"Battlefield Earth" is not this summer's "Star Wars." It is not even this summer's "Howard the Duck." It is in fact worse (and this is not said lightly)than "Hard Rain," the 1998 Christian Slater, Minnie Driver, Randy Quaid debacle. The story and intrigue behind the movie, however, are first-class entertainment.
Based on a novel written in 1982 by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, "Battlefield Earth" has been Travolta's pet project for a long time. Travolta joined the Church of Scientology in 1975 after being courted by one of their members, Joan Prather, on the set of his first movie, "The Devil's Rain." His star rose with "Welcome Back, Kotter" (1975), "Carrie" (1976), and "Saturday Night Fever" (1977), so that by the late 1970s he was a golden child. But in the early '80s, Travolta became a leper in Hollywood. He starred in forgettable flops such as "Blow Out" (1981), "Two of a Kind" (1983), and the ill-conceived "Saturday Night Fever" sequel, "Staying Alive" (1983).
In 1984, he optioned the rights to "Battlefield Earth" and tried to make the book into a movie. A director was hired and the casting process began. Scientologists erected a 30-foot inflatable version of Terl, the book's alien arch-villain, on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. But Travolta no longer had juice, and the film fell apart.
Fifteen years later, Travolta re-emerged as a Hollywood player. This time, he has had the clout to assume producing duties and bring "Battlefield Earth" to completion. In the run-up to the movie's release, there has been speculation that "Battlefield Earth" is a Scientology recruitment device. Travolta dismisses those concerns saying, "This has nothing to do with scientology." "The truth of why I'm doing it," he says, "is because it's a great piece of science fiction." He is half right.
The movie begins in 3000 A.D., where Earth has been conquered by the Psychlos, a race of tall, malevolent, and terminally stupid aliens who bear a striking resemblance to the Klingons from "Star Trek." The Psychlos destroyed human civilization, we are told, in nine minutes of a one-sided combat and proceeded to enslave mankind. It's not clear, however, what these slaves are for. The Psychlos seem to believe that men are too stupid to understand how to use tools or learn simple tasks like strip mining.
"Battlefield Earth" is not great, or even passable, science fiction. The movie is full of unintentionally hilarious moments and cavernous plot holes. A "knowledge machine" solemnly teaches Jonnie all manner of forgotten science, such as the secret of the equilateral triangle. While the combined armies of Earth last just nine minutes against the Psychlos, a dozen 1,000-year-old Harrier jets piloted by cavemen route the alien air force late in the game. At one point, a rebel soldier, quite literally, pulls a bazooka from his pants.
The movie fails even at the technical level. Most of the backdrops are obviously painted screens. Explosions and spaceships are considerably beneath the state of the art. The costumes for the Psychlos have the actors walking around on stilts making them terrifically ungainly. This last fault isn't so bad until one of the humans cries out, "There's five of them coming towards you--fast!"
As far as the evangelistic aspects of "Battlefield Earth" go, there is little about which to be worried. The movie doesn't represent part of a grand scheme to spread Scientology to the masses. It is devoid of any of the "sacred" teachings of the church. It is, however, an embarrassing look into L. Ron Hubbard's eccentricities.
Hubbard hated psychiatrists. He claimed they were more than just a pox on modern culture; they were, he said, a cosmically recurring evil that had "destroyed every great civilization to date and are hard at work on this one." "Psychs" (as Hubbard referred to them) are still considered the greatest enemies of the Church of Scientology.
Hence the Psychlos of "Battlefield Earth." The novel further explains (the movie does not) that the Psychlos are themselves ruled by an evil medical cult of "Catrists," who implant metal objects into Psychlos' brains in order to control them.
All of this paranoia paints a rather unflattering picture of Hubbard, and ultimately "Battlefield Earth" may hurt Scientology more than it helps it. Scientologists have always seemed to take perverse pleasure in their bad-boy status.Mainstream culture generally regards them as a sinister cult founded by an evil genius, and despite their protestations, they seem to like it. But as "Battlefield Earth" reveals, Hubbard was neither a genius nor any more evil than the average Amway executive.
And fellows like Hubbard rarely sit well with a mass audience. Early projections in the movie industry suggest that "Battlefield Earth" will be a grand and expensive disaster, the kind of boondoggle that gets studio executives fired. Which is why it has been orphaned in a weekend between tentpole pics "Gladiator" and "Mission Impossible 2." In fact, everyone in Hollywood regards "Battlefield Earth" as dead on arrival. Or nearly everyone. A few days ago Travolta was quoted as saying, "Since we could only film half of the 1,050-page book, the studio is so high on the project that we're even already talking about a sequel for 2002. That's how much confidence there is in the project." Some people will believe anything.