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'Battlefield Earth'

'Battlefield Earth' is big, dumb, loud and funny for all the wrong reasons

Friday, May 12, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Battlefield Earth" may be the silliest movie I've ever seen -- and that includes some of Charlie Sheen's more embarrassing efforts.

'Battlefield Earth'

Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi violence

Players: John Travolta, Barry Pepper

Director: Roger Christian

Web site:

Critic's call: 1 star


The film's obtuseness becomes so pronounced that I began to wonder whether the humor was intentional after all. A couple of scenes offer a glimmer of self-awareness that flickers away all too soon. Alas, "Battlefield Earth" proves to be an authentic howler of the Big Dumb and Loud school.

Toward the end, a flier crashes into his target and hangs upside down in his seat belt. When he decides to complete his mission by reaching for the handy bazooka he just happened to bring along, counting down tearfully to the explosion that will claim his life for the greater good, I thought of Bruce Willis setting off the nuke in "Armageddon" and began remembering that film in kinder terms.

Based on the 1982 novel by L. Ron Hubbard (I wouldn't worry about the movie converting anyone to Scientology), "Battlefield Earth" takes place in the year 3000. A race of giant, ugly aliens called Psychlos have conquered our planet and set up a mining operation, enslaving most of the few surviving humans. The rest live in caves or roam as scavengers, trying to find food and avoid the Psychlos.

One of the cave dwellers, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper), decides that there must be something better out there. He's wrong. He gets captured by the Psychlos and somehow draws the interest of the alien chief of security, Terl (John Travolta), who usually addresses Jonnie as Rat Brain. He thinks humans like to eat rats, because he sees Jonnie and some comrades reluctantly devour them when nothing else is available.

But that's typical of Terl, whose arrogance is exceeded only by his duplicity. When Terl agrees to your request, he eventually makes you sorry you ever asked. But no one can trick Terl. Then again, there's no need. His own smug miscalculations make possible the slave revolt that aims to drive the Psychlos from Earth.

In short, Terl ranks high in the Stupid Movie Villain Hall of Fame. What does that say for his assistant, Ker (Forest Whitaker), who keeps trying unsuccessfully to outwit him?

Travolta seems to understand this, and plays Terl broadly enough to contribute to the movie's evanescent trace of self-mockery. Then again, the Psychlos are rather ridiculous anyway you slice it -- physically robust on the outside but conniving profit mongers on the inside.

To use a "Star Trek" analogy, they're like Ferengi in Klingon clothing, representing the worst of both races. The nasal appliances they use to breath Earth air, which make them look like they have dreadlocks hanging from their nostrils, only add to the ludicrousness.

Still, at least they have personality, obnoxious as it may be. The human characters might as well be action figures, stilted and made of plastic. Jonnie's lines are florid, like silent-screen dialogue printed on cards. But Pepper uses maybe two facial expressions in the entire movie, and one of them involves him gasping for air on the numerous occasions when Terl grabs Jonnie by the throat like an Indiana University basketball player.

Screenwriter Corey Mandell has the excuse that "Battlefield Earth" is his first produced screenplay. The sins of director Roger Christian, on the other hand, are evident in such films as "Masterminds" and "Underworld."

His work on "Battlefield Earth" is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. He cuts incessantly from shot to shot, gives us big camera movements, shoots too many scenes in green or yellow or purple light -- and manages to make everything look like a movie set, even the scenes shot outdoors. The special effects aren't -- special, that is. That goes especially for the computer-generated backgrounds, which look like a virus is about to infect them.

Maybe that explains how "Battlefield Earth" turned into so much Psychlobabble.

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