Worst or “Worst”: Battlefield Earth

First things first when discussing Battlefield Earth: Scientology is a red herring. Criticizing the film for its association with the religion is petty and largely recalcitrant to sensible criticism. In addition, the connection to Scientology is also largely inessential, and in this respect, Battlefield Earth is utilitarian. It gives the reviewer caverns and caravans of badness to discuss, and it spends its entire existence excavating new tombs of incompetence to prop up inadequately in its museum of all that is and has been bad about cinema in the century of its existence. Next to the crimes that Battlefield Earth performs on the world, Scientology is ephemeral.

Anyway, Battlefield Earth begins with a text crawl. I repeat, a text crawl, which is, even more than narration, the lamest, grabbiest, least artful possible storytelling mechanism ever to be introduced to the world of film. It kind of, and only kind of, works in Star Wars because Star Wars has the benefit of zippy fluff and generally approaches the crawl in a somewhat knowing, self-conscious way, but even then it’s a chore and a scab on filmic storytelling. Plus, and this is being petty, the information isn’t even especially useful in this text crawl, so let’s just call the whole thing a wash and move on, shall we?

Except, the film doesn’t seem especially invested in moving on, unless the destination can be Dutched up with a slanted angle. Which, in the world of Battlefield Earth, means every location, so we are in good hands as far as the Dutch are concerned. Arguably no film in history has ever been subjected to more diagonal angles and obtuse, tilted shots than Battlefield Earth. I would like to say that I do not know what director Roger Christian and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens were thinking, but that would be a lie. It is plainly obvious what they were thinking: “rather than actually write or direct anything, if we simply tilt the camera, the boogeymen will go away and all will be as it once was in the world”. The camera tilt in Battlefield Earth is the subject of one of Roger Ebert’s great lines on cinema, and I can not possibly top it, but the logic “if we tilt the camera, then things will be startling or mysterious or enticing in their alluring dread” is the platonic ideal of freshman film school grabby show-offs hiding their inadequacy with bargain-bin tricks completely divorced from content.

Which is another point: a great many of the slanted angles are virtually unexplainable in the context of the narrative, gracelessly gracing talking head drama of the most soporific sort rather than any material that the film intends to be mysterious. It not only takes you out of the film but draws you back inwards to the film from a space of cryptic, abstract, theoretical exercise in dementia. You cease to understand it as a film; it becomes a state of mind.

Because the film clearly has a mind about it; nothing, not one single moment of the film, is nonchalant under any definition of the term, least of all the story. Or, the talking, let us say, because after a cripplingly stylized opening gambit that preempts its own artistry, the film develops a case of the talkies and cannot for the life of it treat the symptoms, let alone cure it. The deluded quasi-Shakespearean dialogue of the film tells a space opera about the year 3000, when the Psychlos (a dread-locked band of manipulative power-cravers sapping Earth of its life energy) have enslaved the dwindling vestiges of humanity and turned them against technology (the domain of the Psychlos). Terl (John Travolta, smack dab in the middle of his “my warped helium voice sounds like the Joker, so you know, villain jobs please?” phase) is grotesquely not okay with his under-accomplished career as the leader of the Earth dwellers and enslaver of the humans. Until, of course, a human named Tyler (Barry Pepper, who ought to be off bro-boarding and hocking the film’s should-have-been Mountain Dew ad campaign) gets it in his mind to revolt, and Terl suddenly has more than boredom to deal with.

An extremely elemental story, and yet, what difficulty it is to discern in the film! Battlefield Earth is the rare modern Hollywood work that is not merely wasteful but foolish. Many other blockbusters struggle to develop theme or character or style, but this is the rare beast: a work that struggles simply to exist, and that is a beautiful thing. Any single shot of the piece taken unto itself is a study in how not to block and frame an image, but the editing is positively delicious, completely lost in its own milieu and torn between having no idea how to string moments together and having a singular, completely wrong-headed idea of how to string them together. The tilted angles do not even follow a uniform internal logic, and they combine with whatever is going on when the camera cuts to make it almost impossible to make heads or tails of the basic act of characters staring in the film, let alone dialogue scenes or the script’s perfunctory, inarticulate conception of “action”. At the very least, the film’s wordless idea (or rejection) of “continuity editing” is never less than endlessly fascinating.

Which takes us all the way to the central through-line of good bad cinema: as a rule, the best bad movies are those that believe in themselves, the ones which pulse with their inner conviction of their storytelling and the fires of their demonic attitude toward their belief systems. Perhaps it is a hold-over from the film’s Scientology origins (L. Ron Hubbard was nothing if not a believer). Perhaps it is Travolta’s undeniable fixation for the material (a fixation that breathes through in the finger-twirling pageantry of his line readings and the kooky mouth-watering drivel of his physical motions). Perhaps something got in the air? It might have been the toxic greens and putrid purples of the breathlessly dated CG that attempts to recreate the Burtonesque look of Gotham in the early Batman films but ends up appropriating the elaborate carnival of Schumacher’s pair of films instead. Probably not that last one, actually. At least with Batman Forever, the green and purple were genuine and real. Here, the colors are so antiseptic and artificial and CG that they couldn’t even make a cast member light-headed from the non-existent fumes. At least with Batman Forever, you had the theoretical appreciation for the artists and craftspeople that created the garish sets, even if they were too much and too often. Here, it just looks like the sets were thrown up by a robot.

Either way, Battlefield Earth believes it is not only a good movie, but an important movie; every ounce of its huffing, wheezing existence and 73 million dollar budget and its trying-too-hard set design, cinematography, and editing tell us exactly this much from the get-go. The self-seriousness of it is smothering. The effect of the film is disorienting in its badness, and that isn’t just the slanted angles talking. I miss the text crawl.

Score:

So how good is it really?: 0/5 (a real corker of a film of the “you must see it to believe it” variety)

But how “good” is it?: 5/5 (I do not know what has been done to me, but I do not want it changed back)

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