Consideration of Works Past: Battlefield Earth


(Picture from here.)

Here’s where I lose any possible literary creds.

Okay, in the interest of transparency, I like bad movies.

There are several ways a work can fail. It can aim too low and miss. It can aim too high and miss. It can thread the myriad ways of mediocrity and nail the target– which is a fail in and of itself.

“B” movies aim at a specific lowbrow target and much more often than not nail it.

This is a good thing.

Sometimes (note Sharktopus, which I saw last night.) the bar is so ludicrously low– more a strip of paint on the sidewalk– that the effort to hit the target trivializes anything of value in the work.

My favorite “B” movie director is John Carpenter— in my opinion, the true heir to Roger Corman. He’s produced a fair amount of schlock. But he also gets quite good performances from otherwise limited actors. Go watch Natasha Henstridge in Ghosts of Mars and then go watch her phone in her performance for The Whole Nine Yards.

Battlefield Earth is a “B” movie at its very heart. Made from a “B-” book (Battlefield Earth) by L. Ron Hubbard founder of Scientology. I liked Hubbard’s pulp stories. They were a romp– Ole Doc Methuseleh, for example. The story has been circulating for years that he was out on a boat commiserating with John Campbell about the sorry pay SF writers get. One of them (stories differ) said the real way to make money was to found a religion. It’s one of those stories that might tell better than the truth.

Anyway, the whole Dianetics/Scientology thing pretty much took Hubbard away from writing and into wealth. Then, in 1982 he released Battlefield Earth. Followed by a series of equally pulpy books. John Travolta tried to get the movie made for years and it was finally released in 2000 to pretty uniformly bad reviews. It cost $75M to make and barely brought in $20M. It regularly appears in lists of the worst films ever made. (Here’s an example.) Rita Kempley at the Washington Post said, “A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth.” (See here.)

People in the SF Community hated it.

I mean every now and then it comes up in conversations at conventions and the revulsion is palpable. Part of it is the irritation the SF community have towards most bad SF films. If it’s not MST3K worthy, it ought to try to be good SF. Most SF films don’t bother. There are so few actual SF films made (as opposed to marketed) that we tend to really want them to be good. Blade Runner is a good SF film. It’s not Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the novel it’s based on. But it is good SF. Wouldn’t it be nice if they actually made a Phillip K. Dick movie?

But Battlefield Earth had a bunch of things stacked against it. Hubbard was disliked by a some of those in the SF community because of the whole Scientology thing– and if you want to look that up, go ahead. I’m not going into analyzing the problems of a psuedo-religion here. He tried to connect back with the community by the Writers of the Future program. It was run for a while by one of the finest human beings and finest writers, ever: Algis Budrys. But in spite of that, a lot of us felt a little queasy at Scientology’s little fiction project.

So: a bad movie with a suspicious heritage. What’s not to love?

I saw it last week. And then backed it up with a bracer of Sharktopus. After all, if you’re wondering about the quality of a bad film it’s important to have a standard for comparison. Sharktopus is an unrelentingly bad film. There is no argument.

Battlefield Earth has actual moments.

Let’s be clear: Battlefield Earth is a bad movie. But the same people that hate this film then turn around and say how great Roger Corman is. Roger Corman did Death Race 2000. He did Piranha. He did Battletruck. The Women in Cages collection. These are not good films. They are much worse than Battlefield Earth. I mean they’re not Sharktopus but then, what is? Oh, yeah. Sharknado.

Quick synopsis of Battlefield Earth: Earth has been invaded and beaten by the Psychlos for a 1000 years. These are a bunch of sociopathic profit mongers that don’t even care much if their own limbs get blown off, much less anybody else’s. They strip a world of what it has and then leave it. (And this is different from Independence Day, how? Oh, yeah. It’s not.)

A Young Turk is captured who is a bit smarter than the average barbarian. The Psychlo of note, Terl (John Travolta) and his sidekick Ker (Forest Whitaker) figure they’ll get the smarter humans to mine gold for them in an area where the radiation would kill Psychlos. The humans get the better of them, fight them, win and then blow up the home planet.

Not a lot different from a lot of other bad SF films. (See Independence Day above.) But, as I said, there are moments.

First, you get to watch Barry PepperJohn Travolta and Forest Whitaker— even in bad films, these guys are professionals and it’s always fun to watch virtuosos play their instruments. Whitaker is like some fiery genius so even on his bad days he’s a joy to watch. These guys look like they’re having fun.

