotion in this scene. Karsenti’s performance is understated (I’ll be charitable and say she’s doing it on purpose), but Barry Pepper seems to be sleepwalking through the picture. I suppose he’s meant to be the tough, unemotional hero, but he just seems kind of dazed.
After Sgt. Pepper takes off, there’s a scene of COTL greeting the sun with a didgeridoo, for no apparent reason. Hey, padding out the running time… now I’m in familiar territory.
As Jonnie rides through the forest, some loud mechanical noise from overhead spooks his horse. This could be an effective scene if 1) they hadn’t told us there were aliens here already and 2) they didn’t spin the camera so much.
Speaking of cameras, this is about where we start noticing the camera angles. Everything’s tilted — it’s like watching one of those old V-8 commercials where people walked around tipped at odd angles. Supposedly this added “energy” to the film; it just makes me a little nauseous.
The horse bolts into a clearing, where it rears up and falls over on its side. I’d think something like this would seriously injure either horse or rider, or both, but they’re both fine — until Jonnie spots the monster! He grabs something out of the grass and attacks it and yells and it’s big and everything’s really jumbled and intercut with shots of the COTL and his cave painting, until he figures out that it’s not fighting back. It turns out to be a statue of papier-mÃ¢chÃ© or something similar — after a thousand years, mind you — that’s part of a miniature golf course. Ha! It’s irony! Comedy, even!
“Not a lot of meat on that dragon,” someone says. Jonnie turns to see a Weasely Guy (“Carlo”, played by Kim Coates) and a Fat Guy (Michel Perron as “Rock”, though I never once saw him do a Rock Bottom or a People’s Elbow) holding spears on him. Weasely Guy mocks him a little, calls him an unbeliever, then asks for one of the rabbits Jonnie has hanging off his saddle. Apparently, since Weasely Guy and Fat Guy have seen “gods”, Jonnie’s willing to exchange food for a sight of these gods.
The matte painting… er, “great god-city” they find is pretty decrepit, though I’m not sure whether it represents a thousand years’ worth of wear. The way to the great god-city is marked by “frozen ones”, who supposedly disobeyed the gods by looking directly at them, suffering the fate of Lot’s wife. Weasely Guy points out one particular “frozen one”, a god who fell in love with a mortal woman and was left behind as punishment. It’s apparently a statue of Mr. Goodwrench. Irony!
Weasely Guy relates this tale in tones of awe: “The gods could fly through the air. They drove their chariots in front of special caves with golden arches… gold!… where food would magically appear… magic!” Kim Coates is obviously embarrassed, knowing this is a really stupid attempt at Irony and Comedy combined. Then his friend trots out the old “the gods are up in the sky shining down” line, to explain the stars.
The three go into a mall, where Fat Guy points out the mannequins — “lookit those poor bastards! Now they really really angered the gods!” Jonnie manages to walk into a glass display case. Now, come on. Not only would thousand-year-old glass not be clean enough to see through, but display cases have edges and borders — no matter how clean they are, they’re identifiably objects. I might have understood Jonnie walking into a glass wall, but this is ridiculous.
As our friends eat around the fire, Jonnie explains his nickname “Greener” — the grass is always greener on the other side, always looking for something better, et cetera. An idiom that’s survived a thousand years? Besides, this is Misdirected Answering â„¢, though the only question I’d rather have answered is “why am I watching this?”
Fat Guy makes a very good point here: “Around here, a good woman? Hard thing to find. So if you were stupid enough to leave a perfectly good woman behind, why don’t you tell me where she is so I can go get her for myself?” This is played as sleazy, but in this kind of world that attitude makes a lot of sense. Still, Jonnie gets peeved and tries to beat up Fat Guy, but he’s the Hero so he’s allowed to lose his temper.
A green special effect comes out of nowhere, hitting Weasely Guy in the chest and breaking up the fight. Weasely Guy flies through the air and hits the wall. Jonnie whirls — in slo-mo! — to see what happened.
Something’s coming. In slo-mo, of course. We see a hand holding a gun, a heavy black trenchcoat with a belt, and the back of a head that looks like a dreadlocked beehive. The music here is reminiscent of the scene in The Matrix where Neo and Trinity first enter the office building and go through the metal detector. Well, reminiscent as in totally ripping it off.
Jonnie and Fat Guy run away. Their flight is portrayed partly in slo-mo, partly in regular speed, for no apparent reason, and we still have those horrible camera angles. There’s an oddly calm score composed of a whistling sound and occasional thuds. It’s totally inappropriate for what should be an exciting chase scene.
Fat Guy jumps off a balcony for no good reason except to injure himself and deliver the obligatory “Forget about me, get the hell out of here!” line. Instead, Jonnie whistles for his horsie, who comes running in obediently — in slo-mo!
Fact: horse snorts sound really weird in slo-mo.
A beam shoots out of the darkness — hey, I don’t think it even connected! Still, the horse rears and falls over for the second time in the movie. Clumsy horse. Jonnie screams “Noooooo!”, also for the second time in the movie. You’d think staying quiet would be to one’s advantage when one is being stalked by a monster, but IITS.
The “god” shoots Fat Guy and Jonnie runs. So much for not leaving a fallen comrade, but it does make sense. We see a heavy boot stomp down on some kind of ball on the floor, for no reason. Except maybe it’s an evil boot. Then the alien shoots Jonnie (finally!), who crashes through about ten plate-glass windows in succession. This is a total rip-off of Blade Runner, plus it’s done in slo-mo (did we expect any less?) PLUS Jonnie comes out with a total of one scratch! And it’s one of those cosmetic scratches, too, the kind that just serves to emphasize the Hero’s cheekbones.
Jonnie ends up in the hold of a ship, which has a barred floor so all the humans can see the ground receding and freak out. Fat Guy and Weasely Guy are with him, as well as some others.
What’s supposed to be awe as the ship approaches a huge glassed-in city just comes off as mild bemusement on Pepper. That seems to be Barry’s forte. He mumbles his lines with the same “duh… huh?” expression almost every time.
The ship lands in an airlock, which begins filling with purple gas. “It’s poison!” Jonnie says helpfully. Thanks, Jonnie, we thought oddly colored gases were good for us!
A member of the Trenchcoat Mafia approaches. Opening the cage, it shoves something at Jonnie. It hisses and clamps onto Jonnie’s nose, and he realizes that “It helps you breathe! Take it!” Thanks again. He takes it off to test it (huh?) but puts it back on again. Oh, and don’t accidentally breathe through your mouth — it only goes on the nose. Two tendrils hang down from the nosepiece, connecting to nothing I can see, but making the characters look like they braided their nose hair.
