Back to the Kim Newman Archive | Main EOFFTV page for this title

Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 (2000)

The 1066-page Battlefield Earth (1983) was L. Ron Hubbard's first published science fiction in nearly thirty years, the author having devoted himself from 1952 to the ambitious exercise of inventing Dianetics, a school of DIY psychic self-improvement that transmuted into the Church of Scientology, a controversial religion founded on cosmic tropes found in the 'Golden Age' s-f Hubbard and others had breezily churned out at a penny a word from the 1920s to the 1950s. At the time of publication, it was remarked that Hubbard had retrofitted his belief system into pulp plotting by setting out a story of a young man's journey from ignorance through wisdom to mastery of the universe that could easily be read as an allegory of an initiate's progress through Scientology. It was also clear that Hubbard had taken little notice of the evolution of science fiction since the early 50s, and could cheerfully deploy gosh-wow devices that had long since become outworn clichés. The juvenile tone of Battlefield Earth, perhaps coincidentally, was more in tune with the post-Star Wars filmed s-f of the late 70s and early 80s than the literary field that had turned out Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison and Alfred Bester and would soon be producing William Gibson, Geoff Ryman and Bruce Sterling.

Given that Battlefield Earth has been nurtured for some years by high-profile Scientologist John Travolta, it seems likely that the film will be seen by audiences for whom Hubbard is an almost-sacred spiritual figure but who are as unfamiliar with the state of play in written or cinematic s-f as Travolta and his collaborators seem to be. They may find it easier to take than audiences who have been paying attention to developments in the genre. As a demonstration of Hubbard's path to enlightenment ('going clear'), the heroic journey of pouting, callow Barry Pepper's Jonnie is as vague and fuzzy as any other post-Skywalker attempt to yoke in teachings from Joseph W. Campbell or Robert McKee to add mythic muscle to an action scenario. The film's premise is as naive as that of the 1939 Buck Rogers serial, in which a defrosted contemporary human masters futuristic flying machines to battle Saturnians who have conquered the Earth, and considerably less sophisticated than the allegory of Nazi occupation, collaboration and resistance found in Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD, which also has alien overlords taking over in order to sponsor a large-scale but impractical mining operation.

Roger Christian has presumably won this big-budget s-f gig on the basis of his second-unit work on the Star Wars films, but Travolta and manager / producer / frequent collaborator Jonathan D. Krane must not have noticed that among his mixed, often interesting directorial credits (The Sender, Nostradamus, Underworld) was a previous s-f action picture, Lorca and the Outlaws, that managed with far fewer resources to be exactly as muddy, scrambled, silly and ultimately tedious as this effort turns out to be. The business of downtrodden, post-civilised humanity recovering its potential has been a movie staple since Roger Corman's Teenage Cavemen (1958), which similarly opens with a tribal set-up that could be either the distant past or the distant future, and Battlefield Earth has the misfortune to arrive as the latest in a line of similar exercises (Logan's Run, Waterworld, The Postman) that have become standing jokes in the genre, not to mention failing entirely to match the hairy mix of satire and spectacle found in the first Planet of the Apes pictures or the Mad Max series. With sub-Gene Roddenberry bathos, Terl's big mistake is not using a magic s-f machine to fill Jonnie's head with big science (an alien language, basic algebra, the ability to fly a spaceship) but encouraging him to examine a dusty copy of the Declaration of Independence that inspires a commitment to rebellion.

Though he originally intended to play the hero, Travolta cannily switched to the role of alien villain, not simply as a nod to advancing age but because he recognised that the scheming baddie, with a domed head and wig reminiscent of John Barrymore's Mr Hyde and platform boots that might have been modelled on Elton John's look from Tommy, is a far meatier part. Scientology at least notionally stands as a reaction to the grey flannel suit excesses of early 50s American corporate culture, and the most deeply-felt aspect of the novel that transfers to the film is its depiction of the Psychlos as less a galactic Empire than a corrupt corporation where every exec is out to maximise his own personal profit while cheating head office and all functionaries scheme hard to establish 'leverage' over each other. It's panto-level satire, but allows for a welcome streak of camp that breaks up the pompous rebel-rousing as Travolta and a Next Generation Klingon-look Forest Whitaker chortle, plot and bluster against each other. An ending which leaves them both alive while wiping out their homeworld (a blithe genocide raising the Clerks cry of 'what about the builders?') threatens another film, drawn from the second half of the novel, to come. Since the plot hinges on devices like a stone age tribe learning to fly Harrier jump jets which are airworthy after a thousand years of neglect, it is futile to complain about lesser demands on suspension of disbelief like the Psychlo homeworld's possession of an atmosphere that can fortuitously combust after the detonation of a simple portable atom bomb.
KIM NEWMAN

First Published In: Sight and Sound July 2000 (UK)


Visit Kim's Official Website at www.johnnyalucard.com

 


E-mail us

All text on this page © Kim Newman