Of course “Battlefield Earth” is celebrating its 20th anniversary in this craptastic year.
2020 has thrown a lot our way: a pandemic, economic shutdowns, a draining presidential election and now a retrospective edition of John Travolta’s signature stink bomb.
You’d be hard-pressed to find any real “Battlefield Earth” fans out there. While other films with infamously bloated budgets, troubled productions and scathing reviews snared some appreciation, “Earth” is a pretty indefensible movie.
The late Roger Ebert wrote of the 2000 science fiction movie that it is “not merely bad; it is unpleasant in a hostile way.”
On Rotten Tomatoes, its average with critics is a measly three percent. It’s not much better with audiences, either, scoring only a 12 percent positive rating.
At the box office, the ‘Star Wars’-wannabe earned just $21.5 million domestically and $29.7 million worldwide. This was against a budget originally reported to be $73 million (more on this later), but revealed in later years to be closer to $44 million.
The film must have some fans though or, at the very least, curious observers because Mill Creek Entertainment just released a new Blu-Ray edition celebrating the flick’s 20th anniversary. The package includes fresh interviews with director Roger Christian, screenwriter J.D. Shapiro and others who take a look back on the film’s reception and talk in-depth about its production.
A certain Scientology adherent is noticeably absent.
So is “Battlefield Earth” worth a second look for cinephiles who likely know the movie by its reputation as one of the worst films ever made?
Yes and no.
As a production, “Earth” is actually pretty fascinating. It’s a glimpse into a now-dead time in Hollywood, when studios depended on star power rather than familiar brand names. Fresh off of hits like “Pulp Fiction” and “Get Shorty,” Travolta was catapulted back into the A-list in the ‘90s and, thus, he was able to do basically whatever he wanted.
He’d been trying to finance “Battlefield Earth,” a novel written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, for years, and his comeback happened to be timed with an era where major studios were dumping tens of millions of dollars into stars’ passion projects.
The now defunct Franchise Pictures, the studio behind “Earth,” was even famous for rescuing and financing long-in-development passion projects from major stars. They were also renowned for inflating their budgets, a scam that ultimately led to the company’s downfall not long after “Earth’s” release.
It is impressive on some level to hear Christian and his production team speak on the new disc about the film as if it were an independent venture, with teams having to cut corners and rely on innovation rather than money to solve problems with the movie’s extensive makeup work. According to Christian, he had about $10 million on hand for the actual production of the film, while the rest of the movie’s budget went to effects and payments.
But while the tales of long hours and cutting corners give a slight appreciation to the labor put into this science fiction disaster, the film itself remains an absolute mess. Consider the multiple head-spinning decisions that are difficult to understand even 20 years later.
For instance, it’s difficult to enjoy any production work put into the movie because nearly EVERY SINGLE SHOT is at a dutch angle, meaning the camera is never showing anything head-on, but instead always tilted. The commitment to such a poor idea is something you’d expect from a student filmmaker experimenting with a short film, not a “Star Wars” veteran handed what was supposed to be a major action franchise.
The sci-fi film BATTLEFIELD EARTH (2000) starring John Travolta, Forest Whitaker and Barry Pepper has been released on Blu-rayhttps://t.co/hAlEh51Xam#battlefieldearth #bluray #johntravolta #forestwhitaker #barrypepper #scifi @MillCreekEnt pic.twitter.com/MByHNaiQV5
— Entertainment Factor (@The_Ent_Factor) October 8, 2020
Christian seems proud of the decision, noting that he dutched each and every angle to make it clear the movie was a piece of “pulp fiction,” and also to nod to the splash pages of graphic novels by writers like Frank Miller.
Critics, Christian notes, never appreciated “that we were trying to be different and experimental.”
While tilting a frame in a comic book may help you appreciate a static image more, doing so throughout an entire film gives the picture an amateurish feel. Another reason Christian has noted over the years behind his infamous dutch decision is that the Psychlos (the antagonist aliens who have taken over Earth, headed by Travolta) are about eight-feet tall. That meant a tilted camera could get them in frame with the human protagonists.
This is reasonable and perhaps if Christian had simply relied on the dutch angle for these shots, it would have had some power. Instead, he relies on it often, even during scenes of human characters speaking amongst each other.
It makes the decision lose all weight within minutes.
A little more accepting of the film’s flaws is original screenwriter J.D. Shapiro (“Robin Hood: Men in Tights”) who describes exactly what he believes ruined the picture.
Shapiro, who says he got the job by trolling a Scientology Celebrity Center for dates, likens his original script for “Earth” closer to a science fiction version of “Schindler’s List,” much darker than what ended up on screen (and no KISS boots). After getting a handful of studio notes he felt would ruin the picture, Shapiro pressed for who was behind them and was eventually told it was “John’s camp.”
“Meaning Scientology,” Shapiro says, relaying stories he has been told about the notes — which he claims “killed” the movie — being based on instructions Hubbard himself left behind.
Christian and others actually blame the failure of “Earth” on press stories linking the movie to Scientology, a controversial religion Travolta has been the ultimate poster child for, next to Tom Cruise.
While it’s true you can rarely hear “Earth” brought up without the next breath mentioning Scientology, that’s not what kept this movie from success. Even 20 years later, “Battlefield Earth” is only fascinating in the way that actors like Travolta and director Christian seem to commit to horrible ideas as if they are brilliant (Travolta’s over the top laugh, the dutch angles, the KISS boots, and obviously plastic alien hands).
“Earth” is a symptom of an era when a famous last name could get you tens of millions of dollars to do whatever you wanted, including adapting a 1,000-plus page book written by the man who created the questionable religion you follow.
“Battlefield Earth” may not be the worst movie ever made, but it’s certainly one of the ugliest and most perplexing.