Page to Screen: Battlefield Earth (2000)

Battlefield Earth
based on
Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard

There’s a certain moment that occasionally happens when I watch movies. I’ll be watching with friends or by myself, and as the title credits try to make themselves discreet against the opening scenes of the film (this has gotten less popular nowadays, which I thoroughly appreciate), I’ll notice the credit “based on a novel by…”. Immediately, I change the way I watch, because I’m going to have to review it. As you can imagine, this gets interesting when I’m watching a film with my Film Depreciation crew, because riffing often gets in the way of plot points. (This is why people have a hard time watching movies with me; at the premiere for The Hunger Games, an acquaintance of mine warned me that if I spoke a word during the film, so help me God… I promised her I would be as silent as the grave. I did riff the trailers, however. It is only fair!) And that’s exactly what happened with Battlefield Earth. Oh, boy.

Battlefield Earth takes place in the year 3000. A thousand years ago, the catlike alien Pyschlos took over Earth for its resources; humanity now only survives as slaves or small, renegade tribes. One such tribe member is Jonnie Goodboy Tyler. Curious about the world outside his small tribe, Jonnie sets out to explore, but is soon abducted by the Pyschlos for manual labor. When the Pyschlo Security Chief, Terl, decides to defraud the home planet by stealing a vein of gold for himself, he recruits Jonnie to lead the mining mission—the radioactive nature of the site keeps Pyschlos from doing it themselves. But the knowledge he has to give Jonnie also makes Jonnie capable of, for the first time in millenia, leading a successful human rebellion.

I haven’t read the book, but it doesn’t matter. This movie is impenetrably idiotic and, worse, boring. We’ve watched some enjoyably bad films in Film Depreciation—in our hands, Prince of Persia, while still horribly racist, becomes the story of a surly princess and the idiot she’s saddled with, and we actually went to go see the most recent The Three Musketeers film in theaters. While those films are incredibly flawed, they, at the very least, have decent pacing and try to make you care about the characters. They rarely succeed, but I still have a fond spot in my heart for Orlando Bloom’s the Duke of Buckingham, as well Topanga and her incredibly shrill whines. (…we, uh, may have renamed Tamina.) The point is, there’s a difference between enjoyably bad and actually bad. Battlefield Earth falls, and falls hard, in the latter category.

Firstly, it’s hard to watch—director Roger Christian fell asleep on the angled shot lever. I didn’t notice the slo-mo too much, but it’s definitely there. The production design is hyperdated; I realize this is a twelve year old film (it’s the same age as my dog, come to think of it!), but there’s just something about the costuming, lighting, and dated CGI that just screams 2000. There’s no real logic to the story—the entire third act relies on weaponry that could have not possibly survived a thousand years, and Terl pumps Jonnie full of all the information, not just teaching him mining. (Oh, and to prove that Jonnie now knows all of this, we get a scene of him explaining Euclidean geometry to the other slaves. For… reasons.) But I think the absolute worst part is the sheer lack of character development. It’s hard to identify with or even like characters you know nothing about and can’t tell apart, especially when the film aggressively skips any moments that might advance character. And this is mostly the reason it’s boring. There are interesting moments; for Pete’s sake, an entire planet blows up! But their interest is fleeting, because it absolutely fails the dreaded “so what” test.

But, to be fair, there are a few good things. Forrest Whitaker, who has publicly expressed his regret for being involved in this film, is decently engaging as Ker, Terl’s second-in-command. Of course, I might like him because we assigned him the now immortal (…among us) line, “How am I supposed to do that and hold my drink?”. The catlike design for the ludicriously named Pyschlos (except Terl, because we have to see John Travolta’s face) is okay, although the sexual dimorphism for them is predictably terrible. But the only actually good moment of the film comes when Jonnie begins his training by being hooked up to whatever they used to educate Neo in The Matrix. The trainer is a hologram of someone whom the Pyschlos wiped out, and their stuttering apologies for being so bold as to address and teach a Pyschlo and explanation of how it’s likely that they are dead and their entire species extinct by now is actually horrifying and affecting.

But it’s the only good five seconds out of just a bad two hour film. Yikes.

Bottom line: Um, awful? Awful, let’s put it that way. There’s a difference between enjoyably bad and actually bad, and Battlefield Earth falls and falls hard into the latter category. Avoid.

I watched this film on Netflix Instant.

8 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Battlefield Earth (2000)

  1. It might be interesting to watch it back-to-back with Plan 9 from outer space, although at least that one has some charm as an extremely low-budget effort – almost like watching a home movie. It’s just kind of offensive when a film with a huge budget like this one had is so ludicrous. Makes John Carter look like Schindler’s List.

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