Welcome to One More Time, the column where writers revisit and review the movies they walked out of in theaters.
Bombs like Battlefield Earth are the rarest of creatures, like a pungent cheese to be savored over copious glasses of wine for trashterpiece connoisseurs like myself. The kind of misfire to send me rushing to the theatre in my Nomi Malone nails to ponder all of the collateral beauty around me onscreen.
And yet, even I couldn’t finish this disaster of a movie. I bailed from the theater after the film’s first would-be set piece, where the hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, is captured by the villainous and hairy dominating alien race, the Psychlos (from Planet Psychlo, duh).
The movie begins in the year 3000. The only establishing information given is onscreen text that reads “MAN IS AN ENDANGERED SPECIES” and some vague dogma about demons from Jonnie’s tribe. The only remaining artifacts of civilization are malls and miniature golf. When Jonnie is captured, the laser guns the Psychlos blast him with are closer to the fart gun from Despicable Me than the standard pew-pew variety. Cue my exit from the theatre.
That may seem like a hasty departure, but in the fifteen or so minutes I had endured, I felt my body and soul aging beyond that brief time span. I left haggard and hardened by life itself. And most importantly: I wasn’t laughing or aghast in ironic glee. John Travolta, its star and outspoken champion, hadn’t even shown up yet.
The movie was adapted from a massive novel written by L. Ron Hubbard before he founded the Church of Scientology. Though the text has been interpreted to reflect church teachings or held up as a Scientology gateway drug, you are hard pressed to find anything substantive in the film in the way of religion—but the Hubbard name loomed large when the film was released.
Early press had Travolta—on of the church’s most famous members—on the offensive, insisting that the film had nothing to do with Scientology and that his passion for it came purely as a piece of science fiction. His producing partner stressed in the press that the church had no dealings in the project whatsoever, though in the years since, former high ranking Scientologist Marty Rathbun has claimed that church leader David Miscavige reviewed rushes and gave notes on the film.
Once the film opened, even turkey chasers like me had a hard time stomaching the hellscape of its self-seriousness, cardboard-chic production value, and outright unhinged world-building. They’d made a film that was bad enough to achieve the unimaginable: you forget about that whole Scientology thing.
Word spread quickly about Battlefield Earth’s odor, resulting in only $21 million at the box office, contributing to the bankruptcy of its production company, Franchise Pictures. The film was such a notorious disaster that it’s surprising how forgotten it has become, a mere 18 years since it was the butt of every joke. Where are its midnight screenings, packed with laughing rubberneckers in Psychlo cosplay? Maybe those who suffered through it, both behind the camera and seated in the theatre, would simply sooner forget the experience. Its non-Scientologist screenwriter J.D. Shapiro even (sort of creepily) apologized for it.
No one came away from Battlefield Earth more damaged than Travolta. This was his passion project, one he had reportedly longed to make for decades, and had hoped could bring the church into mainstream acceptance. After his mid-90s resurgence thanks to the success of Pulp Fiction, he became a major box office draw overnight. What followed was a string of hits like Face/Off and Phenomenon and the steady public goodwill that one needs to get this kind of vanity project off the ground. We kind of really, really liked him.
In turn, this project squandered all of that. Travolta had essentially made himself the spokesperson for the film, having precisely zero chill with interviewers about the kind of reception he expected would meet the film. He invoked the likes of Schindler’s List when hyping the film, and talked about the sequel he was already planning.
What struck me on revisiting the film is how narrowly I missed the slimy bullet that would have kept me in my seat: Travolta himself. Because it’s him that makes good on the film’s promise for unintended hilarity.
Travolta plays Terl (which for some reason rhymes with “Darrel”), a Psychlo security officer on Earth awaiting a long delayed promotion as he enslaves humankind. Psychlos are hulking, wiggy humanoids with citrine eyes, and Terl is maybe the baddest bitch of them all. The actor arrives looking like a jacked Thorgy Thor, spouting nonsense dialogue with camp glee. Imagine if The Little Mermaid’s Ursula was a monkfish instead of an octopus and you get a close idea of what Travolta is doing here.
As earnest as the film is in its derivative and ghastly genre machinations, Travolta’s performance as Terl delivers on the specificity that makes a cinematic disaster become legend. His delivery shocks because it is more of a tragic miscalculation than a simply bad performance. The actor snarls and spouts his dialogue with a profound confidence in himself and the material, palpably convinced of its merit. While the film around him burns to the ground, Travolta is having the time of his life playing what he seems to think is Space Macbeth.
Beyond the dreadlocked feast that Travolta is giving you, the film itself reveals why it has eluded the “so bad, it’s good” set and why I bolted in the first place. Its ludicrous cheese is too embarrassing to harmlessly laugh at, wrought with the tension that a shitty set could collapse at any second or a Windows 95 watermark could suddenly appear over its low-fi CGI.
Also, nothing makes sense. The political maneuverings between Psychlos devolve into the stuff of an Armando Iannucci farce but without the yucks. Jonnie is forced to ride one of those theme park roller coaster simulators at one point. Kelly Preston shows up for one scene to aggressively space flirt with Terl in deeply uncomfortable fashion. The US Constitution, currently crumbling under the most tightly monitored conditions, is found just chilling in a dusty library in what is supposed to be one thousand years in our future.
And any handwringing over the Scientology elements are for naught. Perhaps the film simply distracts us with too much nonsense, but rest assured: Battlefield Earth is not the saga of Xenu and the Thetans. A skeptic may still call the film a gateway to its teachings, but Travolta’s insistence of their dissociation isn’t necessarily inaccurate. In the way we determine a movie to be “good” or “bad”, the perception of the film’s ties to Scientology exist in the court of public opinion. Perception matters, and it’s a killer.
But make no mistake: despite forcing myself to watch it for this article, Battlefield Earth remains unwatchable. Even as it mimics Star Wars’ third act (not to mention the prequels pornographic fascination with uninteresting bureaucracy) and delivers the humble hero trope we accept in countless other films, the genre fence posts can’t hold up the weight of the film’s relentless assault on taste.
Sometimes, walking out is the right thing to do. Consider an act of kindness to both yourself and a movie that should just be allowed to die.
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