8 May 2004

Review: Battlefield Earth

We just found the time to watch Battlefield Earth. As I mentioned a while back, this movie is allegedly worse than Xanadu, which I had rated as the absolute worst movie I’ve ever watched. So, how does Battlefield Earth compare? Well…

The first thing to note about the movie is that the entire thing is shot in tilt-o-vision. Every single scene has the camera at an odd angle. Not just slightly, either—we’re talking 30 or even 45 degrees. The only rational explanation I can come up with is that they were unable to find enough people willing to work on a Scientology-backed movie, and ended up employing a cameraman with one leg.

If you think about the process of moviemaking, you’ll realize that there’s a major problem with shooting at odd angles: it makes it really difficult to edit the material seamlessly. As a result, what you get in Battlefield Earth is a funhouse maze of cuts. One moment John Travolta is sloping to the left; we cut for a reaction shot, and when we cut back he’s sloping to the right.

Once you get into a fight scene, of course, you’re continually trying to work out what the hell is going on—are they going to leap on the enemy from above, or are they hiding at ground level? Can the guards see them or is that piece of machinery in the corner of one of the shots supposed to be hiding them? Just working out the geometry of what’s supposed to be happening is taxing. Perhaps that’s just as well, because it’s the only mental stimulation you’re likely to get.

Sometimes the effect of the sloping is just comical—like in the opening scene, where it seems as if the primitive humans are so regressed that when they put up a tent on a hillside, they drive the poles in perpendicular to the ground; or later on, when John Travolta bangs his head on a piece of scenery getting up, but it looks as if he slid down into it.

The fascinating thing is that at some point, someone must have sat and watched the early rushes and thought “Hey, this is great, yeah, let’s do the entire movie like this.” They spent enough money to make the special effects look good, but somehow couldn’t find the cash for a tripod.

Another thing that apparently seemed like a good idea, is that every time something exciting happens the movie goes into slow motion. Gunshots, explosions, individual punches in a fistfight, people jumping off stuff—all slowed down. It’s like watching the movie with an eight year old kid playing with the remote control. Yes, I found slow motion fascinating, back in 1980 or so.

The acting? Oh, the acting is competent enough. I mean, this is sci-fi, so you can overlook the Shakespearean scenery-chewing whenever an old human guy talks about Our Great Heritage. Everyone even manages to act with bits of string dangling from their noses, because that’s what someone in props decided the breathing masks ought to look like.

Anyone can make a crappy movie by putting crappy actors in it. It’s the easiest thing in the world. Start with an award-winning screenplay; hire Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves and Ethan Hawke; drop them into the mix, and watch them work their magic. What impresses about Battlefield Earth is that they’ve made a film where everything else is awful, but the acting’s not bad.

Let’s talk plot.

Again, this is sci-fi, so we’re not expecting perfection, but a little attention to plausibility would have been appreciated. OK, so mankind was enslaved by an alien race who wiped out all our defenses in just seven minutes, it’s now the year 3000, and the remaining men and women live as scattered nomadic tribes in a post-apocalyptic wilderness. I can buy that. What I can’t buy is an alien race advanced enough to have teleportation technology, who still communicate by carving their messages into cast metal plates.

These aliens are smart enough to travel across intergalactic space—but dumb enough to give a spaceship to a bunch of humans who have already tried to escape several times, set them down in the middle of nowhere, and leave them alone for two weeks to mine gold. They have advanced surveying sensors which can locate gold seams in the unpromising geology of North America, and they know all about our history, but somehow they missed the fact that Fort Knox was sitting there filled with gold the whole time—oh, and the dying human guards conveniently left all the safe doors open too.

The humans find a military flight simulator that’s still in perfect working order after a thousand years, and the electricity’s still on too. Yeah, right. The non-literate humans use the flight simulator to learn how to fly a Harrier jump jet in combat conditions, in only seven days. Mmm-hmm. And then they find an entire fleet of armed and working Harrier jets, also totally undamaged by an alien invasion followed by a thousand years of neglect.

A giant glass habitation dome has a bomb detonated on its framework. Every single pane of glass shatters, yet somehow all the shards stay in place. Then a hero flies a hoverplane into it, and the entire thing explodes. Ohh-kay.

I’m not trying to be picky, I just really see a few minor implausibilities. Well, let’s be honest, huge gaping plot holes. It is, as more charitable reviewers have said, “a little unbelievable“, like a 50s sci-fi B-movie is a little unbelievable. Unfortunately, L.Ron wrote the book in the 1980s, and it’s a safe bet that Travolta did his best to make sure the great man’s masterpiece was translated to the movie screen with plot intact.

But all that aside… Is it worse than Xanadu? Well, yes and no. Xanadu has plenty of moments where I found myself cringeing with embarassment for everyone on the screen. However, Battlefield Earth impresses with its constant level of awfulness. It avoids being bad in all the easy ways, yet sustains a steady wretchedness for almost two hours. It’s an amazing achievement, and I wish the MST3K team were still around to give it the review it really deserves.

© mathew 2017