Pretty much the “Showgirls” of sci-fi shoot-’em-ups, the new John Travolta starrer proves that even members of the $20 million-per club can push audience goodwill to the breaking point — and that point may soon be synonymous with “Battlefield Earth.” Few career revivals have enjoyed as heartfelt a welcome as that attending Travolta’s when “Pulp Fiction” ended his long slump six years ago. But this bombastic, frantic, frequently ludicrous “dream project” of the actor (for which he takes co-producer credit with his manager, Jonathan Krane, and Elie Samaha) is truly an insta-camp idiot’s delight. Pic could reap OK coin, given its heavy marketing push and turbo-action nature, but there may not be enough undiscriminating young male viewers in the world to recoup costs. There’s also another hurdle: Contrary to prior evidence, it is possible to make a popcorn pic too dumb for the peanut gallery.
The film is all too faithful to its source material, an 819-page doorstop that reputedly sold 5 million copies. Screenplay by Corey Mandell and JD Shapiro reshuffles and compacts events from the novel’s first half, altering a few of the more ridiculous conceits (e.g., hero’s warrior allies are no longer brogue-spaykin’ Scotsmen). But haplessly cliched dialogue, cardboard characters and dunderheaded plot logic remain.
Lest one should doubt that he’s a good boy, our hero is named Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper). He’s not a Nashville Network up-and-comer, but rather a rugged post-apocalyptic youth destined for greatness in this “Saga of the Year 3000.” During the millennium betwixt now and then, the Psychlos (from the planet Psychlo, natch) destroyed all earthly civilization to plunder our mineral wealth. The few remaining humans have regressed to primitive hunting and gathering, their own top-o’-the-food-chain past long forgotten.
Helmer Roger Christian (“Nostradamus,” “Masterminds,” and second unit on “Phantom Menace”) sets the feature’s tenor in the first few minutes: The buckskinned protag gets bad news from his mountain-dwelling clan (“Sorry, Jonnie, the gods took your father in the night,” intones his g.f. Chrissie, played by Sabine Karsenti), at which point he gallops off to explore the great unknown. He promptly hooks up with Rock (Michel Perron) and Carlo (Kim Coates), nomadic hunters who show him mysterious ruins.
While investigating one such site (a mall, no less), the trio are abducted by Terl (Travolta), chief security officer for the Psychlos’ domed mining operations. The Psychlos are very tall (though pic doesn’t convey that scale vividly), with sickly green eyes, elongated eyebrows and topknotted dreadlocks.
They’re also meanies, although not in any sophisticated or awe-inspiring way. You would expect a race capable of intergalactic travel, conquest and capitalism to have some seriously evolved gray matter. But a big problem with “Battlefield Earth” (both book and film) is that the evil “masterminds” come off as ninnies, while their “primitive” prey all too conveniently regain several millennia worth of human know-how in a New York minute.
Ambitious but hitherto thwarted on the Psychlo success ladder, Terl has already captured numerous “man-animals,” keeping them in “Planet of the Apes”-like cages for grunt labor. Added to their number, Jonnie becomes de facto rebel leader after one “rousing” speech. Noting unusual talent, Terl puts him in a learning machine called (you guessed it) a Learning Machine. Terl somehow fails to grasp that a human slave thus trained to operate Psychlo vehicles and weaponry might prove troublesome.
Despite pic’s noisy, hectic tenor, remaining narrative arc wouldn’t crowd a nutshell: Armed with his new knowledge, Jonnie is soon explaining molecular biology to his fellow man-animals, organizing armed resistance and annoying Terl to no end. Any faint fantasy-logic still standing gets lost in a chaotic final hour of nonstop explosions, collapsing structures and more slo-mo running through close-range gunfire amid shattering plate glass than even John Woo would hazard.
This may be the loudest actioner yet, challenging viewer tolerance with incessant sonic-boom footfalls, detonations, gunplay and screamed dialogue. Adding to the din is Elia Cmiral’s score, which ODs right away on bass-drum thunder, yet keeps on chugging till the celestial choirs come home.
Robin Russell’s editing outdoes even “Armageddon” for sledgehammer quick-cutting. Further viewer fatigue is induced by Giles Nuttgens’ widescreen lensing, which tilts virtually every shot at a dislocated angle. Christian manifests no apparent control over the proceedings beyond keeping the testosterone level at a rather desperate fever pitch.
Compared with those in other recent digitally enhanced pics, the visual effects are often quite blatantly mattes or computer graphics. Yet the overall look, though derivative (“The Matrix,” “Blade Runner,” “Waterworld,” etc.), rates as “Battlefield’s” one non-guilty pleasure. Wide format abets splendid views of diverse wilderness areas and ruined human cityscapes.
Costumes are less inspired, with the humans coming off like the dance troupe Stomp! doing a tribute to “Mad Max” in their tasteful war paint, caveman-chic leathers and Ally McBeal-on-a-bad-hair-day dos.
As the most arrogant and devious of this lowbrow lot, Travolta effects a hoity-toity mid-Atlantic accent suggesting “The Importance of Being Earnest” as performed by the Dogpatch Players. If this perf reps an indisputable Personal Worst, it is also an undeniable bull’s-eye realization of Hubbard’s pulp print villainy.
As subsidiary Psychlo-path Ker, Forest Whitaker courts less embarrassment. An otherwise less-than-stellar cast (excepting Travolta’s spouse, Kelly Preston, briefly seen as an alien babe) can be forgiven for signing up.
Pepper (an ensemble player in “The Green Mile” and “Saving Private Ryan”), as duly directed, shouts, leaps and tosses tawny locks like a Viking afire, albeit one lacking a speck of humor or charisma.
For the record, “Battleship” does not constitute Dianetics guru Hubbard’s first screen credit: Long before he founded the Church of Scientology, the then-struggling pulp writer had a hand in penning several late-1930s Poverty Row serials (“The Secret of Treasure Island,” “The Spider Returns”). If only Hollywood knew then what we know now.