To viewers (including myself) who are unacquainted with the loaded, mythological worlds built by Scientologist L. Ron Hubbard in his many novels, Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 comes across on screen as a strange hodge-podge of sci-fi and fantasy.
Dune, Mad Max, Planet of the Apes and - once the spaceship fights begin - Star Wars, have been liberally raided for ideas. In a crumbling, post-apocalyptic landscape of ruined American cities, humans have become little more than animals, fighting to survive the terrifying reign of the Psychlos, led by Terl (John Travolta). One man, Jonnie (Barry Pepper), emerges as a handy, messianic leader.
Jonnie disparages his fellow humans for believing that the planets in the sky are gods and that the tyrannical alien visitors are demons. His way to revolution is through worldly knowledge - in a memorably corny scene, he stands awestruck amid the disintegrating remains of a vast library, imbibing the Declaration of Independence.
The Psychlos are a hateful bunch of sadistic opportunists whose ideology seems to fuse the worst of capitalist ideology and communist state control. As well-trained bureaucrats, they run around betraying and undermining each other.
This film is an oddity in so many ways. It is a true "boy's own" adventure from an earlier era - there's one good, human woman (who gets to fire a gun for about three seconds) and one, bad alien woman (who has a very long tongue). The villains, as played by Travolta and Forest Whitaker in Wizard of Oz-style costume and make-up, have nothing alien about them; they are more like refugees from a very camp, British comedy.
A central premise that can work easily on the page - humans and Psychlos speak different languages, and are far from being the same size - leads to extraordinary contortions on screen. Everyone, in effect, speaks English - with occasional foggy babble on the soundtrack to remind us that these species cannot comprehend each others' native tongues.
Visually, the film tries to avoid, for the most part, showing humans and Psychlos in the same frame - the vast special effects budget having been saved for grander spectacles elsewhere in the movie. Thus, Roger Christian's directorial plan is constructed solely upon alternated close-ups, with almost every shot tilted thirty degrees to the right or left. You don't watch Battlefield Earth: you swim in it, queasily.
There are some stunning vistas and much frenetic, crazy action. Ultimately, it resembles nothing so much as a hugely expensive B-movie. Impressive "production values" (especially in Patrick Tatopoulos' design elements) jostle with murky cinematography and unaccountably dim lighting. The acting, likewise, is all over the shop.
Despite - or perhaps because of - its monumental weirdness, Battlefield Earth is worth more than advance word may have led most viewers to believe. For me, it offered the distinctly surreal pleasure of evoking some cherished, late-night, micro-budget, techno-horror movie suddenly projected on to an enormous, mainstream cinema screen. That would be a people's revolution worth dreaming about.