In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1990 and seven from 2000 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column). The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films that were among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
Risk management is now baked into the books of any summer blockbuster. Worried about a limp domestic run? Fret not, for the international numbers have been run a dozen times. Online interest not where it should be? Move to September! Unsure if the movie’s even any good? Goose the quarterly signups for that studio-supported streaming service. Global pandemic? Well, that’s what five years of Untitled Insert-Studio-Here Event Film release dates are for.
Even failing all those tests, most of today’s bad blockbusters are just that — humdrum homogeny headed for the heap of $5 Blu-rays. Things weren’t always so so-so, especially in the 1990s when hubris reined: Bruce Willis’s insistence on an idiosyncratic musical-action-comedy; a kitchen-sink adaptation of Super Mario Bros.; the hopelessly boneheaded Beverly Hills Cop III; the endlessly plagued Waterworld; and the poster child for studio assumptions that brand familiarity would breed financial rewards, Speed II: Cruise Control.
But after these whiffs, the bill would come due. As the decade closed, studios moved toward things like Runaway Bride rather than runaway budgets — careful calculations on proven pairings, properties and packaged deals. Had Bruce Willis hatched Hudson Hawk five years later, it might not have happened. Or maybe that would have become the highest-profile debacle for the production company Franchise Pictures instead of what John Travolta endured with 2000’s Battlefield Earth. Arguably the barometer by which any future vanity-blockbuster project would be judged, Travolta’s ignominiously reviled adaptation of this “saga of the year 3000” has a behind-the-scenes story that’s almost as unintentionally hilarious as the movie itself.
Based on a novel published in 1982, Battlefield Earth tells the story of humankind fighting back after a millennium-long subjugation under the boots of a 9-foot-tall invading alien race called the Psychlos. The nearly 1,000-page book smushed together pulp fiction and propaganda and sold most of its copies in the only way its author, and scumbag Church of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard, knew how — a glorified pyramid scheme in which church members bought copies in books to sell to others essentially as a recruitment tool to fatten church ranks … and keep all manner of money rolling into Hubbard’s coffers.
Despite Battlefield Earth’s dubious sales numbers, the book was something that poster-boy Scientologist John Travolta had sought for years to adapt for the big screen. He initially wanted to play the role of Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, mankind’s eventual savior. But as time passed, Travolta pivoted to the part of Terl, the main Psychlo villain. The actor would eventually embody this giant amber-eyed, talon-handed behemoth as something of a pudgy Steven Seagal squeezed into a leathery warsuit and wearing a fat-cock pants bulge and Rob Zombie dreads.
Travolta pitched to most of the major studios, but as one executive is quoted in writer Wheeler Winston Dixon’s 2003 book, Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema: “On any film, there are 10 variables that can kill you. On this film, there was an 11th — Scientology. It just wasn’t something anyone really wanted to get involved with.”
Enter Elie Samaha, a dry cleaning mogul turned nightclub owner and co-founder of Franchise Pictures. Samaha’s specialty was schmoozing with stars whose pet projects had stalled elsewhere, bringing them on at reduced salaries and slashed budgets. Variety once described Samaha’s deals as “often so complex and variable as to leave outsiders scratching their heads.” Parlaying his Hollywood friendships, the producer locked up a distribution deal with Warner Brothers — through which Franchise released Get Carter and Driven (Sylvester Stallone), 3000 Miles to Graceland (Kevin Costner) and Half Past Dead (Seagal), among others. (Franchise’s best film? 2001’s The Pledge, a forthcoming entry in this series.)
Of Battlefield Earth, Samaha said: “If John wants to make this movie, why does he want to get paid? Because I do not pay anybody what they make. That is not my business plan.” Thus, Travolta reduced his $20 million salary, agreed to a slashed budget of $44 million and further invested $5 million of his own. Franchise retained foreign rights outside of Europe, the German group Intertainment AG received European rights in exchange for fronting 47% of the budget, and Warner Brothers chipped in $20 million for marketing. Who fronted the money for John Travolta’s credited personal craft services person? Some things must remain a mystery.
Given that the film covered only half of the novel’s story, Travolta and company planned to follow it up with a sequel. (So certain were they that a 2003 release date had been scoped out.) Such hopes were dashed the moment the movie dropped. The New York Times said Battlefield Earth might turn out to be the worst movie of the century. (Not even close.) Roger Ebert said he watched it in mounting gloom of its historic badness. (That one’s right on.) Jon Stewart called it a cross between Star Wars and the smell of ass. (Nailed it.) It won nine Golden Raspberry Awards, the most for a film until 2012, and took the Worst Picture of the Decade title in 2010.
