Scientology sci-fi flop 'Battlefield Earth' at 20: The most scathing reviews remembered

Ben ArnoldContributor
Yahoo Movies UK
John Travolta in scene from the film 'Battlefield Earth', 2000. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)
John Travolta in scene from the film 'Battlefield Earth', 2000. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

It's 20 years since John Travolta strapped on a massive latex forehead and helped bring Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's 1982 sci-fi potboiler Battlefield Earth to the big screen.

Hubbard's door-stop, coming in at over 1000 pages, was not wildly well-received on its release (though fantasy icon Neil Gaiman gave it a decent notice, writing in Image magazine in 1985), but director Roger Christian's movie was something else entirely.

Travolta, a Scientologist since the mid-70s, had long wanted to bring the book to the screen, and roped in his manager and production partner Jonathan D. Krane, with whom he'd made movies like Michael and Primary Colors, to help him do it.

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Due to its connection to Scientology, no major would pick it up, but eventually indie studio Franchise Pictures took the gamble, and with a script from Robin Hood: Men In Tights scribe J. David Shapiro, it finally went into production.

Set in the year 3000, it found alien race the Psychlos having enslaved the human race, with Travolta's devilish Terl in charge of security operations on Earth, flanked by his deputy Ker, played by Forest Whitaker.

Barry Pepper, Kim Coates, John Travolta & Forest Whitaker (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)
Barry Pepper, Kim Coates, John Travolta & Forest Whitaker (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)

Resistance comes in the form of Barry Pepper's Jonnie 'Goodboy' Tyler, who eventually leads the human rebellion against the mineral-stripping alien overlords.

The resulting movie was... not good. Squandering every scrap of goodwill afforded Travolta from his career-comeback Pulp Fiction, movie-goers stayed away in their droves.

The film made just $29 million from a $73 million production budget and a further $20 million spent on promotion and marketing.

Kelly Preston, Quentin Tarantino and John Travolta attend the Battlefield Earth premiere on May 10, 2000 (Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
Kelly Preston, Quentin Tarantino and John Travolta attend the Battlefield Earth premiere on May 10, 2000 (Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

At one publicity event for the movie, The Washington Post's Sharon Waxman reported that when Travolta hopefully asked whether the gathered journalists had enjoyed the film, he was met with complete silence, while others reported howls of laughter at early screenings.

Travolta and Krane, despite a long history making movies together, parted ways following the disastrous fallout of the project. Suffice to say plans for a sequel were shelved.

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Things later got legal, with the FBI getting involved and Franchise Pictures being sued by investors over allegations it inflated the film's budget. The company eventually went bankrupt in 2007.

The movie was also accused of hiding subliminal messages, though the Church of Scientology called the allegations 'hogwash'.

John Travolta in scene from the film 'Battlefield Earth', 2000. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)
John Travolta in scene from the film 'Battlefield Earth', 2000. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

Even writer Shapiro, who later said that what appeared on screen bore little resemblance to his work, said: “The only time I saw the movie was at the premiere, which was one too many times.”

But it was the critical response to the film which remains long in the memory.

Here are some of the most lyrical take downs:

Rita Kempley, The Washington Post...

“A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth. This film version of L. Ron Hubbard's futuristic novel is so breathtakingly awful in concept and execution, it wouldn't tax the smarts of a troglodyte.”

Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times...

“It may be a bit early to make such judgments, but Battlefield Earth may well turn out to be the worst movie of this century.”

Jonathan Ross, Film 2000...

“Everything about Battlefield Earth sucks. Everything. The over-the-top music, the unbelievable sets, the terrible dialogue, the hammy acting, the lousy special effects, the beginning, the middle and especially the end.”

2/14/00 New York, NY. John Travolta visits the Trendmasters Showroom to promote the launch of the high-flying toy line for his latest movie project, "Battlefield Earth," in which he plays the evil Terl, leader of the Psychlos. Photo by Robin Platzer/Twin Images/Online USA, Inc.
2/14/00 New York, NY. John Travolta visits the Trendmasters Showroom to promote the launch of the high-flying toy line for his latest movie project, "Battlefield Earth," in which he plays the evil Terl, leader of the Psychlos. Photo by Robin Platzer/Twin Images/Online USA, Inc.

David Hunter, The Hollywood Reporter...

“A flat-out mess, by golly, with massive narrative sinkholes, leading to moments of outstanding disbelief in the muddled writing and shockingly chaotic mise en scène that's accompanied by ear-pummeling sound and bombastic music.”

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-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... I watched it in mounting gloom, realizing I was witnessing something historic, a film that for decades to come will be the punch line of jokes about bad movies.”

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian...

“With this journey into the heart of rubbish, this full-throttle adventure into the hyper-space of drivel, Travolta not only incinerates what is left of his own reputation, but takes someone else down with him.”

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone...

“With this kind of epic ineptitude - hell, the flick is set in the year 3000 - you go for ‘worst of the millennium.’"

Anthony Lane, The New Yorker...

“The director is Roger Christian, who, if early audience response is anything to go by, would do well to flee the country under an assumed name.”

Richard Schikel, Time...

“The worst movie in living memory.”

Jon Stewart, The Daily Show...

“A cross between Star Wars and the smell of ass.”

Not even funny bad, and certainly not a recipient of cult status in latter years, Battlefield Earth remains memorable for all the very wrongest of reasons.

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