Cover Story: From Pulp Fiction to Movie Blockbuster: 'Battlefield Earth'

In 1980, L. Ron Hubbard, by his own account, found himself with time on his hands and decided to write a work of "pure science fiction ... (with) practically every type of story there is -- detec

 
John Travolta aims at the critics surrounding Battlefield Earth.



In 1980, L. Ron Hubbard, by his own account, found himself with time on his hands and decided to write a work of "pure science fiction ... (with) practically every type of story there is — detective, spy, adventure, western, love, air war, you name it."

Battlefield Earth, as he named it, has now been brought to the screen, largely as a prison story. In both versions, the human beings of Earth, led by the courageous, intelligent and virtually immortal Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper), defeat the predatory alien Psychlos, led by the ambitious Terl (John Travolta).

The movie ends in sequel ready fashion. But the book goes on for another 500 pages, during which the various peoples of Earth learn to cooperate with the remaining Psychlos and Jonnie, despite a wife and children, wanders off alone to live out his godlike destiny. Undoubtedly, Battlefield Earth Part 2 is on the drawing board.

The novel opens with Terl, a middle-management type with dreams of glory, trying to figure a way to get out of this backwater, Earth, and rise in the Intergalactic Mining Company. He's discovered a vein of gold unmineable by the Psychlos. He has an idea: Why not train the indigenous "man-things" to mine this gold?

He has a foolproof plan to transport the gold to Psychlo, where he will live as a king.

While Terl tries to figure out how to get his hands on a "man-thing," Jonnie — too tall, blond, strong and brave to stay in his dreary mountain community — sets off to discover if the myths about the monsters and the lost great cities are true. Captured and educated by Terl, soon this illiterate boy is speaking Psychlo, reading English and Psychlo, flying planes, fixing machinery and otherwise demonstrating his godlike powers. Ordered by Terl to recruit some miners, Jonnie and his men foil Terl's plans and retake the planet.

In the movie, the Psychlos already have men in cages, purely to humiliate them, it seems, since they don't seem to perform any useful labor. This "prison story," non-existent in the novel, is four-fifths of the film.

The novel carefully avoids sex, and the violence is also mild. At worst, the Pscyhlos like to kill things by shooting off their legs, but this is mostly spoken about, not shown. The screenplay, on the other hand, is rife with references to sex, along with a gratuitous scene of a female Pscyhlo's (John Travolta's real-life wife, Kelly Preston ) lizardlike tongue descending down Terl's body. Violence takes place, but the camera doesn't go there. People are shot and decapitated, but you see the doer, never the doee.

There's no blood. This is science fiction for the pre-teen market.

Hubbard's Psychlos weigh 1,000 pounds each, and they're twice as tall as men. Travolta's Terl is maybe half a head larger than Barry Pepper's Jonnie, and he doesn't look like an alien, just a guy with a lot of hair and funny hands.

Other actors in the movie seem to have lots of plastic glued to their faces, but Travolta looks like Travolta with Mr. Spock eyebrows and a floor mop on his head. Forrest Whitaker appears to have golden eyes, but Travolta doesn't even have those.

Poor J.T. tries to spin his clichéd lines, but there's no energy in his performance. Since he's mostly shot in the dark with pale blue shadows on his face, he doesn't have much opportunity to scintillate.

Without a Terl you can love, Battlefield Earth hardly seems to have a point. Imprisoned, like the characters, in a shadowy world full of hairy humans and hairier Psychlos, incomprehensible destruction (everything seems to blow up twice), identical military apparatuses and endless noise, the moviegoer longs for the credits like a prisoner waiting to be taken out for exercise.

At least a book can be put down.



DORIS ALLEN writes about novels and their movie adaptations for nowread.com.

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