When I made the decision to start doing Bad Movie Night Reviews, I knew that Battlefield Earth would come up eventually. It was inevitable. 16 years after it’s release, Battlefield Earth is still regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. I remember being interested in seeing it when I was young, but never did get around to it.
As I made up my mind to review this movie, I remembered that it was based on a novel, which got me to thinking, “Could this horrible movie be based on a relatively decent novel?” There are a lot of excellent novels out there that were turned into lackluster movies for one reason or another and I wondered if Battlefield Earth could be one of them. After all, L Ron Hubbard managed to create a religion that captured the minds of hundreds of thousands of people – at the very least, he must be a masterful storyteller. And since this blog is mainly about storytelling in its various forms, I wanted to judge this film based off it’s story. So I picked up the novel from my local library…
Fuck this book. Fuck this movie.
Battlefield Earth is an obnoxiously long novel by science fiction writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. It is the story of Johnnie Goodboy Tyler, a man’s man living in a small village in what used to be Denver in the year 3000. Earth has been under the control of the Psychlo’s for a thousand years and it’s human population all but eradicated. But when this kill club wielding messiah emerges, and is captured by the Psychlo security chief, Terl, humanity begins it’s fight to take the planet back.
This novel is so long and this movie is so bad, I can’t just get it all out in one review. So for the sake of my own sanity and the sanity of my readers. This will truly be my review Saga. Broken into 3 parts (like this novel should have been) I will tell you what I liked, what I didn’t like and how the movie compares to it’s source.
Battlefield Earth (novel)
Now, I’m not one to curse very often. At least, not when I’m expressing myself through writing – but I have to say – I hated this fucking book. I hated it. Not just because I was forced to basically read a saga that should have been separated into 3 or 4 books but because of the arrogance that abounds off every page.
Think I’m being over dramatic? Look no further than the Forward, where Mr. Hubbard lulls on about the golden age of science fiction. He describes it as a lost art that many don’t take seriously. He goes on to unabashedly praise himself as a student of true science fiction writing. This sampling of self congratulatory awe drags on for a good number of pages and eventually I became tired of it and decided to move on to the actual story. Little did I know that Hubbard’s propensity toward self congratulation, false modesty, and his need to spell out every detail as though he were a professor lecturing his doe eyed students – would be one of my biggest issues with this 1083 page novel.
The novel starts by introducing the reader to our antagonist, Terl. He is a Psychlo security chief who has aspirations of leaving Earth behind and becoming rich and adored back on his home planet. In order to achieve his dreams of fortune back on Psychlo, he embarks on a secret experiment. He wants to find a man and teach it to mine for gold in areas that his race cannot access due to their radioactivity.
We are then introduced to Johnnie, who is strong arming his village into performing a funeral for his father who has just died. As they struggle to arrange everything, the reader becomes aware that these people have become much more primitive and superstitious. They are illiterate, survive off the land, and believe that there are no other humans outside their village. They never leave their mountain village for fear of Gods and Demons they believe live in the ancient cities, and are struggling to survive. Many of them have physical deformities, sickness, and the birthrate is low. Johnnie, however, is the pinnacle of health and his natural adventurous spirit leads him to leave his village in search for more. His girlfriend Chrissie, doesn’t want him to leave and tells him that if he doesn’t return within a year, she will go out after him.
Johnnie leaves on his trusted horse, Windsplitter, and heads out of the mountain range, battling the elements until he reaches what remains of the city of Denver. He is in awe of the things he sees there, especially the remains of a library. However, as he is searching through the children’s book section, he is pursued by a strange creature and eventually struck down. The creature is Terl in a hovering ship. Terl is unaware that he has found a man, (having never seen one before) but as he realizes what he’s caught, he begins the clumsy trial and error process of transporting and figuring out how to keep his new creature alive in captivity.
After nearly killing Johnnie repeatedly by suffocation, exposure, and starvation Terl comes to the conclusion that it would be easier to train Johnnie if they could communicate. Terl sets up a teaching device that will teach Johnnie to speak Psychlo. The learning disks also teach Johnnie how to read and write in English and Johnnie becomes literate and begins to better understand the world around him. Johnnie goes through the learning disks for hours absorbing all the information he can, teaching himself to speak fluently in Psychlo, learning of the Psychlo invasion of Earth, mathematics, basics of Psychlo machinery, etc. Terl begins using Johnnie to operate Psychlo machines and attempts to demonstrate to his superiors how humans can be used to replace a Psychlo workforce. However, his superiors are unimpressed and too distracted by their own dirty deeds to pay Terl any mind.
