The science fiction genre really is not all that hard to understand. One does not have to be a basement-dwelling nerd to grok what sci-fi is, how it works, and what are its basic tropes.
But for decades, those in the film industry who decide what movies get made have shown a strong, widespread bias against science fiction. They do not “get” sci-fi, and assume that the mainstream movie audience does not either; this despite powerful evidence to the contrary (for instance, nine of the ten top grossing films of all time are science fiction or fantasy).
Because of this, even the best sci-fi movies are relentlessly “dumbed-down” for mass consumption. Two cogent examples are both very good films – Back to the Future and The Matrix. The former is polluted with relentless visual cues and obnoxious spot-on dialogue designed to explain, and then re-explain, the film’s basic sci-fi premises to even the dullest and least-attentive moviegoer. The latter spends the entire first half of the film explaining the basic premise, which can be smartly summed up in six words – “the world is a computer simulation.”
I have personal experience with this dumbing-down process, through my own long (and to-date fruitless) attempts to sell screenplays. And I believe it is this bias against smart sci-fi, and not budgetary or technical concerns, which explains why so many Hollywood sci-fi films are relentlessly dreadful.
Which is all by way of introducing this, the first in my series on the worst Sci-Fi films ever made. It will be an arduous undertaking, as I must actually sit through the various contenders before I can decide which are bad enough to qualify. But I am willing to do it for you, loyal reader.
Some ground rules:
- The film is a mainstream Hollywood picture, or had sufficient money and backing that a quality film was to be expected. While not all independent and “B” movies are bad (some are excellent), permitting them on this list would quickly fill it with tokosatsu, Ed Wood and Bert I. Gordon flicks. Such movies may be entertainingly bad, but their limitations are self-evident – criticizing them is too easy, and not very illuminating. I would rather analyze a film that could have or should have been good, and try to figure out where talented people went wrong.
- The film is undeniably science-fiction. It must be a movie that any reasonable person would peg as sci-fi, and not a mainstream, fantasy or horror film with sci-fi elements. I don’t want to clutter up the list with What Women Want or Multiplicity. (Of course, making this determination is not easy. Is The Prestige sci-fi, or a historical thriller with sci-fi elements? Fortunately, I do not have to decide – it is a good movie.)
- No superhero films. Most superhero and comic book films are science fiction; and many of them are very, very bad. Dreck like X-Men: The Last Stand, The Fantastic Four (1994) and The Fantastic Four (2005) would take up the whole list.
- Films from a series will be represented by one example. I think you see where I am going with this.
I will not be reviewing these ten films in any order of “badness.” I plan to watch them, and write about them, in whatever order they interest me. I have identified my Worst Sci-Fi Film of All Time, however, and I am saving it for last.
For the first installment in this series, I have chosen Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000, Roger Christian’s 2000 adaptation of the first half of L. Ron Hubbard’s 1982 novel.
Battlefield Earth (2000)
I do not think that Battlefield Earth is, by any stretch of the imagination, the worst Sci-Fi flick ever made. It is bad, painfully so. So bad it should have ended the careers of anyone involved with it. But there are many worse films cluttering up the shelves of the “Sci-Fi/Horror” section of your favorite soon-to-be-shut-down video rental store.
Yet the corps of professional movie reviewers disagrees with me. Read some of the reviews from the time of Battlefield Earth’s release, and it is hard to believe any Hollywood film was ever trashed so thoroughly in the mainstream press.
“Battlefield Earth may well turn out to be the worst movie of [the 21st] century.” – The New York Times
“Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way.” – Roger Ebert
“Sitting through the summer’s first monolithic monstrosity, Battlefield Earth, was one of the most painfully excruciating experiences of my life.” – Sacramento Bee
Those are just three samples chosen at random. The film’s Rotten Tomatoes score is 3%.
I chose Battlefield Earth first because the mainstream press hated it so much. I had never seen it – now I have sat through it twice, once with the blessed relief of RiffTrax playing over it.
First, I am not going to criticize Battlefield Earth for having a Scientology agenda. (For those of you lacking basic knowledge of popular culture, the novel Battlefield Earth was (probably) written by L. Ron Hubbard, hack pulp novelist of the 1940s and founder of the pseudo-religious Scientology self-help cult. Producer and star John Travolta is a member of this cult.) Most if not all the Scientology elements in the novel are not present in the film. For instance, in the novel, the evil Psychlos are ruled over by an eviler caste of psychotherapists, who control their minions through mind control and brain surgery. Scientologists believe this is true of modern America, that we are subjugated by cognitive scientists with totalitarian intentions. But this subplot is not in the movie.
There is evidence that the Scientology organization intended to use the film as a recruitment tool. But that is not relevant to how bad the film is. The only way I can see in which the film’s Scientology connection affected its awfulness, is that it was religious piety that convinced the otherwise talented John Travolta that Battlefield Earth was a filmable novel in the first place. More on this in a moment.
I will take a paragraph or two, before getting to the meat of the matter, to point out that British director Roger Christian needs his DGA card taken away and ceremoniously burned. Almost the entire film is shot in Dutch angles, something most directors save for special occasions and even the 1960’s TV show Batman only used for villains’ lairs. There are so many oblique shots in Battlefield Earth that the Wikipedia page for Dutch angle uses a screenshot from the film as the example!