Some dramatic “aah-aah” music introduces us to “Human Processing Center — Denver”. The airlock opens. Immediately, Jonnie and Carlo make a break for it. Carlo runs like a scared little girl, and a Psychlo shoots him in the back after making sure to set his phaser to “stun” (I swear). He does this with a six-fingered hand which is rather obviously a floppy clown glove that can barely move. Jonnie grabs the gun away and somehow manages to shoot the Psychlo, who falls to the ground, apparently with a large hole in his gut. Wasn’t it set to stun? You can make me believe that an uneducated man can figure out how to fire a gun after seeing it used once — can’t be that hard — but he wouldn’t know how to set it to “kill”. Of course, my suspension of disbelief went off to Aruba as soon as I popped in this tape, leaving me to suffer alone.
Since nobody bothers to grab the human who just shot one of their men, Jonnie runs. Some humans are getting hosed down in a corridor and Jonnie slips (in slo-mo). He falls and slides right into the feet of… bum-bum-BUM…
John Travolta! Finally!
Now, I must take a moment to comment on Travolta’s appearance as the evil Terl. He doesn’t have one of the trenchcoats; instead, he’s got dreadlocks, a goatee, some goofy locks of hair stuck in random places, and what has to be the biggest ego-stroking costume ever designed. Mainly the codpiece. This thing is as big as Barry Pepper’s head. Dear God… it’s just… obscene. I swear Jabootu is hiding inside (it’s big enough), laughing triumphantly at us all.
Travolta’s assistant, Ker (Forrest Whitaker, who I think has earned his Most Embarrassed Actorâ„¢ award since he’s the only name I recognize besides Travolta’s) is tricked out like the Cowardly Lion from a community theater production of The Wiz. He also has a codpiece, but of course it’s not as big as John’s.
Travolta pimp-slaps Jonnie and drags him out to confront the human wranglers who slacked on their jobs. When the remaining wrangler claims Jonnie shot his colleague, Terl throws a hissy fit about “I’ll be damned if I put ‘shot by man-animal’ as the cause of death unless I see it!” His voice is unnaturally high, as if something inside that codpiece has grown claws (thank you, Jabootu) and is pinching him in his, er, sensitive areas.
The upshot of this scene (which stretches about five minutes too long as they debate) is that Jonnie, given the gun, shoots the second wrangler. Why he didn’t just shoot them all, since they gave him the gun before they started arguing, escapes me (IITS!) “I’ll be damned,” Terl says. And then he laughs. His laugh sounds like the product of an unspeakable mÃ©nage a trois between Vincent Price, Pee-Wee Herman, and the Joker as voiced by Mark Hamill. In a word, excruciating.
Jonnie and his fellow prisoners head to the corridor we saw earlier, where they get hosed down by high-pressure sprays — in slo-mo. Someone please tell me the point of using slo-mo in this scene. Unfortunately, they’re all still fully clothed. Nudity, partial or full, is all I can think of that would hold any interest at this point.
Of course Jonnie (being as how he’s the Hero and all) fights back, grabbing a hose and directing it at one of the face-shielded Psychlos. The Psychlo grabs him, slaps him around some (they can’t punch, because their floppy clown gloves won’t make fists) and then grabs — *gasp!* Jonnie’s medallion! I knew it would come up later.
There’s an open fire nearby for some reason — maybe they were grilling swordfish — and the medallion ends up in it. As it burns, we see that it’s actually a… well, I think it’s a quarter, though it could be a half-dollar. Some kind of coin, anyway. It’s Irony… of the FUTURE!
Of course, Jonnie feels nothing.
Terl’s boss, who the IMDB credits list as “Zete” though he was “Zzt” in the book (how the hell do you pronounce “Zzt”? Sloppy writing, Mr. Hubbard, very sloppy) now shows up on a low-rent version of the Star Trek transporter. The matter transfer seems to take about five times as long, and there’s a horrible annoying noise that sounds like the intro from a Marilyn Manson song.
The moment Madame Pompadour… er, Zzt… steps off the transporter he’s complaining. Because complaining is funny! Earth is so ugly, you know, with how green it is, even though all we can see is brown. And the gravity is so… different on this “diseased craphole”. The Psychlos use “crap” as an all-purpose expletive. In fact, I think it’s the only one they have, besides the adjective “blasted”. Though they’re supposedly speaking Psychlo, their idiom is too much like what you’d hear if Beavis and Butthead made a 50’s-style B-movie.
Anyway, Zzt wants to exterminate the planet once they’re done with it, because the “man-animals” are so grossly undersized and icky and all. Which begs the question: why call them “man-animals”? It’s a cumbersome phrase, somewhat reminiscent of Wells’s “manimals”. But since these aliens call themselves Psychlos, not men, why not just call the humans men? Or animals, or slaves? That last one seems more to the point.
Now comes an incredibly stupid little interlude. Ker shows off a satellite photo of a pre-invasion man in a car, with a dog in the passenger seat. Zzt comments that obviously dogs were the dominant species, having the man-animal chauffeur them around. Terl agrees that dogs are more cooperative, but they weren’t suited to manual labor.
Wait just a cotton-pickin minute here (I always wanted to say that). Assuming that dogs are dominant based on one stinking picture, when there’s ample evidence of a society created by men, is the height (or depth, if you will) of stupidity. Of course, it’s Comedy! Irony! Cause see, we treat our dogs like they’re dominant. Or something. I need to lie down now.
God, there’s still over an hour of this left.
Right. On we go: The Planetship arrives in the conference room, which we can tell has Psychlo atmosphere in it because of the purple filters on the lights. These aliens are all varying degrees of ugly, but the Planetship has to be the worst — half-bald, with a liver-spotted skull and a huge neck growth that spreads over his chest like a bib. Okay! We know they’re evil freaks! Stop torturing us, already!
Everyone’s shown up to discuss the end of Terl’s temporary assignment as security chief on the planet. Zzt says that since Terl has done such a good job, they’re keeping him on for another term of service! Yay! Except Terl gets twitchier than Quentin Tarantino. He can’t stand the planet. So Zzt tells him no, they won’t keep him there for another five cycles. Big relief…
“We’re going to keep you here for another fifty cycles! With endless options for renewal!”
There’s some serious reverb here, and we go into one of those “horrified” sequences where everyone laughs at Terl without sound. Goiter-Man laughing is quite a sight. One expects him to go Carrie at this point, but then we get the audio back and Zzt says, “The Senator has a lot of friends.” With reverb again! I’m surprised they didn’t put it in slo-mo.