The story continues with Terl using any means necessary to secure leverage over his superiors and his enemies and forcing them to do what he wants them to do. All the while, Johnnie is growing more aware and plans his escape. However, when Johnnie believes he has been given the perfect opportunity to escape he realizes that it is a trap. Chrissie and her little sister Pattie, having chased after Johnnie after his year away from the village, have been caught and Terl is using them as leverage for Johnnie’s cooperation. Eventually, Terl takes Johnnie to Scotland to recruit more human labor for his mining project and Johnnie is able to recruit a slew of Scottish men to join him. The men allow themselves to be taken captive and used as miners while they secretly plot to destroy the Psychlos.
After a lot of planning, the rebellion unfolds during the “semi-annual firing” where staff and supplies are teleported back to Psychlo. They hide a lethal amount of nuclear warheads and uranium in coffins being sent back to the planet in order to cause an explosion on Psychlo that will prevent them from sending reinforcements when they take control back on Earth. Things seem to go well, Johnnie stops a drone from releasing poisonous gas that will kill off the remaining humans, Chrissie and Pattie are freed and Terl is captured. With free reign and the ability to use the Psychlo ships, Johnnie and his group of Scots are able to find other pockets of humanity all over the world and free them. Word spreads across the globe that Johnnie Goodboy Tyler is the savior of humanity and rid the world of the monsters and demons they had feared for a thousand years, and the world unites in their adoration of him. However this relative peace becomes more complicated as the now aware and liberated human population come together for the first time in a thousand years and set up a planetary government.
Certain that the uranium and nukes never made it to Psychlo, Terl makes plans to destroy the new government from within and return home. Johnnie is also unsure of the stability of Earth’s peace and keeps looking for ways to secure the planets safety, anticipating a counter attack. But the real enemy is on Earth. A man by the name of Brown Limper Staffor cooperates with the imprisoned Terl to gain control of the planetary government. Johnnie and his rapidly expanding crew hop across the globe setting up platforms at old Psychlo bases, and all the while they are being watched by various new species of aliens who are primed to take advantage of the Psychlo’s disappearance. Johnnie believes that the key to Earth’s survival is figuring out how the Psychlo’s were able to teleport through space and enacts a plan to use Terl to figure out how it’s done. There is another, larger more brutal battle, but the result is that Johnnie and his people figure out how to make the transporters work, they kill Brown Limper before his particular brand of fascism can infect the planet any further, and Terl appears to return to Psychlo.
Seeing that the humans have the ability to use transportation, the aliens that were watching them make their moves. Conflicts immediately break out between alien species and the humans, but Johnnie hardly has a chance to fight. He learns from a race of grey, shark-like aliens that the Psychlo’s owned the planet and in their absence, the mortgage on the planet is due. As his comrades struggle to fend off alien agression across the globe, Johnnie must engage in a new type of war. A war of finances and bureaucracy. Emissaries from all across the 17 galaxies are called down to Earth to discuss the violent conflicts erupting on the planet and, if the humans cannot afford to pay off the mortgage on the planet, to auction it off. Johnnie and his crew eventually cut a deal with the Galactic Bank and secure the future of the planet, but it hinges on their ability to crack Psychlo mathematics and solve the mystery of how Psychlo’s were able to travel so quickly across the galaxy, an issue that has been hounding them all for millennia. In order to do this, Johnnie figures out a way to undo the brainwashing that has been in place in the Psychlo’s so as to gain their cooperation.
It is only then, that the Earth truly knows peace. Johnnie settles down and starts a family with Chrissie and eventually disappears into the world of legend and myth.
Now if you’re still with me I congratulate you. If your attention started to waiver a quarter of the way through, imagine reading 1000+ pages of this mess!
Battlefield Earth (film)
The film Battlefield Earth opens on Johnnie returning back to his village and learning that his father has died. After a brief display of grief, Johnnie goes on to discuss with the village elders about exploring the outside world. When he gets no support, Johnnie decides to go off on his own in search of greener pastures. Shortly after leaving, Johnnie runs in to two other men who agree to show him the ancient city and proof of the Gods in exchange for some food. Johnnie agrees and is taken in to the city where the men point out various statues and sculptures, showcasing their belief that they are Gods that have turned to stone. They settle down for the night in the ruins of an mall but are attacked and chased out by an unseen enemy. After a long chase, Johnnie and one of the other men are captured and they are transported to the Psychlo mining base.
In the film version of the story, the Psychlos have hundreds of human captives which they use for general unskilled labor. They do not believe that humans are much smarter than any other creature on Earth, simply more effective for their purposes. As they are transported into holding cages, Johnnie is able to break free and get hold of one of the guards guns. He is unfamiliar with how to use it but figures out how to shoot the guard before running off. He is immediately captured by Terl and brought back to the guards. Terl doesn’t believe it when the guards tell him that Johnnie shot the guards and hands the gun back to Johnnie to prove it. When Johnnie shoots another guard, Terl reacts with amusement.
