Preaching to the Choir

Dark victory: John Travolta in Battlefield Earth

They say Battlefield Earth, based on the novel by L. Ron Hubbard, has nothing to do with the Church of Scientology. Yeah, right--and the Gulf War had nothing to do with oil, and Siegfried and Roy are just good buddies, and Soupy Sales, my close personal friend, will now perform a rendition of "Sunshine Superman" on didgeridoo.

Say this for Battlefield Earth: When it comes to weird religious-propaganda films, Scientologists have it all over right-wing Christians (cf. The Omega Code). The new Hubbard-adapted opus offers exploding planets, lots of lovely visuals recycled from Blade Runner, some genuinely likable villains played by A-list stars, and totally cool costumes. Nevertheless, blessed reader, a word of advice: Go see Gladiator instead.

Indeed, if you absolutely must see a big, dumb, hypervisual supermovie with no coherent message, see Gladiator. But if you should opt instead for Battlefield Earth, don't blame me that you just wasted two hours in which you could have been cooking garlic scallops for your friends, reconciling with your grandmother, listening to Led Zeppelin II, French kissing, or taking a nap. When the enemy is so powerful and so creepy, our differences as movie fans seem small, and our unifying struggle is clear: No more bad movies.

Now for the gospel on Battlefield Earth:

Psalm 1. This is a movie in which a 1,000-year-old flight-simulator machine is discovered by futuristic cavemen. (No, we're not talking about a T. Rex song.) The thing starts up like a dream, and the cavemen use it to become Top Guns overnight, kicking fat alien ass in an intergalactic dogfight. The jet planes also work perfectly and are, amazingly, filled with fuel and ammo. (Note: Director Roger Christian worked on two Star Wars movies.)

Psalm 2. The evil alien race, called Psychlos, are ten-foot geniuses in awesome Kiss-style moonboots and Rob Zombie dreadlocks. Forest Whitaker is a lovable Cowardly Lion sort, crossed with Chewbacca. (Is this racist? Probably, yes.)

Psalm 3. Oh, yeah: It's the year 3000. The Psychlos have killed most of the humans, enslaved the rest, and are plundering the now-empty Earth for, um, gold. (Why genius aliens have any use for gold is not explained.) John Travolta plays Terl, the head alien; his entire performance amounts to a staggeringly faithful Bette Davis impression.

Psalm 4. Travolta, who has been trying to make this movie for almost 20 years, is a high grand Pooh-Bah in Scientology. He also co-produced Battlefield Earth.

Psalm 5. The Psychlos are a double-crossing, Machiavellian bunch who manipulate each other by using their greatest weapon: "leverage." That is, they spy on each other in search of nasty secrets, then use the info to blackmail each other.

Psalm 6. In the Church of Scientology, new members must submit to a test called an "audit." (Small wonder the church's greatest enemy has been the IRS.) A sort of lie detector is used to draw out a member's most painful and embarrassing memories. The sucker then spends piles of cash on classes and audits to cleanse these memories. (The church claims it can cure homosexuality as well.) Anyone who refuses to undergo an audit is ejected from the church. (Somehow, incurable homosexual William S. Burroughs managed to avoid the usual harassment after his defection.)

Psalm 7. In well-documented cases, the Church of Scientology has been directly linked to character-assassination plots against its enemies--ex-members, anti-cult attorneys, etc. In a notorious memo written in 1968, Hubbard laid down the law on treatment of the group's nemeses--a practice known as "Fair Game," in which he wrote that a "Suppressive Person," or "SP," may be "deprived of property or injured by any means, by any Scientologist... He may be tricked, sued or lied to, or destroyed."

Okay--back to the movie. As a critic, I was actually hoping that Battlefield Earth would be terrific. It would have been much more fun to defend the film against the knee-jerk prejudice of skeptics. Failing that, one would at least expect it to offer campy fun. Incredibly, it doesn't. And in terms of implausibility, it makes Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda--which addressed Satan, cross-dressing, traffic congestion, war, and angora sweaters--look like a heroic work of narrative cohesion.

In the spirit of incoherence and iconoclasm established by Hubbard, I will now end this movie review by raising my middle finger to the Church of Scientology, and by bringing up a much more important issue: Have you ever heard the Zombies album Odessey & Oracle? Nobody ever talks about the Zombies--they were a bit lost in the British invasion madness of the late Sixties, and never got the recognition they deserved. Suffice it to say that Odessey & Oracle is kissed by the muse: It's tender and sentimental and Beatlesesque, yet wholly original. It'll cleanse your soul, or at least make you understand that the wounds you've endured in this life, the purple hearts you've garnered and the scars you hide, are badges of honor in the struggle to be human. Check it out--and God bless.


Battlefield Earth is playing at area theaters.

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