By Scott McLemee
Long before Battlefield Earth went into production, John Travolta had a profound appreciation for the work of L. Ron Hubbard - particularly Dianetics (1950), which contains blueprints for related forms of "spiritual technology" engineered by the Church of Scientology. The role of Scientology in Hollywood is often mentioned, though little understood. The larger public can scarcely imagine the benefits an actor will receive from years of studying Hubbard's work - including (but by no means limited to) absolute control over Matter-Energy-Space-Time. Most of us obey the laws of "the MEST universe" out of blind necessity, but Travolta is affected by gravity only because he wants to be.
Which must mean that the actor possesses some pretty amazing powers, even for a celebrity; so it's disappointing that Entertainment Tonight has never asked for a demonstration. (Their reticence is certainly prudent though: In Scientology, litigation is a sacrament.)
Before its premiere, interviews publicizing Battlefield Earth became fairly monotonous in stressing that Hubbard's extremely large novel had nothing to do with his philosophical innovations. The fact that the movie was released on the 50th anniversary of the original publication of Dianetics was an interesting coincidence. In any case, it was not what most people noticed. Warner Brothers had reasonable grounds to hope that a $75 million sci-fi movie, starring one of the most popular actors on the planet, would be a big draw. But the real spectacle was offscreen. Reviewers handled Battlefield Earth with the uncontrollable glee of small children converging upon a wounded piņata with sharp sticks and no blindfolds. After opening weekend, the box office imploded.
The problem is that Battlefield Earth is just a little too challenging for the average viewer. To grasp it requires repeated viewings, which, for now, gives considerable advantage to the Scientologists, who went back over and over. With time, Battlefield Earth will be appreciated as a masterpiece. The initial response to it reveals just how severely commodification can distort Rezeptionsasthetik. The genius of Battlefield Earth will be revealed once it is on TV at three in the morning; then people won't feel pissed off about spending money to see it.
Battlefield Earth displays that unique fusion of simplicity and convolution found in the kind of open-ended saga (often with a faintly Oedipal tinge) that a 5-year-old might tell himself when he is supposed to be taking a nap. The resemblance is strengthened by the name Hubbard gives the hero: Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper). Jonnie is a member of the remaining tribes of cave-dwelling Caucasians who are what is left of humanity in the year 3000, following Earth's colonization by evil invaders called the Psychlos: a mildew-covered race of beings who are nine feet tall, dreadlocked, have six fingers and wear codpieces. They are terribly greedy, and busy themselves raping Mother Earth through technological operations of some not-very-well-defined nature.
Chief of security is a disgruntled Psychlo named Terl, played by John Travolta (who is obviously having a very good time). Terl's responsibilities include blackmailing fellow Psychlo Forest Whitaker and laughing at his own jokes. Once Jonnie leaves the caves to make his way in the world, he and a couple of other "man-animals" are captured by the Psychlos and imprisoned in subterranean holding pens. (These scenes are murky, and feel like a documentary about hippies filmed in a closet.)
Impressed by the intelligence of rebellious Jonnie, Terl decides to experiment using man-animals for skilled labor. He straps Jonnie into an unused dentist's chair (the aliens having long since abandoned oral hygiene) and blasts him with a concentrated ray of Pure Knowledge. In short order, Jonnie speaks fluent Psychlonese and begins offering his peers introductory lectures in trigonometry and molecular biology. They gaze at him in wonder, and he becomes their unquestioned leader, which only seems fair.
Terl then takes Jonnie to one of the larger branches of the Denver Public Library - and leaves him there, in the ruins, to contemplate the futility of resisting the Psychlo empire. This scene is what Aristotle called perepetia: a moment of reversal in the plot. For by the time Terl returns, Jonnie is examining a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence.
At this point, about an hour into Battlefield Earth, the slenderest threads of coherence and plausibility are finally brushed away. We suddenly learn what the Psychlos are doing on Earth: mining gold! Fortunately they never noticed Fort Knox. So Johnny and his friends have no trouble meeting their work quota. Meanwhile, they concentrate on learning to fly thousand-year-old fighter jets, and soon master the post-Einsteinian technology necessary to transport a bomb across the intergalactic void to destroy Planet Psychlo on the first try.
The cavepeople greet each new challenge by declaring it a "piece of cake": a haunting idiom, since they have spent the last few centuries as hunter-gatherers. The closing scene shows Terl caged by the earthlings - in a vault at Fort Knox. Which is kind of ironic, see, because he's so greedy. A sequel looms.
Gertrude Stein once said of Picasso that all great masterpieces look a little ugly at first and become beautiful with time, though serious appreciation requires the effort to see them in their original hideousness. Clearly the people who walked out of Battlefield Earth in droves were not up to the demands that a cinematic creation this overwhelming can make.
A few defenders have tried to portray critics of the movie as artsy-fartsy snobs, unable to enjoy entertainment meant to appeal to the mass audience. But this is exactly backward. Like some daring performance artist, Battlefield Earth insults the audience - particularly its intelligence. It violates pedestrian norms of "logic," "willing suspension of disbelief" or "fun." It steals your money, then defies you to ask for it back. Quite unpleasant to experience, it proves surprisingly enjoyable to discuss.
