The first four movies I looked at this month are all low-budget films. As much as it’s fun to watch quirky little movies by directors not skilled enough to make it big, hilariously bad movies are not limited to the indie scene. Although this movie isn’t quite what you would call a big studio film, it did have a production budget of $73 million, which for the year 2000 (when it released), was a fairly big budget. It dwarfs the combined budgets of the other four movies I’ve looked at this month. This movie held the record for the most Razzie awards for 11 years, until Jack and Jill beat the record in 2012 by “winning” every single category.
I’m talking about Battlefield Earth, also sometimes referred to Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000. This movie was a passion project by famed actor John Travolta, based on a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. Scientology itself is a rabbit hole that I’d rather not dig into for this review, but Travolta is a known practitioner of Scientology. Travolta himself has had a bit of a wild career, in that he’s involved with at least one movie every decade that nearly destroys his career. This movie is probably the closest he’s gotten to completely destroying his career, and being involved in the production that eventually bankrupted Franchise Pictures likely had something to do with that.
This movie was originally supposed to be the first of a 2-part adaptation for Hubbard’s novel, Battlefield Earth. The book originally released in 1982, and Hubbard soon suggested that a film version was in the works. In a 1983 interview, he said “I’ve recently written three screenplays, and some interest has been expressed.” Having previously directed Scientology training films, it was expected that Hubbard would be involved with the film on some level. The budget was to be $15 million for each movie in the 2-part adaptation, but the project collapsed in 1986. Hubbard died soon after.
Meanwhile, Travolta converted to Scientology in 1975 and soon became one of its most prominent supporters, Tom Cruise being another. Travolta was personally sent an autographed copy of Battlefield Earth when it first released, and Hubbard hoped that Travolta would help turn the book into a film “in the vein of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Travolta’s influence at the time was low after being involved in a string of flops. It wasn’t until 1984’s Pulp Fiction when Travolta’s career started picking up again. That’s when he started working on his adaptation of the book. In one interview, he described the book as “like Pulp Fiction for the year 3000”, and in another, “like Star Wars, only better.” Just no.
He shopped around for a distribution company for a while. MGM was attached at some point, but dropped the project for creative differences. 20th Century Fox took over, but that deal fell through in a matter of weeks. Both studios also considered the project risky, both for its expensive visual effects and its connection to Scientology, which they feared would work against the film’s success. One of Fox’s executives commented that “On any film there are ten variables that can kill you. On this film there was an eleventh: Scientology. It just wasn’t something anyone really wanted to get involved with.”
In 1998, Franchise Pictures took over the project. Franchise Pictures specialized in rescuing stars’ pet projects, and bringing them forward with reduced salaries. The studio’s founder, Elie Samaha, was known for unorthodox deals to cut costs. For one, Travolta invested $5 million of his own money into the project, while also reducing his normal fee of $20 million to lower the expected budget of $100 million. Travolta’s company, JTP Films, also got involved in financing, as did Author Services, a subsidiary of the Church of Scientology in charge of protecting Hubbard’s copyright. while Warner Bros allocated $20 million for advertising and distribution. The German distribution group, Intertainment AG, would handle the European distribution in exchange for paying 47% of the production costs. Of course, Samaha told them the budget would be $75 million, when it was actually $73 million. That would eventually result in the lawsuit that bankrupted Franchise Pictures.
Plenty of rumors of inner turmoil circulated the film’s production. It was even rumored that Cruise warned Warner Bros. that he thought the film was a bad idea, although his spokesman denied it. Samaha often responded to concerns of the Scientology connection by shouting “This is a science-fiction film starring John Travolta.” He acknowledged that everyone thought he was crazy for taking on the project, but still pitched the film as “Planet of the Apes” starring John Travolta.
All of the filming took place in Canada, with most of the project taking place in Montreal , Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, and other locations in Quebec. It was said that by filming almost entirely in Quebec, they cut the production costs in half.
The movie released on May 12, 2000, three days after the anniversary of Hubbard’s Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, considered a major publication for Scientology. It suffered scathing reviews and poor word-of-mouth, leading to a financial disaster. At the time, it was the most expensive box office bomb in film history. It earned a total of $29 million worldwide, well short of its $73 million budget, not to mention the $20 million in marketing.
It’s got a 3% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave the film half a star, comparing the movie to “taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way.” The Washington Post review said, “A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth. The film … is so breathtakingly awful in concept and execution, it wouldn’t tax the smarts of a troglodyte.” Even the movie’s screenwriter, J.D. Shapiro, trashed the film. He insisted that his draft bore little resemblance to the final film. “The only time I saw the movie was at the premier, which was one too many times.” Samaha complained about the criticism, saying “Everybody hated Scientology for some reason. I didn’t know people were so prejudiced.” Of course, the movie’s story ultimately has nothing to do with Scientology, and its connection to Hubbard isn’t why the movie failed this badly.
