Travolta/Off: Psychloanalyzing ‘Battlefield Earth’

Posted in Blog, Blu-Ray/DVD, Movies by - May 10, 2020
Travolta/Off: Psychloanalyzing ‘Battlefield Earth’

The late stages of 1999.

With a new millennium rapidly approaching, people go into panic buying mode to stock up for the impending doom of Y2K. Meanwhile, somewhere in the province of Quebec, John Travolta is deep in character, imagining a different kind of global apocalypse. Because in the world of L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth, finally being brought to the screen after years of Hollywood rejection, a villainous group of alien beings called Psychlos will shortly take over planet Earth, ruling it for the next thousand years. This, ladies and gentlemen, is A Saga Of The Year 3000.

Battlefield Earth was unleashed upon the world 20 years ago this month, on a date coinciding with the 50-year anniversary of the publication of “Dianetics”, the principal text of the Church of Scientology. Leveraging his A-list power, Travolta had finally managed to serve the commands of Xenu and produce a big-budget science fiction epic that he claimed would be “like Star Wars, only better”. Except the movie had already been pilloried for months prior; as soon as production photos surfaced of Travolta decked out in dreadlocks and a nose-breathing apparatus as evil Psychlo leader Terl, the public responded with a wrath formerly reserved for Jar Jar Binks. (Quick thought – has anyone ever dressed up as John Travolta in Battlefield Earth for Halloween?) Suffice it to say, the theatrical release did not last long.

My first encounter with John and his ‘locks was when Battlefield Earth came out on VHS. At that point, the only favourable critic quote that Warner Bros. could muster up for the back of the box was from an unnamed user at JoBlo’s Movie Emporium – “…great scene transitions and some of the better special effects of the year… the film was fast, furious and just a good ol’ time at theaters.” The film’s special effects are mentioned twice more on the back description, first letting us know that it’s loaded with “extremely cool special effects” and later assuring us of the “special effects that are completely real”. My personal grade for the special effects would be somewhere around “reasonably engaging”, which I think is a pretty fair assessment.

In an alternate universe (that is, the universe of John Travolta’s mind), Quentin Tarantino would have directed Battlefield Earth. But even though Travolta once pitched the project as “Pulp Fiction for the year 3000”, Tarantino graciously declined the offer, so he had to settle for Roger Christian instead, who cut his teeth as an art director on sci-fi classics like Alien and the original Star Wars. As a director, Christian already had a steady career in B-grade trash, including 1982’s minor cult hit The Sender, and was just coming off of 1997’s extremely fun Masterminds, a Die Hard-in-prep-school clone starring Patrick Stewart and Vincent Kartheiser that was a very important film to my preteen self.

In accepting what would be his biggest directorial gig yet, Christian had a radical vision – almost every single shot would be at a Dutch angle. Conceived as a way to emulate a comic book, this technique really only made the entire film feel as if it’s taking place on a hillside, with the characters all strangely hovering over each other. Each time you think the camera couldn’t get any more ridiculously slanted, it’s tilted just a little more for the next shot, even during run-of-the-mill shot/reverse shot conversations. Failing to capture the imagination of audiences with this aesthetic, Christian ultimately went back to making direct-to-video schlock in the years after, living up to his namesake most recently by directing 2016’s Kevin Sorbo-starring biblical drama, Joseph and Mary.

Beyond this weird stylistic choice, however, there’s very little of interest actually going on in Battlefield Earth, probably the chief reason why it hasn’t experienced any sort of cult fan revival throughout the years. The blandly rote storyline concerns a bunch of Mad Max rejects, fronted by Barry Pepper as Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (like your dog, who’s a good booooy), who lead the ragtag human resistance against the Psychlos, eventually defeating them and taking back the planet in an explosive final showdown. It’s a little illogical since the Psychlos are introduced as an extraordinarily advanced race who initially conquered the entirety of Earth in just nine minutes flat while our protagonists are basically Neanderthals; but hey, the power of the human spirit, amirite?

Sadly, the Scientology aspect is practically non-existent, even though critics at the time worried about subliminal messaging in the film that would turn us all into operating thetans or something. Some have theorized that the Psychlos are a stand-in for psychiatrists, a group that Scientology has always vehemently railed against and to which Hubbard apparently made a few explicit allusions to in his original book, and that the film aims to warn us about the future we could encounter if we let them run amuck. Frankly, I’m more fascinated by the fact that the Psychlos are from a planet called Psychlo and that their language is also called Psychlo, as if human beings spoke Human and were from the planet Human.

But if you’re going to dress up as a ridiculous alien creature, you may as well have fun with it; and to that end, Johnny T looks like he’s having the time of his life at least. As a mid-level Psychlo who is sentenced by his superiors to eternally look after the human slave camps on Earth, his Terl is perfectly whiny and petulant, while also affecting a high-falutin and somewhat British-y accent to convey his intellectual superiority. If Battlefield Earth had turned out to be a success and the planned sequels actually came to fruition, it’s easy to imagine Travolta clinging on to this role like Johnny Depp has with Captain Jack Sparrow, hamming it up for all eternity. He even made it a family affair, enlisting wife Kelly Preston for a cameo as Terl’s Conehead-looking Psychlo girlfriend, nauseatingly flirting with each other like the happily-married couple they are.

If nothing else, Battlefield Earth should be celebrated as one of the last big budget vanity projects that came to fruition (until Gigli put the final nail in that coffin a few years later) before Hollywood morphed into an industry concerned more with franchise and brand recognition than star power. And in that respect, the star at its center was certainly giving it his all.

Am I recommending you watch it? Well, since you’re in quarantine and it is currently on Netflix, why the hell not? Somewhere out there, John Travolta and the ghost of L. Ron Hubbard and I’m sure even Xenu itself would smile.

This post was written by
After his childhood dream of playing for the Mighty Ducks fell through, Mark turned his focus to the glitz and glamour of the movies. He's covered the extensive Toronto film scene for online outlets and is a filmmaker himself, currently putting the final touches on a low-budget (okay, no-budget) short film to be released in the near future. You can also find him behind the counter as product manager of Toronto's venerable film institution, Bay Street Video.
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