It turns out that Terl unknowingly screwed a Senator’s daughter. Come on, did we really need to think about Psychlo sex? As Zzt laughs at him, Terl puts his clown-glove on his gun, but doesn’t follow through. Promises, promises.
Cut to a picture of Jupiter, colored purple with the Photoshop “Hue” function. This is Planet Psychlo, which is apparently an industrial-nightmare version of Coruscant — one big city. Amid the purple haze (sorry) Zzt and two other people, who I didn’t notice on the transporter when he came to Earth, arrive on the transfer platform and remove their nose-dreadlocks.
And then we go back to Earth. Huh? Was there no purpose to that scene other than to show us Psychlo? In case you’re wondering, the planet does show up later in the movie, so there’s absolutely no reason to show it now. Obviously Zzt was going back to his home planet. I guess they just wanted to show off how evil the planet was.
As I said, back to Earth, where Terl and Ker are getting smashed on an alien liquor called “kerbango” — can’t you just see that word coming up on a 60’s Batman episode? Pow! Zap! Kerbango! John Travolta drools green snot-like liquor onto himself, because his clown-gloves won’t let him hold the glass very well.
Ker is totally wasted, man, and can’t understand what Terl’s so down about. He’s got a cushy job, right? In response, Terl bitches a little about how Ker is stupid, and then takes three “pans” of kerbango to go. The “pans” are actually tall glasses, but in the book kerbango was a solid substance that came in pans — you used it somewhat like chewing tobacco. This is an example of being too devoted to the source material, a flaw which saddles the movie with far too many tedious scenes of office politics.
Cut to the prison where the man-animals are being kept — oh! Ha! They’re using the ZOO! Irony! Oh, my stars and garters! A Psychlo goes from cage to cage, filling troughs with something that appears to be liquid Soylent Green (I wouldn’t put it past these guys, either. They are evil, after all.) There’s a pointless scene of a man informing the newcomers that he eats first, because he’s the boss. This is just set up so Jonnie can kick his ass and prove just what a fair and wonderful Hero he is by saying “From now on, we eat at the same time!” He offers a handful of slop to a young girl, who seems less than grateful, and then holds out another handful to his defeated opponent, just to show what a good sport and all-around great guy he is. The opponent got his face dunked in the trough during the fight, so he’s got enough of the stuff in his hair to make a pretty decent meal, but he takes Jonnie’s slop anyway.
Okay. Terl is chief of security, right? And this is an advanced race with great technology, right? Except he’s got the most obvious “hidden” cameras. They’ve got a lens about as big around as a roll of quarters, and when it’s turned on it makes a little zzzip! noise and shoots out of the wall a couple inches. We’re only man-animals, and we have better cameras than that at Radio Shack, fer Chrissakes.
Here we have more of the fascinating politics for which Battlefield Earth is famous. Ker has some kind of scan that shows a vein of gold in the mountains, revealed by a recent avalanche. He’s been hiding it, waiting for the day when he’d assume Terl’s position so he could take credit for it himself (as he says later, “I didn’t think you’d mind.”) Terl comes up behind him as he’s trying to sneak it back into the inbox, and he tries to lie his way out of it. Ker’s constant “yes, sir” and tolerance of abuse, while scheming against his employer, would make an unlikeable character in any case — but it’s even more offensive considering that he’s black. And he’s the only black Psychlo in evidence. Of course, L. Ron Hubbard was… well, we’ll go into that later.
Ker is shocked that there are “picto-cameras” in the security office, since “we never use them to spy on our own office”. Why can’t they just say “cameras”? Oh yeah — it’s the FUTURE! Terl, in a stunning display of lawyeresque logic, says “That’s right. We don’t. I do.” (wow!)
Terl asks Ker to check the “compo-gradients” on the scan (Hubbard was in love with hyphenated neologisms) and Ker finds that there’s “radiation” in the area. “No Psychlo could get near without his breath-gas exploding,” Ker states, sounding mildly embarrassed. I don’t blame him. Not only is “breath-gas” (or “breathe-gas”, as it’s sometimes pronounced) another stupid word, but why would Psychlos make up a word for their own atmosphere when they call Earth’s atmosphere “air”? Again, this is a Hubbard thing, and they really should have changed it — but they couldn’t, for reasons I’ll go into later.
Terl sneaks up (how do you sneak up in those huge boots and all that creaking vinyl?) and whaps Ker over the head with a metal pipe, screaming in his best whiny toddler imitation. Ker goes for the pipe and brings it up to attack Terl (please, oh please) but Terl pulls his gun (damn!)
This brings up a question. How did a race this violent and treacherous ever organize enough to create a civilization, much less conquer someone else’s? Evil villains are standard, but these villains are so evil they’re totally implausible.
Terl devises a plan. He and Ker invent a potential worker mutiny out of whole cloth. There are more workers coming, who’ll have to go on half-pay because production is decreasing. They discuss this with the Planetship in a weird little scene where Psychlo women with receding hairlines and huge downward-slanting eyebrows that look like evil caterpillars play geisha to the big powerful men — Terl’s getting his nails filed, while the other woman is performing some kind of grooming ritual that consists entirely of scratching Goiter-man’s head with her Lee’s press-on nails.
Terl unveils his plan: he’ll take some men (I’ll be damned if I type out “man-animals” anymore) to the mountains and see if they can be trained to mine, since they work without pay. It would just be a test, of course. The Planetship is terribly skeptical and scraps the plan even after Ker bolts out of his seat to deliver some IMMORTAL DIALOGUE. (See below.)
Cut to some men doing heavy labor, carrying rocks back and forth, shuffling along in leg shackles. A joy-riding Psychlo ship hits a smokestack, sending rubble and bricks cascading down in slo-mo on the humans. Jonnie breaks his shackles with a rock, proving that advanced civilizations make their prisoner restraints out of aluminum. Weasely Guy (remember him?) shouts “Run! RUUUUUUN!” Thanks, Weasely Guy, for drawing attention to the situation by stating the obvious. Jonnie does run, in slo-mo of course, which could be why he ends up getting hit by a stun-ray. Maybe Weasely Guy should have told him to run fast.
The Psychlos who shot Jonnie decide that he’s untrainable, which lets them have fun with him before killing him. They take him through an airlock into their own atmosphere and take away his breath-mask. “Last time we didn’t even stop timing until its lungs burst,” one says, taking out a futuristic stopwatch. “That’s the wager.” Oh yeah, in case you didn’t notice, these guys are evil.