Although he didn’t accept the Razzie the night of, screenwriter Shapiro did accept his “award” in person later. He also accepted the Razzie for Worst Film of the Decade in 2010. At the 2000 Razzie awards, Battlefield Earth received 8 nominations, including two for the Worst Supporting Actor category. It won every category it was nominated for. Worst Picture, Worst Director (Roger Christian), Worst Actor (Travolta), Barry Pepper won the Worst Supporting Actor, with Forest Whitaker being the other nominee, Worst Supporting Actress (Kelly Preston – Travolta’s wife), Worst Screenplay, and Worst Screen Couple (Travolta and anyone sharing the screen with him).
While Travolta received top billing for this movie, and won the Worst Actor award, he’s not Battlefield Earth’s main character. That’s actually Jonnie, played by Barry Pepper (the American sniper from Saving Private Ryan). Jonnie is a human living in the caves, in a post-war world where Aliens wiped out most of humanity in a matter of minutes. Travolta plays Terl, who is the alien in charge of their mining operations on Earth. The aliens are Psychlos on that note. Whitaker plays Ker, Terl’s second in command who is training as a replacement. French Canadian actress Sabine Karsenti plays Chrissy, Jonnie’s love interest, in her only big budget film to date, although she still acted in smaller projects and regularly appeared in TV shows until 2010.
The first thing you’ll notice when you turn this movie on is that pretty much every shot in the movie is at an angle, or a Dutch angle if you will. According to the director, he did this to make the movie look like a comic book. This is one of the major criticisms thrown at the movie. Ebert wrote in his review, “The director … learned from better films that directors sometimes tilt their cameras, but he has not learned why.” This cinematography decision often makes this movie feel disorienting. At first I was wondering if Jonnie was about to fall off the horse he’s riding in his first shot of the film, or if the rocky terrain forced him to lean over. But no, it’s the camera.
Tilted camera angles can work when they’re done right, like emulating when a character is dizzy or disoriented, or if a character tilts their head while staring at something if he just made some sort of discovery or realization. However you use it, you should use it sparingly. When over 90% of the film is tilted, it takes you out of the movie, and might even make some viewers dizzy.
Another thing you’ll notice is the heavy use of tints. The opening scene is tinted very yellow, as is pretty much every sunset scene. The Providence Journal spoke of this in their review, “Battlefield Earth’s primary colours are blue and gray, adding to the misery. Whenever we glimpse sunlight, the screen goes all stale yellow, as though someone had urinated on the print. This, by the way, is not such a bad idea.” To top of the visual blunders, some of the movie’s special effects are made up of early 2000’s CGI, which gives the movie a straight-to-video feel. There are times when you’ll feel like you’re watching an Asylum mockbuster. That said, most of the practical effects work quite well.
The story feels rushed right off the bat. Jonnie returns home and is greeted by Chrissy, who tells him that “The gods took your father in the night.” He shouts “no” in slow-motion, spending half the shot almost entirely out of the camera’s view. He buries his father in a 10 second scene, and then his father is never mentioned again. He shows no sign of sadness for his father at all. What was the point? The next scene showcases the first glimpse of this movie’s overacting, which really is the only thing that makes this movie entertaining. It’s impossible to take Battlefield Earth seriously when it feels like none of the actors are.
To sum up the story, the Psychlos are mining Earth, using what they refer to as “man animals” for most of their hard labour. Most humans are either living in caves, hiding from the “demons”, or living in captivity. Terl wants off, but because he screwed a senator’s daughter, they’re keeping him on Earth. So he wants to illegally recruit a small band of humans, train them how to use their machinery, and specifically hunt for gold so that he can buy his way off of Earth.
Meanwhile, Jonny is smarter than most of his fellow humans. He doesn’t buy the stories of the “demons” without evidence, and even after he’s taken captive by the Psychlos, he still doubts the stories. After nearly escaping, then figuring out one of their guns and killing a Psychlo, Terl decides to take Jonnie and try to train him in secret.
How does he do this exactly? By hooking Jonny up to the learning machine. This machine teaches Jonny the Psychlos language, mathematics, science, information about the Pshyclos home world … everything. That brings up the movie’s first major logical problem. None of the humans are taught the Pshyclos language, and none of the Pshyclos understand human tongue. One would think that when an alien race is ruling over a planet long enough for the population to devolve into a caveman society, they’d at least start training the remaining humans their own language. Wouldn’t you be able to command them with their physical labour better? Wouldn’t you want to be able to listen in case the humans tried to scheme against you? Wouldn’t that be a good way to see if the humans are intelligent enough to help you in other ways, or even slowly assimilate them into your society as a subservient race?
