Battlefield Earth – unintentional comedy
Battlefield Earth has reached enormous kind of notoriety: It is said to be one of the worst films ever made, Rotten Tomatoes1 giving the film 2% rating and in IMDb’s Bottom 100-list2 being number 93. The book it is based on, the novel of same name written by Ron L. Hubbard was published in early 1980s has been considered unsubtle, full of scientific errors and atrocious3 as well as “a wish-fulfillment fantasy wholly populated by the most one-dimensional of cardboard characters”4. For John Travolta the project was a dream: an ultimate tribute for Hubbard who had found the Church of Scientology to which Travolta had belonged since 1970s5. Travolta was so convinced about the glory of the book that he used to describe the film whilst still on production as “It will be like Star Wars, only better”6. As a director was hired Roger Christian, who had won an Academy Award (a.k.a Oscar) for set decoration in Star Wars7. Budget for the film was astonishing 44 million USD, making the production values to be excellent: the music composed by EliaCmiral is pleasant to listen, the CGI effects are well done as well as the physical effects and pyrotechnics, the costume design is superior. But the main error lies in the script for the original screenplay written by J.D Shapiro wasn’t considered satisfying8: his original script had darker and more complex tone, but due the pressure by Travolta himself the producers demanded that the script had to go through radical changes. Shapiro stated in 2010: “I thought it was a joke. They changed the entire tone. I knew these notes would kill the movie. The notes wanted me to lose key scenes, add ridiculous scenes, [and] take out some of the key characters”. Instead of artistic script of Shapiro, the producers wanted the bad elements of the novel to be returned. The decision from the producers to demand a script loyal to the original novel turned out to be an error, since the novel itself was badly written.
The story of the film is set in year 3000. Approximately millennia earlier highly advanced alien race from planet Psychlo had arrived to Earth and destroyed all defense capabilities of human beings, annihilating the majority of people whilst the survivors had degenerated within time to cavemen believing the aliens are monsters who were sent by gods as a punishment for mankind for their sins. The motivation of aliens for invading the planet is to harvest gold. The protagonist, Johnny “Goodboy” Tyler is captured by the aliens and begins, after teaching of higher mathematics and Psychlo language by embittered chief of security Terl, to plan a major vengeance to take back the Earth.
The reason for notoriety of the film is due the flaws and stupidities of the plot, to which one should digress upon. The idea itself of the rest of the mankind deliberately degenerating back to superstitious cavemen is ridiculous itself: at one point Tyler stumbles across other (English-speaking) cavemen who introduce Tyler to ruins of a city, in which one of them tells Johnny that there is an enchanted place where “under golden arches, the food would magically appear” referring to McDonald’s: how do they all the sudden understand English writing since they cannot read? And how come all the buildings along with the commercial posters and statues haven’t collapsed to dust after a millennia without maintenance? The reason Terl teaches Tyler mathematics as well as engineering via translator machine is due the will of Terl to mine the rest of existing gold ore to bribe himself back to Psychlo (Terl had angered high Psychlo officials by sleeping one of their daughters, thus being sent to Earth which is described unpleasant by the aliens), however it is obviously clear how ridiculous the mining plot itself would be: for an advanced race with superior technological capabilities it would be impossible for them not to have found already all the existing gold. In fact, the Psychlos hadn’t even found the reserves of Fort Knox, even when they clearly have satellite technology sufficient enough to locate the most isolated gold ore concentrations. The intellectual superiority of the aliens is questioned even more, since they haven’t discovered anything within the millennia of occupation about human beings: they do not understand of what humans eat, how they live or understand that English itself is a language. Tyler flies to Fort Knox after recruiting some people to mine the gold for him to distract Terl and even hands over the gold to Terl in solid gold bars explaining it would be easier for Psychlos to handle them instead of ore, and Terl doesn’t even question how they molded the ore. This buys the human beings time to learn under Tylers leadership how to operate assault rifles as well as Harrier assault planes and strategic nuclear devices, all them being more than thousand years old (and which should have collapsed to dust particles due to a millennia without maintenance). This is all possible due the lack of surveillance: even though the aliens are previously being shown they have live stream emitting micro-sized cameras, for controlling Tyler and his comrades Terl deploys a small flying camera which randomly flies over and takes a still image. This is unbelievably stupid: Tyler had several opportunities to annihilate Terl, which he narrowly failed but Terl doesn’t annihilate Tyler. If the chief of security of the operations of the planet is considered so idiotic (Terl is considered a high ranking and skilled officer of the army nonetheless), the rest of the Psychlos can be considered idiots as well. The idiocy is even more highlighted when imprisoned humans break free from their cages and all the guards are just standing by, watching the humans rioting. The race wobbles in slow, clumsy manner and are constantly stumbling into objects.
