Sunday, August 4, 2013
Consideration of Works Past: Battlefield Earth
(Picture from here.)
Here's where I lose any possible literary creds.
Okay, in the interest of transparency, I like bad movies.
There are several ways a work can fail. It can aim too low and miss. It can aim too high and miss. It can thread the myriad ways of mediocrity and nail the target-- which is a fail in and of itself.
"B" movies) aim at a specific lowbrow target and much more often than not nail it.
This is a good thing.
Sometimes (note Sharktopus, which I saw last night.) the bar is so ludicrously low-- more a strip of paint on the sidewalk-- that the effort to hit the target trivializes anything of value in the work.
My favorite "B" movie director is John Carpenter-- in my opinion, the true heir to Roger Corman. He's produced a fair amount of schlock. But he also gets quite good performances from otherwise limited actors. Go watch Natasha Henstridge in Ghosts of Mars and then go watch her phone in her performance for The Whole Nine Yards.
Battlefield Earth is a "B" movie at its very heart. Made from a "B-" book (Battlefield Earth) by L. Ron Hubbard founder of Scientology. I liked Hubbard's pulp stories. They were a romp-- Ole Doc Methuseleh, for example. The story has been circulating for years that he was out on a boat commiserating with John Campbell about the sorry pay SF writers get. One of them (stories differ) said the real way to make money was to found a religion. It's one of those stories that might tell better than the truth.
Anyway, the whole Dianetics/Scientology thing pretty much took Hubbard away from writing and into wealth. Then, in 1982 he released Battlefield Earth. Followed by a series of equally pulpy books. John Travolta tried to get the movie made for years and it was finally released in 2000 to pretty uniformly bad reviews. It cost $75M to make and barely brought in $20M. It regularly appears in lists of the worst films ever made. (Here's an example.) Rita Kempley at the Washington Post said, "A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth." (See here.)
People in the SF Community hated it.
I mean every now and then it comes up in conversations at conventions and the revulsion is palpable. Part of it is the irritation the SF community have towards most bad SF films. If it's not MST3K worthy, it ought to try to be good SF. Most SF films don't bother. There are so few actual SF films made (as opposed to marketed) that we tend to really want them to be good. Blade Runner is a good SF film. It's not Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the novel it's based on. But it is good SF. Wouldn't it be nice if they actually made a Phillip K. Dick movie?
But Battlefield Earth had a bunch of things stacked against it. Hubbard was disliked by a some of those in the SF community because of the whole Scientology thing-- and if you want to look that up, go ahead. I'm not going into analyzing the problems of a psuedo-religion here. He tried to connect back with the community by the Writers of the Future program. It was run for a while by one of the finest human beings and finest writers, ever: Algis Budrys. But in spite of that, a lot of us felt a little queasy at Scientology's little fiction project.
So: a bad movie with a suspicious heritage. What's not to love?
I saw it last week. And then backed it up with a bracer of Sharktopus. After all, if you're wondering about the quality of a bad film it's important to have a standard for comparison. Sharktopus is an unrelentingly bad film. There is no argument.
Battlefield Earth has actual moments.
Let's be clear: Battlefield Earth is a bad movie. But the same people that hate this film then turn around and say how great Roger Corman is. Roger Corman did Death Race 2000. He did Piranha. He did Battletruck. The Women in Cages collection. These are not good films. They are much worse than Battlefield Earth. I mean they're not Sharktopus but then, what is? Oh, yeah. Sharknado.
Quick synopsis of Battlefield Earth: Earth has been invaded and beaten by the Psychlos for a 1000 years. These are a bunch of sociopathic profit mongers that don't even care much if their own limbs get blown off, much less anybody else's. They strip a world of what it has and then leave it. (And this is different from Independence Day, how? Oh, yeah. It's not.)
A Young Turk is captured who is a bit smarter than the average barbarian. The Psychlo of note, Terl (John Travolta) and his sidekick Ker (Forest Whitaker) figure they'll get the smarter humans to mine gold for them in an area where the radiation would kill Psychlos. The humans get the better of them, fight them, win and then blow up the home planet.
Not a lot different from a lot of other bad SF films. (See Independence Day above.) But, as I said, there are moments.
First, you get to watch Barry Pepper, John Travolta and Forest Whitaker-- even in bad films, these guys are professionals and it's always fun to watch virtuosos play their instruments. Whitaker is like some fiery genius so even on his bad days he's a joy to watch. These guys look like they're having fun.
The aliens are pretty good at being fully realized sociopaths. They have no mercy and no remorse. They have no empathic feelings whatsoever. None. These guys are never redeemed. They are looking out for self-interest at all times. They are fully realized aliens. Yeah, yeah. They have arms and legs-- they're humans in alien suits. But the interaction between them is sociopathically seamless.
Then, there are a lot of neat little bits. There's a scene when the hero and his buds are flying off to find a library full of things they can use to fight the Psychlos. They're using an old Rand-McNally map-- yeah, I know after a 1000 years it's just dust on a counter. Work with me here-- and hero and friends are arguing how lost they must be since they haven't crossed any of those big lines between the states.
There's a sort of continuing homage through the film to Planet of the Apes, where the humans sometimes act like apes. They climb up things and shout and such. Rita Kempley particularly didn't like that.
Yes, there is a lot of laughing out loud at the clumsy dialog and special effects. But, go watch Terminator. The dialog and directing there is much clunkier. The acting is worse and the direction is marginal. Battlefield Earth has fewer stupid things in it than Stargate and that was on television for 10 years!
My point is it doesn't deserve the level of scorn it's gotten over the years. Is it Plan 9 From Outer Space? No. Is it Manos: The Hands of Fate? No. On the other hand, is it 2001? Hell no.
So, on a considerations level, Battlefield Earth was a "B" movie when it came out in 2000 and it's a "B" movie now. If you like "B" movies (I do) it's a fun romp. Park your brain at the door.
And thank your ever loving God you're not watching Sharktopus.