10 remarkable things about Battlefield Earth

Top 10 Ryan Lambie 6 Sep 2012 - 09:15

2000’s Battlefield Earth was critically mauled. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some remarkable things about this strange film…

May 13th, 2000 was a day like any other. People went to work. The Los Angeles Times reported a slight drop in the average cost of fuel. Then-president Bill Clinton sought stiffer penalties for poorly manufactured products aimed at children. And Battlefield Earth appeared in some 3,000 cinemas across America.

The public reaction to Battlefield Earth’s release was a bit like a football landing in a field full of cows; a few people looked up for a moment, made a noise, and carried on with what they were originally doing. The critical reaction, on the other hand, was borderline hysterical.

“A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth” wrote the Washington Post. “A cross between Star Wars and the smell of ass” said Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. “Everything about Battlefield Earth sucks,” added Jonathon Ross on Film 2000. “Everything.”

Battlefield Earth began as a sci-fi novel by L Ron Hubbard, popular author and founder of the Church of Scientology. For actor John Travolta, a scientologist, adapting Battlefield Earth became a consuming passion – particularly after Hubbard sent the actor a signed copy of the book, and expressed his wish that Travolta make a movie out of it “in the vein of Star Wars”.

With Travolta’s star wattage positively humming again after the Oscar-nominated success of Pulp Fiction reversed his fortunes, the actor used every inch of his Hollywood influence to get Battlefield Earth made. The film’s scientology connection and expensive premise made most studios nervous, but Travolta eventually found support in a company by the name of Franchise Pictures – a new venture set up by a businessman who’d previously made his fortune from a dry cleaning chain and a successful LA nightclub.

In spite of Travolta’s attempts to talk up the movie’s chances (he unwisely described the script as “the Schindler's List of science fiction” in one interview), the overall air of negativity surrounding Battlefield Earth refused to go away. The film was quickly dubbed a bomb, and it’s commonly described as one of the biggest flops ever to emerge from Hollywood.

Is Battlefield Earth really as bad as everybody said it was? More than a decade on, isn’t it about time the movie went through a period of critical reassessment? Join us, reader, as we try to find ten remarkable things about this oft-maligned film.

1. It features some of the stupidest aliens in cinema

A thousand years in the future, the planet will be dominated by a race of giant aliens called Psychlos. Its numbers devastated, humanity has devolved into a huddle of long-haired cave-dwellers; a percentage of humans are kept as slaves by the invaders, who refer to them as ‘man-animals’, keep them in cages, and occasionally feed them with gruel pumped in via a fire hose.

Exactly how the Psychlos conquered Earth isn’t made clear, since they’re easily the most cretinous race of aliens ever to appear on a cinema screen. Standing at around ten feet tall, with hair like the cast of Rock Of Ages, bad teeth, giant hairy hands and a penchant for leather trench coats, their refuge is a giant greenhouse in Denver, Colorado. There, they live in self-induced squalor, alternately dragging their pet man-animals around and forcing them to engage in slave labour, or scheming against each other, or getting drunk.

Terl (John Travolta) is the most cunning of the Psychlos, which isn’t saying much. He spends most of the film bossing around his underling Ker (Forest Whitaker, who looks like the Cowardly Lion here, bless him) and formulating a plan that involves using humans to gather huge quantities of gold from high-radiation areas – this will, he hopes, provide his ticket back to the Psychlo home planet.

The Psychlos are so shockingly stupid – yes, even more stupid than the aliens of Mac & Me or Morons From Outer Space – that watching them becomes oddly compelling. They refuse to believe that humans are capable of reason, even though the remnants of their culture – buildings, statues, a giant plastic dinosaur – are scattered all over the place.

Even when the film’s hero Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper) snatches a gun from a Psychlo and kills him with it, Terl refuses to believe that a man-animal could operate a firearm. As an experiment, Terl gives Jonnie back the gun, which he promptly uses to kill another Psychlo.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Terl says.

