Grade: F

And you thought “Dune” was bad. David Lynch’s sci-fi debacle of 1985 might have been elephantine and opaque, but at least
it had an imaginative unifying vision. The same surely can’t
be said for this misbegotten mess apparently slapped together
from the shards of previous lousy movies by Roger Christian,
whose last flick, “Masterminds,” was so awful it put the feature
career of Patrick Stewart on long-term hold.

“Battefield Earth,” of course, is an adaptation of a novel by
Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and represents the
fulfillment of a long-cherished dream by John Travolta, a
member of the group, to bring the story to the screen. It can
only have been a misplaced sense of piety that led the former
Kotter kid not only to embarrass himself in one of the
picture’s lead roles, but to have put up a sizable portion of
the production costs, too.

Travolta stars as Terl, the security head of a bunch of alien
thugs called Psychlos (they all look like more rubbery versions
of the Klingons) who, ca. 3000 A.D., have enslaved earth,
which they are systematically mining of its mineral resources.
Barry Pepper, an intense Johnny Depp lookalike, plays a
fellow coincidentally named Johnny, a wiry, bright hillsman
who is captured by the Psychlos after he ventures from his
high-altitude abode (the aliens supposedly can’t breathe in
such areas, I think) and, after gaining a position of
leadership among the imprisoned man-animals, as they’re called,
leads a last-ditch rebellion against the Psychlo tyranny which
targets the invaders’ home planet itself. (The plot is made
all the more convoluted but dull by having Terl recognize
Johnny’s unusual cleverness and force him to participate
in an illegal mining scheme whereby the Psychlo leader can
amass enough gold to win his return to his homeworld despite
political opposition to him there. This segment of the plot,
with its nefarious financial dealings, is about as fascinating
as all the back-story stuff about trade organizations and
taxes was in “The Phantom Menace,” seeming an even sillier
variant of the moronically comic Ferengi culture subplot from
“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”)

Incoherent when it isn’t simply dumb, the movie plays like a
wacky comic-book combination of “Independence Day” and
“Waterworld,” mixing the (lack of) intelligence of the former
with the grungy, post-holocaust style of the latter (or of
another Costnerian disaster, “The Postman”). (To be fair, the
finale, wherein the earthlings undertake their rebellion, also
steals a lot from the original “Star Wars,” aping in far too
many respects the assault on the Death Star which concluded
that flick; but that had already been recycled in
“Independence Day.”) And the grungy look of the picture,
along with its lamentably cheap-looking effects, gives it the
feel of one of those direct-to-video quickies shot amidst
the debris of some long-deserted factory-and-warehouse district.

The puerile plot isn’t salvaged by any of the performances.
Terl and his none-too-reliable lieutenant, played by Forest
Whitaker, are apparently supposed to be giants, but they look
about as realistic in terms of their size as the lumbering
embarrassments who usually grace the operatic stage in
productions of Wagner’s “Das Reingold.” Given their sadly
phony appearance, it’s no wonder that Travolta and Whitaker
try to enliven their scenes by hamming it up royally in a
sort of a failed alien Laurel-and-Hardy routine. Travolta
glowers, smirks, chortles and laughs maniacally at every
opportunity, and Whitaker Worf follows in his footsteps with
an equal lack of success. Pepper, on the other hand, engages
our sympathy not because we care about his character, but
because the amiable young actor must spend roughly a third of
his screen time being slapped, throttled and otherwise
brutalized by Travolta, another third running frantically
from Psychlo gunfire, and the remainder reciting lame,
juvenile dialogue that must have made keeping a straight face
nearly impossible. None of the supporting players make any
real impression, but it should be noted that women fare
particularly badly in the movie’s testosterone-laden
environment; Sabine Karsenti, who portrays Johnny’s beloved,
enters the action only to be captured and serve as a hostage
to insure his compliance with Terl’s dastardly schemes, and
no other female has more than a walk-on.

One could go on endlessly about the egregious holes in the
plot of “Battlefield Earth”: How does Johnny, who’s lived
all his life in a barbarous backwater, know how to read
English? Why does a Psychlo computer-instruction program
teach the lad about “Euclidean geometry”? How is it that
U.S. planes and missiles which have apparently been unused
for centuries are still in perfect running order for the
rebels to commandeer? How have the ruins of cities–even
copies of books found in half-razed libraries–survived
for so long? Why do the Psychlos value gold, a distinctly
terrestrial mode of exchange, anyway? But thinking about the
terrible thing too long will merely make one dizzy with
confusion and distaste. Suffice it to say that the first
major turkey of the summer season has arrived; the only
solace is the knowledge it won’t be around long.

There is, of course, one final issue raised by the movie. Some
have feared that it might be a piece of Scientology propaganda,
implanting secret messages into the skulls of the uninitiated.
I think there may be something to the notion that there are
subliminal directives at work here, because throughout the
screening I kept hearing a tiny voice in my head, saying
over and over, “Leave the theatre as quickly as possible, and
warn others to skip this stinker.” Of course, that message
might not have been what Hubbard and Travolta had in mind.