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Battlefield Earth

"Battlefield Earth" on DVD

Nice Try, but only a Cigarillo

Let's get this out of the way first: Roger Christian's film version of the classic L. Ron Hubbard sci-fi novel isn't nearly as bad as you've heard.

That said, however, though the movie only deals with about the first half of the novel, that's still some five hundred pages they're trying to cram into a two hour movie - and you just can't do that and expect to come up with a credible whole.

They really tried, though, and they succeeded in some places. In the end, though, we're left with a movie that, like "Dune" before it, is a ponderous and pretentious pretender that doesn't come close to doing justice to what, on paper, was a ripping yarn.

This doesn't mean it isn't worth seeing, however.

Barry Pepper stars as Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, a human being in a time when humans are an endangered species. John Travolta is Terl, one of the aliens whose race is responsible for that endangerment.

The year is 3000, and Earth has been controlled by the evil and greedy Psychlos for the past thousand years. Humans are mostly living in radiated areas that, because of the explosive reaction to radiation by their "breathe gas," the aliens can't approach. It's a primitive, tribal existence, and one that isn't good enough for the bright Jonnie, who heads out to seek his fortune in new lands.

His adventure is short lived, however, when he's captured by the Psychlos and taken to a kind of human zoo at the Psychlos' domed base enclosing what had once been Denver. Thanks to his intellect and spunk, Jonnie comes to the attention of the Psychlos' security chief, Terl - an ambitious creature who hates his "exile" on Earth and who has plans to go back home to Psychlo stinking rich when he finally gets the opportunity.

He's a conniver, all right, and (like most of his race) a ruthless one at that. He's discovered a large gold deposit in a radioactive mountainous area and wants to train "man-animals" to mine it for him. When he discovers Jonnie's smarts, he tags him to lead the man-animals and hooks him into a teaching machine so he can learn to communicate with the Psychlos, as well as soaking up other subjects (like math, etc.) he'll need in order to pull off Terl's scheme.

Jonnie's a lot smarter than Terl thinks, however, and he learns enough about the Psychlos and their empire - as well as about his own heritage - to figure out a way by which he can lead a human revolt against the race that has dominated the galaxies for millennia.

As with "Dune," "Battlefield Earth" bites off far more than it can chew. It takes nearly the first quarter of the film for Jonnie to come into contact with Terl, leaving only an hour and a half for everything else to unfold. It's just too much stuff to stuff into that length of time and expect people who haven't read the book to follow. It's a shame; there's enough to like about the film that, were it have been made into, say, a twelve hour miniseries, they might have been able to do this part of the book justice.

The film also has some credibility problems that may be due to the cinematic shortcuts taken, like at the very beginning when the human encampment is sealed off, leaving (we assume) Jonnie to his fate outside - then, ten seconds later he's riding his horse down an embankment inside the camp. Huh?

Then there's the slow pacing...

Contrary to popular media belief, however, Travolta's performance as Terl is good. He's big, egotistical and obnoxious - just as Terl should be. We would have liked to see the Psychlos look more like their descriptions in the book, but if that had happened Travolta would have been unrecognizable (computer animation would have actually been the best way to pull them off) and the studio powers that be would have undoubtedly looked upon that as counterproductive.

Barry Pepper is pretty good as Jonnie, the film's real lead, but they should really have cast someone a little more physically substantial (like a younger Arnold Schwarzenegger) and with more screen presence. Forest Whitaker, as Terl's assistant Ker, is okay, but the screenwriters took far too many liberties with the novel's character for their version.

Production values are first rate, as are the special effects. The film has a really good look, and some of the matte paintings are spectacular.

The DVD is in widescreen, enhanced for 16x9 TV's, and the video and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio quality are superb. Not counting the purplish-hued sequences set inside the Psychlo base (made necessary by the color of the alien "breathe gas", this is a good DVD with which to show off the quality of your home theater.

There are plenty of extras, too, and when you watch them you can clearly see how hard these people tried to turn "Battlefield Earth" into a classic, epic sci-fi flick. That they for the most part failed is a shame, but they appear to have had their hearts in the right place.

Extras include a running commentary by director Roger Christian and production designer Patrick Tatapolous, a behind the scenes documentary, a feature on John Travolta's alien makeup tests, and another on the film's FX. There's also a storyboard montage, trailers and TV commercials, cast/crew info, web links, and some "Easter eggs" that we won't spoil for you.

Battlefield Earth from Warner Home Video
119 minutes, Widescreen (2.35:1)16x9 TV compatible, Dolby Digital 5.1
Starring Barry Pepper, John Travolta, Forest Whitaker
Produced by Elie Samaha, Jonathan D. Krane, John Travolta
Written by Corey Mandell and J.D. Shapiro, Directed by Roger Christian.


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Updated May 13, 2006