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The Essential Geek #17: Battlefield Earth

The Essential Geek #17: Battlefield Earth

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I spent the early days of my post-college career at what stands currently for me as the Best Job Ever (Copyright 2004 Matt Springer Enterprises). I was an assistant editor for the Official "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Magazine.

See, I had studied English in college. And I wanted to write, but I did not know for what or for who I would write. Because I had no serious journalistic credits to my pathetic tiny name. So I wished for a job as a writer, and I prayed for one, and I got called in to interview for this Buffy thing. And I told my soon-to-be editor that my favorite movie was "The Godfather - Part II." And it was manly platonic love at first sight.

Anyway ...This company also published "Cinescape" magazine, a general genre entertainment rag that was -- in its day -- quite entertaining.

I loved "Buffy," but I truly loved genre entertainment. All things geeky. So I angled my way into working for "Cinescape" any chance I could.

My greatest assignment as a "Cinescape" reporter was my adventure into Canada to cover the filming of the John Travolta masterwork, "Battlefield Earth." My company actually paid for me to hop in a plane and stay in a fancy hotel. All so I could gladhand Vinnie Barbarino and talk to cast and crew about their L. Ron Hubbard adaptation.

What? What's that you say?! You've never SEEN "Battlefield Earth"?! How dare you! Begone! You are hereby banished from the Essential Geek Fortress of Solitude (Copyright 2004 Matt Springer Enterprises)!

"Battlefield Earth" is only the single worst geekly film I've ever seen. Yes, it is worse than "Highlander 2: The Quickening," which my buddy Mike K. and I actually paid to see in a theater on some ill-advised pre-adolescent movie outing.

Yes, it is worse than "Plan 9 From Outer Space," simply because Ed Wood's films exhibit an ambition to entertain, and "Battlefield" exhibits an ambition only to flop around dying like a beached whale. (Which, ironically enough, is exactly what John Travolta looks like in the film. He's in one of his ample periods, and it shows through the awful prosthetics, big time.)

It is worse than any of these horrors. It is worse than you think. It is definitely worse than anyone involved in its production could ever have thought. It is a bad, bad, bad movie.

And yet -- to hear the film's creative team tell it -- they were on their way to creating the next "Star Wars." Those words actually were bandied about in a damp tent by Roger Christian, the film's director. He'd worked as part of the crew on the original "Star Wars" back in the day. And he had the audacity to compare the scope and depth of "Battlefield Earth" to "Star Wars."

Sitting there listening to him, I kinda knew he was crazy... But then, why couldn't he be right? I hadn't seen frame one of the film, and the production certainly seemed professional enough, and Travolta couldn't possibly be THAT crazed with Scientology, could he?

Christian laid it on thick, and his young star Barry Pepper laid it on thicker, and Travolta himself laid it on the thickest in a gang-bang conference call to promote the film. I sat on the line with a gaggle of other "genre journalists" (I.E. Nerds writing for nerds about nerdly things) as Johnny extolled the virtues of this great script, the visionary direction, and the glorious adventure we would soon see at a multiplex near us. I tried to keep the bullshit detector cranked as high as it could go. Even as the cloying brown-nosing of my fellow writers threatened to send the detector's readings flipping off the scale.

Again, though, I swallowed a heavy dose. How bad could it be? After all, I had met many of these fine artists -- from special effects folks to production assistants -- on the set of "Battlefield Earth." Could so many earnest and nice and seemingly intelligent creatives really get together in one place at one time and expend all their talents in the birth of absolute garbage?

Yes, they could.

Which is Reason # 1 why "Battlefield Earth" deserves a place in Essential Geekdom, even though it is atrociously awful. Despite the hype, despite the best intentions of some fine folks, this movie sucked big fat turds.

This is an incredibly valuable lesson to hold close to our hearts. I do not think you need to see "Battlefield Earth" to learn this lesson. In fact, should you decide to rent this film and watch it, I will never let you read one of my columns again.

But as the PR machine from the west gets ever louder, as movie studios and star publicists gain more and more control over the world of entertainment journalism, and as the media outlets we turn to for "news" increasingly transform into glorified promotional arms for any and every product our popular culture churns out, we must ALWAYS leave the BS Detector on, must always crank its finely-tuned sensors to their highest level.

We need not always assume the worst. But we should remember "Battlefield Earth" any time the superstar of the week hops on "Oprah" or babbles in "Vanity Fair" about the "artistic triumph" and "visionary scope" of your average everyday summer schlockbuster.

We should also remember "Battlefield Earth" when we're watching our favorite films, geek or otherwise. Because greatness is relative. And it's important to realize that there's trash in the ether every time we stumble across treasure. For every "E.T.," there is a "Mac and Me." For every "Shrek," there is a "Cinderella II: Dreams Come True" lurking on video store shelves. And for every great "Star Wars" film, there is a "Battlefield Earth"...or at least, a terrible "Star Wars" prequel.

Making great entertainment is no accident. But no one sets out to make crap. So many things can go so very wrong at so many stages of creation that we should celebrate what is great. Just because it somehow all worked out.

The worst movies we see should stand as cautionary tales, and should make us all the more thankful that things often do go right. And we can still sit in a darkened theater and be transported somehow to another world by true magic.

So "Battlefield Earth" and its atrocious ilk are somehow Essential, even as they stink up the genre. Because without them, we'd never truly appreciate the glorious journeys we've also enjoyed. Thanks to people working just as hard as the "Battlefield" crew for the exact same goals.

Postscript: I remind you again that under no circumstances should you actually SEE "Battlefield Earth." Trust me in its suckage, and consider yourself warned. Thank you.

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