One final example of the Psychlos’ stupidity. Obsessed with gold, the aliens plan to occupy Earth long enough to strip mine it of all its shiny minerals. Yet somehow, in all their millennium-long occupation of the planet, they’ve never stumbled upon Fort Knox – which houses one of the largest reserves of bullion Earth has to offer. Clearly, they’d never bothered to watch Goldfinger, the idiots.

2. Acting

The Psychlos aren’t just stupid, selfish and ungainly – they also behave like a group of unemployed Shakespearian actors after two bottles of sherry. They hold interminable meetings in which they’re essentially nasty and petty to each other, and they have a fascinating habit of concluding their sentences with lengthy, maniacal belly-laughs.

Then there are the humans, who shout a lot and seldom blink. Barry Pepper and his group of fellow actors appear to have modelled their performances on Mel Gibson’s earnest turn in Braveheart, which means lots of bared teeth, bellowed shouts of defiance (“You can surrender and rot in those cages if you want to, but I’m not going back!”) and lots of frantically waving arms.

Battlefield Earth is a film with its acting volume turned way up to eleven. It’s as though someone's standing behind the camera shouting, “Emote, damn you, emote!” like Dr Zoidberg’s mad filmmaking Uncle Harold in Futurama.

But over the cacophony of noisy performances, one actor’s shrill turn parps loudest of all:

3. John Travolta

John Travolta clearly enjoys playing the most villainous of the Psychlos, Terl. He’s despicable. He wears a huge cod-piece, and he’s fond of making grandiose statements while drunk in a bar. “When you were still learning to spell your name,” Travolta huffs at Forest Whitaker, while tossing a hairy hand to the air, “I was being trained to conquer galaxies!”

Like a drunken Gielgud, Travolta mugs and crows through Battlefield Earth as though his life depends on it. In one scene, he proves his prowess as a marksman by shooting the legs off a field full of cows. In another, he shrieks, “Exterminate all man-animals at will. And happy hunting!” In still another, he says to a barman, “Unfortunately, I’m not your friend. Ahahahahahahaha!”

Terl, you see, is science fiction’s Basil Fawlty, and Ker is his Manuel. His mind is full of big ideas, but he’s stuck on Earth, his role of Head of Security a millstone around his neck. Like Basil Fawlty, Terl fawns all over his superiors, who he hopes will send him home. When they don’t, he vents his frustration on Ker, by yelling at him, setting him up for crimes he didn’t commit, hitting him around the shoulder blades with a rubber mallet, and at one point, blasting one of his hands off while cackling with delight.

Did Travolta sense that what he’d embroiled himself in was headed for calamity, and ham up his performance accordingly? It’s certainly possible, particularly on the strength of such odd moments as the one where he bangs his head for no reason (“Ow. Goddamn ceiling”), or the numerous ones where he spies on people through cameras and cackles away about “leverage”. 

Also, Travolta’s presence in the film is damn near inescapable. Although Barry Pepper plays the nominal hero, Travolta was the more bankable actor at the time, so he pops up in almost every scene, clad in his rejected Klingon make-up. As it turns out, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; terrible though the film is, there are moments here and there that are lifted by Travolta’s toothsome madness.

Take, for example, the bit where his character hurls a human off a cliff to satisfy a bet. As the luckless chap plunges to his death, Terl sneers to his underling, “That is why I am a senior executive, and you are a lowly clerk…”

4. Its production design is mystifying

Before directing Battlefield Earth, Roger Christian was a rightly-acclaimed production designer. He won an Oscar for his work on Star Wars, and was nominated for another in 1979 for Alien. He’d also worked with George Lucas as second-unit director on Return Of The Jedi and The Phantom Menace.

You might think, then, that Battlefield Earth would offer up a compelling vision of the future, even if its story doesn’t hang together. Instead, Battlefield Earth is extraordinarily, profoundly ugly – almost to the point where it’s fascinating to behold. Production designer Patrick Tatopoulos had turned in interesting work before and since in movies like Pitch Black and Independence Day, but there’s little evidence of his eye for futuristic detail here.

