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Friday, May 12, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Casualties of `Battlefield' include plot, credibility

Special to the Seattle Times

Movie review

X 1/2 "Battlefield Earth," with John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker. Directed by Roger Christian, from a script by Corey Mandell and J.D. Shapiro, based on a novel by L. Ron Hubbard. 126 minutes. Several theaters. "PG" - Parental guidance advised because of violence and mild gore.

It's the year 3000. An alien race has swept over Earth, driven mankind to extinction and eradicated the cities, the nations, the libraries and the arts. After watching "Battlefield Earth" I say, "Bully for the aliens!"

The aliens, a 10-foot-tall, dreadlock-festooned race called the Psychlos, defeated Earth's defenses in nine minutes.

That's about three minutes less than it takes to realize that what we're watching is author L. Ron Hubbard's "Red Dawn," and a film so dopey it makes "Independence Day" seem like "Dr. Strangelove."

The Psychlos are a malevolent, profit-driven conglomerate - they lust for gold - and in the cog of this particular franchise is Terl (John Travolta), an ambitious, Machiavellian chief security officer for Earth. He's so ambitious that when he sees a chance to get rich on an uncovered gold vein in the Rockies he breaks some corporate rules to do so.

He trains a handful of slave labor, "man-animals," how to mine, meanwhile continuing his cover-up back at headquarters.

The leader of the human pack is Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (there's a teen-angel song in there somewhere), played by Barry Pepper (the sharpshooter from "Saving Private Ryan"). Jonnie is a rebel, and armed with his newfound knowledge he's intent on tricking Terl, defeating the Psychlos, and taking back the planet. He's only got six days, access to Fort Knox, some cavemen and a hangar full of nuclear-equipped Harrier jets to do it with. Go, Jonnie, go.

"Never underestimate what a little leverage can do, rat brain!" cackles Terl, lording his dominion over Jonnie. It seems like the mantra for the film. After all, Travolta, who does bring his presence to the role and is fun to watch, used his reaffirmed star power to get "Battlefield" made, not only acting in it, but also serving as a producer.

It has not been left unnoticed, by anyone, that Travolta is a Scientologist and that Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, wrote the novel upon which this film was based.

There's even been concern that the movie would be some sort of recruitment film for the belief, as if every 24th frame might blink "Buy Dianetics." Hardly. The only people this film could recruit are members of the rock band Kiss, who, with their high-heeled boots and face paint, might figure they've got a spot if this alien thing ever really came down.

A typical plot point that leaves heads scratching (perhaps it was dealt with in the novel which, as I understand, is a fun read) is how the gold-obsessed Psychlos could decimate the armed forces of the planet, discover enough of the secrets of mankind to knock it back into the Stone Age, and not have run across a mention of Fort Knox anywhere.

Director Roger Christian, who did second-unit work on "The Phantom Menace," seems to have decided that the pacing, and the use of wipes (a favorite George Lucas device) from "Menace," was just fine and has emulated much of it here. Christian also seems to have picked up some pointers from John Derek's "Tarzan, the Ape Man." The first half of the film is replete with inexplicable, slow-motion action sequences that I thought "The Simpsons" had parodied into extinction. Guess not.

Perhaps the most telling thing about the blinkered, snicker-inducing "Battlefield Earth" is its own hypocrisy. It's only slightly ironic, more along the lines of sad, that an actor (an icon, really) felt so compelled to make an allegory against the evils of greed and capitalism that he shelved some of his usual salary of $20 million a picture to do so. You have to wonder if anyone pointed that paradox out to him.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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