The ‘religion’ might be ridiculous, and the movie, at times, not much better, but Battlefield Earth – filmed with the support of the Church of Scientology in the hopes of… well, God only know what – has to some extent been a victim of its own timing, and the reputation of its creator. Seth Lukas Hynes cautiously weighs in.
At the risk of losing all my credibility as a film critic, I recently re-watched Battlefield Earth and gave it a sincere 3 out of 5 star rating.
Released in 2000 and based on the 1982 novel by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, BattleField Earth is widely considered one of the worst films of all time, winning eight Golden Raspberry Awards (or “Razzies”) in 2001, and a special Worst Picture of the Decade Razzie in 2010. Stars Barry Pepper and Forest Whitaker, and screenwriter J.D. Shapiro regretted working on Battlefield Earth, and production company Franchise Pictures went bankrupt in 2007 after they were found to have fraudulently overstated the film’s budget.
Given the recent buzz around Scientology and the conviction of celebrity member Danny Masterson for the rapes of two women, I’d been meaning to re-watch the infamous Battlefield Earth for a while, and I… unironically enjoyed it as a middling but fun and occasionally clever B-movie.
In the year 3000, Earth is occupied by ruthless aliens known as Psychlos, and Johnny Goodboy Tyler (Pepper), a resourceful young hunter, leads a daring revolt against their alien overlords.
Starting with the bad (which is, admittedly, abundant), Battlefield Earth is riddled with Dutch angles (crooked shots) and gaudy blue and purple lighting, and the frequent curtain wipes and abrupt transitions are particularly irritating. The human characters are thinly-sketched yet likable, but Johnny’s partner Chrissy (Sabine Karsenti) is a total afterthought. The pacing is severely back-heavy, and the world-building is very poor: it’s unclear what the Psychlos do on Earth beyond enslaving humans for menial labour, and there is an incredibly contrived subplot in which the villains use a convoluted plan to figure out what humans like to eat.
The fights are very poorly-shot, the indoor sets look cheap, the Psychlos feel like knockoff Klingons, and the film has some awful greenscreen and compositing.
The performances are decent but unremarkable, and Pepper has a nimble physicality as Johnny, but John Travolta stands out as Terl, the Psychlo chief of security and main villain (Travolta, a Scientologist, also co-produced the film, with Battlefield Earth being a passion project).
Travolta was widely ridiculed as Terl, and even won two Razzies – Worst Actor and Worst Screen Couple (“John Travolta and anyone sharing the screen with him”) – but Terl’s combination of sadistic cruelty, theatrical arrogance and a smug, self-satisfied grin is actually pretty fun. Travolta somehow succeeds in being camp and intimidating, which is a rare feat.
Battlefield Earth has an engaging motif of leverage, and it’s interesting to watch Terl and Johnny second-guess and manipulate each other. Terl has an intriguing tendency to twist words to get his way, and it’s fun watching Ker (Whitaker), Terl’s dim deputy, prove smarter and craftier than he appears. Johnny’s plan to secretly prepare his people for rebellion is genuinely clever, and the training montage (while implausibly fast; could anyone, let alone post-apocalyptic cavemen, learn to fly a fighter jet in one week?) gets you pumped.
While the climax is disjointed and has a poor sense of geography, it has several cool scenes and satisfying character moments. Johnny’s friend Carlo (Kim Coates) delivers a moving self-sacrifice, and Johnny tricking Terl into blowing off his own arm is legitimately badass. The film also has some exciting pyrotechnic stunts, including a climactic scene of Johnny running past exploding pillars (it’s ripped off from The Matrix, but well-executed).
As for the cinematography, either I got used to the lighting and Dutch angles or they tone down significantly later in the film.
I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed Battlefield Earth. It’s always been trendy to mock bad movies, but I’m a millennial from the era of the angry Internet reviewer, when larger-than-life characters such as the Nostalgia Critic, Cinema Snob and Spoony One exaggerated and eviscerated movies for content. With this hyperbolic, nitpicky culture now largely in the past, perhaps my generation will now be more able to see the good in notorious movies like Battlefield Earth.
As an autistic viewer, I might also be more amenable to odd alien performances like Travolta as Terl.
Battlefield Earth isn’t that bad, and I have a theory on why it was initially so despised. There are legions of corny, sloppy but fun genre movies like Battlefield Earth, and most don’t arouse the same ire. But what sci-fi blockbuster came out the year before? Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
Nearly a quarter of a century later many Star Wars fans and cinephiles still hate The Phantom Menace (and the Star Wars prequels in general). Since The Phantom Menace was a poorly-received entry in a beloved franchise, did it leave filmgoers more jaded towards corny genre movies? Would Battlefield Earth have been slightly better-received if it came out a little earlier?
Is Battlefield Earth one of the worst movies of all time? Nah – like I said, I give it a 3 out of 5.
Battlefield Earth is, to some degree, a victim of reputation, and if you let go of these preconceptions, you’re in for an entertaining B-movie.
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