Also, why would you freely give a “man animal” all of this knowledge when he’s already proven himself as rebellious, smarter than average, and he clearly hates your kind? Why not use a more obedient human for the knowledge machine first? Right away, Jonny takes advantage of this, pretending not to understand Terl so he can learn as much as he can, and then starts using his newfound knowledge to plan a revolt.
There’s even a scene where a bunch of strange cavemen help Jonnie take Terl down, and Jonnie holds a gun against him. They debate among themselves whether to kill Terl and run, or pretend to stick with him, and plan the attack from the inside, learning more about the Psychlos technology. Terl spends the whole scene not understanding a word they say. Even though there’s a lot of shouting, he blindly accepts Jonnie’s promise not to betray him.
Later on, the humans find a bunch of old war machines, like harriers, in an underground hanger. There’s also a flight simulator. Despite not being maintained in roughly 1,000 years, everything works perfectly. Yeah, these old machines wouldn’t have possibly rusted beyond usefulness. There’s no chance that their mechanics would have completely seized up. There’s no way the fuel could lose its chemical consistency over the centuries, let alone how the oil would harden in months. Nope, everything works just like new. What’s even powering the flight simulator at this point, because I don’t imagine that whatever is powering the Psychlos flying vehicles would somehow power the thing.
When the battle starts, the harriers are an equal match for the Psychlos own flying war machines, and the humans even use hiding tactics to gain the advantage quickly. You know, despite no tactical training, not to mention the fact that Harriers were notoriously hard to handle, even for experienced pilots. Yet all they got was weeks of taking turns running the flight simulator. When the battle is raging on the ground, there are scenes where the humans are on the retreat, shooting their old machine guns while the Psychlos use their laser weapons. Yet we never specifically see the aliens tanking bullets and explosives, so there’s no way to confirm that they’re resistant to our weapons. Not to mention the Psychos don’t wear helmets in combat. They merely walk in big groups, holding their laser pistols.
If the aliens cannot defeat this single, rogue group of human cavemen who are given little more than a crash course on their weapons, how could they possibly have defeated all if humanity at its peak in minutes? If they cannot speak any of our languages, or didn’t even know that humans were more intelligent than dogs (yes, there’s a scene where they assume that dogs were the superior species), and show no concern when rebellious humans are clearly plotting something in a language they don’t understand, how did they keep a hold of Earth for so long?
But wait, it gets dumber. After Terl sends a bunch of humans to mine their gold, he returns a couple of weeks later to find that they’ve somehow smelted the gold into bricks. He never asked them to do so, and despite setting up cameras to watch them, he never sees them do this. He doesn’t notice that some of these miners are wearing different outfits, or that Jonnie keeps disappearing. He never investigates any of this. That’s important because these bricks are actually coming from Fort Knox, while a bunch of other cavemen are training on the Harriers I mentioned before. Considering the Psychlos have access to ancient human records, and they knew that Washington was the capital of the United States, how didn’t they find Fort Knox in the last 1000 years?
If that’s not dumb enough for you, it’s revealed that the Psychlos atmosphere is very volatile. Any kind of nuclear explosion would completely destroy their planet. Uh … so how did they achieve space travel in the first place? How did they become such an advanced race without exploring nuclear physics on any level? Apparently the book version does have an explanation for this, but it’s never touched on in the movie.
The more you dig into this movie’s story, mythos and the Psychlos culture, the dumber everything gets. The aliens of this movie are so stupid that there’s no way y could have possibly achieved any kind of galactic empire. Terl is an arrogant, short-sighted buffoon who doesn’t understand the concept of subtlety. But you know what, he’s all the more entertaining because of it.
Battlefield Earth is a masterclass of stupidity. Every decision behind this movie is completely ridiculous, right down to the fact that Travolta fought so hard to make the movie in the first place. The cinematography is bizarre. The colour grading is so extreme it’s sometimes hard to see what’s happening. The acting is consistently over-the-top. The story is so full of holes you could write a compelling dissertation on it.
As bad as this movie is, and as hard as it bombed, it’s got a so bad it’s good cult status these days. To give credit where credit is due, Elia Cmiral’s soundtrack is kind of good. It was originally supposed to be part 1 of 2, but because the movie failed, there will never be a sequel. At one point, a Tokyo-based animation studio planned a 13-part TV series based on the books, but that show never materialized. Apart from this movie’s cult status, and the quiet fans of the original book, nothing has been heard of Battlefield Earth since.
I’ve decided that for the month of May, I’ll be looking at 4 Hollywood Epics. I haven’t decided on all four, but I’ll be looking at The 10 Commandments first, and 1963’s Cleopatra second. There will be at least one modern-ish movie in there somewhere.