Moreover, Battlefield Earth earned less than $30 million worldwide. Years later, Intertainment AG claimed Samaha defrauded them — insisting the film’s budget was actually $75 million rather than Samaha’s cooked-book claim of $44 million. The company eventually won a $121.7 million settlement against Franchise — of which Samaha was personally responsible for $77 million. Within eight years of its inception, Franchise went bankrupt.
When Battlefield Earth is the harbinger of your demise, talk about going down in a blaze of hoary. Although objectively terrible by any measure, the film remains subjectively sublime in its stupidity — a plentiful tree of low-hanging fruit in which to sink your teeth. Nothing so entertaining, albeit in none of the right ways, should scrape WOAT status. It’s not even one of the 10 worst films from 2000, a distressingly dunderheaded year for movies in general after one of the best ever.
Now, things might be different had the film tried to serve as much Scientological purpose as its source material. But there’s little room for propaganda here amid the pointless gobbledygook of the plot. Sure, you could envision mankind’s uprising against the Psychlos as a riff on Scientology’s own blood feud with the “controlling” forces of psychiatry. But next to the origin story of Scientology’s supreme being Xenu — who allegedly brought billions of people to Earth in a spacecraft 75 million years ago, stacked them next to volcanoes and then killed them with hydrogen bombs, causing their immortal spirits to attach to subsequent humans’ bodies and cause all their problems — well … Battlefield Earth seems awfully quaint.
“Man is an endangered species,” we are told at the beginning of a film that later informs us the Psychlos overran mankind in a measly nine minutes but have somehow yet — 1,000 years later — not figured out that manual labor and exploitation are the keys to continued domination. Yes, that’s Barry Pepper looking like a long-lost third ’90s Nelson as Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, an “arrogant greener” who lives in one of the few remote outposts not under Psychlo rule. However, he’s cloistered in a community where food is scarce, illness is rampant and a slow-motion wail accompanies news that Jonnie’s father has died. The elders insist that the demons can only be driven away by the gods when they come back at some point and … OK, maybe that sounds like Scientology, but all that will persuade anyone to believe is that screenwriters J.D. Shapiro and Corey Mandell deserved their Razzie.
Anyway, that dogma don’t hunt for Jonnie, who sets out on his own path to confront the Psychlos and meets up with Carlo (Kim Coates), a similarly self-reliant hunter-gatherer of higher mileage. After some grunting and hissing (described as such in the film’s closed captioning), the two decide to pool their resources. Here, director Roger Christian — an Oscar-winning art director on Star Wars — shows us that he’s got more wipes at his disposal than even the most prepared newborn’s diaper bag. Not every transition in the film is a wipe from the center to the edge of the screen. But it sure feels that way.
Holed up in a dilapidated mall, Jonnie and Carlo are besieged by Psychlos who disable them with a green laser beam that looks like something you could use on your PowerPoint slides to really pep up your presentation. They are then taken prisoner and flown to the Psychlos’ fuzzily computer-animated Azimov-cover stronghold. It’s underneath a dome that the Psychlos have created so they can ingest their “gas-breath” through what resembles a bolo tie for their noses. Cue one of the most uproarious establishing titles ever: HUMAN PROCESSING CENTER – DENVER. (Yes, South Park has mocked this and Scientology with merciless skill.) It’s at the Denver HPC (as I’m sure all the Psychlos abbreviate it) that we meet Travolta’s Terl.
He’s upset about the report he’ll need to file if Jonnie really has, as it’s been reported, killed a Psychlo with its own weapon. Has any great villain ever been introduced bemoaning their paperwork? Certainly not. Bred from a noble line meant to conquer civilizations, Terl is instead the Psychlos’ chief of planetary security on Earth — ”one of the ugliest crapholes in the entire universe,” as he calls it — and stuck in a muck of middle management. He’s also allegedly a top marksman, illustrated by a scene in which he showboats and shoots a bunch of cows.
Terl longs to return to the planet Psychlo and all its generic fire-belching smoke stacks from whatever Blade Runner plug-in the effects team had on its computers at the time. But he’s unaware that his superior — who goes by Numph, because the movie’s names are a gift — plans to keep Terl on Earth for another 50 “cycles” and with “endless options for renewal” (a line of dialogue that echoes several times to illustrate Terl’s dismay). Turns out Terl had sex with a Psychlo senator’s daughter or something, and he’s being punished for his poor choices.
The Psychlos’ appearances range from Harkonnen-like horrors and McFarlane macabre to barely modified makeup in the case of Travolta and Forest Whitaker, who portrays Ker, Terl’s second-in-command. Generally speaking, their aesthetic is like those Party City costumes that are legally prohibited from specifically mentioning the intellectual property on which they’re based. So instead of the Klingons, the Psychlos would be marketed as, let’s say, Clingers.
