San Francisco Chronicle

Travolta's Religious Battlefield

Critics say movie bolsters Scientology

Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer

Monday, May 15, 2000

©2000 San Francisco Chronicle

John Travolta insists that "Battlefield Earth," his $90 million screen homage to L. Ron Hubbard, has nothing to do with his longtime devotion to the Church of Scientology.

Hubbard is both the founder of that controversial religious movement and the author of the 1982 science-fiction novel that forms the basis of Travolta's latest movie.

"Battlefield Earth" is just a great story, Travolta says, and he finally has enough Hollywood leverage to push his pet project onto the big screen.

Mark Bunker has a very different take on "Battlefield Earth." He sees the movie as a devious recruiting device for one of the nation's wealthiest and most dangerous cults: "It's designed to introduce L. Ron Hubbard to a whole new generation of kids. It's there to plant a favorable seed in children's minds."

Bunker, a spokesman for the Lisa McPherson Trust in Clearwater, Fla., is not among those Scientology critics who allege that subliminal messages have been hidden inside this cacophonous film, which opened Friday to savage reviews but finished second in weekend boxoffice receipts with an estimated take of $12.3 million.

Unsubstantiated allegations about subliminal messages may stem from a scene where the bedazzling lights of a "knowledge machine" are beamed directly into the eyes of the audience.

According to Bunker, the mind- control techniques of "Battlefield Earth" are decidedly more low-tech. They involve nothing more than a reply card inserted into the new paperback edition of Hubbard's novel. It offers a free movie poster plus information on other writings by Hubbard, which include "Dianetics," one of the founding texts of the Church of Scientology.

Hollywood insiders have noted some unusual promotional efforts for the movie. Rather than granting interviews, Travolta is doing a bookstore tour, signing Hubbard's novel.

"When Michael Caine goes around to promote `The Cider House Rules,' he doesn't tour bookstores and sign copies of John Irving's novel," Bunker said. "Through the movie tie-in with the book, kids will send in the card to get their free poster, and eventually be introduced to `Dianetics.' "

"Gimme a break," replied Nancy O'Meara, a longtime Scientologist and treasurer of the Foundation for Religious Freedom, which seeks to counter the activities of the anti-cult movement. "That's like saying people are going to go see `Gladiator' and then suddenly find themselves wanting to explore Christianity."

There are also conflicting views on the similarities between the plot of "Battlefield Earth" and some of the more bizarre beliefs allegedly held by senior members of the Church of Scientology.

Founded by Hubbard in 1954, the Church of Scientology today claims to have more than 3,000 churches, missions and related organizations ministering to millions of people in more than 133 countries.

Through paid "auditing" sessions with a biofeedback machine, it purports to bring "spiritual enlightenment and freedom" by helping its practitioners overcome "unwanted sensations, emotions, irrational fears and psychosomatic illnesses." They seek to conquer the "reactive mind" by "clearing" devotees of "involuntary defense mechanisms."

Scientology leaders decline to discuss the movement's more esoteric teachings, although they are widely available from critics and disgruntled former members who have posted them on the Internet.

It's these secret teachings, available only to longtime members, that sound more like the plot of a bad science-fiction novel.

"It can cost you $360,000 to reach the upper levels of this space opera," said Bunker. "They teach that 75 million years ago the Earth was known as Teegeeack, part of a 90- planet federation ruled over by the evil overlord Xenu, who solved overpopulation by stuffing us into volcanos and blowing us up with hydrogen bombs. That's why there's an exploding volcano on the cover of `Dianetics.'

"They teach that there was something called the Marcabian invasion force that enslaved us once and will come back to enslave us again."

In "Battlefield Earth," it's the year 3000 and Travolta plays the evil security chief of an alien race, the Psychlos, that has enslaved mankind. The movie tells the implausible tale of how a band of ignorant cavemen overthrow their alien overlords after getting a blast of wisdom from the "knowledge machine."

Bunker said Scientology critics worried that the film will be used to recruit new members into the sect are happy about one thing. "It's an epically bad film," he said.

Jeff Quiros of the Church of Scientology office in San Francisco said he could not comment on the secret teachings, but he denied that they are echoed in "Battlefield."

Bunker's organization is named after Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist who died in 1995 at age 36 at a church retreat center in Lakeview, Fla. In 1998, the Church of Scientology was charged with criminal neglect and practicing medicine without a license. That criminal case and a civil lawsuit against the church stemming from the death are pending in Florida courts.