Aside from the hideous design of the Psychlos, which required actors to totter around on four-foot stilts, there are weapons which appear to fire polystyrene bullets, like Nerf Guns. The aliens’ Denver lair really does look like a massive greenhouse, and its hostile atmosphere means that humans have to wear oxygen masks which make them look as though they’ve stuck a pair of in-the-ear headphones up their nose.

Much of the film takes place in dreary, blue-lit interiors that look like concrete bunkers from WWII, and there are occasional splashes of CGI that would make even the SyFy channel blush.

What happened? What went wrong? Why did a movie with previously talented people on it end up looking so hideous? A possible answer to those questions can be found in the next entry...

5. It’s all shot on the squiff

Battlefield Earth’s cinematographer was Giles Nuttgens, who’d previously lent his services to such films as Electric Moon, Fire and Keep The Aspidistra Flying. Exactly why he chose to shoot almost every sequence in the film with the camera at a 45 degree angle is a mystery, but it gives the movie a woozy, almost dreamlike look.

It’s possible that Nuttgens was asked to shoot the movie this way, perhaps to accentuate the illusion that John Travolta is a ten-foot space alien and not an ordinary actor from California. It doesn’t work.

Nuttgens, who also worked with George Lucas on Young Indiana Jones and Attack Of The Clones, doesn’t appear to talk very much about Battlefield Earth in interviews. In one brief snippet published in MovieMaker magazine back in 2007, however, the cinematographer did mention his work on the film. He didn’t explain why Battlefield Earth was shot at weird angles, but he did provide a clue as to why the movie looks rather less expensive than its budget might imply.

“On Deepa Mehta's film, Earth, which was a $2.4 million Canadian film, I had twice as many lights as on Battlefield Earth,” Nuttgens revealed. “My kit was twice the size because of the budget. Battlefield Earth had the smallest lighting budget of any film I've ever done.”

When asked why the budget was so tight, Nuttgens replied, “Because, believe it or not, $57 million doesn't go very far when you've got a lot above the line. I think the Battlefield Earth production budget was around about $10 or $12 million.” 

Battlefield Earth’s budget was once claimed to be $75 million, but it was later revealed that its true cost was a more modest $44 million – Franchise Pictures, it turned out, had falsely inflated its budget, and was later sued for fraud.

By the time Travolta and various other people involved had been paid, it makes sense that only $10 or $12 million would be left – which explains the movie’s iffy CG and grim production values in general. 

We’ll probably never know why Battlefield Earth used so many Dutch tilts, but attempting to keep count of them all is quite an amusing pastime. And if you’re feeling really adventurous, you could turn it into a drinking game, and gulp down a shot each time you spot a scene filmed at a funny angle. We guarantee your liver will be screaming by the end of the first act.

6. Barry Pepper is force-fed a dead rat


7. It has Harrier Jump Jets in it

By the film’s second half, the Psychlos have foolishly blasted Jonnie with a mind-expanding knowledge ray, and our hero decides to overthrow Earth’s oppressors. With his friends in tow, Jonnie finds a Texas underground base full of weapons and planes – among them several Harrier Jump Jets.

Remarkably, everything in the base is in perfect working order, even after sitting around for a thousand years. Jonnie then piles his friends into a flight simulation machine to teach them how to pilot the jets, and formulates a plan that involves teleporting a nuclear bomb back to the aliens’ planet and blowing them all up. 

Everything’s set for a scintillating final confrontation – and in some ways, Battlefield Earth delivers. There’s a rousing aerial combat sequence, in which the Psychlos’ alien technology is no match for a squadron of 1,000-year-old aeroplanes piloted by long-haired men daubed in woad. Jonnie manages to use the nuclear device to incinerate the atmosphere on the Psychlos’ planet, the aliens’ Denver greenhouse is wrecked, and the lowly Kerl finally turns the tables on Terl, leaving him locked up in a Fort Knox vault with only a mountain of gold for company. 

