Illawarra Mercury (Wollongong, NSW), Fri 06 Oct 2000

Film review: CHRIS MOORE

This star's in the wars

Battlefield Earth (M)
Stars John Travolta, Barry Pepper and Forest Whitaker.

Battlefield Earth is a post-apocalyptic adventure based on the novel by L Ron Hubbard. The story is set a thousand years in the future when mankind has been reduced to a small number of savage tribes clinging to survival in desolate regions around the world.

Human civilisation has been destroyed by the alien Psychlos, a violent and powerful species that have spread throughout the galaxy devouring the natural resources of each planet they conquer. Nearly everything has been lost and the world's cities, whose populations were decimated, stand as cold dark graveyards of the past.

The hero is Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, played by Barry Pepper. Jonnie is a savage who leaves the protection of his mountain tribe settlement to search for a more fertile hunting ground. At first he disbelieves the superstitious tales of Gods and Demons in the "forbidden" lands but soon finds out for himself his world is ruled by monsters.

Enter Travolta, as Terl the Psychlo Chief of Security. The Psychlos have established a base on Earth and constructed a massive glass dome over the remains of one of the cities. Terl is responsible for keeping order and productivity up on the planet for the Psychlo Corporation and is desperate for a promotion which will see him depart from the "Hell-hole" planet.

Travolta has shown previously in Pulp Fiction, Broken Arrow and Face Off that he can play the convincing bad guy, but he fails to bring any sense of menace to the role of Terl. It could be that in the past Travolta's villains have been reactionary and spontaneous rather than calculating and conspiring and as a result Terl lacks any threatening energy.

There are some major reasons to be unhappy with this film. The impressive visual effects alone are not enough sustain interest. And it lacks any sort of interesting drama, which is surprising as Hubbard's book is claimed to have sold more than five million copies around the world. Like Frank Herbert's Dune, Battlefield Earth suffers from trying to show too much of the novel without a mature script to carry it over to film. And since Battlefield Earth was Travolta's pet project he has received most of the bad publicity from its failure at the box office.

The storyline has already been visited, in part, by films like Mad Max, Stargate, Star Wars and Independence Day and it would normally be safe to assume that the writers would have learned from past mistakes. But no, there are some terrible holes in this script, big enough to drive an interstellar semi-trailer through.

Perhaps viewers will be reassured by Hollywood's faith in American technology and production to believe that a jump jet that has been stored underground for a thousand years can in fact be found ready and fuelled. And someone can learn to fly it in just seven days. Also it's good to know any needed weapons, explosives and nuclear devices can be found in large black crates with EXPLOSIVES printed clearly on the side.

The location filming is stunning, as are some of the computer-generated effects. When Jonnie stumbles into the ruins of a miniature golf course overgrown with flora it has a sharp suggestion of the intransigence of human culture. Other elements in the production are not as impressive, like the character makeup of the Psychlos. Whitaker looks hopelessly buried beneath a mound of rubber and the taloned hands and braided hair look blatantly artificial. As does their 3m height which sees the actors standing over the human slaves in some uncomfortable-looking footwear.

It is as though the production has approached the film as a series of problems to solve rather than an overall story. For example how do the humans overcome these big aliens or how do you make the aliens look believable and how do you incorporate alien languages and technology into the script? The result is a series of passable solutions rather than an appealing story which leaves the idea of a science fiction epic adrift in space.

The theme of the film focuses on Jonnie's pursuit of freedom for the human race and his inspiration for defeating the Psychlos is found in a surprisingly well-kept copy of the American Declaration of Independence.

There are some genuinely entertaining parts of Battlefield Earth, such as Travolta and Whitaker's dialogue especially when they try to figure out how to motivate Jonnie and the other "man-animals". Playing the amateur anthropologist they closely watch three released humans, including Jonnie to get leverage over them.

Fans of the book will probably enjoy how Hubbard's metaphors of good and evil and the hope of mankind are presented in the film, even if they are obviously done. Despite the story's failures, switching off from reality might be fun if only to see humanity triumph yet again, yeah. Battlefield Earth is screening at Greater Union Wollongong.

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