Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000

(Roger Christian, USA, 2000)


To viewers (including myself) who are unacquainted with the loaded, mythological worlds built by Scientologist L. Ron Hubbard in his many novels, Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 comes across on screen as a strange hodge-podge of sci-fi and fantasy references.

Dune (1984), Mad Max (1979), Planet of the Apes (1968) and – once the spaceship fights begin – Star Wars (1977) have been liberally raided for ideas. In a crumbling, post-apocalyptic landscape of ruined American cities (as in Independence Day [1986], Earth is code for America), humans have become little more than animals, fighting to survive the terrifying reign of the Psychlos, led by Terl (John Travolta). One man, Jonnie (Barry Pepper), emerges as a handy, messianic leader.

Jonnie disparages his fellow humans for believing that the planets in the sky are gods and that the tyrannical alien visitors are demons. His way to revolution is through worldly knowledge – in a memorably corny scene, he stands awestruck amid the disintegrating remains of a vast library, imbibing the Declaration of Independence.

The Psychlos are a hateful bunch of sadistic opportunists whose ideology seems to fuse the worst of capitalist ideology (any “profit-threatening” situation overrides all rules) and communist state control. As well-trained bureaucrats, they run around betraying and undermining each other constantly – looking for what they call “leverage”.

This film is an oddity in so many ways. It is a true Boy’s Own adventure from an earlier era – there’s one good, human woman (who gets to fire a gun for about three seconds) and one, bad alien woman (who has a very long tongue). The villains, as played by Travolta and Forest Whitaker in extravagant, Wizard of Oz-style costume and make-up, have absolutely nothing alien about them; they are more like refugees from a very camp, British comedy.

A central premise than can work easily on the page – humans and Psychlos speak different languages, and are far from being the same size – leads to extraordinary contortions on screen. Everyone, in effect, speaks English – with an occasional effect of foggy babble on the soundtrack to remind us that these species cannot actually comprehend each others’ native tongue.

Visually, the film tries to avoid, for the most part, showing humans and Psychlos in the same frame – the vast special effects budget having been saved for grander spectacles elsewhere in the movie. Thus, Roger Christian’s directorial plan is constructed solely upon alternated close-ups, with almost every shot tilted thirty degrees to the right or left, regularly washed in blue or green. You don’t watch Battlefield Earth: you swim in it, queasily.

There are some stunning vistas (best seen on a large cinema screen), and much frenetic, crazy action. Ultimately, it resembles nothing so much as a hugely expensive B-movie. Impressive production values (especially in Patrick Tatopoulos’ design elements) jostle uncomfortably with murky cinematography and unaccountably dim lighting (most of the film seems to unfold in darkness). The acting, likewise, is all over the shop.

Despite – or perhaps because of – its monumental weirdness, Battlefield Earth is worth more attention and admiration than advance word may have led most viewers to believe.

For me, it offered the distinctly surreal pleasure of evoking some cherished, late-night, micro-budget, techno-horror movie (such as Albert Pyun’s Adrenalin: Fear the Rush, 1994) suddenly projected onto an enormous, mainstream cinema screen. That would be a people’s revolution worth dreaming about.

MORE Christian: Nostradamus

© Adrian Martin October 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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