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'Battlefield Earth': A Vain Search for Terrestrial Intelligence

By Rita Kempley
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)
A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as "Battlefield Earth." This film version of L. Ron Hubbard's futuristic novel is so breathtakingly awful in concept and execution, it wouldn't tax the smarts of a troglodyte. And when it comes to star John Travolta's performance, well, hammy William Shatner's hairpiece is more convincing.

In the future, turkey cognoscenti will be heard to say: " 'Ishtar,' pishtar! You haven't endured pain till you've seen 'Battlefield Earth.' "

The author, better known as the founder of the Church of Scientology, set his post-apocalyptic thriller in Denver in the year 3000. Humans remain civilized but are now an endangered species. Most were wiped out during the nine-minute war between Earth and invaders from the planet Psychlo. The cities are in ruins (at least Denver is), the government's kaput and the Psychlods are stripping Earth of her natural resources.

Somehow the doofus aliens have achieved all this even though they are a couple of kernels shy of a cob. If Butt-head had been born on their planet, he'd be the Psychlodian equivalent of Einstein. The Psychlods are so dumb, they mistake dogs for Earth's sentient species rather than the pooper-scoopers at the other end of the leash. Ain't that a howler?

The alien conquerors do not make up for their lack of brains with looks, for they are without a doubt the ugliest species in the known universe. They make the Klingons look like beauty pageant contestants. Hell, they make a dung beetle look debonair.

The sole female spotted herein is balding but clean. But it has been light years since the hairy males saw a sponge or a toothbrush. Their teeth are so yellowed, mossy and rotten, they ought to forget about ripping off our ore and seek out our surviving dental hygienists. Psychlo needs floss like Mars needs women.

Terl (Travolta), fairly attractive for one of his species, must wear barrettes to keep his flowing brows out of his eyes and a nose plug to breathe Earth air. Although he believes he deserves a loftier role, Terl oversees the planet's outpost in Denver.

A petty tyrant and blackmailer obsessed with spying, he is forever trying to get something on somebody. "Leverage," he calls it. His favorite target is his simple deputy (Forest Whitaker)--poor, poor, poor thing. But no one is safe from Terl's dimwitted machinations, least of all the "man-animals" he has enslaved.

Scholars of Hubbard's writings suggest that Terl is the writer's alter ego. Whatever. For earthlings, he is definitely a "bother from another planet." The last thing you want is a close encounter with this old meanie, a fate that befalls Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper), a heroic hunter who leaves his Rocky Mountain enclave in search of a better life for his people.

Along the way, Jonnie meets other survivors living on a remarkably well-preserved peewee golf course. Alas, Jonnie and his new friends are captured and enslaved by the aliens. Once in their cells, they encounter others of their breed. Ragged, filthy (by human standards) skeletons, these people have been reduced to fighting over their daily allotment of grub; it appears to be made of hog slop and soylent green and is extruded from an intestine-like tube directly into their troughs.

Though their masters are allegedly possessed of superior technology, the slaves dig ore and shlep it to the Psychlodian spaceships by handcart, a la the Seven Dwarfs. Then Terl discovers a gold deposit in the mountains and decides to keep it for himself.

Lest he be discovered by his superiors, he decides to teach the man-animals to operate more sophisticated mining machinery even though he's not sure they're smart enough. And so he puts Jonnie into a tutoring machine that instructs him not only in Psychlo-babble but in lots of stuff about the Declaration of Independence, Fort Knox, Ky., and Fort Hood, Tex.

What's up with that?

Jonnie uses all that he has learned about the Psychlods to fulfill his fondest wish: training a small rebel commando group, while the smug Terl thinks they are out digging gold. The trouble is, Jonnie has been given only seven days to accomplish Terl's mission, and so he has only that long to turn these cave dwellers into jet pilots and munitions experts. Thank God that 1,000-year-old flight simulator still works!

Will Jonnie oust the Psychlods and save the human race from extinction? Will Terl go in for a cleaning? What is that female Psychlod going to do to Terl with her two-foot-long tongue? Are rubber codpieces more comfortable than, say, the man-animal's jockstrap?

All this and more will be answered if you, the moviegoer, can stay awake while the actors struggle through this trite, befogged and dorky screenplay by Corey Mandell and JD Shapiro. The stilted dialogue harks back to the days of Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless.

And is it ever banal. Take mankind's inspiring battle cry, shouted with raised fist: "Izza piece of cake." Never mind that cakes went the way of haute couture a millennium ago. That's right: They don't even have any really groovy post-apocalyptic fashions. At least "Waterworld" had that to offer.

The movie, like Roger Christian's drab direction, is as ugly as the Psychlodian males--glowering, humorless, clumsily rendered with a color scheme that screams bruised and abused. And seemingly, the cheesy sets were built without research: The rebels visit Washington to do a little research at the Library of Congress, only that august structure has sprouted a new dome and looks suspiciously like the Capitol.

Travolta, whose hubris propelled the project, is godawful, prancing around like a peacock at an egg roll. On the chunky side of late, he would have been better off battling girth than Earth. His co-star Pepper, a slip of a lad, seems a bit dreamy, but if anybody escapes unscathed here, it's him. Of course, that's like saying, "The hog slop sure was good. Please, sir, may I have more?"

If "Battlefield Earth," which is less sophisticated than most Saturday morning cartoons, is about anything, it's Hubbard's paranoia--that he was being watched, lied to and spied upon and that some psychiatrist might one day be able to say, "Honey, I shrunk L. Ron Hubbard's head."

Judging by this yarn, he didn't really need a doc. His head seems to have shrunk all by itself.

BATTLEFIELD EARTH(117 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence and adult themes.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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