Christian also employs bizarre filter and color effects to give the film a grimy, otherworldly feel – something that might make sense except the movie takes place on Earth. The production design is uninspired, which is surprising as director Christian was set decorator for Star Wars; and the costumes are not so much ridiculous as they are just dull. When the most memorable visual in an entire film is a nose plug, you know you have a problem.
Many reviewers criticized Travolta’s “over-the-top” performance, but I think this paled in importance besides the film’s other issues. In a good movie, Travolta’s hammy acting might have been entertaining. I was more disappointed in Forest Whitaker, an otherwise fine actor who clearly sat through this shoot for the paycheck.
The film plods along, without any discernible pacing or plot structure, marching grimly from a dull, formulaic opening to a dull, preposterous end. This I do not lay at the director’s feet, however. The source of these problems is, I think, the source of all the movie’s problems.
Battlefield Earth is not a terrible movie. It is a movie of a terrible book.
I read an L. Ron Hubbard book once. Once. It was Mission Earth, and I made it through three volumes of this “dekalogy” before I became disgusted and gave up. I used to think Piers Anthony was the very archetype of the hack writer, a skilled typist with marginal writing talent who churns out banal prose at pennies-per-word. But Anthony has the ability to be entertaining and original, when he tries. Hubbard was the worst kind of hack – dull, derivative and trite, but successful.
Many of science fiction’s éminences grises, from Robert A. Heinlein to Harlan Ellison, counted Hubbard as a friend and colleague. But I challenge anyone to find a wholeheartedly positive appraisal of Hubbard’s work from these friends. The closest I could find is a story by Ellison, told with admiration, that Hubbard mounted a roll of butchers’ paper above his desk, which fed directly into his typewriter, so he could churn out stories without having to change paper. This should be the image on the Wikipedia page for hack.
What frustrated me so much about Mission Earth was my realization, after three volumes, that Hubbard had taken a story suitable for one volume and s-t-r-e-e-e-e-e-t-c-h-e-d it into ten. I have not read Battlefield Earth, nor do I intend to. But so much of Battlefield reminds me directly of Mission that I am certain the film’s plot, structure and story problems stem from the original novel.
Read the reviews and you’ll see that, apart from the bad acting and poor direction, everyone agrees that the film’s story was uninspired in its conception and incredible in its resolution. Not “incredible” as in “great” – incredible as in not credible. I believe it is the film’s climax, wherein the scrappy human resistance defeats the evil Psychlo overlords, that makes an otherwise bad movie into a disaster. And this story comes from the book, from the mind of ur-hack L. Ron Hubbard.
As briefly as possible: corrupt alien Psychlo overlord Terl (Travolta) wants to use enslaved human resistance fighter Jonnie Goodboy Tyler to mine gold. Whatever gas the Psychlos breathe combusts when exposed to “radiation,” which makes you wonder how the atmosphere of their homeworld could exist in the first place. The gold is located near uranium deposits, so Terl wants to send Jonnie and his friends.
Terl has to give Jonnie orders, so he decides to teach the human the Psychlo language. He does this by hooking Jonnie up to a “teaching machine,” which proceeds to teach Jonnie everything – not just language, but logic, science, mathematics, and the secrets of Psychlo technology (or, at least, enough that Jonnie is afterwards able to unlock the secrets of Psychlo technology). If I remember correctly, Confederate slave owners taught their slaves English. They did not send them to MIT, however.
This is silly, but not fatal. Maybe Terl did not understand how the teaching machine worked (although establishing this would be nice). It is what Jonnie does with this new knowledge that strains credulity past the breaking point. While single-handedly teaching his human friends how to fly aircraft (how hard could that be?) and appropriating Psychlo technology, Jonnie has been neglecting his gold-mining duties. So, right under Terl’s nose, Jonnie flies to Fort Knox and steals a few tons of gold.
Eventually, Jonnie and his loin-clothed pals perform an exquisitely-timed international operation, involving nuclear technology and lots of alien aircraft, that destroys the entire Psychlo homeworld and forces Forest Whitaker to join their side. (You know, if Earth was indeed enslaved by aliens, and the only way to secure our freedom was to commit genocide against the aliens, I would do it. But it is decidedly not heroic. It is genocide. The movie does not address this. Maybe the book does.)
Let me stress that this plot involves human slaves traveling all over the world, in alien aircraft no one is keeping track of, using fuel no one misses, to collect weapons, including nuclear devices, that no one is guarding or monitoring.
It is the absurd implausibility of the plot that elevates (or de-elevates) Battlefield Earth past other, merely bad science fiction films. Audiences were laughing out loud at the absurdity of the last half of the film. Any goodwill the audience might have had for the characters, any concern for the seriousness of their predicament, is washed away when viewers realize Hubbard could not be bothered to invent a clever or believable outcome. Hubbard had a thousand pages to fill, so he filled them with the first thing that came to mind.
Travolta piously decided to remain relatively true to the original story. And that was the downfall of Battlefield Earth. (It should be noted that, while Travolta’s career arc was relatively unaffected by this flop, and Roger Christian went on to direct some movies you have never heard of, production company Franchise Pictures was eventually bankrupted by the Battlefield Earth deal.)
Next: Pluto Nash