Jonnie runs for some amount of time, holding his breath (which by the way was a lungful of Psychlo air that he gasped in) until he finds some humans working in a boiler room. A black guy shares his noseplug (eew!) until the Psychlos show up and start shooting things at random because Jonnie cheated. They don’t hit Jonnie, though, so he’s off and running again.
From this riveting scene we cut to — politics! El Goiter is hiding something, says Terl, and if they can find out what it is then they’ll have leverage over him. Leverage… that’s a funny word, isn’t it? I hope you like it, because you’ll be hearing it a lot over the course of the film. “And then we can get the gold!” Ker says.
All together now: “What do you mean, we?”
Through a transparent ruse, Terl gets Ker to explain the plan on film (how could Ker not notice the camera whirring out of its hiding place? oh yeah, IITS). Terl reprimands Ker, then shuts the camera off before Ker exclaims “But it’s your stinkin plan!… sir.”
“Consider this a lesson,” Terl tells Ker. “When you’re doing something illegal, be sure to have a patsy to blame everything on.” Ah, I see he’s been reading Machiavelli for Dummies.
Back to Jonnie, who’s still running with his breath held. Now, humans can hold their breath around three or four minutes, I think… they can go without air longer than that, but it’s impossible to hold your breath long enough to do yourself damage because your body will rebel. Besides, Jonnie’s running full-out. He should have been poisoned long before this, but he’s the Hero, so of course he can live without oxygen.
Terl just happens to see Jonnie, running around in the sewers, on a security camera. Don’t ask me why he has security cameras in the sewers, or why the only monitor in the room just happened to be showing the White-Boy-Escaping channel.
After about five hours, Jonnie finally gets to a place where there’s air, and there’s light around the corner… but the end of the sewer is blocked by a big gate. He freaks out and howls some, shaking the bars, but even this seems lackluster, as if he doesn’t really care. The two Psychlos who had the bet followed him into the sewers (giving the movie credit, they remembered the breath-masks) and are about to shoot him when…
Two points if you guessed that Terl shoots both of them. “This one does seem particularly intelligent and resourceful,” he says. Well, compared to the rest of the movie, I guess so. “But he’s defiant. Which means we’ll need leverage over him.” (Told you.) His big plan is to take some men out to the mountains and let them choose their favorite food, so he can then control them by offering them food in exchange for work. Sounds like too much work to me — why not just wave your gun around?
But here are three guys — Jonnie, Weasely Guy and some guy I don’t know — running around in the mountains. It’s cold, and there’s a lot of fake snow blowing around in the abandoned city they find. It’s been three days since they escaped, Ker tells us, and they haven’t eaten yet. “But now that they think they’re safe, they’ll find their favorite food, to celebrate,” Terl says. This is severely dumb. How does he expect them to find any food in such a desolate landscape?
But, we had to set up the Comedy here. Jonnie finds some rats and jumps on them in slo-mo, which is probably why they couldn’t run fast enough to escape him. They just sit there and let him kill them with the dagger he made out of a piece of broken glass. It turns out there’s nothing to start a fire with, so they have to eat the rats raw. Terl somehow completely misses the point and assumes this is their favorite thing to eat — “they could have chosen anything!” Yes, out of the one choice they had, they chose this.
Jonnie hears a whirring noise and looks down. How are Terl and Ker watching them? Well, they’ve put cameras in the buttons on the men’s shirts. They’re smaller than those stupid whizzy cameras in the office, but they still make that whizzy noise. Terl protests that the men can’t possibly know about the cameras… as they smash them. Well, for God’s sake, if you don’t want them finding out about the cameras don’t make them so damn noisy! Terl throws a tantrum when Ker mocks him. “Well, move your fat ass and go capture them!” And then he whaps his beehived head on the ceiling. “Crap-lousy ceiling! I thought I told you to fix this!” he whines. Ker just shakes his head. You know, Travolta is still proud of this film.
A couple ships show up, and Jonnie and friends run all over the place. They come to a cliff, and Jonnie’s going to jump. Weasely Guy tells him he’s a total moron, but Jonnie goes for it anyway, only to be confronted by a ship rising over the cliff’s edge. Despite his best efforts to run away in slo-mo, both ships land near him, and Jonnie gives up.
Back to Terl’s office, where Jonnie, Weasely Guy, and that guy I don’t know come to fix the ceiling, along with the guy’s brother. (I’ll just call them Twin and Scruffy Twin, that’s pretty accurate.) Terl comes in while they’re hacking away at the ceiling arch with pickaxes and grabs Jonnie, taking him into a room where he gets strapped into a dentist’s chair.
A holographic image of a sad-eyed alien appears, explaining that he is only a lowly Clinko language-slave, and that he will attempt to teach his subject Psychlo, if his insolence can be forgiven. Jonnie gets pinned by a light beam that swarms with images and words in a foreign language. There were rumors when this film first came out that looking directly into the light would trigger subliminal messages about Scientology, but I doubt it. I don’t think anyone involved with this film could create and execute a successful subliminal message — they’re too incompetent.
Terl comes in to check Jonnie’s progress, dangling a rat in his face. In one of the few neat little tricks, the deep grunting sound of the Psychlo language fades in and out into Travolta’s nasal whine, showing that Jonnie is beginning to understand. “Hungry, little fella?” Terl yells, acting like an American tourist who thinks if he shouts at the foreigners they can understand better. Jonnie just stares at Terl, who leaves, disgusted.
The two Psychlos leave, and Weasely Guy goes to check on Jonnie. Pulling him out of the light beam, he is startled when Jonnie shouts at him in Psychlo. He tells Jonnie to get out of the chair, but Jonnie wants to learn more. Apparently it’s quite a rush, being hooked into the machine.
Late at night, as a campfire burns in their cell (they let the men have fire?), Jonnie scratches feverishly with charcoal, trying to explain what he’s learned. Now, he probably should have foreseen that people who’ve never seen a printed word or done anything but basic counting won’t understand engineering, molecular biology or algebra, but he doesn’t seem to get it. Someone brings up a good point — “I thought we were supposed to be trying to escape.” “This will help us escape!” Jonnie says. That’s right — we’ll escape through the power of Euclidean geometry!
In the security office, Jonnie finds a card and starts reading it in Psychlo. “Jonnie. Human,” Weasely Guy reminds him. The card is about codes for accessing personal vaults, and how employees shouldn’t use their ID numbers. Jonnie tries Terl’s ID number, but it doesn’t work… until he types it in backward. And oh, there’s fun things in there like guns, and the recording machine Terl uses to spy on everyone.
