Battlefield Earth: On-This-Day Thursday
Every Thursday, an older film released on this opening weekend years ago will be reviewed. They can be classics, or simply popular films that happened to be released to the world on the same date.
For May 12th, we are going to have a look at Battlefield Earth.
And that rating's being generous.
Roger Christian's science fiction epic is so disastrously wrong, it's almost avant garde. Yet, you figure out quite quickly that it is far too stupid to be avant garde. Jean-Luc Godard and similar directors like to break the rules. Christian flat out doesn't know the rules. It's like putting a blacksmith in charge of atom splitting. Both technically have to do with science, right? I think it might work. Christian was a production designer and second unit director for some of the biggest science fiction films ever. Alien. Star Wars. Even The Phantom Menace is compelling compared to this directorial effort. What boggles my mind the most, is that everything in Battlefield Earth is wretched. Everything. Even the production.
This work of sheer idiocy was encouraged by producer/actor John Travolta, who was just on the rise with his second career renaissance. This film once again caused his image to tank, and we've seen him try to rise again since (only for Gotti to kill his career once again; it might be time to stop). Travolta produced the film, and ensured that this was the Scientologist's equal to Judaism's Schindler's List. Yes, this is half of a book by L. Ron Hubbard, adapted for the big screen. It has very little to do with actual Scientology, so the parallel was asinine from the get go. Then, there's the fact that one film is a masterpiece based on a true story of sacrifice and trauma, and the other film is an intergalactic barrel of vomit. To this day, that comparison reigns supreme as one of the biggest insults to contemporary cinema. It's like trying to sell the notion that Michelangelo's David is of the same pleasantry as having a permanent staph infection. They’re one and the same!
Again, this is no dig on whoever's beliefs. This film, once again, has barely anything to do with Scientology. It is a slave epic where humanity has been overrun by a breed of alien morons called Psychlos. These breathing cesspools have owned humans (or man animals, as they are called) for over a millennium, yet they haven't figured out human languages, that dogs do not own humans as pets, and what humans eat. There is virtually no way these losers could have overtaken an entire planet, let alone two of its inhabitants (or any species, not just humans). They clearly are not smart enough to have made it this far with us. If we cannot eat, communicate, or have any form of relationship with these dreadlocked cabbage patch kids with contact lenses, how on (battlefield) earth did they, or we, get this far? This film makes zero sense.
I rarely do this, but this is a great opportunity for a lesson. This right here is one of the worst directed scenes of all time. No exaggeration. Travolta's character Terl (the same sound my stomach made five minutes into this crap) is finished with his term as a security chief, and is due to move on. The council of dimwits here has previously decided his fate: he has "fifty cycles" now reinstated (I don't know how long a cycle is, and I really do not care). The line "with endless options for renewal" is emphasized so immensely. Eerie sounds. Reverb-heavy laughs. Extreme close ups. Shortly after this technical display of wizardry, Terl is informed that the options for renewing his cycles are not of his control. Wouldn't that be the important line? He will forever be stuck in this position, because other Psychlos are renewing his cycles against his will. The important line isn't that he can renew his cycles; it's that he cannot have the choice not to renew them. I don't blame Christian for not understanding J.D. Shapiro's confusing screenplay, but a director has to command a tone much better than this.
Did you notice anything else? Perhaps, the entire scene being shot on angles? These are Dutch angles: created during the German expressionist movement, and employed in other waves and styles (including Bollywood, action, Hong Kong new wave, and more). These shots are meant to create a mood, particularly due to their deviation from other more straightforward shots. This scene is nauseating, right? It's as if you are stuck on a sinking ship with the stench of a thousand flatulating corpses going down with you. Well, guess what? The entire film is shot like this. Less than ten scenes are shot straight. Not even Chinatown would be worth watching with permanent angles. This creates a nonstop headache, not a series of captivations. Once again, this is a complete misunderstanding of how filmmaking works. YouTube videos of concerts shot by smart phones make more aesthetic sense.
The acting sucks. Travolta is so over the top, you may not know this guy has had a decades long career if this was your first film experience of his. Everyone else feels like a background performer given the green light to take on lead parts without experience (maybe because of Christian's second unit work). The editing is atrocious. Many cuts are nauseating, and the rest are Windows Movie Maker ('00s edition) transitions, including screen wipes. The special effects are actually beyond description. Every laser, explosion and space-whatever happening makes an Instagram filter look ground breaking. Again. This was compared to Schindler's List. Schindler's. List.
The film proceeds to bastardize the name of cinema profusely in every way. Storytelling: throw in conventional nonsense (the Psychlos finally trying to communicate with one human... not all... one) amongst the many plot holes, and then have a deus ex machina ending for good measure (a conclusion that makes no sense, has zero connection to the rest of the story, and is lazily tossed in just to end a film). Cinematography: try not to feel sick during the climax; it may be impossible. Acting: Travolta puzzled as to why humans don't want to eat rats ("Don't you want lunch?") is the only good part of the entire film, because it's catastrophically terrible. Think of any fundamental in filmmaking, and Battlefield Earth has murdered it like a sycophant (or a psychlophant, I suppose).
If being stabbed by a car salesman in a centrifuge while your least favourite song blasts in your ears for two hours is your kind of party, then absolutely watch Battlefield Earth. It is being featured as a classic film today, because disasters are historical artifacts, too. In all of cinema, there has rarely been a film of this diabolical magnitude that has gone off. To watch Battlefield Earth is to understand the entire critical spectrum: this is the low point. This is what makes square one seem like a great result if you have writer's block. Making a film this bad on purpose may actually be impossible. There are films I have loved that I remember less than Battlefield Earth. It permanently burns itself into your mind. If you think I am being extreme because films are an entertainment or art medium, then you haven't seen Battlefield Earth. It's not entertainment. It's not art. It isn't even trash. An assortment of garbage in a can (or dumpster) pieces together a better result. Battlefield Earth is Battlefield Earth, and no filmmaker ever wants to make Battlefield Earth.
In case you were wondering, the sequel thankfully never happened. Battlefield Earth did one thing right: it prevented Battlefield Earth 2.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.