I was first drawn to “Battlefield: Earth” in Denver of 2000, which I guess is ironic, since the movie is set in Denver and takes place exactly a thousand years later.
I was a college student at the time and had never been to a sci-fi convention before, though movies like “Galaxy Quest” gave me an idea of what they looked like. The thought of being around hundreds of movie geeks, all decked out in costume, as they celebrated genre movies and rubbed elbows with movie stars, sounded like fun. When I heard John Travolta, one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, was coming to the Denver Starfest to promote his upcoming “Battlefield: Earth,” I bought my ticket immediately. So there I was, in April of that year, at a hotel overrun with conventioneers dressed like Klingons, Vulcans and Milla Jovovich’s Leeloo from “The Fifth Element.” The autograph line to meet and greet Mr. Travolta was as long as your average day at Disneyland but I managed to meet and speak with the actor (who told me, in great detail, why John Woo and Nora Ephron were his favorite directors he’d worked with). When Mr. Travolta took to the stage and addressed hundreds of screaming fans, he opened up his presentation with a new trailer from the film, as well as a power point presentation of vehicles and sets from the movie. He was giddy about his dream project finally making it to the big screen. Although it didn’t appear to be a threat to “Star Wars,” I have to admit that, like the many in attendance, I was dazzled by Travolta and was eager to see his first sci-fi summer movie.
The weekend “Battlefield: Earth” opened, I was shocked by the onslaught of horrendous reviews and toxic word of mouth. I waited until Monday to see it and sat in an empty theater. While not the worst movie I’d ever seen, nor the low point of its year (“Urban Legends- Final Cut” was far worse), my I’ll-see-it-for-myself optimism died after the opening minutes.
Taking place in the year 3000, we have a future in which mankind has de-evolved into a quasi-caveman state. The resourceful Johnnie Goodboy, played by a trying-way-too-hard Barry Pepper, leads a rebellion against the extraterrestrials who have conquered Earth and enslaved humans. The head of the evil aliens, Teryl, is played by Travolta. His sidekick is none other than Travolta’s “Phenomenon” co-star Forest Whitaker, while Travolta’s wife, the fetching Kelly Preston, has a striking cameo as a long-tongued alien hussy.
I won’t re-hash everything that’s wrong with “Battlefield: Earth,” which has become a notorious for its filmmaking, audience/movie critic reactions and how it put a halt to Travolta’s red-hot career. He’s had comebacks before but his post-Teryl hits, “Swordfish,” “Hairspray” and “Wild Hogs,” never fully elevated him to the level of stardom he had before appearing in the highest profile turkey of its year.
The film’s director is Roger Christian, whose 1994 film, “Nostradamus,” I liked a lot. His choices for this movie are infamous: yes, nearly every scene is shot at a tilted “Dutch angle,” garish colored filters intended to add style are, instead, eye sores, the screen wipes are obtrusive and the editing is occasionally incoherent. He over-directed, though even a great filmmaker would have been done in by the screenplay. The dialogue and plot are laughable, and the sets are so dirty-looking, it looks like Albert Pyun made a “Planet of the Apes” knockoff at Cannon Films.
Of all the asinine qualities in the screenplay, the thing I had the hardest time swallowing is how the humans could journey on foot from Denver to Aspen…in one day.
I don’t blame Travolta, who actually gives a real performance and is funny at times but done in by impossible material. The alien make-up is elaborate, though Travolta and Whitaker actually resemble Rastafarian werewolves (it’s fun watching them gesture with their garish alien hand gloves, complete with huge nails and tufts of fur). The haughty, faux aristocratic manner in which the alien “Psychlos” speak is amusing, if only because it’s such an odd choice in contrast to the creature design. For such a special effects-driven movie, nothing here surpasses what you’d see on the Sci-Fi channel, then and now.
There is a brief moment in “Battlefield: Earth” that I love, where Johnnie is strapped to a chair and forced by Teryl to learn of his species. A hologram of a timid alien creature pops up, apologizes and introduces him to the history of the Psychlos, as a jelly fish swarms behind him, for some reason. This cool, witty sequence is the film’s best…and it’s less than a minute long. The best thing about my “Battlefield: Earth” experience: meeting John Travolta. The worst: “Battlefield: Earth.”
Months after catching the film, a local Suncoast Video was going out of business. They were selling a large, talking Teryl doll, marked way down for $1. I couldn’t resist. Fifteen years later, it’s still in my closet. The doll still sits in its box and, if you tap the button on the doll’s chest, it still recites a half dozen Travolta lines from the movie (my favorite: “Rat Brain!”). Truth is, my talking Teryl doll holds up better than the movie it’s based on.