Remember the beginning of the movie? Remember all those people? Well, here we are again, even down to the guy playing the didgeridoo on the cliff. Chrissie’s sitting around, doing something vaguely female and watching the horizon, when Jonnie’s horse comes home sans rider. Chrissie climbs on her own horse (a black one, because she’s not the Hero) and is about to leave when the Crusty Old Tribe Leader (remember him?) tells her he won’t let her go. “I don’t need your permission,” she snaps. “I’m no longer a child.” (wow!) She rides off, and of course everyone’s powerless to stop her. Whatever.
Terl tries offering Jonnie a rat again. Jonnie does the same dumb stare he’s used throughout the entire movie. Ker speculates that perhaps Jonnie knows Psychlo but isn’t letting on — maybe he’s trying to get leverage. “A man-animal getting leverage over a Psychlo?” Terl sneers. Meanwhile, he somehow doesn’t notice that everyone’s pulling blasters out of crevices and from under desks. He decides that the project has to be terminated, and he pulls his own gun on Jonnie — who speaks to him in Psychlo. They go back and forth without subtitles for a moment, and then thankfully it switches to English when Jonnie says “You’ll stay here as my prisoner.” Terl laughs (god, I’m getting tired of that laugh) and Jonnie lets out a war-whoop, signaling everyone to pull their guns and fire. Except nothing happens.
Here Terl says the only intelligent thing in the entire movie. “If you rat-brains knew anything about firearms, you’d know that you never store loaded weapons!” Thank you, thank you. I needed a small dose of sanity.
Terl decides his man-animal needs to be taught a lesson, so it’s off to the Denver Public Library. So all these books have survived a thousand years without any kind of preservation whatsoever? Somehow I’m not buying it. Look at the Declaration of Independence (which Jonnie of course finds a copy of): it’s only two-hundred-odd years old, and it’s been kept in argon or whatever for some time, and it’s still crumbled and yellow. These books should be falling apart as soon as Jonnie touches them, but he reads them easily, sitting in a dusty shaft of golden light — he seems to draw a lot of shafts of golden light. Yes, he’s our Hero. Get on with it.
This gives Travolta a rare opportunity to not overact (and I don’t care if that’s a split infinitive). He tells Jonnie that in case he’s thinking of trying anything he should know that all the Earth’s civilizations could only put up nine minutes of a fight against the Psychlos. Of course, the Psychlos were using poison gas drones that instantly killed most of the world’s population. Not much you can do to fight against those — by the time you know they’re there, there’s not much time to aim missiles. With this kind of conquering scheme, I seriously doubt the Psychlos have had to put much effort into any of their conquests.
Terl still thinks the men need lessons, so he takes J.Lo, Weasely Guy and the twins to a field where a herd of cows grazes. Terl brags that he was the top marksman in his class, and he’ll shoot any of them at a thousand paces. “Tell them,” he orders Jonnie. “Try to run, he’ll kill us,” Jonnie says. “That’s it?” Terl asks. Ha! Mistranslation is funny!
Terl demonstrates his marksmanship in what has to be the most disgusting scene in the film… he starts shooting the cows. Not to kill, either — he shoots one leg off of each cow. Okay! Dammit, we know he’s evil! This is totally gratuitous and unnecessary, and I like cows, dammit!
Thank Jabootu, he’s interrupted by a man with a fox pelt on his head. It’s Swamp Fox! And his band of men, who are decked out in facepaint stolen from Braveheart. They knock Terl down and Jonnie grabs his gun. Everyone urges Jonnie to shoot Terl and run — yeah, that’s what I’d do — but Jonnie’s just way too heroic for that. Besides, he has a good point; the Psychlos would just hunt them down anyway. He wants to fight, and he rouses Swamp Fox and his men to cheers with a motivational speech.
Swamp Fox sends some men with spears to put those poor cows out of their misery (thank you) and then they leave. Jonnie gives Terl back the gun *sigh*. Another ship lands, and Terl explains that he wants Jonnie to be properly motivated. Two points if you guessed that Ker drags out Chrissie. She’s wearing a clunky collar. Jonnie denies knowing her, saying she’s one of the “foulest females” he’s ever seen. Let’s be glad she doesn’t understand Psychlo.
Unfortunately, not only is Jonnie a bad liar, but Chrissie was carrying a charcoal sketch of Jonnie on a piece of deerskin. Terl explains that the collar has enough explosive to “separate her head from her body” (couldn’t he just say “enough to kill her”?) and the remote for it will operate from anywhere in the world. To show he’s serious, he picks Scruffy Twin from the crowd and slaps a collar on him.
Jonnie begs Terl not to kill him. Terl says “As a gesture, I won’t kill him. But you may never ask anything of me again.” Jonnie thanks him, whereupon he tosses the remote to Ker. Another lawyer moment. “I said I wouldn’t kill him. Ker will.” Thankfully, they cut from Scruffy Twin to Other Twin at the moment Ker pushes the button. There’s another one of those soundless scenes with the horror music playing, while everyone screams and Terl and Ker laugh.
That night, in the cell, Jonnie sits banging his head against the bars. Weasely Guy tries to console him, and even Other Twin (who I guess is just Twin now) says it wasn’t his fault. Jonnie just wants to give up, though. Using his glass dagger, he cuts off a lock of his hair for some reason and gives it to Weasely Guy. I suppose that’s meant to be symbolic of… something.
To cheer him up, Weasely Guy yells to the other prisoners that Jonnie can speak the monsters’ language, and that he’s gonna help them escape. They all cheer and climb up the bars, yelling and whooping. Chrissie bangs on the bars and shouts Jonnie’s name. It’s all very rousing, I suppose. Jonnie stands and looks around, as if waking from a dream (though he still looks like he’s asleep). He’s got a cute little forelock now. Inspiring music swells, and I stop the tape to watch some more of Isadora. Ah, Vanessa Redgrave…
In the employee bar, Terl calls Ker over to meet Chirk, who introduces herself as his “soon to be newly acquired secretary” in a nice British accent. This, by the way, is Travolta’s wife Kelly Preston. She doesn’t really warrant the Embarrassed Actor award, since she’s also a Scientologist, and she just loves this movie too. Terl explains that she’s “decorative, she gets drunk with economical speed, and she has… other advantages.” A CGI tongue falls out of Chirk’s mouth, wriggles, and slurps back in. Ker is mesmerized, but Terl kicks him out so he can discuss the Planetship’s accounts with Chirk, who’s his secretary. He promises her in a dubious voice that they’ll be rich together when they go back home. She delivers a bit of IMMORTAL DIALOGUE and then slurps Terl all over with her tongue. Including the codpiece. I’m sure Jabootu was pleased.
