“It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” is a series that focuses on movies that either have a bad critical reputation, bombed in the box office or serve as guilty pleasures. It will largely focus on genre movies, though I will venture outside of that area
When you think about it, there probably isn’t an actor more fitting for this kind of feature than John Travolta, and not just because of the movie that has been selected. With cinematic transgressions including: “Wild Hogs,” “Staying Alive,” the “Look Who’s Talking” sequels, “A Civil Action,” and “Chains of Gold” … the list goes on and on. Films I enjoy, like “Urban Cowboy” and Brian De Palma’s underrated “Blow Out,” were more commercial disappointments than artistic ones. However, it is “Battlefield Earth” that remains the bomb that forever defines the bad part of Travolta’s filmography.
On one hand, ripping apart “Battlefield Earth” feels like beating a dead horse. What can be said that hasn’t been said already? In the world of science fiction/it’s-not-a recruitment-vehicle-but-it-really-is movies, it’s the pits. I can say that there were times that it annoyed, but it didn’t make me angry in the way something like “Wild Hogs” does. That movie is essentially Hollywood Comedy at its lowest, without any real effort in it other than to make money from a bunch of people (it was also a huge hit in my hometown, which isn’t surprising considering the lines of people who went to see “Grown Ups 2”).
Unlike that movie, there actually was actually something in ths for Travolta. The kind of thing that really does define the title, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” This wasn’t just a sci-fi movie that the studio hoped would make a killing as a summer blockbuster. This was a passion project for its star – a big screen adaptation of a best selling novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the religion/cult/”South Park” episode Scientology.
Travolta isn’t just another celebrity who happens to be a Scientologist. Next to Tom Cruise, he might as well be the face of the movement. For him, “Battlefield Earth” was the ultimate love letter to the man that pretty much defines most of his life. This would be the movie that would define the legacy of L. Ron for the best.
Any hopes of that are clearly dashed within the opening. It is here that we learn man has been enslaved for 1000 years by a a devious alien race known as Psychlos, whose name seems to be a not so thinly veiled jab at one of Hubbard’s long time enemies, psychology. The moment we get to see said Psychlos is merely a harbinger of what’s to come. That’s because they look less like a tyrannical race of invaders than they do steroid injected rejects from a “Lothar of the Hill People” sketch, only with rat like faces and dreadlocks. It’s one of the few things about the movie I gained any sort of amusement from.
Our hero is Jonnie “Goodboy” Tyler (Barry Pepper, who was previously known for his role as a young Private Ryan in “Saving Private Ryan”, and then well, this), who you know is a Goodboy because he can sit, play dead, and roll over. He belongs to one of several tribes of humans that are used for manual labor, and he decides to leave one day so he can go exploring. Things end up getting bad when he and Carlos (Kim Coates, whose mostly known for playing Tig on “Sons of Anarchy”) are captured by a Psychlo raiding party to to be sold as slaves.
Let’s now cut to a Psychlo named Terl (Travolta), who has been banished to Earth as a security chief after some unexplained past events involving a Senator’s daughter or something. With the help of his trusty sidekick Ker (Forrest Whitaker), he hopes to make a fortune with gold he hopes to get thanks to slave mining in radioactive areas of Denver, Colorado. With this, he can finally buy his way back to his home planet. As you can tell, this is a foolproof plan that has no way of backfiring.
Anyways, he ends up taking an interest in Jonnie, who he selects as his right hand man for this project. He even gives the guy a Psychlo style education with a convenient plot device. By which I mean rapid learning machine, teaching how to fire weapons and more, in between calling him “rat-brain” and “man-animal.” He even gives the guy some slaves and a Psychlo space ship so he can find gold. That Terl, what a Psychlo. In a shocking turn of events, Jonnie learns all about the Psychlo race thanks to the rapid learning device, and he soon teaches the rest of the man-animals all that he has learned so they can finally overthrow the evil Psychlo masters once and for all. It also gives us Jonnie saying, “What if we took a chance and FOUGHT!” which sounds for all the world like he’s saying “fart.”
This all leads to a big action scene in which the puny man-animals finally decide to strike back, which leads to lots of slow mo clumsy angle shots, poor CGI, and more empty spectacle that makes the “Transformers” movies look like Citizen Kane in comparison. What makes it all amazing is that it isn’t meant to be that way – Travolta and director Roger Christian (a former art-director who worked on “Alien” and “Star Wars”, and won an Oscar for the latter) really do believe in what they are doing. They want you to feel a sense of empowerment and pride in repetitive shots of flying space shuttles and shit blowing up.
They also want you to be invested in Terl. He’s clearly a rat-bastard (see what I did there? Okay, I apologize), but nothing outside of Travolta’s redefining the term “over the top” performance makes him interesting. In fact, most of his back story is dedicated to dull politicking and corruption that’s cliched and poorly written, and not just because of the insane amounts of plot-holes and poor dialogue. Plus, all the political intrigue is boring. Watching it, I wished there was more Travolta saying stupid shit instead a bunch of blackmail and backstabbing. As a villain, there isn’t a thing about Terl that invested me, though Travolta sure does try. Granted, it’s mostly through one of the most hilariously awful performances in cinematic history, but one can’t say his performance is lazy. I’ll take this Travolta over the one that was in “Old Dogs” any day.
Travolta also had big plans for the movie. In his mind, this wouldn’t just spread the gospel of L. Ron. It would also be a huge hit that would place him up their with names like Edgar Rice-Burroughs and Arthur Conan-Doyle as far as visionary writers of great pulp storytelling. He even saw a hot franchise and a Saturday morning cartoon that would win the world over.
It didn’t work out that way. It was savaged by critics (2% on Rotten Tomatoes), bombed in the box-office ($29,725,663 of it’s $73 Million budget), and swept the Golden Raspberry Awards. While much has been made about how many will say it’s the worst movie ever made (it’s unbelievably awful but not even close), what I find the most interesting is that it ended up becoming the first major chink in the armor of Scientology. Sure, there had been articles attacking it before, but this was the first time the public started to look at it with real derision and mockery. We may have later gotten Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch and the infamous “Trapped in the Closet” episode of “South Park”, but John Travolta’s passion project inadvertently became the first one to make it seem like a joke.
As for Travolta – he’s had hits since then (though let’s be fair, most people watched “Swordfish” because it let America see Halle Berry’s tits), but his career hasn’t fully recovered since. Prior to this, his career was under another resurgence that included hits like “Pulp Fiction” and “Face/Off.” Afterwards, hardly anybody has taken him seriously. In a career that includes “Shout” and “Moment” who knew that “Battlefield Earth” would be considered his worst? John Travolta, that’s who.
Next Time: Is “Only God Forgives” a misunderstood masterpiece or a complete mess?