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Battlefield Earth

out of 4 Movie Review: Battlefield Earth

Starring: John Travolta, Barry Pepper
Director: Roger Christian
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 117 Minutes
Release Date: May 2000
Genres: Action, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

*Also starring: Forest Whitaker, Richard Tyson, Michael Byrne, Jim Meskimen, Kim Coates, Kelly Preston, Christian Tessier

Review by MrBrown
0 stars out of 4

Although trailers for _Battlefield_Earth_ have been playing in moviehouses since December, the reaction has remained constant over the last few months. With each new audience for each different film at each different time of day, no less than thunderous peals of derisive laughter greet the sight of John Travolta done up like a ten-foot-tall alien beast bearing talons and a moptop of dreadlocks. The television ad campaign, bearing the ludicrous catch phrase "Get Psychlo!" (Psychlo being the name of the monstrous alien race), has done little to change the negative public perception.

That said, I must give credit to the Warner Bros. marketing people. As poor as all the ads look, they don't even begin to touch upon the unfathomable awfulness of _Battlefield_Earth:_A_Saga_of_the_Year_3000_ (the film's full, onscreen title). Not only is it hardly presumptuous to declare it the worst film of the year 2000, it is no exaggeration to call this wretched piece of incompetence one of the worst films ever made.

As stated by the complete title, the film takes place in the year 3000 A.D., where the planet is in post-apocalyptic ruins after being taken over by the evil alien race from the planet Psychlo a thousand years prior. "Man is an endangered species," as an insanely large text card states, with most of the remaining humans being held prisoner and/or enslaved by giant, grotesque Psychlo. A certain few, however, live freely as primitives in secluded mountain villages. One such person is a bright, resourceful young hunter (Barry Pepper) who may very well be the one to lead the human race to winning back its freedom from the alien invaders.

That summary could've been written by anyone who had just seen _Battlefield_'s trailer, which makes clear what is completely incoherent in the complete film. _Battlefield_ tells a simple, simplistic story, but somehow director Roger Christian and screenwriters Corey Mandell and JD Shapiro have made it virtually incomprehensible. After twenty or so dead-end minutes of people wandering through an obviously matte-composited wasteland comes the first of the showcase action scenes--which are all haphazardly cut and slow-mo'ed to oblivion. Pepper's doozy of a character name--Jonnie Goodboy Tyler--is not made evident until about halfway through the film. But at least his name has a consistent pronunciation, unlike that of Terl (Travolta, who also produced), the "head of security" for the aliens' Earth operation; sometimes it rhymes with "girl" and other times it rhymes with "Carol." However you say his name, Terl devises some sort of evil scheme against his superiors after being passed up for a cushier job (yes, even aliens get frustrated by career stagnation), but it beats me just how exactly it's supposed to work. Even so, his plan is not nearly as nonsensical as the humans' plan for revolt.

Travolta has called Terl "the definitive evil character." With creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos failing to come up with a menacing look for the Psychlo--their appearance looks ridiculously slapped together from bits of cheap leftover Klingon and rastafarian costumes, with a touch of bondage gear thrown in--it's up to Travolta to turn Terl into a convincingly vicious, truly hateful villain. But his smug, jokey take on the character is a complete miscalculation. A similar approach worked for him as the bad guy in John Woo's _Broken_Arrow_, but there that flip cockiness fit the quirky character. Terl is supposed to be pure, unironic evil--not so much a character to hate as one to feel genuinely threatened by. With Travolta punctuating nearly every passage of dialogue with a ridiculously overdone "evil" cackle, it's little wonder that Terl--and, consequently, the film--can never be taken seriously.

However, the filmmakers take _Battlefield_Earth_ extremely seriously, and their reverence of the source novel--and its writer, Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard--blinds them to the fact that the story they're trying to adapt is nothing more than a pulpy genre piece, not an "important" work of literature. Hence, the film is riddled with laughable and utterly baffling moments of self-importance: a crowd is inspired to give exuberantly savage grunts and barks--by flowery statements about the value of freedom; pseudo-profound ruminations about destiny incongruously pop up during a big prison break sequence. People who treat lines like "We're gonna blow up their planet. Needless to say, we're gonna need more supplies before we do that" with grave seriousness are in no position to condescend to their audience, but that's exactly what Christian does. At one point, Jonnie is shown reading a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence, but so ignorant are we movie audiences that he has to then flip to a page that says "Declaration of Independence" in huge type.

Usually a subpar sci-fi film can at least fall back on its visuals, but _Battlefield_Earth_ can't even count that as a saving grace. Forget the not-so-special effects--Christian and his crew can't even get the basics right; the rubbery Psychlo creature design is just the tip of the iceberg. Matte paintings are not only obvious, the image compositing is shockingly inept; the three-dimensional actors are clearly standing in front of flat backdrops. The would-be futuristic weaponry and gadgets don't look quite as state-of-the-art as stuff you'd find on a toy store shelf.

Catch Travolta on any talk or magazine show, and you'll see him all smiles over _Battlefield_Earth_. Exactly why is up for question. Given the fact that he's tried to bring to the project to the big screen for nearly twenty years, the obvious read is that he's beaming with pride that it finally came to fruition. But after seeing the final product, I cannot help but think that maybe, just maybe, he's laughing that he was able to sucker otherwise sensible people into pouring tens of millions of dollars toward making such an unspeakable, inexcusable waste.

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