This week’s Yakmala film is Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000, which I watched primarily because it was available on Netflix Instant. It should have come with a warning label, although I suppose my projected rating of one star probably was the closest it will come. That rating stood, by the way. Battlefield Earth left me more miserable than a baby Psychlo cruelly denied his kerbango.
Tagline: Prepare to go Psychlo
More Accurate Tagline: Prepare to go for the exits
Guilty Party: In the distant past (1982), John Travolta desperately wanted to adapt a brand new sci-fi novel into a blockbuster and star as the young hero. It is possible the fact that the novel was written by the founder of Travolta’s religion, L. Ron Hubbard, was a coincidence. I can’t get too judgmental. After all, if it turned out that Saint Peter had written a sword-and-planet adventure tale, Mel Gibson would be all about turning that into a movie (and it would make a billion dollars and be totally fucking insane). By the time Travolta had sufficient cache to get a film made of this magnitude, he had aged out of the hero role. Never one to admit sanity, Travolta instead decided to star as Terl, the cackling villain with giant shins. Make no mistake: though Travolta neither wrote nor directed this movie, it is entirely his fault. And to a lesser extent, we could probably throw a little blame Tarantino’s way just for opening Travolta’s cell.
I heard a delightful rumor that Tarantino turned down the chance to direct. If this is true, this is one of the greatest alternate universe science fiction films ever, up there with David Lynch’s Return of the Jedi. I can just hear the dulcet tones of Quentized dialogue now:
“WHAT DOES TERL LOOK LIKE!?! DOES HE LOOK LIKE A MAN-ANIMAL!?! Then why you tryin’ to fuck him like one?”
Synopsis: In the year 2000, aliens from the planet Psychlo invaded earth and crushed all resistance after a nine minute struggle. A thousand years later, humans are an endangered species (one of many human idioms that somehow made it into the Psychlo tongue despite Psychlos not understanding a word of English), living in Stone Age tribes off in the mountains. The Psychlos, meanwhile, are after Earth’s gold. So yes, this means they’re basically just old prospectors.
Our caveman hero, Jonnie (Barry Pepper, shooting his once promising career in the neck), ignores the warnings of his elders and leaves the safety of his tribe to go look for more fertile farmland. He is almost immediately captured by Psychlos and taken to the ruins of Denver where the alien invaders have created a glass dome with their atmosphere inside. I can literally see no way in which that is an incredibly stupid idea.
Terl (Travolta), the Psychlo Security Chief, is looking forward to leaving Earth in the capable hands of his successor Ker (an apologetic Forest Whitaker). Unfortunately, Terl showed the poor judgment of banging a senator’s daughter, and will now be stuck on Earth for another fifty cycles. Terl is less than thrilled, and hatches a plan to do the unthinkable: train humans in the arts of mining. So, to recap, they’ve enslaved humanity and taught them to use a forge, but teaching them to mine – also known by its nickname “digging” – well, that’s crazy talk! Ker discovered a vein of gold that was inaccessible due to protective radiation. See, radiation makes Psychlo atmosphere explode. Yeah, I don’t know either.
Terl does a bunch of political maneuvering to cover his ass that wasn’t interesting in Phantom Menace and it’s not interesting here. He selects Jonnie as his test subject, mostly because Terl is tired of living, and thinks he should pick an exceptionally smart and rebellious human and then teach him to use advanced technology. The cackling Psychlo hooks Jonnie up to a knowledge machine, which beams a ton of Psychlo concepts directly into his brain. Psychlo concepts like Euclidean geometry and the English language. Remember, Psychlos are so ignorant about these people they’ve enslaved for a thousand years, they never even bothered to figure out what humans eat, but they know about Greeks that have been dead for 3000 years.
Armed with the knowledge the Psychlos beamed into his brain, Jonnie creates a plan as daring as it should be impossible. Using the time he’s supposed to be mining gold, he raids Fort Knox, which is still stuffed with lucre after a thousand years of occupation by gold-obsessed aliens. Then, heading over to a military base where the electricity is somehow still on, he teaches some cavemen to fly harrier jets in a mere seven days. Armed with the same technology that the Psychlos defeated in nine minutes (again, a thousand years ago, so shouldn’t Psychlo technology have advanced maybe a little?), Jonnie does with a group of cavemen what the governments of earth could not do with trained soldiers. He blows up the glass dome around the Psychlo city, then teleports a nuke back to Planet Pyschlo. Terl ends up imprisoned in Fort Knox minus an arm. Irony, thy name is Terl.