Later a superior officer from Psychlo arrives via the teleporter, and tells Terl that his stay on Earth has been extended as punishment for an illicit affair he had with a senators daughter. Terl, anxious to leave the planet and become a rich man on Psychlo concocts a plan much like in the novel. He plans to use a human to mine for gold, but when his attempts to incentivise Johnnie to work by feeding him raw rats doesn’t work, Terl decides the best way to get what he needs is to teach Johnnie to speak Psychlo. The learning machine teaches Johhnie not only to speak their language, but advanced mathematics from across the universe and the history of their people. With the knowledge of who their captors are and what they are up against, Johnnie comes to the conclusion that simply running away isn’t enough. Johnnie uses his newfound ability to read Psychlo to get into the armory and stage a revolt. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out as the guns have no ammunition and their attempt to revolt is quickly quelled. Terl takes him and two other men out as a demonstration of what will happen if they attempt to fight against them. While Terl is distracted shooting the legs off cows, a group of wild men ambush them, giving Johnnie and his men the upper hand against Terl. They want to kill Terl and run away but Johnnie tells them that it’s not good enough to run away. They decide to stay and plan a revolt. Johnnie gives Terl back the gun and pretends to be deferential.
When they return to the mine site, Terl shows Johnnie that he has captured his girlfriend Chrissie and threatens to blow her head off with a bomb collar if he doesn’t cooperate. With Chrissie’s life in the balance and the fate of the planet at stake, the rest of the human’s rally behind Johnnie in his plan to destroy the Psychlos. While half pretend to mine for gold, Johnnie and the other half head to Fort Hood and secure weapons, jets, and train to use them. They also find the gold being stocked at Fort Knox and give that to Terl instead. With the gold in hand, Terl prepares it for transport back to Psychlo. All the while, Johnnie and his crew are prepping to blow the dome of the Psychlo mine site, releasing the Psychlo’s to Earth’s atmosphere and sending a nuclear bomb to Psychlo to stop them from sending reinforcements.
The battle unfolds, the humans fight back and the nuke is sent to Psychlo. The resulting chain reaction between the nuclear material hitting Psychlo’s atmosphere causes the entire planet to explode, killing off all the Psychlos. The humans celebrate their victory, Terl is locked up in Fort Knox, surrounded by his gold, and the Earth is safe from threat.
This is where the movie ends, setting itself up for a potential sequel where they can tell the rest of the story. Unfortunately, that would turn out not to be the case. When Battlefield Earth hit theaters it was panned by critics and bombed at the box office.Scandal surrounding the movie led to investigation by the FBI that the film’s 70 million dollar budget was inflated to scam investors and the studio would go on to file for bankruptcy. Some have projected that only $40 million of the $70 million budget went towards the movie and it shows. The musical score does little to add any effect to the atmosphere, the special effects are laughable, and the directing choices leave the audience to wonder who the hacks who made this movie are. Most of the budget seems to have gone to paying John Travolta’s salary because it’s barely noticeable anywhere else in the film.
Still, despite all that I’ve said, there are still quite a few positives I was able to take away both from the novel and the book.
For starters, the novel was easy to read and it was easy to plan off sections to read. The book is broken up into 38 Parts with an average of 7 Chapters per part. As I got more fatigued reading the novel, I was genuinely appreciative that the chapters were short and could be broken down easily. I also genuinely enjoyed most of the interaction between Terl and Johnnie at the beginning of the novel. Terl has never seen a human before and knows absolutely nothing about them. Thus, he almost kills Johnnie by accident more than a few times. It made for some genuine laughs on my part and led me to believe that this novel might be enjoyable (little did I know).
Likewise, the movie also has a few entertaining moments as well. In between bouts of confusion and shaking my head asking God why, I laughed at the absurd acting and maniacal laughter. I especially laughed hard when Terl, believing that humans favorite food is raw rat, stuffs a dead rat in front of Johnnie’s face. When he looks at it disgusted he shoves it in his face screaming “Do you not want lunch?” I nearly doubled over. And it was a good thing because I’m pretty sure the movie wanted me to laugh at that. I was nearly in stitches quite often when Travolta was on screen because his over acting was actually appropriate for the character Terl, who is quite dramatic and pompous and theatrical in the novel.
Unfortunately, many of the things that were hilarious in the novel and movie weren’t mean to be. In Part 2 of our Bad Movie Night/Book 2 Screen Review, we will be discussing where both of these stories went wrong.