The aliens are pretty good at being fully realized sociopaths. They have no mercy and no remorse. They have no empathic feelings whatsoever. None. These guys are never redeemed. They are looking out for self-interest at all times. They are fully realized aliens. Yeah, yeah. They have arms and legs– they’re humans in alien suits. But the interaction between them is sociopathically seamless.

Then, there are a lot of neat little bits. There’s a scene when the hero and his buds are flying off to find a library full of things they can use to fight the Psychlos. They’re using an old Rand-McNally map– yeah, I know after a 1000 years it’s just dust on a counter. Work with me here– and hero and friends are arguing how lost they must be since they haven’t crossed any of those big lines between the states.

There’s a sort of continuing homage through the film to Planet of the Apes, where the humans sometimes act like apes. They climb up things and shout and such. Rita Kempley particularly didn’t like that.

Yes, there is a lot of laughing out loud at the clumsy dialog and special effects. But, go watch Terminator. The dialog and directing there is much clunkier. The acting is worse and the direction is marginal. Battlefield Earth has fewer stupid things in it than Stargate and that was on television for 10 years!

My point is it doesn’t deserve the level of scorn it’s gotten over the years. Is it Plan 9 From Outer Space? No. Is it Manos: The Hands of Fate? No. On the other hand, is it 2001? Hell no.

So, on a considerations level, Battlefield Earth was a “B” movie when it came out in 2000 and it’s a “B” movie now. If you like “B” movies (I do) it’s a fun romp. Park your brain at the door.

And thank your ever loving God you’re not watching Sharktopus.





Consideration of Works Past: Battlefield Earth — 3 Comments

  1. I’m not sure you’ve convinced me to give Battlefield Earth a try, even with Forrest Whitaker (whose work I also adore). Less bad than Stargate doesn’t help much; that show annoyed me enough to get up and turn off the TV. I’m much more appreciative of B movies when they were actually made as B movies — like the Carpenter and Corman films. You spend $75 million, you ought to get something a little better. It is possible to turn bad material into a good movie. The memoir that was turned into M*A*S*H was a lousy book, but the movie was good at the time (it hasn’t aged well) and the TV show was excellent.

    BTW, there is one movie that’s been made from a Philip K. Dick story that qualifies as Dickian: Screamers. They moved the setting from Earth to another planet, but it upholds the very creepy and paranoid vision of the original story. It came and went so fast I almost didn’t get to see it — I ran down to see it on a Thursday night at the end of a one-week run and there were about a dozen people in the audience — and I’m not even sure it’s available on Netflix. It beat the hell out of Total Recall.

  2. I agree that you ought to get more for your money in a film. Absolutely.

    That said, even “B” movies can get short shift. Ghosts of Mars cost $28M to make but only got $14M at the box office. Big Trouble in Little China cost $20M to make but only made $11M at the box office. Escape from LA cost $50M to make but came out only making $25M.

    That said, I’m not entirely sure the makers of BE ever intended it to be anything other than a “B” movie. I mean we’re not talking Fellini here. At no point in the film does the dialog or plot ever deviate in the direction of actual art. Sure, it cost a lot to make– but lots of films go over budget. Travolta donated a lot of his own money. Franchise Films was eventually sued and bankrupted when it was learned they overstated the film’s cost by $31M.

    Ishtar was clearly intended to be a buddy picture in the vein of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby– as low a target as one can find. It cost $55M to make in 1987 dollars. And tanked completely.

    There are a lot of really bad SF films that get made every year. I probably see more than most– I have the dead brain cells to prove it. BE is by no means the worst of the lot and I find it a lot of fun. I find it interesting that it is considered to be so bad as to be on lists of the worst films ever made.

    Oh, wait. What was that? My credibility flying out the window.

    *sigh* Kiss it good-bye.

    • Your credibility is safe with me. There are some bad movies I’m fond of, too. And BE cannot possibly be as bad as the worst movie I ever saw, Vigilante Force, with Jan Michael Vincent as the hero and Kris Kristofferson as the villain. I saw this movie over 30 years ago, in Guatemala, shown in English with Spanish subtitles, and the only saving grace was practicing my Spanish by reading the subtitles. The fact that I still remember it after all these years is a tribute to its awfulness (though all I really remember is that it was supremely dreadful).