Life-Changing Subtext: Cavemen make the best fighter pilots.
Defining Quote: Chirk: “I am going to make you as happy as a baby Psychlo on a straight diet of kerbango.” Besides having a nice diet of gibberish, the line doesn’t even make sense in context. Kerbango is the Psychlo equivalent of liquor, which means Chirk thinks that giving alcohol to infants is a fantastic idea. Of course, fetal alcohol syndrome would go a long way to explaining Psychlo behavior.
Standout Performance: John Travolta as Terl. Battlefield Earth was never a stage play (hint, hint Julie Taymor), but you’d never know it from his performance. He pitches it for the nonexistent cheap seats, exaggerating his standard Travolta tics (crinkled eyes, boyish grins, autistic body language) to the point of camp. The odd part is that he never seems to be aware of how ridiculous Terl really is.
What’s Wrong: The Psychlos are supposed to be giants. So how do the filmmakers chose to convey this? CGI? Puppets? Clever use of forced perspective? No. The actors playing Psychlos wear stilts disguised as boots. So you have a bunch of actors gingerly wobbling around in every scene with grossly distended shins. They wear the stilts even when scenes have no humans in them, awkwardly lurching through scenes that don’t require a size comparison.
The sound in the movie is spectacularly bad. Most non-Travolta dialogue is muttered, whispered and mumbled. Every other sound is pitched at ear-bleeding levels. It sounds like they stuck the microphone in a bass drum and rolled it through a quarry.
Oh yeah, and for no reason I can understand, humans hoot and grunt like apes. This isn’t to indicate English, just to hammer home that humans are primitive. As for other languages, the movie isn’t what you’d call consistent. Sometimes the actors speak English which is actually English and sometimes it’s supposed to mean they’re speaking Psychlo. This leads to a wonderful moment where Jonnie serves as an English to English interpreter.
And what the fuck do the Psychlos need with gold anyway?
Flash of Competence: The plot is coherent, just very, very stupid. I generally understood who was doing what and for what reasons. For a Yakmala film that is high praise indeed.
Best Scenes: Writing science fiction is difficult. Partly this is because idioms we take for granted would not logically exist anymore. So these have to be thrown out and new ones invented. In the best sci-fi, these invented words and idioms make sense in the context of the world and provide a richer experience. This is not the best sci-fi.
Battlefield Earth alternates between idioms that could not have lasted a thousand years (piece of cake, the grass is always greener) and invented ones (that baby kerbango monstrosity). While I understand that some expressions are older than we think they are, how much is still alive from 1000 AD? And even then, we didn’t last through an apocalypse and the near genocide of the human race.
The issues with the dialogue don’t end there. Like any bad political writing, characters are constantly explaining what they hope to do with their nefarious plans. Namely, the acquisition of leverage. Seriously, it’s like the screenwriters were getting paid based on how many times they could get Travolta to throw up his hands and squeal “leverage!” in fey glee.
In another hallmark of bad SF writing, the screenwriters used compound words that end up being redundant for the sake of sounding a bit more alien. Humans are now “man-animals.” “Skullbones” protect the brain, even the “ratbrains” of the man-animals. And in a final fuck you to everyone watching, there is a point where an alien refers to someone as a “craphead.”
In short, any extended dialogue scene could be considered “best.”
Transcendent Moment: The film treats logic like a pedophile cellmate with a purty mouth. Remember, it is essential to the plot that harrier jets that have been sitting around for a thousand years be gassed up and ready to fly.
And of course, that they be flown by cavemen. In any movie with fighter pilots, there’s always the head on shot of the pilot. Normally, it’s a guy in a helmet with or without a gas mask. In this one? Cavemen. With war paint. Hooting and grunting like a chimpanzee with a stick full of termites. It looks like a bunch of guys who got lost on the way to another set and decided, what the hell, we’re fighter pilots today. And no one noticed.
Every post apocalyptic movie is going to overlook something in depicting a shattered world. Battlefield Earth seems to have overlooked everything. The surviving culture makes no sense, the landscape is far too intact, and then there are the harriers. Oh, god. The harriers.
As I watched the film, I noticed that nearly every scene ends with a very specific wipe, which led to my most common note: “And wipe.” I think that sums it up best.