'Earth' Shatters

"Battlefield Earth" -- John Travolta sputters as the alien villain of this spacey sci-fi misfire

(Rated PG-13)

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman

Battlefield Earth is based on a 1982 dystopian fantasy novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the late founder of Scientology. John Travolta, well known as a follower of Hubbard's, is one of the producers, but he claims that both the book and the movie have nothing to do with Scientology, and he may be right.  

Directed by Roger Christian, a former set decorator who worked on some of the "Star Wars" films (he did second-unit duty on "The Phantom Menace"), "Battlefield Earth" is just a lumbering, poorly photographed piece of derivative sci-fi drivel, full of grunting extras scampering around in animal pelts and more dank, trash-strewn sets than I ever care to see again.

Hasn't Hollywood picked over the crumbling urban carcass of "Blade Runner" long enough? "Battlefield Earth" incorporates elements from "Star Wars," "Planet of the Apes," "Logan's Run," and -- in one ludicrous sequence -- "Top Gun," and most of this patchwork has a grimly tacky, backlot look, even chintzier than that of John Carpenter's "Escape From" films. The entire movie seems lit by a 40-watt blue bulb. It's future-schlock doomsville.

So who are those man-animals, anyway? They're the poor, bedraggled remnants of the human race, whose civilization was blasted to ruins, in a mere nine minutes, by the Psychlos, who then enslaved them. Terl, the Psychlo chief of security, has been assigned to patrol the bombed-out hellhole that is now Earth. He must put down an uprising led by Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper), a renegade hunter who tries to reconnect his minions with their civilized past.

Pepper, so spooky as the Christian sniper in "Saving Private Ryan," has melancholy eyes and a long, lean poker face honed to a perfectly sharp point. He looks like Johnny Depp with his cheeks plastered back by a wind machine, but here, the character he's playing seems lean in spirit as well -- all sinew and will, a hero without joy.

Dismal as it is, "Battlefield Earth" is one of the few big-budget follies that actually inspired me to feel sorry for its star. Travolta did it to himself, of course -- it may take a blind zealot to believe that L. Ron Hubbard is an inspired science-fiction writer -- but there's something in this actor, a naked lack of vanity, that makes you feel protective of him; he's too ingenuous a performer to be wasting his time on shoddy nonsense like this. He probably thinks that he's stretching by taking on the role of a hirsute, putty-faced bad guy. But there's a big difference between playing someone you love to hate and someone you'd love to have over for a Halloween party.

D -