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Saturday, Oct. 14, 2000

'BATTLEFIELD EARTH'

The aliens are coming, and they haven't flossed


One of the things an Asian can be thankful about: In the event of a hostile alien invasion, one can step back and leave the stage to the Americans. Actually, the same goes for the rest of the world. Somewhere along the way, a secret international treaty must have been drawn up and agreed upon -- when the Martians come over, the Americans do the talking, OK? OK.

Maybe I've watched too many Hollywood sci-fi movies. Have you noticed that in the movie world, the only people who bump into or exchange gun shots with aliens in a major way are U.S. citizens? Ever since that little kid touched fingers with that big-eyed brown thing and said: "E.T., you wanna go home?" the Americans have taken over the space scene and there's nothing we can do about it. But that's not such a bad thing. Especially if the arriving aliens are anything like the space thugs depicted in "Battlefield Earth."

True to recent sci-fi extravaganzas, the only "Earth" in "Battlefield" extends between Denver and Aspen. Accordingly, the only samples of humanity are cowboy types, dressed from head to toe in buckskins. They are the ones who must deal with the "Psychlos" -- 2.5-meter-tall, 200-kg goons with scummy teeth, talons and a penchant for dropping toxic gas bombs on other planets. All right guys, catch you later. Happy cavorting with the visitors from outer space.

"Battlefield Earth" has two points of interest: that it's based on the novel by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, and starring (also produced by) John Travolta, himself an avid Scientologist. Which gives rise to the suspicion that we may be subliminally converted during the viewing, but I'm happy to report no such thing happens. On the other hand, you'd be advised to take an airsickness bag and a huge candy bar -- both are necessary to get you through two hours of what can best be described as Standing in Front of the Bear Cage on a Wet Day.

Directed by Roger Christian, who was part of the "Star Wars: Episode I" team, "Battlefield Earth" is touted in the production notes as a brand-new vehicle for Travolta on which he can hone his villain skills. It's true that he's never looked so unpleasant, so bereft of his marbles and so drastically in need of oral hygiene. One may also wonder what feud he had with costume designer Patrick Tatopolous that led to his outfit, which resembles something fished out from a vat of industrial waste. But even he looks pretty next to Forest Whitaker, who plays Travolta's underling Psychlo and who is probably at this minute filing a lawsuit.

Contrasting niftily with the Psychlos is Barry Pepper, who plays the brave American earthling, Jonnie. Clad in suede and sporting blonde braids, Pepper creates the momentary illusion that you've wandered inside a Ralph Lauren theme park, complete with dappled horses. If the Psychlos remind you of a disastrous oil spill, Jonnie is mindful of a crate of organic veggies. He's so organic, in fact, that he eats live rodents, goes for days without water, does wildman screams and generally comes off like a dream figure in a bad acid trip.

Jonnie is also smart, which is why he eventually leads the other guys in a revolt against the Psychlos. He does so by researching books in the abandoned Denver Public Library, where he learns that his ancestors had built an ideal, kink-free civilization somewhere in the 21st century, only to have it obliterated in nine short minutes by the Psychlos. Jonnie decides the only way to recover his planet is to nuke their home planet first. In the space of three weeks, Jonnie has located an arsenal, trained his men in high-tech combat and laid out a plan to trap and kill the Psychlos. If one guy fresh from the bush was able to do this, how did the Psychlos ever take over the Earth in the first place?

In the same vein, "Battlefield Earth" provokes an endless list of complaints and groans and tears of pain. But at least you can glean a few important lessons. One, if you're invading another planet, destroy all their nuclear arsenals before settling down. Two, don't trust the production notes. Three, all you need to know about life, the universe and interplanetary warfare is in the Denver Public Library.

"Battlefield Earth" opens Oct. 21 at Marunouchi Louvre and other theaters.


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