To be sure, John Travolta makes appreciating Battlefield Earth that much more difficult by regularly denying that the film has anything to do with Scientology. He claims that Hubbard was an important science-fiction writer long before turning his attention to spiritual matters. Like most statements about the great man by his disciples, this contains a kernel of half-truth.
Starting out in pulp fiction during the '30s, Hubbard became legendary for a technique later used by Jack Kerouac in composing On the Road: He would feed a roll of butcher paper into his typewriter, then just crank out yarns-by-the-yard. He was prolific. At a penny a word, he had to be. And he possessed a vividness and fecundity of the imagination often confused with pathological dishonesty.
At various times, Hubbard persuaded people that he was a pioneering atomic physicist and rocket scientist, a naval war hero, a secret agent and the only white man ever made an honorary blood-brother of the Blackfoot Indians. He claimed to have taught himself an ancient Oriental language (which required one night of hard study) and also to have written the original screenplay for the classic movie Stagecoach (though presumably not that same evening). Some have called him deceptive for claiming a Ph.D. even though he dropped out of college as an undergraduate. But Hubbard bought that diploma fair and square, and he had to go all the way to the post office to pick it up.
During the '40s, he became interested in theology, of a sort. He dabbled in the ritual magic practiced by followers of Aleister Crowley - today the favorite late-Victorian author of heavy-metal Satanists - whose slogan was, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law." At professional gatherings, Hubbard often complained about cranking out stories for pulp magazines: The real money, he figured, was in founding a religion. (The Church of Scientology has denied this with all due vigor; but many of his pulp fiction colleagues recall him saying it, not once but several times.)
By 1950, he had concocted a sort of do-it-yourself psychotherapy. According to Dianetics, various problems in body and mind come from the reactivation of "engrams" - that is, bad memories recorded in the "reactive mind," which exists from the moment of conception on. The reactive mind is extremely stupid. Take the case of a person suffering from an inflammation of the backside. Hubbard discovered that during pregnancy the individual's mother kept asking the father for aspirin. The reactive mind stored this phonetically, as "ass burn." Hence the rash! Removing this software bug, which took a few hours of work, cured everything. People who reached the engram-free state of "clear" would have perfect memory, high IQ and better health.
For a while, dianetics became a big fad in the United States. It combined a B-movie approximation of psychoanalysis with lots of bookkeeping imagery. A dianetic "auditor" used Hubbard's techniques on the engram "bank" to "clear" it (the latter being office slang for resetting an adding machine to zero). Talking about unpleasant memories, real and imaginary, gave practitioners a sort of buzz. Hubbard continued his research into this exciting new field of study; within a few years, his findings were so comprehensive as to form a whole new religion. Or so he told the Internal Revenue Service. His organization took on a paramilitary structure - including its own navy, with Hubbard as the commander - and cultivated its ties with celebrities, with some success. By the time Hubbard left this earth in 1986, Scientology possessed considerable funds and real estate. It also has a fairly byzantine internal bureaucracy - and a jargon so peculiar and self-referential as to defy translation.
Which brings us back to Battlefield Earth. When the novel finally went from development hell and into regular Hollywood production, some feared that a blockbuster hit would lead to new recruits for Hubbard's organization. That worry plainly proved misguided. Nor does it turn out that Battlefield Earth is a sci-fi Trojan horse, with covert bits of Scientology hidden in it. In fact, the reverse is true. The basic aspects of Hubbard's belief system are quite out in the open, to a bewildering degree.
For as would-be "clears" learn, not all of the engrams giving humans trouble are of strictly terrestrial origin. Scientologists who audit diligently enough (paying as they go) are allowed to study Hubbard's secret writings about numerous invasions by conspiratorial aliens - for example, those from the dreaded Marcab confederacy. Those with advanced expertise in Hubbard's technology are able to undo the effects of the most traumatic experience in known history: the atrocities committed, a few billion years ago, by evil cosmic overlord Xenu, the dictator from planet Teegeeack.
Now, in some respects, Xenu did resemble Terl, the villain in Battlefield Earth, except that he was even meaner. It is also important to note that the movie is strictly a work of fiction - while the insane power-lust of Xenu was altogether too real, as John Travolta well knows. The actor, being an advanced practitioner, must have spent countless hours working through the horrors of Xenu's reign. A laborious process, but worth it, once you get the amazing powers.
All of which bears keeping in mind to appreciate Battlefield Earth. So many people have criticized the movie as propaganda for a goofy cult. Even more have laughed at it as the vanity project of an actor who (like Hubbard in his prime) has not heard the word "no" in quite some time. But we happy few know better. Not all of the film's pleasures derive from grotesque incompetence alone. Viewed in the right spirit, Battlefield Earth is an almost unbelievably cruel satire of Scientology - as though Hubbard were taunting his own followers from beyond the grave.
Scott McLemee is a contributing editor of In These Times.