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Escape From 'Battlefield Earth'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 12, 2000

   


    'Battefield Earth' John Travolta (middle) has the fat, hairy upper hand on Barry Pepper in "Battlefield Earth." (Miramax)
The verdict on "Battlefield Earth": Much ado about nuttin'.

It's a bad movie, end of story. There is no Scientology controversy here worth wasting your time over. Yes, yes, this film was based on the 1982 novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer and founder of the Church of Scientology.

And yes, yes, super Scientologist John Travolta produced the movie, and stars as a nasty Psychlo alien named Terl. And yes, yes, the novel and movie have indirect connections to Hubbard's religion that space (not to mention my towering lack of knowledge) forbids me even attempting to explain.

But hey, let's cut to the chase: We're talking "Ishtar of the Apes."

The story, written by Corey Mandell and J.D. Shapiro, is set in the year 3000.

Humans – or what's left of them after the nine-minute Psychlo invasion of 2000 (ulp!) – have become a slave class. They labor for the Psychlos, who look like members of a really tall, leather-fetishist heavy-metal rock band with bad teeth, dreadlocks and hairy, fat hands.

The Psychlos, who cannot tolerate human air, wear breathing apparatuses and have built an enormous dome for their mining base. Meanwhile humans…known as "man-animals" – have to wear the same breathing masks to survive inside the glass dome.

Some human survivors live in outlying tribes as either a) hunter-gatherers or b) movie extras from "Road Warrior V," it's unclear which. And among them is Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper), a rebel leader in the making, who stands out for at least two reasons: He's a proud, fearless man, and he sports girlie Bo Derek-like braids.

When he's captured by the Psychlos, Jonnie Goodboy is thrown into prison with other man-animals. But his courageous qualities attract the attention of Terl, who decides to use him for his dastardly plans.

Terl has just received terrible news from the Home Office on Planet Psychlo. He's been ordered to stay an additional 50 "cycles" of duty on Earth – a planet considered to be quite a dump. Terl, who was trained to conquer galaxies, is horrified that his interim job has become a virtual life sentence.

So, with the help of his big-haired assistant Ker (Forest Whitaker), he hatches a secret plan to train man-animals (also known as "rat brains" because they munch on rodents) to mine gold for his own personal gain.

Much of the movie is spent showing us the inherent treachery of Terl and Ker, who attempt to deceive, betray and employ "leverage" (or blackmail) upon each other almost routinely. But when Terl catches the inferior Ker at these deceptions he virtually laughs it off. After all, this is normal Psychlo behavior.

Obviously, this movie is all about Jonnie Goodboy's plan to save the world. This includes playing an almost congenial mental chess game with the technologically advanced Terl, while secretly training his human followers to fly precision fighter jets in seven days. (I'm sure the Air Force would appreciate a training program like that.)

It also includes bumping into the girlfriend (Sabine Karsenti) he left behind in the Rockies for this mission. Karsenti gets the Lando Calrissian award for least amount of screen time. And her only dramatic purpose in the story is to be a hostage so Terl can influence Jonnie Goodboy with his Psychlo-style leverage.

As directed by Roger Christian (a set decorator-turned director who did second-unit direction for "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace"), "Battlefield Earth" is a third-rate sci-fi flick, full of laughable moments: scene transitions are signified by a cheap-looking, video-style "wipe" of the screen. Humans yell "Nooooooo!" in slow motion when anything bad happens. And Psychlo aliens use such extraterrestrial turns of phrase as "Have you blown a head gasket?" The whole thing culminates with a sort of "James Bond"-derived storming of the fortress battle, full of shattering glass, explosions, laser fire and grunting Psychlos.

But "Battlefield Earth" saves its scariest moment for the end: a virtual guarantee that there will be a sequel.

BATTLEFIELD EARTH (PG-13, 117 minutes)– Contains offscreen violence and minor expletives.

 

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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