Travolta’s wife, Kelly Preston, turns up for one scene as Chirk — see what I mean about the names?! — a nubile Psychlo with a tattooed Vince Vaughn-esque fivehead, the ability to get drunk “with economical speed,” a long CGI tongue she whips around like a garter snake and the inclination to make Terl “as happy as a Psychlo baby on a straight diet of Kerbango.” You see, Kerbango is the Psychlos’ booze of choice, reminiscent of Ecto Cooler and served in what looks like overpriced skinny county-fair “souvenir” cups spray-painted gray. So much of the terminology here sounds like that scene in Ghostbusters during which Louis Tully is possessed and rambling about Vuldrini, Torgs, Shuvs and Slors, only without the purposefully comic effect.
Part of what renders Battlefield Earth so irresistibly inept is that easily one-third of the movie is Travolta bitching about his job — to Ker, to Numph, to Chirk, to someone named District Manager Zete, to a hapless bartender, to the person giving him a manicure. It’s as if Agent Smith from The Matrix had done nothing but complain about all the long hours spent running down pesky humans who chose the red pill, and boy does Travolta tear into it like Olivier with green teeth. There are also any number of scenes where Terl delights in the sort of semantic jokes all managers love (“It’s not going to ‘magically’ happen … because I’m going to do it myself!”), and he lobs any number of insults, such as “knot-head” and “fat-ass,” at poor Ker — whom he has trained to be his successor. Ker might just be the perfect role for Whitaker, in the sense that Whitaker’s usual all-you-can-eat-with-stackable-coupons approach to acting feels positively sotto voce alongside the absurdity of everyone else.
Enraged by his dressing-down, Terl hatches a plan to bribe his way back home. After all, as he tells Ker, “THAT is why I am a SENIOR executive and YOU are a lowly clerk.” He will secretly mine gold from a highly radioactive area of the Rocky Mountains where no Psychlo dare tread because radiation would ignite their gas-breath and incinerate them. Then, he’ll use the spoils to pay his way back to Psychlo. What better workforce to exploit than all those imprisoned “man-animals,” and what better foreman of these servants than Jonnie? After all, he’s the only human smart enough to regularly escape Psychlo custody and then they make him smarter through the tutelage of a Learning Machine. (“A man-animal getting leverage over a Psychlo? That’ll be the day!” Terl cackles, even after Jonnie gets the umpteenth jump on him.)
What is the Learning Machine? Just … see for yourself.
The rat in that scene represents a long-tailed joke in which Terl and Ker let Jonnie, Carlo and another human doofus escape solely to see what kind of food they will eat. Their goal is to use that as culinary leverage against the humans. Stranded for days without any sustenance, Jonnie finds a rat and seizes on it. Presuming rat is their preferred delicacy, Terl constantly dangles one in Jonnie’s face and asks, with a screech, whether Jonnie is ready for lunch. (“Why won’t he eat the rat?” Terl screams. “How the crap should I know, sir?” Ker replies.) Pepper plays all of this like a high-school quarterback auditioning for a play with a particularly piss-poor version of William Wallace’s Braveheart monologues. But Pepper would be one of the few people to escape from this more or less unscathed. (Outside of an unexpected cut-loose turn in Hairspray, Travolta’s career never bounced back — essentially vanquished to VOD work.)
The Learning Machine teaches Jonnie about Euclidean geometry, engineering and, apparently, how to escape to Kentucky, Texas and Washington, D.C. while Terl and Ker think he and his cronies are in the Rocky Mountains mining gold. It’s in these locations that Jonnie and company find about a half-dozen Harrier jets, plenty of guns and ammunition, and an operational simulator so they can learn how to fly. Their ultimate plan: Take back the planet and destroy the Psychlos’ homeworld.
The climax plays out like The Matrix meets Top Gun with about 1/32nd of the fist-pumping potential in such a premise and rendered into what might have been a bitchin’ Windows 98 desktop wallpaper back in the day. Also: Imagine fixing a bookmark three pages before a chapter stop and never returning to that book again. That’s what the ending feels like.
Make no mistake: Battlefield Earth falls short of any metric it intended to meet. But even as the film unleashed a chilling effect on wanton vanity projects, you have to marvel at its cattywampus construction, chintzy effects and … well, Travolta going HAM in every millisecond on the worst material with which he’s ever been asked to work. Battlefield Earth is megalomaniac cinema at its most monolithic. That you’ll never see anything like it again is a blessing and a curse.