Enkomputiligis Don HARLOW

Battlefield Earth

by L. Ron Hubbard and Corey Mandell

reviewed by Don Harlow

Old-timers sometimes define "The Golden Age of Science Fiction" as that period in the forties when John W. Campbell, Jr., newly at the helm of Astounding Science-Fiction, was discovering and nourishing a whole stable of new writers, some of whom even knew -- wonder of wonders! -- how to write. A few oldsters made it into Campbell's group -- most notably Will Jenkins, writing as "Murray Leinster" -- but by and large we remember the epoch today for such names as "Robert Heinlein", "Isaac Asimov", "A. E. van Vogt", and a few others.

Not that these chaps could fill up every issue of the magazine, especially when they went off to support the war effort. So Campbell had to depend on less-competent authors, fellows who for some years had been turning out pulp adventures by the ream. Not the best of these, but certainly far from the least, was L. Ron Hubbard, who could generally be counted on to turn in a fairly workmanlike piece of goods -- and, one supposes, more or less on time! (1)

I mention this because Hubbard, after a 30-year hiatus when he was otherwise engaged (2), returned to science fiction in the early nineteen eighties, first with a work of both classical and modern scope (3) called Battlefield Earth, and then with a ten-volume super-epic titled Mission Earth. And now the first of these has been turned, apparently with the connivance of John Travolta, into a major film -- which will probably not, however, garner many Oscars or much box-office lucre.

A thousand years after earth has been invaded by a race of alien super-capitalists called the Psychlos (4), mankind is a vanishing species; these descendants of ours are relegated to a few scattered tribes, from which the Psychlos occasionally recruit workers for their mining installations. Johnny (Barry Pepper), a member of an extremely remote tribe which doesn't even remember the Psychlos as other than distant demons, leaves his girl-friend Chrissie (Sabine Karsenti, the female lead in what is essentially a cameo role) and before long is taken up and enslaved. Over among the Psychlos, the obnoxious and extremely amoral Terl (John Travolta), head of security for the Psychlo forces on earth, decides to make himself rich by mining a hitherto undiscovered vein of gold, using a force of "man-animals" to do the hard work for him, and ultimately Johnny becomes his chief miner. Between Terl's villainy, Johnny's brilliance, and a lot of unlikely coincidences, this leads to a rebellion against the Psychlos and, ultimately, the liberation of humanity. That pretty well describes the two-hour plot of the film.

Reviews have generally been extremely negative; one network reviewer described the film as a "stinkaroo", and in our local paper Travolta's role was said to be his worst. Obviously whoever wrote the latter did not see him in the really obnoxious and terrible Face / Off a couple of years ago, a film which has the distinction of belonging in the Hall of Shame of all three of Travolta, Nicholas Cage and the distinguished action-film director John Woo. Actually, Travolta does a creditable job in this film, given the material he has to work with; he makes Terl, who is supposed to be unlikeable, genuinely unlikeable. The story, too, is hardly unbearable, and not even as overlong for its material as the recent Keeping the Faith was. On the other hand, nothing here is as spectacular as the TV ads wanted us to believe; the ruined human cities look like indifferently-drawn paintings, and the medium-tech battle scenes are overshort and derivative (aficionados will remember Schwartzenegger in True Lies when they see the Harriers lying in wait in the ruined skyscraper). Furthermore, the film requires an inordinate amount of suspension of disbelief; for instance, you are expected to accept that a band of illiterate tribesmen, given a few days' access to a simulator (which still runs!), can learn to fly a pack of jump-jets like long-time aces. Oh, and you can blow up a planet with a tactical nuke.

I can't recommend this one. It'll be out on videotape (and/or DVD) in half a year; rent, don't buy, then, if you have a couple of hours to kill.


(1) The swan song of Hubbard's first writing period was his short novel To the Stars, a well-written and ultimately depressing story whose moral seems to be that redemption is found in the long-wave part of the electromagnetic spectrum and fades behind you as you approach the speed of light. Had anyone bothered to reprint this two-part Astounding serial, Hubbard's Captain Jocelyn would probably today be considered one of the more memorable characters of science fiction.
(2) Mainly inventing Dianetics, which, to avoid "persecution" by the FDA, he eventually turned into a religion, the Church of Scientology.
(3) This means that, in terms of plot, it is reminiscent of the stories that used to appear in the pulps in the forties; in terms of sheer poundage, it's more reminiscent of modern SF books.
(4) Those of us who have been around for a while may, I hope, be forgiven for believing that the name reflects Hubbard's long-time and ongoing distaste for members of the psychiatric profession, most of whom reciprocated by sneering at his Dianetics; cf, for example, his Masters of Sleep.

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