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[whitespace] 'Battlefield Earth'
Psychlo Killer: Evil alien Terl (John Travolta) faces off against earthling slave Jonnie Goodboy (Barry Pepper).

Wierd Scientology

'Battlefield Earth' makes the end of the world one big whimper

By Richard von Busack

CONTEMPLATING THE CRITICAL RESPONSE to this galaxy-sized turkey, the Church of Scientology may feel as if they were the victims of a Jihad. On the one hand, the 1982 novel Battlefield Earth was a case of their founder L. Ron Hubbard's speaking ex cathedra, to use the Catholic parlance, and it's probably not quite cricket to bring his organization's name into a critique of the movie. On the other hand, if Jesus Christ had written a book like Battlefield Earth, we critics would have been on Him like a duck on a junebug.

The easy comparisons between Battlefield Earth and Plan 9 From Outer Space have been made by everyone from A.O. Scott of The New York Times to Mr Cranky (www.mrcranky.com), but these comparisons are unfair--unfair to Ed Wood, that is. Plan 9, at least, was a protest against nuclear proliferation---what the hell is Battlefield Earth about? Is it supposed to be a tribute to man's ingenuity? If so, why is it so shoddily built?

It's the year 3000 and men live at a stone-age level up in the Colorado Rockies. They may live in caves, but they have fantastic horses, pureblooded Arabians by the look of them. One of these cave-men has the good old-fashioned 20th-century name of Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (played by Barry Pepper, the baby-faced sniper in Saving Private Ryan). When he rides out on his expensive steed, he encounters the creatures that destroyed Earth's civilization in 9 minutes. They're Psychlos, tall aliens clad in discarded Klingon gear, wearing rubber Halloween paws on their hands, and shod in size 48 platform shoes. These Psychlos are stationed by the hundreds on earth, with really nothing to do except drink, hiss at each other, and try to stab each other in the backs. One of the Psychlos, Terl (John Travolta), is embittered against his superiors. Thus, with the help of his henchman, Ker (Forest Whitaker, rock-bottoming it), he schemes to make money by doing some illegal gold mining, using the earthlings as slaves.

Battlefield Earth is like a pedantic elementary school kid's version of a science fiction opus. Every plot point, no matter how absurd, is explained at length--such as that Jonnie Goodboy has to be educated on the entire history of western civilization, higher mathematics and the Psychlo language to be smart enough to be a gold-mining slave. The lack of forward momentum in this movie kills it-though, as we've seen in the past, this kind of movie is neither too dumb nor too ugly to survive, even if the putrid script and the griminess, cheapness and dimness of the computer graphics are all at record lows.

Travolta, whose Terl sounds like no one if not Pee Wee Herman, is listed as a co-producer. Thus he has no one to blame for this catastrophe but himself. He's deliberately sought out the kind of role that actors are reduced to, by age, taxes, drink or paunchiness. It's a minor tragedy that Travolta wasn't smart enough to know better; it's a major tragedy that Travolta has so much power in Hollywood that no one on "this disgusting excuse for a planet" (as his Terl puts it) could explain to him what a monstrosity this project was.

Battlefield Earth (PG-13; 117 min.) directed by Roger Christian, written by Cory Mandell, based on a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, photographed by Giles Nuttgens and starring John Travolta, Forest Whitaker and Barry Pepper, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the May 18-24, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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