Wednesday, May 17, 2000

Battlefield Earth

Posted By on Wed, May 17, 2000 at 12:00 AM

I’ve long felt that there should be something accompanying a movie review which would indicate any mental, physical or circumstantial condition that the critic might have been dealing with while discharging his or her viewing duties. It seems only fair to the reader and need be only a brief phrase, perhaps located just below the star rating – like "Had Argument With Significant Other" or "Bladder Infection Acting Up" or "Lost My Keys." Combinations would be allowed ("Dog Died/Had Unusually Spicy Lunch") as well as no phrase at all, for those times when one feels more or less normal.

I mention this because the indicative phrase for this review would be "I Saw It After It Opened." Normally, this wouldn’t be a particularly significant situation, but in this case it means one (that would be me) has been exposed to a barrage of the most negative reviews I can recall any movie receiving, ever. Actually, "negative" doesn’t quite capture it. This film seems to be universally loathed. It was beyond a consensus – it was unanimous that here was a movie that wasn’t even fun bad. It was just bad. Incredibly bad. So I entered the theater in a state of anticipatory depression, a funk only slightly mitigated by the knowledge that the Metro Times would attempt to assuage my pain with a generous payment in the high two figures.

And then, sure enough, just as universally praised films tend to disappoint, the heartily condemned Battlefield Earth seemed, in part anyway, not all that bad. Of course, the story is ridiculous, (and, no, Scientology doesn’t enter into it). L. Ron Hubbard was spawned by the culture of pulp fiction and his tale of enslaved earthlings struggling against a conquering race of sneering, ugly aliens would have fit nicely as a serial run in John W. Campbell’s ‘40s mag Astounding Science-Fiction. Like the Star Wars series, it’s a throwback to the space operas of yore, jazzed up with special effects.

Unlike Star Wars, however, it’s incessantly loud, underlit and badly directed – actually not so much directed as ineptly assembled, with no action sequence going unbotched. This is too bad because the story is effectively primal and I’m sure I would have rooted for the underdogs if I could have figured just what the hell they were doing.

Having said that, I must admit to having derived some pleasure from the much-maligned performance of John Travolta as the evil leader of the aliens’ Earth contingent. With his long stringy dreads and his bloated sepia-tinged face, he looks like a rotting yam (i.e. silly), but the role certainly defies any sort of conventional interpretation – and while Travolta is no Gary Oldman, he gives, I think, a fearless performance, over-the-top and quite amusing. I was also tickled by Forest Whitaker’s somewhat more subtle turn as Travolta’s duplicitous second-in-command. Watching the two try to get the drop on each other, I thought (as I’m sure did the four other paying customers who sat in the cavernous theater with me), you know, this ain’t that bad.

But, of course, "I Saw It After It Opened."

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at


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