Remember how Terl said the Planetship had a secret? No? Well, he does. It’s a standard embezzlement gag — keeping two sets of books to make it look like there’s a loss of profits, allowing him to cut worker pay and keep the extra credits for himself. (Will someone please come up with a better sci-fi money name than “credits”?) Terl gives Goiter-Man an option: either sign these blank forms and share his authority, or get vaporized. When we see Terl using some forms to get mining equipment, blaming the whole man-animal idea on Goiter-Man, we know which one he chose.
Terl teaches Jonnie to fly Psychlo ships with a flight simulator, which uses a very cluttered area of his home planet as the course. Jonnie crashes, and Terl pulls out the old “crash and I’ll kill your girlfriend” thing. I guess it’s supposed to be suspenseful, but not only do we know that Chrissie’s going to survive the movie, watching the simulator is like watching someone else play a video game — i.e., boring.
Finally they make it out to the mountains where the gold is. Little sparks appear in the cockpit as they land, indicating that the radiation in the area is reacting with the breath-gas. Terl demands that half the ship’s cage be filled with gold in fourteen days. Despite the obviousness of the gold — I don’t think you find gold in huge clumps right at the surface of the rock — Weasely Guy doesn’t think they can mine enough. Jonnie, who’s getting a bit hyper, picks up a stick and breaks it, flinging the pieces away: “This stick is the men, right? We split up, and one group stays, and one group goes…” Weasely Guy objects that they don’t have enough men to split up and find weapons and gold and pretend to be mining. Right on cue, Swamp Fox shows up with his men. These scenes are actually a relief — they’re much less drab and depressing than the earlier ones. Even Jonnie is smiling. And one of the jokes actually made me laugh (see IMMORTAL DIALOGUE).
In Washington, DC, Jonnie picks up some good maps. He explains to his friends that humans can evade the Psychlos in areas with high radiation, but that they’ll eventually be poisoned and die out. This is why they have to fight back. It’s so good to see a movie getting the science right.
Especially when they totally blow it in the next scene. Swamp Fox and Jonnie, along with a bunch of other people, trek over to a military base in Ft. Hood, Texas. There they go around looking for some nuclear warheads (mm-hmm, and genius Jonnie doesn’t figure they might need protective suits). They find guns and planes and such, all looking mighty intact after 1000 years. You’d think Psychlos would have destroyed this kind of stockpile long ago, but maybe they were just lazy. And they find a flight simulator. That still works. With electricity. After A THOUSAND YEARS! I’m not a scientist, but I just wonder what Liz over at And You Call Yourself a Scientist! would say. For that matter, I wonder what Andrew Borntreger would say. Especially about the primitive savages claiming they can learn to fly fighter planes in a week — “piece of cake!” everyone chants. (Do they even know what cake is?) This part of the film is just so ridiculous I can’t believe the actors can deliver their lines with straight faces.
Somehow Jonnie knows how to arm and disarm a nuclear bomb. Twin accidentally turns on an overhead projector, finding the instructions they most needed (yay deus ex machina!), causing Weasely Guy to scream and hide at the flash. “It’s not nuclear,” Jonnie reassures him, pronouncing it “nukyular”. I hate that.
Okay. Here’s the most ludicrous thing in the film (aside from all the weapons and electricity and stuff). The aliens are greedy for gold, which the prologue told us was the rarest and most valuable mineral. So you’d think they would have put forth their best efforts to find it, right?
So why didn’t they find FORT GODDAMNED KNOX???
Twin offers some feeble excuse about “the lead walls of this cave”, but seriously. Nobody thought to do any research about where the humans kept their valuables? They had to have at least noticed that gold was prized in this society. (Gold is pretty useless for anything but jewelry, so I have to wonder why the Psychlos want it… but anyway.) Expecting us to believe that these gold-hungry aliens totally neglected to check for mineral reserves is like expecting us to believe that Scientology gave John Travolta super-powers. Stupid, stupid, STUPID.
Terl returns at the end of two weeks to find a nice neat pile of gold bricks waiting for him. For some unaccountable reason, he accepts Jonnie’s explanation that they smelted it into bars. How did these people conquer galaxies again?
In Denver, Jonnie finds Ker and reveals that he knows pretty much everything about the whole gold deal. He offers Ker the blackmail recording in exchange for the key to Chrissie’s collar. Ker, reluctant, accepts.
Chrissie asks if someone won’t notice that she’s not wearing the collar anymore, which would be a good point if these aliens weren’t so obviously stupid. Jonnie tells her it won’t matter. Chrissie delivers what has to be one of the most hackneyed lines I’ve ever heard: “Jonnie, I know you don’t believe in fate, but I’ve always known this would be your destiny.” Okay, in Star Wars and other movies, fate and destiny were okay. They didn’t bludgeon us over the head with it. This is just ridiculous. But Jonnie says something about the fate of mankind, and of their children, and Chrissie blushes, and it’s all very cute.
Just so we can figure out he’s evil, we see Terl hiding his gold in employee coffins. This isn’t gone into that much in the film, but in the book it’s made clear that employee contracts specify a burial on Psychlo. Terl will wait until the coffins are buried, then go to the graveyard and dig up the bodies to get his gold. Do you get it yet? He’s EEEEEVIL!
After this evil activity, Terl goes back to his office, where he finds Ker getting drunk and watching a tape of Terl admitting he’s involved with the whole mining plan. Ker wants to distribute the gold 80-20, and with his 80 percent he’s going to fire all five of his wives and buy new ones — “maybe pretty ones this time!” Ha, because buying multiple wives is funny! Also it’s evil! Ker offers Terl some “Ker-bango” and laughs.
Terl wants to know who Ker gave a copy of the tape to, but Ker won’t tell — he’s having way too much fun teasing his boss as he rants on, laughing and wondering who could possibly have the tape. Then Terl pulls the bartender’s head out of a box… yep, he guessed it right. In the script, the bartender was given more of a character as someone who would make deals with people, but since we only see him say “You don’t have a tab” in the finished product, this is just sort of confusing.
Anyway, Terl shoots off Ker’s hand. These blasters apparently cauterize whatever they touch, since there’s no blood. Doesn’t seem like a very effective weapon, but then, what do I know?
A very abrupt cut takes us to Jonnie and the black guy who shared air with him about a hundred years ago. They’re running around shooting guards, while Weasely Guy starts offloading explosives at the edge of the dome. He’s going to blow it up so the Psychlos can’t breathe, but he can’t do it before they blow up the Psychlos’ planet.
