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John Scalzi – A Case Study in Vanity, Courtesy of Battlefield Earth

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“Hey,” a friend said to me last week, “you know something about science fiction movies.”

“Why, yes,” I said. “Yes, I do.”

“Then tell me,” he said. “Is Battlefield Earth really as bad as everyone says it is?”

Oh my, YES, Battlefield Earth is bad, and not just the standard issue sort of bad, like, say, a Matthew Perry comedy; this one is the Grade A, genuinely epic sort of bad that fills movie critics’ hearts with glee, because now they can be especially creative in their condemnation. For example, this, from Rita Kemply at the Washington Post: “A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth.” It’s so bad that if you haven’t seen it, you literally can’t imagine it’s as bad as everyone says, because how on Earth could a movie that bad get made? And then you watch it and you realize it’s actually worse. And then you start laughing, because the alternative is to implode into madness.

Yeah, it’s bad. As to why it’s bad, one could point to a bad story, lousy script, clunky direction, hammy and/or affectless acting and cheesy production value — and indeed most critics do. But that’s missing the point. There is a more primal reason for the movie being bad, which is simply that this is a movie one person really really really wanted to make. It was, in other words, a vanity project.

And you say, well, aren’t all movies vanity projects? In a sense, yes; Hollywood being as it is, someone often has to desperately want to make a project to see it through to the end. But there’s a difference between that and the vanity project, in which a director or producer or star, having reached a point in their career where few would gainsay them, pushes all his chips onto a particular work no one else wants to make, and says, “this is what I want to do.”

Thus was the case with Battlefield Earth and its star, John Travolta. His attraction to the project is clear: The novel it’s based on was written by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, of which Travolta is a member. When the novel was first released, Hubbard sent Travolta a signed copy and had reportedly hoped the star would one day adapt it.

Travolta had a hard time convincing anyone to make Battlefield. Most studio folks were spooked by the potential cost of an effects-laden scifi extravaganza, unimpressed with the novel and concerned by the public perception of Scientology, which given the source material and the star would be an unavoidable topic. But then came Franchise Pictures, an independent company that funded the flick by “bundling” it with other movie properties that investors were more interested in. Travolta himself cut his then-standard $20 million salary in half and invested his own money in the project, on the optimistic assumption that he would make it on the back end.

Which never happened: The movie was a critical and commercial bomb (it went on to sweep the “Razzies,” the tongue-in-cheek awards for Hollywood’s worst movies), Travolta’s career momentum was squashed and Franchise Pictures was sued by its investors for fraud relating specifically to Battlefield Earth. (They eventually went bankrupt.) Travolta defends the movie, but then, he would. It’s his baby. Which is the point — and why this is a vanity project.

Not every vanity project goes the way of failure: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, funded wholly out of his own pocket, grossed over $600 million worldwide. But for every Passion, there’s a Battlefield Earth, and a Hudson Hawk, and a Heaven’s Gate and a Razor’s Edge (and heck, to some extent, a Star Trek V) — a movie where one person who can’t or won’t be denied says, “Come on, this will be great,” and everyone else realizes there’s nothing else to be done but get through it.

So when your favorite actor or director starts saying their next project is “the film I’ve been trying to make for years,” be prepared. But I will say this: When you watch Battlefield Earth, Travolta, at least, looks like he’s having fun. Good for him. If only the rest of us could have shared in it.

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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