Monday, March 14, 2011

Battlefield Earth

"Better than Star Wars" - an actual John Travolta quote about this film
Did you know that the full title of this film is actually Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000?  The shortened title sounds like it might be halfway decent (if you didn't know any better), but that subtitle...yeesh.  Let me take the understated route and say that any movie set 1000 years in the future has a decent chance of looking silly unless they spent years speculating about the future of technology.  Is that a fair statement?  I think I'm being damn generous.  This isn't my first bought with BE.  When it first hit the video shelves after its disastrous theatrical run, I tried to watch this with my friends at No Bulljive; excessive drinking and a break to play Frisbee in the rain didn't come close to making this watchable.  What made me think that watching it on my own, years later, would improve the experience?  I had a theory.  This time, I decided to watch the Saga of the Year 3000 in 15-20 minute chunks.  That way, the pain gets spread out over a period of weeks and I don't spend the night with self-loathing.  What made me decide to endure this pain again at all?  I caught a few minutes on TV and laughed out loud.  What can I say?  I like to mock.
Entertainment Weekly published this.  Who knew they could be kind of funny?
Let's run through the plot as quickly as possible, because that's where a lot of the hurty brain feelings come from.  In the year 3000 (A.D., I guess...which calendar do the aliens follow?), humans are an endangered species.  An alien race called the Psychlos has conquered the Earth, using it they're draining our resources?  I'm not sure.  They like gold, though.  Anyway, the Psychlos live in dome-covered cities, spread across the globe, with their largest settlement being in New York Chicago Los Angeles Denver (?!?).  Humans are either used as slave labor or they eke out an existence in small bands, hidden from the Psychlos.  Jonnie Goodboy (Barry Pepper) lives with his tribe deep in the Rocky Mountains.  Basically, he's a caveman, just without a decent cave.  Fed up with eating dirt for dinner, Jonnie goes exploring to see just how much of his tribe's legends are true.  Along the way, he teams up with a hunter, Carlo (Kim Coates).  While they're busy making friends, the two are captured by some Psychlos.

So far, it's not good, but it could be worse.  There's a Star Wars: Episode III-worthy shout of "Noooo!" in the beginning, and it's stupid to think that human speech devolved into animal grunting without any noticeable physical changes.  Oh, and the fact that a miniature golf course withstood 1000 years of weather and is still recognizable is pretty ridiculous, but that's as bad as the introduction gets.  It never gets this good again.

Enter the Psychlos.  Terl (John Travolta), the security chief on Earth, is eager for the end of his time on Earth; he has paid his dues by living on our stupid planet, and now he wants to leave.  That's too bad.  Terl's boss shows up and tells him that his stay has been extended indefinitely, thanks to something he did with "the Senator's daughter."  Wait...that sounds that the movie where Travolta asks someone what is worse than rape, and it turns out to be...wait for it...rape?  Never mind, that's The General's Daughter.  I never thought I would be comparing that movie favorably.

Anyway, Terl comes up with a plan.  When he sees that Jonnie, a common "man-animal," is smart enough to wield some Psychlo technology, he decides to educate Jonnie.  Why?  Um.  The end game has Jonnie and some other man-animals working mining machines to dig up gold in a radioactive area (where Psychlos can't go), so he can buy his way off the planet with (radioactive, and therefore useless to the radiation-shy Psychlos) gold, as well as with some blackmail videos he has stored up and creatively edited.  How does Terl teach Jonnie to mine?  He has Jonnie sit in front of a learning machine (we call that a television in America) that shoots education right into his face.
"Get ready for the money shot, er, an unnecessarily complete education, Jonnie"
Wait...the Psychlos have monitoring drones, but not mining drones?  That makes no se --- AAAUGH!  BRAIN HEMORRHAGE! 

Jonnie learns the Psychlo language, their history, his own history, mathematics, and all sorts of other things that have absolutely nothing to do with gold mining.  With his new-found education, Jonnie sees the weaknesses of his enemies, and teaches his fellow man-animals that now is the time to fight like an animal because four legs good, two legs bad! be inspired by the United States Constitution (really) and fight for their right to completely exterminate the Psychlo race.  The movie ends with cavemen destroying spaceships with 1000+ year-old fighter jets (let that sink's okay to scream...) and teleporting (They can teleport?  Why do they have space ships, then?) a nuke to the Psychlo home planet, which destroys it like a friggin' Death Star.  That's right, humanity is saved by nuclear weapons.  Whoops, I'm sorry, nuclear weapon, singular.

Here's a fun quote from the movie: "I'm going to make you as happy as a baby Psychlo on a diet of kerbango."  Whaaat?!?  Waaas?!?  Thaaat?!?  First of all, I love that Psychlo children are called "baby Psychlos."  That would be like telling someone that I slept like a human baby last night.  Basically, this begs the question, "as opposed to what...?"  Also, on a more personal note, that line almost made scotch come out of my nose, which only upset me more.  Just terrible dialogue.

