Battlefield Earth. Travolta turns fiction into pulp

Imagine a reggae production of “Robin Hood: The Prince of Thieves,” with John Travolta playing the Alan Rickman role of the Sheriff as the Frankenstein monster. Imagine “Blade Runner” with iron poor blood. Imagine a film so undeniably bad that it’s not even funny.

Battlefield Earth. Travolta turns fiction into pulpYou don’t have to imagine, you just have to be enough of a chump to part with your hard earned dollars to see “Battlefield Earth.” I’d have to go back as far as “Rhinestone” to find a film as misguided and deluded as this. This vanity project of star John Travolta is a mind-numbing exercise in cheesy special effects and cartoonish acting.

Based on the weighty 1980 tome by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the film version of “Battlefield Earth” is lifeless and dull. Besides being dark and dreary, the film lacks focus. The script is all over the place, and none of it makes sense. The special effects look dated, including embarrassing matte paintings that seem like they were lifted from “Logan’s Run.”

That’s not all the filmmakers have “lifted.”. Anyone with a moderate appreciation of science- fiction films will recognize most of director Roger Christian’s visual flourishes, including a chase through several plates of glass right out of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” The list goes on and on, until you realize that “Battlefield Earth” is a $70 million reproduction and not an original.

Ripping off other Sci-Fi films isn’t a crime, but ripping off the worst and most cliched moments should be. That would mean a life sentence for director Christian and writers Corey Mandell and JD Shapiro, who commit the worst crime of all: they made a bad movie. Not just a bad movie, but an excruciatingly bad movie. So bad that instead of walking out, you feel compelled to sit there and see if it gets worse. It does.

John Travolta is a good actor, and will survive this fiasco, but he stinks so bad in this film you wonder if he took acting lessons from a pile of dog crap. One moment his character has an over the top theatrical accent, the next he’s just John Travolta behind tons of old “Star Trek” Klingon make-up. He’s supposed to be the villain, but is so laughable you can’t take him seriously.

Travolta plays Terl, the Chief of Security for a group of aliens called Psychlos. When we first meet Terl, the image is daunting. He looks like the alien from “Predator” wearing Boris Karloff’s boots from “Frankenstein.” He’s supposed to be menacing, yet Travolta plays him like a buffoon.

The film is set in the year 3000, 1,000 years after the Psychlos first attacked Earth and enslaved mankind. As the Earth lies in ruins, a small band of survivors hide out in caves and plan their defense against the aliens. They speak in grunts and groans, but thanks to the miracle of movie magic, we hear it as perfect English. Same goes for the aliens. Whenever they speak to each other, we hear it as English. When they speak in front of the humans, we are treated to subtitles.

It’s a tricky device that ultimately fails the filmmakers as they often get their wires crossed. Eventually everyone is talking English, but it doesn’t help matters when every word that comes out of their mouths is trite. You wish someone would just blow the damn planet up and get things over with.

No such luck. Instead, the filmmakers make us suffer through one non-moment after another. While it’s not as flat as Kevin Costner’s apocalyptic adventure “The Postman,” it is a bigger embarrassment. It has taken Travolta years to get the film to the screen, so there has been plenty of time to work on the script. If this is the best the writers could come up with, why make the investment? A lot of money went into making “Battlefield Earth,” why shortchange the script?

The dialogue is so bad you wince with the actors. Even hiding behind their make-up and costumes, it must have been difficult to say any of this with conviction. The blooper reel must be hysterical.

Barry Pepper, so good in “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Green Mile” loses ground as Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, the Taylor in this belated “Planet of the Apes.” Once the leader of the rebels, Tyler becomes enslaved by Terl, who sees potential in the man animal. Can he be programmed to perform alien level tasks? Pepper doesn’t bring any dimension to the paper thin character.

Of all of the performers, only Forest Whitaker (as Terl’s assistant Ker) seems to be having any fun. It’s difficult to care about any one or anything. By the time the final conflict plays out, if you’re not asleep or already on your way home, you’re staring at your watch counting the seconds. Not only is the film a bore, it’s a long-winded bore.

It’s hard to believe that in this day and age of digital special effects and miniatures that the filmmakers would settle for antiquated special effects. The matte paintings are especially sad. Where’s Albert Whitlock when you really need him?

Director Roger Christian would seem like a perfect choice to bring “Battlefield Earth” to life, with credits that include work on three “Star Wars” films. His thriller “The Sender” showcased his talent for creating suspense and a constant sense of dread. None of that is on display here. The film lumbers along like a dying sea slug waiting for someone to put it out its misery. Most of the action and violence takes place off screen, robbing the film of any emotional leverage.

As I walked out of the theater, I wondered which I would rather endure: Seeing “Battlefield Earth” again or having a spastic monkey shave my testicles with a straight razor. Excuse me while I drop my pants.

John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker, Kim Coates, Richard Tyson, Sabine Karsenti in a film directed by Roger Christian. Rated PG-13. 116 Minutes.

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