A New Strategy For Battlefield: Earth

by Arthur B

Thinking about Troll 2 made Arthur think about the other worst movie ever - and what might have been done to salvage it.
In the grim darkness of the far future there's only slavery - humanity having been enslaved by the evil economically-driven Psychlos, tall aliens who wear big stompy boots and dreadlocks. One day, Terl (John Travolta) - the Psychlo in charge of the security of their operations on Earth - decides to see if humans can be trained to mine gold, and he picks recently-captured chump Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper) as his first test subject and begins subjecting him to vastly accelerated speed learning. This, of course, allows Tyler to realise humanity's old accomplishments and hatch a plan to lead a daring revolution to overthrow the alien oppressors. It involves using that speed-learning tech to allow him and his pals to use some remarkably well-preserved fighter aircraft...

Battlefield Earth is a legendarily bad movie spawned from a legendarily bad book by L. Ron Hubbard, penned after he'd grown tired of cranking out Scientology material and decided to turn his hand to a bit of old school science fiction. I don't really need to break down the deficiencies of the movie - that road’s been well-trod. For this article, I’d like to instead try out a little thought experiment: could there have been a route which would have led to the movie, if not actually being good, at least being entertainingly watchable?

Let’s put some restrictions on our thought experiment to make it interesting. Let’s say that we can’t just pirate the material - thus, like the actual filmmakers, we must still report back to David Miscavige, current God-Emperor of Scientology, and justify any changes to him. On the other hand, Miscavige is a weird tyrant, so let’s give ourselves a little advantage: let’s pretend we have an expert Miscavige-wrangler on hand who’s great at pitching ideas to him so that he will accept them, provided that some sound fiscal or doctrinal basis can be found.

Likewise, let’s assume that we have to stick to the actual story as penned by Hubbard; we are allowed to abridge and cut parts - the issued movie did, after all - but we can’t just abandon it completely.

With these restrictions in place, here’s what I reckon you could do.

Step 1: Embrace the Comedy

This is a bit that John Travolta actually got semi-right in the actual movie - probably because, unlike many involved in the production, he'd actually read the source material. The novel Battlefield Earth is a goofy and often heavy-handed satire on modern society as much as it’s an overlong pulp SF yarn - it’s kind of like Hubbard’s attempt to mash up Atlas Shrugged and Dune, only Hubbard actually kind-of sort-of has something resembling a sense of humour at points (albeit one that’s gotten real weird over the years) so he’s got an advantage over Rand there.

When Travolta is hamming it up and chewing on the scenery like crazy, it looks hilarious. There’s a reason for that - in about half the scenes, I genuinely think he’s trying to be funny and absurdly over-the-top. This is because he’s actually read the book and seems to have actually enjoyed it, or at least was invested enough in staying in Scientology’s good books that he paid lip service to enjoying it long enough to believe that he actually liked it. Unfortunately, the script misses out a lot of the satire, and whilst it’s not funny for the reasons Hubbard intended, a script which embraced the absurdity of it all could potentially be funny enough for people to watch on a “You’ve got to see this shit to believe it” basis.

This might be the hardest bit to sell to Miscavige, but you could do it if you spun it as flattering L. Ron Hubbard. If you say you wanted to get across Hubbard as not just a science fiction author but also as a source of amusing commentary on modern life and social mores, you could probably do it.

Step 2: Make It a CGI Cartoon

Going animated also gives you a golden opportunity to get Travolta onside - he really had his heart set on playing Johnny Goodboy Tyler, but eventually decided to go with playing the villain Terl when the passage of time made him a bit too old to play a fresh-faced young adventurer on a coming-of-age journey. Use some sort of filter on the Psychlo voices to make them sound all spooky and alien, and you can have Travolta play both parts, which I’m sure will make him very happy.

On top of that, you can crank out such material fairly quickly and use it to make scenes look precisely as you want them, without worryiing about the physical logistics. That’s both an easy sale for Miscavige’s purposes, and means you get out of a lot of the awkwardness of the actual movie, with its often cheap-looking sets and its confusing camera angles and constant tilt. (You also save a ton on actors - paying just for a cast of voice actors for an animated feature is far more economical than paying for a full cast of actors plus extras in a conventional movie.

Step 3: Adopt a “Classic Pulp” Aesthetic

When Scientology acknowledges Hubbard’s SF writing - and they pretty much have to when dealing with this sort of project - they like to amp up how he learned his craft in the golden era of pulp fiction, and had his work represented in a wide swathe of publications back then.

That’s an era with a sort of fun, Hugo Gernsback-esque aesthetic which would really allow the movie to stand out from the crowd if you ran with it - so run with it. Run with it hard, and go with an aesthetic inspired less by drab dystopian 1990s industrial rock videos and more by old-timey sci-fi of the classic serials - the 1980s Flash Gordon movie can be your model.

This immediately saves you from the spectacle of the characters rushing about with appropriated white guy dreads (seriously, Forest Whitaker is the most prominent black actor present and even his character doesn’t have dreads, but almost all the white characters do) and a combination of dull rags on the humans and generic fetishwear on the Psychlos, like they got their costume requirements mixed up with the costume order for a mid-1990s Nine Inch Nails video or something. It also has the knock-on effect that audience are likely to find it much easier to accept the more ostentatiously unrealistic aspects of the story by dint of it being presented in a way which is much more cartoonish and playful than the movie we got.

You can sell David Miscavige on this by amping up how so many other people are turning out depressing dystopian-tinted science fiction with a grey, drab aesthetic here in the mid-1990s, whereas by going with a boldly different aesthetic you get to not only celebrate the style of SF Hubbard made his own back in the day but also produce something that will stand out simply by virtue of being different and marching to the beat of a different drummer. Hype up how this will make it clear that Hubbard is not just any run-of-the-mill Philip K. Dick wannabe but a foundational figure of the genre and you should be good.

Step 4: Tease the Sequels More

The Battlefield Earth movie conveys only a fraction of the action of the book; after the human revolt, Tyler and his pals have to act as Earth’s government and negotiate with nefarious aliens and get involved in a lot of weird financial skullduggery. You don’t need to go into that in this movie - but if you give strong hints that this is the start of a series, the audience won’t expect you to close off all the plot lines and generally round everything off in this one. That saves you from a major plot issue of the first movie, which is that the human victory seems too total, too easy, and too final given the challenge they’re faced with at the start of the movie. If people know it’s the start of the series, they give it a bit more slack than if you put the whole plot in front of them and they realise it’s a crock of shit - just look at Mass Effect.

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at 22:53 on 2019-03-25
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