Why is Battlefield Earth one of the most notorious movies of the the modern film era?  Sure, my description of it might sound kind of dumb, but is it really that much dumber than the bulk of what Hollywood churns out every year?  I don't think so.  No, BE plumbs the depths of awfulness by doing everything you can do in a movie poorly.

Let's start with the acting.  It's horrible.  End of story.  Honestly, John Travolta is as horrible of an overactor has ever, and his worst tendencies come out in force whenever he plays a villain.  Forest Whitaker was surprisingly bad as Travolta's lackey.  Barry Pepper was the worst, though.  The combination of his awful acting and his character's ridiculous dialogue puts him forever on my shit list. 
"The Academy saw this movie and wants my award back?  Aww, man...!"
The direction by Roger Christian is even worse.  It's not bad enough that the special effects look cheap, which is about all I expected this movie to do right, but everything in this movie is cheap.  The opening credits look like they were done with Power Point.  The Psychlos all have different accents, which is such an unnatural choice for actors to make that it had to have been made by the director ("John, you can be from Victorian England, and Forrest, you can be from Gruntsville, Oklahoma").  The camera work is wretched.  Every chase scene, which is normally something I would assume you would want to imply speed in, is filmed in slow-motion.  The camera tilts at random times, for no effect at all.  Even the transition wipes between scenes looked amateurish.  No wonder this director never helmed another major motion picture after this (or before, either, to be honest).

But maybe it all looks cool, right?  'Fraid not.  The costume design is laughably bad.

Barry Pepper, or the worst X-Men character from the 90s?  You decide.
I'm always impressed when primitive characters have long, flowing hair that is both tangle-free and not dread-locked.  It tells us so much about the culture of these man-animals, that they have lost all educated knowledge, but have still found a way to produce and use Suave shampoo.  The man-animal design is kind of stupid, but the Psychlos are where the real stupidity comes in.
Psychlos are 8-foot tall humanoids with very large skulls, bad teeth, and a lot of hair.  I don't know exactly why they wear riding pants and cod pieces, but it's certainly not for the cool factor.  What bothers me most are the mittens they call hands.  Look at the size of those things!  They are bigger than their faces and, when you watch the actors try to use them, are clearly awkward and nearly useless.  Well, at least they all attain their 8-foot tall stature by wearing Kiss-style platform boots.

The primary reason Battlefield Earth is one of the worst movies in modern cinema is not because the acting/directing/special effects and costuming were bad.  Sure, with all of that going against it, BE was going to go down as a wretched film, but it could have built a cult following if it wasn't so inept.  You see, the man-apes are acting like they're in a B-movie update of Planet of the Apes, but the Psychlos are acting like they are in a wry, British comedy about ne'er do wells who keep stabbing each other in the back (only, you know, ridiculously unfunny).  Travolta's accent doesn't help.  There are two completely incompatible tones at work in this movie, and neither one is good; the man-animals are never inspiring or clever, and the Psychlos are never evil or funny enough to make their backstabbing interesting.  Funny-bad movies typically get that way because they are played straight, but are absolutely ridiculous.  This movie tries to poke fun at the villains by making them petty and stupid, but their efforts to ridicule anything pale in comparison to the pure hate that your creative mind will come up with.

But is this the worst movie ever made?  I doubt it, but it certainly deserves to be in the competition.  If you are too stupid to take my advice and leave this one alone, do yourself a favor and put it on when you plan on falling asleep or passing out.
Still not convinced?  Well, let me tell you how awful this movie is.  When Terl drops off Jonnie to mine gold, he leaves a monitoring drone to make sure they are working.  Jonnie's plan is to travel to another location and teach all his caveman friends how to fly fighter jets because, obviously, they haven't rusted and turned to dust over the past 1000 years.  And they certainly weren't used to fight the Psychlos 1000 years ago, and are technology that they are not prepared to battle.  But what about the gold, Jonnie?  Don't worry about it.  He's just going to fly to Fort Knox and pick up the amount that Terl demanded from the mine.  You might be asking yourself how stupid these man-animals are to hand over bricks of solid gold and expect someone to believe that they were mined that way.  Apparently, not as stupid as Terl, who accepts the gold without question and apparently never checks his monitor drone to see if some man-animals took a flying vehicle for a joyride of a few thousand miles.  What does it use for fuel?  Stupidity?  Thank goodness that these gold-hungry aliens haven't found one of the largest (and most famous) stashes of gold in the world in their 1000 year reign!  Uh-oh...I think I taste bile.  Time to forget about this movie again.


  1. I have actually watched this movie twice since the first time in Lisle (and I own it, of course). It is truly amazing that it got made and released. So what's next, Doom Generation?

  2. Let's not joke about The Doom Generation. I always worry when I talk about that movie, that someone's curriosity will be peaked and they'll watch it. I wouldn't wish that movie on my worst enemy.

  3. The Doom Generation will never be seen by me ever again, under any circumstance.

    End of story.

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