Hold on, what? Yeah, they’re going to blow up the planet. Twin volunteered for a suicide mission where he’ll take a nuclear warhead to Psychlo on the transporter and detonate it. Since Psychlo atmosphere reacts with “radiation” (any kind of radiation they have around) the chain reaction will blow up the entire planet. Let’s just overlook the fact that most nukes don’t work after fifty years, let alone a thousand. I have to keep reminding myself that this stuff is a thousand years in the future. Too bad the filmmakers didn’t do that.
Back to the action. Jonnie shoots a Psychlo, a Psychlo shoots his friend, and as Jonnie drags the friend away his walkie-talkie falls to the ground. (Don’t ask me where they got batteries for it.) Weasely Guy tries to warn Jonnie that five guards are moving in fast. Yeah, right. These guys move about as fast as Tor Johnson on Valium. They almost had me fooled into thinking it was shot in slo-mo — which, given the film’s track record, would not surprise me at all — but everything else was moving in real-time. Fortunately, as with all evil monsters, the Psychlos have Offscreen Teleportation.
The humans run around smashing windows and throwing things. How this is supposed to help them defeat the Psychlos isn’t apparent — after all, the Psychlos built their own quarters, they don’t live in the abandoned wrecks the humans keep assaulting. But breaking stuff is fun! Especially when you show it in slo-mo!
Jonnie runs in X-TREEM SLO-MO (!!!) through a gauntlet of offscreen grips hurling buckets of dirt as Psychlos shoot at him, knocking chips out of a double row of columns in a blatant Matrix ripoff. Except The Matrix had cool music, cool characters and kick-ass battle sequences, while this is just dull.
After some more incoherent smashing and shooting, we go back to Weasely Guy, who’s been spotted by a Psychlo ship. He fires a rocket launcher, which fortunately has a heat-seeking missile that pulls a 180 and blasts the ship. Two more ships show up, though, and Weasely Guy has no more missiles… oh no! What’s going to happen to him?
Two points if you guessed a bunch of cavemen in jets show up and blast the enemy ships into oblivion. Mm-hmm, they learned to fly jets in a week. And pretty well, too. They’re hovering in formation, even. Now, I think these are Harriers, and those can hover, at least. But aren’t they a little complex to be flying in formation after a week?
So now we get the obligatory dogfight, stolen out of Star Wars by way of Independence Day, both of whose battle scenes were much better done than this one. The cavemen fly around wasting their ammo on buildings and random targets, so it’s no surprise that one pilot (I use that term loosely) comes up empty when he has to shoot someone who’s tailing his friend. The friend dies (a black friend, may I add — this movie’s sure not shy about killing and injuring its minorities first) and the guy whose ammo is gone flies his plane right into the Psychlo ship.
Twin sneaks onto the platform and Jonnie starts the teleportation sequence. Weasely Guy radios Jonnie in a panic because some Psychlos found his bomb and are dismantling it. Jonnie tells him to blow the dome. Just then, Terl shows up and clobbers Jonnie, then stops the teleportation sequence. Weasely Guy detonates the bomb, and… nothing happens!
Nooo! The movie’s not over yet!
The bomb does go off, but the glass of the dome only cracks. Terl gets on the intercom and tells the Psychlos to shoot everyone. This shouldn’t be so scary, since the Psychlos are so slow, but soon everyone’s doing “watermelon, watermelon” adlibs like “They’re killing us!”
Weasely Guy gets into a Psychlo ship and crashes it into the dome. It still doesn’t break — the ship lodges halfway through, smashed up, and Weasely Guy just hangs by his harness. He notices that there’s still plenty of explosives in the back of the plane. Grabbing his bazooka, he radios that he’s going to blow the dome in five… four… three… two… one… “Piece of cake,” he whispers, and fires.
Aside from the stupid line, this is truly a great moment, since the movie’s almost over. Things blow up for no apparent reason while chunks of foot-thick glass fall, smashing buildings and pretty much everything else. This still goes on much longer than we want to see, especially since half of it’s in our old friend slo-mo.
Terl wants to teleport himself back to his planet, and he radios to the Psychlo war base, telling them to activate the gas drones. He’s planning to have Jonnie stuffed and hung on his wall, but Jonnie stabs him with his glass dagger. They scuffle in slo-mo, and Jonnie has a flashback to himself taking Chrissie’s collar off. Yes, he still has it with him, and yes, the directors didn’t think we’d remember what happened a half-hour ago. Jonnie clamps the collar on Terl’s arm, and they continue fighting in slo-mo.
Terl gets the best of Jonnie and holds a gun on him, demanding to know where the rest of his gold is. Jonnie says he’ll exchange the knowledge for “my woman’s life”. Terl has the bright idea of detonating that remote, just so he can see the look on Jonnie’s face. “Trust me,” says Jonnie — “you don’t want to do that.” But Terl does it anyway, and his arm blows off.
(Personal note: the first time I saw this movie, a friend and I bought tickets to Shanghai Noon and snuck into the other theater. When this happened, we both stood up and cheered. To quote his own line of IMMORTAL DIALOGUE: “The cows didn’t like it much either, did they, ya f*$%&r?”)
Another Intrusive Note from Ken, HpoJ: Lianna earlier theorized that Psychlo gun blasts must cauterize what they hit, based on the fact that there’s no bleeding when Ker gets his hand blown off. I think, instead, that the earlier scene was meant to establish that Psychlos don’t bleed, so that we’ll understand why Terl doesn’t spray blood all over the place after having his arm blown off. Or maybe not.
The teleport sequence finally goes through, and Twin finds himself in Psychlo. Holding his breath, he watches as aliens surround him. With tears running down his face, he pushes the button, making his the third noble martyr-like death in ten minutes. The planet does blow up real good, though, leaving only a wisp of purple haze floating in space.
Everyone celebrates being alive, and Jonnie’s hair is perfect. Chrissie comes out of a bunker and runs toward Jonnie — not only in slo-mo, but in silent slo-mo, so we can see her watermelon Jonnie! Jonnie! They hug, it’s heartwarming.
And it’s still not over! We find Terl in a cage, with Jonnie mocking him. There’s gold all around, stacked in bars. Terl thinks he’s got the drop on them when Ker appears, but Ker just hands Jonnie a gun and says “I fixed the problem with it.” Then he states that he’s the richest Psychlo in the universe and leaves, laughing. Zooming out, we see that Terl’s cage is in the center of a storeroom at Fort Knox. See, he’s surrounded by gold, but he can’t have it! It’s ironic! Yeah!
God, my head hurts.
Okay, I can explain.
As I said earlier, a lot of the dialogue used in this seems counter-intuitive. Why call the creatures “man-animals” when a better word could be found? Why the insistence on hyphenated neologisms? Why the odd and continued use of “crap” in all kinds of situations?
