Does Battlefield Earth live up to the hype as one of the worst movies ever made, a movie so bad it’s hysterical? Yes. The 2000 film, a passion project decades in the making by its star, John Travolta, makes a seemingly endless series of baffling technical and creative choices. It’s very fun to watch and laugh at, but if you stare at it too long, its dizzying effects could make you feel like you’re losing your mind.
The saga of Battlefield Earth began in 1983 when Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard first expressed interest in adapting his recently published science fiction novel of the same name for the big screen. The book, which takes place in the year 3000, imagines that humanity has been long enslaved and ruled over by a terrible master race called Psychlos, who are all nine feet tall and have dreadlocks. A human who becomes enslaved, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, leads a revolution of freedom that involves dirty bombs and banking contracts.
At its best, the book has been described as “Indiana Jones for 12 hours,” which might not exactly be an endorsement, but gets a point across: If you want pulpy action fun with endless explosions, this is a book that could satisfy your needs.
Maybe if the movie had taken a lighthearted approach, it could have worked. That’s a big maybe, but a film starring Barry Pepper, John Travolta, and Forest Whitaker sounds like it has the potential to be something good. Instead, Battlefield Earth plays its Psychlos and its struggles with a drama that it doesn’t deserve and makes its few attempts at humor offputting and awkward.
The first thing anyone notices about Battlefield Earth is the camerawork. You get a few generic shots of the Colorado Rockies and then come the barn door wipes. Named because they resemble a barn door’s opening, from the center to the edges of the screen, these wipes come fast and they come hard in Battlefield Earth.
Every single decision to barn door wipe is worse than the last. It makes no sense to have dramatic scene after dramatic scene end with a barn door wipe. And, yet Battlefield Earth persists.
The director, Roger Christian, said that he wanted to make a movie feel like a comic book, which would also explain the never-explained constant lighting and color changes. Reviewing the film, Roger Ebert said that Christian “has learned from better films that directors sometimes tilt their cameras, but he has not learned why.” These angles do not appear for just for dramatic shots, or for establishing shots, they appear for everything.
Neither does it help that no one in the film is really likable or interesting. Jonnie Goodboy (yes, Jonnie Goodboy) has no real personality. As he's constantly thrown between different Psychlo traps, the viewer is thrown into intricate Psychlo politics without understanding any of it. The main personality trait of the Psychlos seems to be “overly literal assholes,” because they constantly say things like “You won’t be here for 5 years” and then pause for dramatic effect saying, “You’ll be here 50 years!” and laugh and laugh.
But you’re not watching Battlefield Earth to root for Jonnie Goodboy as he learns how to use fighter jets and make humans great again. You’re watching it because it’s the cinematic equivalent of stepping on a rake, taking a step back, and stepping on another rake, for 1,000 years. It’s an absolute laugh riot. Just don’t do a drinking game based on barn wipes, trust me.
Battlefield Earth is streaming now on Amazon Prime.