By John H. Foote
Why revisit a terrible film? Why rescreen the worst film of the 2000’s? A film widely known as an abomination? I will reveal that later.
Every actor and director, every artist in fact has their dream project. Mine as a stage director was directing a Canadian play Can You See Me Yet? which I adored when I first saw it in college and later read often. Availability was not easy to get, and when it was available for production I had committed to other work, so I never got the chance to direct this fascinating, haunting play by the gifted writer Timothy Findley.
The great Stanley Kubrick never made happen his Napoleon epic, and Jack Nicholson was never cast in the film which had the smell of masterpiece all over it. Scorsese will never make his Sinatra biography, though he did get to make his dream project of Silence (2016), his most underrated masterpiece. John Wayne directed his dream work The Alamo (1960), portraying Davey Crockett in the film, likely the most accurate portrayal of the man on film.
After exploding back into the forefront of American cinema with Pulp Fiction (1994), Travolta racked up several box office hits with Get Shorty (1995) and Michael (1996) allowing him great power within the industry. After portraying a senator running for President resembling in every way but name Bill Clinton in Primary Colors (1998), he was in a position to make his dream project, or at least star in the film.
L. Ron Hubbard, the creator and leader of the controversial Scientology religion (cult), had written a massive science fiction novel entitled Battlefield Earth, and Travolta wanted to honor the leader of his religion (cult) with an adaptation into a film.
Warner Brothers agreed to distribute the film, produced by a European company out of Germany – Franchise Pictures. They partnered with Morgan Creek to finance the film, a soaring $73 million dollars, hoping for a blockbuster in the manner of the Star Wars franchise.
Um, no. Not even close.
Battlefield Earth was ripped to shreds by the film critics of North America and declared the worst film of the year, then the worst film of the decade. Universally reviled, the film never had a chance of making money with the mercilessly vicious reviews from film critics.
Sadly, they were right.
Roger Christian (who?), an assistant art director in the United Kingdom, was tapped to direct the film, and the poor fellow must have wanted to crawl into a deep pit when the film opened and the reviews starting rolling in. Were there no other rising filmmakers who might have done a better job? No whiz kids emerging from film schools who might have handled this film in a very different manner? It was painfully obvious Christian was hired because the studio, and possibly Travolta, felt they could control him to make the film they wanted to create.
Set 1000 years in earth’s apocalyptic future, an alien race has conquered the earth and are mining the planet for its precious resources, namely gold, turning the landscape into an ugly mining world. Mankind has been reduced to slave labour, dressing in rags or whatever they find, scavenging each day for food, a step above the humans from the cornfields in Planet of the Apes (1968), except these humans can speak.
The aliens are a race of towering nine-foot creatures called Psychlos. Despising mankind from the moment they land, humans are no match for the creatures with their advanced weaponry and sheer size. Humans live in freedom, but in caves, hiding wherever they are free of being spotted by the aliens. After a century of this, most people have lost hope of ever regaining the lives they once had, of overthrowing the aliens. One man, Johnnie (Barry Pepper), continues to have hope and is always on the lookout for a weakness within the Psychlos, watching them and listening to them carefully. Johnnie and his friend Carlo (Kim Coates) are captured by the aliens and sent to a giant domed slave camp in Colorado where they will work the rest of their lives as slaves. The camp is under the dome because the atmosphere of the earth if toxic to the Psychlos, suffocating them at once.
One of the generals of the aliens, Terl (Travolta), sees leadership qualities in Johnnie and trusts him to find gold and bring it to him. Terl believes bringing a mountain of gold to his superiors will be rewarded with going home and getting off desolate earth.
The look of the Psychlos is quite shocking at first. The height is accomplished through various camera angles, but their hideous features are a brilliant job of makeup. With dark, ruddy flesh, they seem to have growths emerging from their faces, huge manes of hair that towers above their dark faces, and tendrils hanging from their noses. They wear huge boots that like those worn by Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster add to their height, however obvious, and their hands are huge, with claws at the ends of each finger. Their strength is five times what ours might be, and of course they have advanced weapons.
After coming back from a career dead existence with Pulp Fiction (1994), the exceptional Get Shorty (1995), Primary Colors (1998) where he did a superb Bill Clinton, and A Civil Action (1998) this was what Travolta used his newfound power to get made? He could have made anything I suspect, but this was his dream project? What a shame, and such a waste of money and resources.
Travolta looks downright ridiculous as Terl, speaking in a precise, odd voice as though he learned the language from talk shows, and even worse the great Oscar winning actor Forest Whitaker is equally awful as his partner. Oddly, Barry Pepper is terrific, given what he has to do as Johnnie, hellbent on overthrowing the aliens, and never taken seriously, so arrogant are the creatures.
It is an ugly film, terribly unpleasant to look at it, looking all the time like a massive gravel pit, grey, no color, no beauty at all. I understand why an artist would want to make a film about something that means a great deal to them. I would love to see a great film version of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (apparently in the works) or a remake of Moby Dick, but why would anyone want this book made into a film, and then in doing so why make it so unwatchable? And dark can work, as it was proved with the masterful The Road (2009) directed by John Coathill, a stunner about a post-apocalyptic world where humans just try to survive the day as the planet dies around them.
I first saw Battlefield Earth in 2000 at a press screening, named it the worst film of the year, and did not watch it again for 10 years, in 2010 to make sure it was as bad as I thought it was. It was, it is worse actually, as my viewing of the film a week ago has proven. It was painful to watch genuinely good actors do genuinely terrible work in this monstrous mess of a film, just as it was dreadful to see what former art director/ production designer turned director allowed his design people to create. For me it felt as though someone told the designers to create the ugliest place on the planet, with the aliens equally hideous. Never could I figure out why the humans wanted their planet back! Why take back a planet so obviously ugly, so clearly dead?
It seems so little thought actually went into the creation of this film. From the screenplay through to the cut of the picture, it feels like a bad student film, and believe me I have seen dreadful student films that far surpass this mess.
Any movie that makes Starship Troopers look like a masterpiece is a woeful movie indeed.
So again, why go back and screen a bad movie? A movie I know is a waste of my time and will just aggravate me? Films like this make me appreciate and want to celebrate the good ones, the great ones. I might never get the two hours I spent screening this mess again, but think of how much I will appreciate the next great film I see? This reminds me of what film can be, and what they need not be. I understand no artist sets out to make a bad film, nobody wants that, and reviewing bad films is very difficult, but when so many smart people cannot see that what they are making is laughable, I think they deserve everything they get.
Battlefield Earth is among the worst films ever made.
What were you thinking Mr. Travolta? Back on top and you wanted to plunge right back to the bottom? Shame on you … shame on all of you connected to this film.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.