In order to understand this, you have to understand Scientology. To keep control over his parishioners, L. Ron Hubbard made it a crime to alter his writings. Called “squirreling Source”, it’s probably the worst thing a Scientologist can do other than publicly badmouthing the church, and it’s punishable by their version of excommunication.
All of the major flaws in plot and dialogue can be traced back to Hubbard’s novel. The movie is incredibly faithful to its source material. I’m positive that Travolta himself insisted on this faithfulness, not wanting to be accused of squirreling. Unfortunately, this pretty much ruined any chance the movie had of succeeding. The silly dialogue, the useless political subplot, the impossible plot holes, all originated with Hubbard, and none could be done away with.
Except one. There was one instance of squirreling in this film, but frankly I’m not at all surprised they decided to change it. The hologram that teaches Jonnie to speak Psychlo is a member of the Clinko race. However, in the book, the race was called Chinko. Portrayed as obsequious, bowing servants with a great deal of wisdom and arcane knowledge, the Chinko are an insulting embodiment of “Oriental” ethnic stereotypes. And given that Hubbard referred to the Chinese as “chinks” in his private writings, it’s not too hard to make the connection. However, while the filmmakers changed the name to avoid the slur, the stereotype remains obvious and unaltered.
Which brings me to the filmmakers. The obvious problems in the source material contributed to the movie’s excruciating unpleasantness, but those who made the film deserve some of the blame as well. There’s the constant tilting of the cameras, from one angle to another. The acting rages from horribly overblown to damn near somnabulistic. But really, the story was implausible and stupid in the first place — there’s not too much anyone could do with it. Even if the politics had been cut out, which wouldn’t have done too much damage to the 118-minute running time, there’s still the looming deus ex machina that drives the entire plot.
Ker, bolting out of his seat: “According to regulations, a Planetship, when faced with a profit-threatening situation, is relieved of all restrictions in order to pursue, produce and preserve said profits.” [Gosh, doesn’t that just make you all warm and fuzzy inside?]
Chirk, Terl’s… uh, friend: “I’m going to make you as happy as a little baby Psychlo on a straight diet of kerbango!”
Weasely Guy, Twin and Jonnie, flying toward DC:
Jonnie: “Okay, keep your eyes out for an ocean. If you see that, we’ve gone too far.”
Weasely Guy: “We must be near Washington by now.”
Twin: “Nope, we’re still in Colorado.”
Weasely Guy: “What? I think you’re reading that wrong.”
Jonnie: “Let him navigate, and pay attention! You’re flying back.”
Twin: “No, see? [points to map] We haven’t crossed this line yet!”
Weasely Guy: “You must be doing it wrong! We have to be farther than that!”
Twin: “Come on! We can’t have crossed all these lines without me noticing!”
Jonnie: “Maybe the lines just faded over time, okay?”
Jabootu correspondent Ernest Tomlinson relates a harrowing tale of the sort of youthful mistakes that have destroyed many a lesser man, perhaps explaining his advancement of heretical notions:
“As someone who, about ten or eleven years ago in college, forced himself to read Battlefield Earth cover to cover, I certainly appreciated the storm of derision that greeted it, and the viciously entertaining reviews such as yours and Ms. Skywalker’s, which I’ve just been reading. There is one thing that both of you say, though (and you’re not alone in this–I’ve seen the same thing said in a lot of the amateur reviews of BE), that is wrong and I feel ought to be corrected. Everyone claims that Battlefield Earth was slavishly faithful to the source. This is not anything close to the truth.
Make no mistake, the Battlefield Earth book is a long, tedious slog; the first few chapters are not without interest, but Hubbard (or whoever wrote it really) ran further and further off the rails as the book went on, until by the end Jonnie Goodboy Tyler was ruler of the galaxy, or something ridiculous like that. But most of what’s really stupid about the movie isn’t in the book. A few salient points:
1. In the book, it’s clear that none of the Psychlos in the grubby colonial outpost on Earth (obviously much smaller than the vast complex portrayed in the movie) have even seen a human; they’re creatures out of books to them. Certainly there was no “Human Processing Center” or anything of the sort like in the movie. That’s why Terl’s idea of using humans to mine was, in fact, such a surprise, and something that Terl could pass off as a nutty little private project of his.
1a. And it really was private, something that Terl was doing on his own hook. He had to figure out a lot of stuff by himself, which by the way explains the admittedly ludicrous bit where Terl figures that Jonnie’s favorite food is cold rat. That is in the book, although it makes slightly more sense there: in the movie, the Psychlos have been “processing” lots of humans for a while as it seems, so wouldn’t they have figured out what they ate already?
2. Ker is not Terl’s sidekick in the book, but a scruffy ne’er-do-well runt of a Psychlo who does odd engineering jobs. He never indulges in the movie’s clumsy scheming with and against Terl because he’s not important enough (and, by the way, he has no ambition in that direction.)
3. Given the task of mining gold in the book, Jonnie learns of a place called Fort Knox and travels there. He finds it a gutted ruin–Hubbard wasn’t that stupid. And of course that means there wasn’t anything in the book about Jonnie delivering gold all ready-smelted and cast into bars.
4. Hubbard’s rebellious humans do not learn how to fly fighter planes magically functional after a thousand years. (They do rustle up a nuke or two from somewhere, though, not to mention a bunch of mostly-functional automatic rifles. That’s just as risible, I guess.)
Most of the stuff from the book that the movie faithfully renders are the stupid details of Hubbard’s bad writing: the endless repetition of the word “leverage”; the numerous inflections on “crap”; the silly compound words like “breathe-gas”. Incidentally, you should track down a short comedy sketch on “Psychotonomy” done some years ago; it’s available online still, I think. It treats us to, among other things, a reading from a book called Battlezone Planet that runs something like, “Jonnie opened his space-backpack to do an inventory: one sleep-blanket, two flask-holders of liquid drink-water, four holder-containers of nutrition-food…”
Oh, and the movie does put in some of the clunky political scheming that in Hubbard’s book drags on for chapters and chapters. After sweating and intriguing for pages and pages, Terl finally simply shoots the planetary governor (wouldn’t it have been easier to do that right at the start?) and frames someone for the crime with a device that I vaguely remember seeing on an episode of Columbo once. The movie doesn’t put that it, but what it does put in is dumb enough. I’ve gone on far too long in defending, after a fashion, a rubbishy book written by one of the worst human beings ever to crawl between earth and heaven, but whatever its sins, it is nowhere nearly as idiotic as Travolta’s movie was.”
Back to Ken’s Battlefield Earth review.