Battlefield Earth’s silly final act is quite endearing, even if Jonnie’s cold-hearted destruction of an entire planet is a bit disturbing if you really think about the implications. Still, it does give the film a satisfying explosion to end the movie on.

8. Its script is a work of madness

The story behind Battlefield Earth’s screenplay is almost as murky as the finished film’s lighting. Writer JD Shapiro was originally brought in to write the script, but when he refused to implement various changes requested by Travolta, screenwriter Corey Mandell was signed up instead.

The result, as you may have gathered, is a lumpy mess. When Battlefield Earth cleaned up at the Razzies, Shapiro published an apology in the New York Post.

“My screenplay was darker, grittier and had a very compelling story with rich characters,” Shapiro wrote. “What my screenplay didn’t have was slow motion at every turn, Dutch tilts, campy dialogue, aliens in KISS boots, and everyone wearing Bob Marley wigs.”

Somewhere in the numerous drafts written by Shapiro and then Mandell, some form of storytelling madness took hold. And while there are parts of the film that are so tedious as to be unwatchable, these are leavened by moments of sheer camp, like an old Batman TV episode. The dark, gritty and compelling story Shapiro spoke of was long gone by the time Battlefield Earth heaved onto the big screen; as for the monstrosity which emerged in its stead, we can only nervously salute it.

9. Quentin Tarantino and George Lucas liked it

Reviled though Battlefield Earth was, not everybody hated it. The website JoBlo and the San Francisco Chronicle were among the few who looked kindly on it. And so did George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino.

“When I felt better about everything was when George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino, and a lot of people that I felt knew what they were doing, saw it and thought it was a great piece of science fiction,” Roger Christian told the Guardian back in 2000. It was something Christian reiterated to this very site back in 2008, in which he spoke talked about Lucas and Tarantino’s reactions.

“Travolta and I took it to the ranch and we showed George and three hundred of the ILM people and everybody,” Christian said. “They loved it. Tarantino came to the premiere, sat with me, and he hugged me afterwards and said, ‘This is what I want to write. This is amazing stuff.’” 

10. Its webpage is still online

Yes, more than a decade after its release, the promotional page for Battlefield Earth is still on the web. Look at John Travolta’s face – how happy he looks.

Sadly, his movie was one of an unlucky handful that attracted a breathtaking amount of vitriol from the world’s press, placing it in such awkward company as Showgirls or Plan 9 From Outer Space.

After Quentin Tarantino gave Roger Christian that hug back in 2000, he said, “You’re gonna be killed, all of you. But I just loved this film. Wait ten, twelve years, it'll all come 'round… Forget it now. You’re gonna go through hell.”

“It wasn’t very pleasant,” Christian admitted, eight years on. “You do your work and we set out to be experimental […] we set out to do something different.”

As is often the case, Battlefield Earth wasn’t quite the financial flop it was depicted as. Producer Elle Samaha once told Roger Christian, “Whole Nine Yards and Battlefield Earth are the two films I'm actually making money out of; to date it’s made over $150 million.”

Has Tarantino’s implication that Battlefield Earth would eventually be regarded as a cult classic come to pass? It’s now twelve years on from Battlefield Earth’s release, and we’d humbly suggest that it’s more of a fitfully entertaining curio than an undiscovered cult classic in the making. Maybe it needs another few years in the vault.

It is, nevertheless, an unforgettable film, if not always for the right reasons. And those involved in making it are, quite rightly, happy with what they achieved – even screenwriter JD Shapiro.

“Now, looking back at the movie with fresh eyes,” Shapiro wrote in his New York Post apology, “I can’t help but be strangely proud of it. Because out of all the sucky movies, mine is the suckiest.”

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