The characters are quite amusing to analyse. Protagonist Johnnie “Goodboy” Tyler (played by Barry Pepper) is a superstitious caveman who immediately, after being captured, starts trying to eliminate Terl with sincere fury, however failing every time he tries. The transformation from caveman to a skilled warrior within two weeks due learning reflects the idea of Scientology to rise to higher levels of consciousness via controlled learning: at the climax of the film, Tyler runs in an open area avoiding the Psychlo projectiles whilst a messianic tune plays on the background, indicating that Johnny has significantly raised from caveman to a messiah of mankind and being superior compared to the Psychlos and their advanced weaponry. Antagonist Terl (played by John Travolta), as stated earlier, is unbelievably idiotic character: totally incapable of guarding anything, doesn’t realise the benefits of annihilating Tyler who is openly hostile character and willing to kill Terl when possible. In fact, the destruction of the entire planet Psychlo due a teleported tactical nuclear device (plutonium apparently has a massive effect with radioactive atmosphere of the planet) is thus qall due the incompetence of Terl, making him without doubt one of the most useless antagonists in the history of cinema9. The situation is made even more idiotic by Travoltas total lack of subtle acting during the film: almost every line of dialogue or monologue by him is delivered with overemotional tone with overacted gestures. Pepper also overacts the performance of his character, thus creating the most ridiculous pair of protagonist and antagonist ever seen on a silver screen. Female characters are statists at best, most memorable being Chrissy (Sabine Karsenti), fiancé of Tyler, role interpreted by underrated actress is a classic sample of damsel in distress, yet she shows some bravery leading a rebellion of imprisoned human beings during the climax of the film. The film has also very questionable tone during the climax: two human beings sacrifice themselves in a suicidal manner (the second of those being the one send with a nuclear device through a teleport to Psychlo to manually detonate the device), promoting extreme violence as a mean for greater good. All the ethnic minorities are nonexistent, the heroes are Caucasian males, promoting very conservative image of the world. All in all, the characters are idiotic and two-dimensional cardboard figures, thus film being unintentionally loyal to the novel. The actors and actresses are not bad ones: Travolta, Pepper and Forest Whitaker have all been awarded for their astounding performances in other films, but it is the script that makes all the characters nincompoops and forces the performers to act the way they do.
The directing deserves its own share of the shame. Christian did not receive his Oscar for directing a film: in a perspective of a set decorator the film might look good, after all it has well-made (although ridiculous) costumes, impressive soundtrack worth of listening and magnificent CGI effects. However, every scene is shot in tilted angles without any purpose and the directing isn’t good at all. But the film is, however, worth of watching: it has been called one of the worst films ever made, characters are ridiculous as well as the plot, music and CGI are astonishing. Quentin Tarantino calls also infamous film “Manos: The Hands of Fate” to be one of his favorite comedies ever made. I can identify that sentence with this film: it is so enjoyable because of its atrociousness . that makes audience laugh. The film is one of those rare examples of bad films a person must watch in effort f seeing the very extreme of film making. “Unintentional comedy with an over bloated budget” is the best sentence I can come up with to describe the film.
- The Economist. 4 July 1984.
- Analog Science Fiction and Fact, February 1983