Planet of the Oafs 

Reviews of the latest films.
May 12 2000 9:30 PM

Planet of the Oafs 

Travolta's Battlefield Earth harks back to '50s sci-fi schlock. And not in a good way. 

Battlefield Earth
Directed by
Roger Christian
Warner Bros.

Hamlet
Directed by
Michael Almereyda
Miramax Films

More on Gladiator

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A central tenet of Scientology is that humans are manipulated by alien spirits implanted within the species thousands of years ago. What better proof of this than John Travolta's decision to produce, partially finance, and star in an adaptation of L. Ron Hubbard's 1,050-page 1982 science-fiction tome Battlefield Earth? Only alien DNA could account for instincts so paranormally terrible. Here is a picture that will be hailed without controversy as the worst of its kind ever made. It could be renamed Ed Wood's Planet of the Apes if that title didn't promise more cheesy fun than the movie actually delivers.

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Too old and, by his own description, too fat to play the film's human warrior hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, Travolta has taken the role of its arch-villain, Terl, a 9-foot, dreadlocked "Psychlo." This is the kind of bad guy who strokes his beard with long (Lee Press-On?) talons, gloats over the imminent extermination of the human race, then adds, "Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah!" Fu Manchu would roll his eyes. Ming the Merciless would politely excuse himself. Apart from jeering at "man-animals" and shooting the legs off some cows in a gleeful show of sadism, Terl's favorite pastime is abusing his hapless henchman, Ker, played by Forest Whitaker, who's coiffed to resemble the Cowardly Lion in The Wiz (1978). In the movie's only entertaining scenes, Whitaker plays Shemp to Travolta's Moe.

Let me try to summarize the plot. It's 3000 A.D., and the Psychlos are strip-mining Earth. What humans they haven't exterminated seem to have de-evolved and live in caves or primitive huts outside the giant mall-like structure that the Psychlos call home. Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper, looking like some '80s heavy-metal guitarist en route to Betty Ford's) leaves his village and dishy cave girlfriend in search of food, then gets ray-gunned by Psychlos. Enslaved, Jonnie catches the eye of Terl, who has evidently been looking for a smart human to help him plunder what's left of the planet and keep it for himself. He zaps Jonnie with a knowledge ray and then, for some reason, lets him read the Declaration of Independence. I'm not sure what happens next because I went out for malted milk balls and then remembered I owed my mom a phone call. When I got back, Jonnie was leading some cavemen on a tour of Fort Knox, various decadent Psychlos were arguing among themselves, and Travolta was going, "Hah-hah-hah-hah!" A short time later, Jonnie is in Fort Hood, Texas, turning the cavemen into supersonic fighter pilots. They lead an assault on the Death Star—I mean, the Death Mall—and stuff blows up big time.

The Psychlos are apparently stand-ins for the psychiatric establishment, which Hubbard (my information comes from a knockout feature in last November's Washington Post by Richard Leiby) considered a timeless and galaxywide evil. Otherwise, I detect few hidden messages in Battlefield Earth except for those ripped off from '50s sci-fi pulp and Star Wars (1977). The director, Roger Christian, was the art director for Star Wars and the unit director for last year's The Phantom Menace. To convey the unnatural milieu of the Psychlos, he drenches some of their scenes in blue, some in green, and some in orange; others are lighted to look like '80s discotheques. His touch with actors is no less monochromatic. The scenes in which humans plot to recapture the planet have the ease and verisimilitude of re-enactments on America's Most Wanted. Visually, Battlefield Earth is a bewildering procession of non sequiturs, held together by the most assaultive soundtrack in cinema history.

That is not an overstatement. A horse hitting the ground sounds like a bomb going off. A bomb going off sounds like a planet exploding. A planet exploding sounds like—I'm out of hyperbole. People in the audience dig their fingers into their ears and howl in agony—it's a wonder the roof doesn't come down. Is this a Scientology strategy to drive the aliens out of their bodies?

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I t pains me that I can't write a full review of Michael Almereyda's New York City-based Hamlet: I've known the director for a couple of decades and am thanked in the credits for having given the screenplay a once-over. But it would be too much of a drag not to mention what a marvelous feat of re-imagination I think this is. So correct, if you will, for my biases.

Shorter than any filmed Hamlet and shorn of some familiar scenes, the movie sets what remains so that the language resonates like crazy. Watching a work I know upside-down and backward, I found myself first laughing at Almereyda's audacity and then stunned by how suited to the words his choices were. Take "To be or not to be." Ethan Hawke recites the soliloquy—well, he mutters it—while pacing up and down the aisles of a Blockbuster video store. He's in the "Action" section, and that very word—not to mention the scores of vigilante flicks he passes, movies not unlike the Marlovian revenge dramas that preceded Hamlet and the Jacobean revenge dramas that followed it—mocks Hamlet's out-of-joint timing. But the movies don't goad him or help him to shore up his resolve. Part of Almereyda's point is that there's something soul-leeching about a culture in which vigilantism has become a commodity.

Sounds gimmicky? Maybe, but it's never irreverent: Those gimmicks have a way of shooting the words into your bloodstream. Hearing the last of Hamlet's "Get thee to a nunnery" speech on Ophelia's answering machine somehow makes his solipsistic rant more understandable. And since this Hamlet wanders around with a video camera, it's only natural that "The Mousetrap" should be a dizzying collage of Hamlet movies past. Denmark is now, very convincingly, the Denmark Corp., and Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) a Ted Turner-like smoothie whose media empire is oppressively manifest through every window and hovering TV monitor. So the forces that inhibit Hamlet's search for meaning emanate even more palpably from his accursed uncle-stepfather.

This Hamlet is depressed and a little detached—true of most of Almereyda's work. But his impish wit keeps spiking the aura of hopelessness, and the actors add zings of their own. Each works in a different style, but the performances cohere. Julia Stiles feels her way through Ophelia and gets better and better as her longing for oblivion swells. And Bill Murray, with his trademark irony, makes a revelatory Polonius: not a tedious fool but a wily politician and hanger-on, a good man who dispenses fatherly advice that he realizes, with a sad shrug, he can never heed himself. True, Ethan Hawke isn't my idea of Hamlet, but in this context his mopey, interior performance works well—he doesn't need to declaim. And he seems to be able to amuse himself, which is the thing that makes Hamlet most Hamlet-like.

My review of Gladiator has brought me 418 pieces of personal e-mail from people eager to feed me to the lions, and has attracted hundreds of bloodthirsty visitors to "The Fray." Holy cow, I'm Public Enemy No. 1 at Hotmail! I never knew there were so many Roman history scholars out there, all of them raring to let me know that Commodus really existed (I never said he didn't, only that his name sounded like Latin for "of the latrine") and that the acoustics in the Roman Coliseum made it possible to hear a whisper half a mile away. (Too bad they don't build 'em like that anymore, or we'd pick up everything that catchers say to pitchers.) Then there's "jwhoff1," who writes: "Maybe you didn't like the film since the Romans slaughtered Jews like yourself." (Is that why he likes it?) A note from one Michael Ostrowski sounds a common theme: "My mom went with me to this movie and she didn't think it was too gory, you panzy [sic]. … It's a shame that faggots like you get to have your reviews so widely read." Gee, Michael, I think "faggots" would love Gladiator for Russell Crowe's manly thighs.