Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 (2000) (part 1 of 10)
Well, this is it. The big one. One of the most requested movies from readers of this site and, in fact, one of the films that first got me interested in bad movie riffing in the first place.
Ah, Battlefield Earth. Of all the bad movies I’ve read about, this one has by far attracted the most hatred and contempt. It’s absolutely synonymous with terms like “ill-advised”, “ego project”, “monumentally stupid” and, of course, “box-office bomb of massive proportions”. I spent literally entire nights reading up on this movie, trawling through cyberspace for articles and reviews, and in all that time I found not one single website that said one positive thing about this movie—and bear in mind that I’ve actually found fans of Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. The one with the disco-balls and Sam the Gay Crack-Baby hobbit. There are plenty of people who think that film is a classic, but nobody is crazy enough to be a fan of Battlefield Earth.
The warning signs, of course, are there for all to see. For one thing, this movie is a vanity project. In other words, it was made because of the obsessive drive of One Man Following His Dream. And though this will sound incredibly cynical and misanthropic even for yours truly, this movie just goes to show that following your dream isn’t always a good thing.
In any case, anyone with some knowledge of moviemaking will probably hear a mental warning bell go off as soon as they hear the phrase “vanity project”. Seagal’s ghastly pseudo-environmentalist bomb On Deadly Ground was also a vanity project, as was the equally disastrous Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and as these films show, the warning bells should sound even louder when the driving force behind the project is also playing a lead role.
And, in the case of Battlefield Earth, said mental warning bell will be absolutely justified, because the Man Following His Dream on this vanity project is John Travolta, the vainest of them all.
In the opinion of this lowly rodent, John Travolta isn’t a bad actor. He’s been in plenty of good movies (Pulp Fiction, Carrie, Saturday Night Fever and Grease), and plenty of bad ones (The Devil’s Rain, Staying Alive, the Look Who’s Talking movies and, of course, Moment by Moment, which makes him the Agony Booth’s latest Repeat Offender). So Battlefield Earth is like a double-edged sword, because it makes it hard to remember the good performances he’s given, but on the other hand, it makes you forget all the bad movies he’s been in, because they all pale in comparison.
As both he and they are so keen to remind us, Travolta is a member of the Church of Scientology. The cult was founded by L. Ron Hubbard, who started out as an author of crappy sci-fi novels, before he found himself new careers in inventing religions, nicking other people’s inventions, and tax fraud. Travolta claimed he wanted to turn Hubbard’s novel Battlefield Earth into a movie not because he’s a Scientologist, but simply because Hubbard had always been “an inspiration” to him. So, yeah, it’s because he’s a Scientologist.
Way back when Travolta originally wanted to make this movie, circa the late ’70s timeframe, he wanted to play the role of the hero, Jonnie “Goodboy” Tyler. But as he got older (and pudgier), it quickly became apparent that wouldn’t happen. By the time he managed to garner the popularity and goodwill required to realize his dream (i.e., right after the success of Pulp Fiction), he was forced to set his sights a little lower. Ultimately, he ended up playing the villain, Terl. And, in some respects, he does an excellent job. By the end of the movie, the viewer is filled with red-hot, seething hatred towards the character, although it could perhaps be for all the wrong reasons.
Yet another warning sign was the choice of director: Hollywood nobody Roger Christian, who had previously worked as a production designer on the set of Alien, and a second-unit director on Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. A little research reveals that his directing career since 2000 hasn’t been particularly distinguished, and Battlefield Earth is most likely the reason why. But it should be remembered that Christian was simply playing second fiddle to Travolta’s ego here, and not entirely responsible for the more heinous examples of “filmmaking” seen in the finished product. As one article put it, he was either a moderately talented director who was in way over his head, or a complete hack who was in way over his head. In any case, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Just to give a more complete picture of what went wrong (aside from the fact that the source material was hardly Pulitzer worthy), fellow recapper Ivan Druzhkov was kind enough to do a little more research on the movie. Here’s just a small part of what he learned from reading the book Fiasco by James Robert Parish.
