Saturday, October 18, 2008


Watching "Battlefield Earth" (*1/2 stars out of ****) is like sitting through a renegade Monty Python version of "Star Wars." Despite its $90 million budget, arty cinematography, and turbo-charged action scenes, this mediocre post-apocalyptic potboiler about ten-foot-tall aliens enslaving earthlings in the year 3000 never blends its die-hard heroics with its campy surrealism for maximum impact. While the straightforward humans struggle to reclaim their planet in this partial adaptation of author L. Ron Hubbard's blockbusting novel "Battlefield Earth," their egotistical and wholly overconfident alien foes blackmail each other for leverage to get off Earth. "Battlefield Earth" suffers from director Roger Christian's dramatically uneven helming and Corey Mandell and J.D. Shapiro's conventionally lowbrow script that boasts few surprises. This mock-heroic epic never generates much charisma for its dull hero, antagonism for its extroverted enemy, or excitement in the daredevil feats our heroes perform to defeat the villainous Psycholos.

Man tops the endangered species list, and the sexist, chauvinistic Psychlos are man's mortal adversary. These technically superior extraterrestrials conquered Earth in a battle that rages for just nine minutes. Afterward, they occupy the planet to plunder its mineral resources. Unable to breathe Earth's toxic air, the Psychlos wear small "Dune" like nose clamps that pipe their native oxygen through rope-sized hoses into their nostrils. They live inside a huge domed city (like the one in "Total Recall") filled with gas from their native planet. (Yes, humans must wear the same apparatus when they enter the city. Instead of breathing the potent Psychlo gas, they inhale regular earth oxygen.) Outside, nomadic tribes of buckskin clad humans that survived the Psychlo invasion live like their prehistoric ancestors. A smarter-than-average hunter, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper of "Saving Private Ryan"), refuses to accept mankind's subjugation.

As the chief of Psychlo security, Terl (John Travolta) dreams and schemes about getting back to his home planet. He believes his superiors will reassign him after they see the superb job he has done with a mining operation. Instead, they extend Teril's tour of duty on Earth indefinitely for his indiscretion with a Psychlo senator's daughter. Meanwhile, captured and caged in a zoo (as in "Planet of the Apes"), a defiant Tyler foments unrest against the Psychlos. An unscrupulous Terl risks death when he breaks the law to train 'man-animals' as miners. Ker (Forest Whitaker of "Phenomenon") and he have found a vein of gold they plan to steal secretly (shades of "The Mask of Zorro") by using earthlings instead of Psychlos to excavate it.

Terl connects Tyler to a holographic learning machine. The only other alien present in "Battlefield Earth" appears briefly as a tutor, and he is a sorry-looking specimen. Basically, images are beamed into Tyler's eyes, and he cannot move until the device is deactivated. Tyler learns to speak Psychlo as well as fly a Psychlo transporter. Later, Terl mistakenly believes Tyler is mining ore when our hero is really flying his rebellious cohorts, Rock (Michael Perron), Carlo (Kim Coates), and Robert the Fox (Richard Tyson), to an underground hanger stocked with Harrier jump jets. Miraculously, in seven days of sitting in an aircraft simulator, these cavemen learn how to fly a Harrier into combat against alien spaceships! In "Battlefield Earth," learning and mental clarity (the Scientology credo) pave the way for mankind's salvation and triumph over t heir cretinous, overconfident foes.

The acting and casting of the lead roles leave a lot to be desired. As the heroic Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, Barry Pepper is a competent actor, but he lacks personality. Pepper brings little charisma with him and does even less to bolster his character. He displays none of Luke Skywalker's innocence and not enough of "Mad Max's" vengeance. An actor with more celebrity status was definitely needed to enhance the hero's luster. John Travolta's villainous Terl overshadows him in every scene.

"Battlefield Earth" features one of John Travolta's worst performances. Although he plays Terl full-tilt, throttle wide open, as the obscenely vain, obnoxious Psychlo that he is, Travolta leaves no room for subtlety. He's too ham-fisted and doesn't register as much of a threat as a villain. Imagine Vincent Vega from "Pulp Fiction" with the attitude it would take to support the outrageous wardrobe and coiffure of the Psychlos and you have Travolta's histrionic performance in a nutshell. Travolta should have veered more to ruthlessness instead of buffoonery. Interestingly, Terl is the best looking of the Psychlos; everybody else appears grotesque, almost beyond the bounds of good taste.

Director Roger Christian had the right credentials to direct "Battlefield Earth." He helmed the second unit scenes for George Lucas on "Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace." Reportedly, Lucas told Travolta that Christian was the only director capable of handling the logistics of "Battlefield." Nevertheless, not even Christian can save "Battlefield" from bad looking aliens, rotten costume designs, and inept scripting. The only time he drums up suspense is when he uses their gruesome shadows to foreshadow the entrance of the Psychlos. Once production and costume designer Patrick ("Godzilla") Tatopoulos' aliens are unmasked, everything goes south. Further, these villains are too stupid and easy to defeat. A glance at the heavily-uniformed Psychlos in KISS platform shoes, dreadlocks, and goofy wolf paws is enough to make you laugh yourself silly. In all probability, Christian may have shot much of "Battlefield" in tinted blue noir lighting to minimize the hilarity of the Psychlo's costuming. Another major problem is the shifting tone that robs the film of any majesty. "Battlefield Earth" resembles "Lil' Abner" in space, shifting inconsistently from straight drama to comic relief. The scene were Tyler fight an obstinate earthling over the prison chow the Psychlos serve up amplifies this inconsistency. The aerial combat scenes lack punch. Finally, because so little is conveyed in the Mandell & Shapiro script about the aliens, we never truly get a sense of who they are and what they can accomplish.

If you walk into "Battlefield Earth" hoping to see "Star Wars," prepare to be disappointed.

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