One cannot thoroughly discuss the intersection of science fiction and religion without discussing one of the few religions that actually is science fiction. And it is difficult to discuss Scientology without also discussing that one of that religion’s most reviled contributions to the world, Battlefield Earth. Scientology has long been a touchy subject in Hollywood, and although it boasts a list of famous adherents, the dime-store fiction of its notorious founder L. Ron Hubbard had never before been adapted to film. There are two probable reasons for this: (1) studios rightly have little faith in an oft-scandalized fringe self-help club’s ability to connect with broad audiences; and (2) certain fiction is so bad it cannot be adapted.
Battlefield Earth has been unofficially beatified as the "Worst Motion Picture of All Time," and deservingly swept the 2001 Golden Raspberry Awards, beating Flintstones Viva Rock Vegas and that Madonna movie where she gets pregnant. Rarely does a film succeed so fantastically in both artistic and commercial failure. But what is it about this film that makes it so bad? From a purely superficial perspective the film is filled with absurd costumes (in which things are constantly hanging out of people noses, no less), and there are more meaningless slo-mo scenes than one would imagine in a Zack Snyder Slow-Motion Trilogy. It also contains more vertigo-inducing Dutch angles than a German student film. But to really understand what makes it so bad we have to retrace the steps of the filmmakers backward toward the source material.
Battlefield Earth is based on a thousand-plus page novel by Hubbard, written four years before his death in an attempt to reenter the sci-fi genre after a prolific sojourn in the “religion business.” Though it seemed to sell well initially, the story of its success has been mired by accusations of manipulation of sales figures by the church. Most notorious is the rumor of a secretly-run campaign of parishioners being ordered to buy out all retailers of the title to boost its perceived commercial impact; similar rumors have often followed the best-seller status of Hubbard's book Dianetics.
If you ask a Scientologist (or Mitt Romney), they will tell you that it's one of the greatest books in the English language. If you ask anybody else, namely book critics, they tend not to agree with such statements. Hubbard was confident that this book would inevitably be turned into the greatest motion picture of all time. So confident, in fact, that he even took it upon himself to compose a complete soundtrack to accompany the book before it became a movie, and advertised the record as such. This epic piece of music is called Space Jazz and features tracks like “March of the Psychlos.” There are currently four copies available in vinyl on Amazon. Take your time: they’re not going anywhere.
What really sets this film adaptation apart is how full it is of bizarre doctrinal references that none of us ‘pre-clears’ would get. Instead of being straight sci-fi pulp, Battlefield Earth is absolutely inundated with church dogma and entrenched with Scientology mandates including, awkwardly, Hubbard’s career-long animosity toward psychiatry. The story’s indictment of mental health professionals analogized here in nine-foot-tall, slimy, obese, profit-driven aliens, is so exaggerated, so ridiculous, so random and so sloppily woven into the text that it almost distracts from the low-budget makeup and cheesy dreadlocks.
Of all of the problems of Battlefield Earth, one it has in spades is atrocious writing. Adapting the fictional work of an author who also happens to be the ecclesiastical figurehead of a pseudo-religion is an assignment fraught with obstacles: Scientologists are forbidden from altering, augmenting, or critiquing a single word produced by Hubbard. These challenges are no more evident than when the protagonist of said source material is named...wait for it...Johnny Goodboy Tyler.
One of the film’s two credited screenwriters, Corey Mandell, says he was hired to do a page-one rewrite while the film was set up at Fox 2000. Mandell, not a Scientologist, was attracted to working at a major studio with a bona fide movie star. Of course, the project was soon dropped from Fox and saved by independent financer Franchise Films. As soon as the independent money arrived, all of the creative leverage reverted to producer/star John Travolta, and Mandell was ordered to rewrite the script again to be as close as possible to the original novel. The first and last time Mandell ever saw the film was at the premier, where he noticed that the finished film included numerous additions allegedly written by Travolta’s Scientologist wife Kelly Preston. The film wound up destroying Mandell's career, and wound up being his last screenplay credit (out of two); he now teaches screenwriting at UCLA Extension and offers private workshops, thus supporting the ancient axiom “those who suck, teach.”
The film’s other credited screenwriter, J.D. Shapiro, even penned an apology that ran in the New York Post in March 2010. In it he states he was hired to write the film after encountering a staffer at the Church’s “Celebrity Centre”, a movie star fort at the base of the Hollywood Hills. Shapiro says he heard from a friend that this was a great place to pick up chicks, which wound up being untrue, and was eventually fired from the project after refusing to incorporate "notes" on his script from the mucky-mucks at Scientology. He even asked to be credited pseudonymously, or to have his name taken off the script, but balked when he learned how much money he'd be losing. Hope it was worth it.
Movies financed by fringe religious movements have had mixed success. Inchon, secretly financed by Unitarian guru Sun Myung Moon, was considered one of biggest bombs of the 1980s, and that's counting Ishtar. But sometimes the opposite happens, like when Mel Gibson’s ultra-orthodox film The Passion of the Christ (based largely on the 18th-century mystical visions of a Catholic nun, and financed by Gibson himself) became one of the most profitable films ever. The lesson here is that colliding entertainment with religion of any persuasion is always a very risky gamble, and usually a money-losing one. And as we've seen with the difficulty of Paul Thomas Anderson finding funding for his long-gestating project called The Master, which aims to be a roman a clef based on the life of a Hubbard-like religious leader, religion is still a topic movie studios tend to avoid spending large amounts of money on.
Bad filmmaking is often redeemed and canonized by film buffs the world over. Some films simply cannot be appreciated at the time of release (read: The Postman). But even Waterworld eventually found an audience (and made money), and Zardoz, for better or worse, is actually awesome. Though failures at first, these films were eventually cherished for their bold abandon and garish imagination. Battlefield Earth never even had this going for it.
What films do you think deserve induction into the "So-Bad-It's-Good" Hall of Fame? Does Battlefield Earth belong there, or is it merely "So Bad It's Bad?"