Unfortunately, Travolta was in his Moment by Moment phase, and he never had the clout to do it. It was resurrected in 1983 as a two-parter, budgeted for $15 million per part under director Ken Annakin, with a proposed cast of unknowns, but it sank beneath the waves two years later. In 1996, a recovered Travolta was trying to get the project off the ground at MGM and Fox (with his portly self tackling the role of Jonnie), but after seeing the projected price tag of $100 million, the major studios quickly jumped ship.
In fact, the whole reason the movie got made at all was because the studio Travolta went with, Franchise Pictures, had made a habit of picking up vanity projects in development hell, getting their stars to agree to a reduced salary, then using the star’s name to raise some of the capital for the project, with the remainder coming from bank loans and shady budget inflation. (Later on, Franchise Pictures was investigated by the FBI as part of a probe looking into possible inflated budgets used to get more money from investors. The resulting $100 million dollar lawsuit bankrupted the company.)
As a prank, a small ’zine based out of Los Angeles, Mean Magazine, managed to acquire a copy of the shooting script to Battlefield Earth. They retitled it “Dark Forces” by “Desmond Finch”, and sent it out to a number of studios. It was universally passed on, with one reviewer noting that the script was “as entertaining as watching a fly breathe.”
The film was shot in and around Montreal, Canada, and the cast was mostly bound by nondisclosure agreements to keep them from talking to the press. The producers claimed this was to make sure that no one stole their “high-tech look” (filth-encrusted metal… of the future!) or their “plotline surprises” (I assume the fact it actually contained elements of a plot was the surprise).
To counter the bad press, the Church of Scientology launched an online campaign to promote the movie in 2000, and according to unverified rumors, Scientologists were actually given free tickets to the premiere just so the theater could be filled up.
Also according to Parish, in 2003 there were plans underway to create an animated series [!] based on Battlefield Earth, with Dan Haggerty voicing Terl and Tim Kearns voicing Ker. I have never seen this series, no one online has ever mentioned it, and it has no entry in the IMDb. I guess the Bad Movie Gods really do smile upon us from time to time.
[Editor’s Note: Grizzly Adams as Terl? God help me, but that sounds too damn good. —Ed]
Another major problem was the budget: $73 million, which sounds like a lot of money until you realize that films with impressive effects generally tend to cost more than $100 million these days—some even going as high as $200 million. Thus, the special effects you’ll be seeing in this movie are quite noticeably cheap.
I picked up a copy of this movie secondhand, having already tried my paw at recapping with Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, but afterwards I let it lie around collecting dust for quite some time. I guess I should bare my soul here and admit that, in fact, I was almost scared to watch it. I’d read so much about how much it sucked that I’d been put off. And, well, what can I say except that I value my eyeballs?
In the end, not wanting to let my sixteen bucks go to waste, I decided to propose tackling this movie as a Mega Recap! After I put the suggestion forward in the forums, several brave and foolhardy souls came forward and offered their support. So, thank Hubbard, I’ll only have to recap the first fifteen minutes of this thing. The final roundup:
Page 1, 2, and 10: Yours truly
Page 3: Bear
Page 4: Michael A. Novelli, AKA Mendo Loves Lum
Page 5: Ivan Druzhkov
Page 6: Sillstaw
Page 7: Jake Cremins, AKA krylonman
Page 8: Kruhn
Page 9: Kyle Palkowski, AKA The Doctor
And a great big ultra-special thanks to Ed, the Once and Future Genrewriter, for doing the formatting and helping get the recap into postable shape.
Extra grovelly thanks also to Celestial Wayfarer, for adding the screencaps, without whom the recap never even would have been submitted. Baby, you’re the best.
In addition, I’ll also be adding notes based on viewing the movie with the director’s commentary on. This recap will also come with a new feature, which I’m calling Jet Tackles The “Making Of” Features. Okay, so that’s a little literal, but what the hell? It may offer some insight into what the heck was going on in the minds of the people who made Battlefield Earth.
And now, on to the film!