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Review: Logic loses in 'Battlefield Earth'

movie strip

May 12, 2000
Web posted at: 1:10 p.m. EST (1710 GMT)

(CNN) -- Let's get one thing straight. "Battlefield Earth" was only made because John Travolta wanted it made. It's been his baby from start to finish.

It's not a pretty baby.

There has been much speculation about this film because it's based on a science-fiction novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. Travolta has been a longtime member of the sometimes-controversial group. Some feared the film would contain subliminal religious propaganda sending thousands racing into the arms of the nearest Scientologist.

 VIDEO
Theatrical preview for "Battlefield Earth"
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Fear not! That stampede you'll hear will be audiences racing to the box office for a refund, because this attempt at a sci-fi action epic fails on just about every count.

Cave dwellers and aliens

At the beginning of the film we're introduced to bands of unwashed people living a stone-age existence. It's a cross between the 1966 disaster "One Million Years B.C.," starring Raquel Welch, and "Caveman," the 1981 bomb starring Ringo Starr. At any moment you find yourself expecting one of these acting titans to stumble onto a scene waving a drumstick and wearing a bear rug.

It's the year 3000, and humanity is divided into two groups: scattered primitive tribes and slaves. For many generations, the planet has been under the rule of the Psychlos, a ruthless alien race that is stripping away all of Earth's minerals. These 9-foot goons use humans as slave labor in their mines.

Never mind that the whole plot rests on the aliens' assumption that humans aren't capable of tasks as complex as mining. This is only one of many holes left by first-time screenwriter Corey Mandell. But in all fairness, his source was Hubbard, a writer whose work will never be confused with that of Arthur C. Clarke, whose talents came to the screen in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Although this ambitious epic features a cast of dozens, there are only three characters to remember; everyone else is an extra. The only "man animal" vital to the plot is Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, played by Barry Pepper.

Now wait a minute: Man has been reduced to his most primitive level, dwelling in caves, and our hero spells Johnny with a cute "ie" instead of a "y"? Hey, wait another minute! He actually spells?

Terl, tall and churlish

Jonnie's tribe lives in an isolated mountain encampment. His people believe in mysterious gods, but Jonnie's not so sure. He strikes out on his own to find out if they actually exist.

Naturally, he's hardly out of the cave before he's captured by Terl, a Psychlo played by Travolta in a ham-on-rye performance. Terl is head of security for the Denver mining operation. His sidekick and lackey is Ker, played by Forest Whitaker. That's it. That's the cast.

Travolta and Whitaker are basically an ill-tempered version of Abbott and Costello, mean and unintentionally goofy. They plot to steal gold from the "home office" -- that's what they call their native planet -- and are training Pepper's character to oversee the human crew that will mine the treasure.

Bad move, guys. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and once Jonnie is introduced to a few engineering basics he's off and running. Before you can say, "this absolutely makes no sense," he's flying alien space ships, leading a human revolt against the bad guys and setting off atomic bombs.

Galactic goofiness

What this movie lacks in simple logic, it makes up for in its apparent unintentional campy humor.

Travolta clumps around in his platform heels -- they help create the illusion that he's 9 feet tall -- and you cannot help but think that he's impersonating Tim Curry playing Dr. Frank-N-Furter in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Horrifying? He's hysterical.

For the most part, Whitaker looks embarrassed to be in this movie, never mind the costume. Dreadlocks are apparently de rigueur for the upwardly mobile Psychlo on the go.

Pepper, best known for his fine work in "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Green Mile," struggles mightily to play the man upon whom the future of the planet rests, but the burden is too much. He's continually beaten down by the film's idiotic dialogue and ludicrous situations.

There are special effects galore, but nothing we haven't seen a million times before. The battle scenes go on forever and end up looking like a computer game on overload.

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A sequel?

Viewers are left, then, with three questions: Will the aliens be driven away? Will mankind survive? Will this movie ever end?

And three answers: Who cares? Probably. Please, let it!

"Battlefield Earth" is the directing debut of Roger Christian, a longtime protege of George Lucas, and it shows. The movie is full of "Star Wars"-type flourishes -- an alien bar, just to name one -- and it wants to convey the same sense of fun as that series. Sadly, when it's supposed to be funny it isn't, and when it's supposed to be serious, the film's funny.

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But what's really horrifying is that "Battlefield Earth" only covers half of Hubbard's book, meaning a sequel is possible.

It took Travolta 18 years to get this first one made; let's hope it takes at least that long for the sequel.


"Battlefield Earth" is a production of CNN Interactive sister company Warner Bros., a Time Warner property.

"Battlefield Earth" opens nationwide on May 12 and is rated PG-13 with a running time of 130 minutes.



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