Psychlo Babble; or, Get Behind Me, Thetan!

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney revealed his favorite novel yesterday on a television network that I cannot watch even while feeling healthy, let alone with a bad cold. Per the Times:

When asked his favorite novel in an interview shown yesterday on the Fox News Channel, Mitt Romney pointed to "Battlefield Earth," a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology....A spokesman said later it was one of Mr. Romney's favorite novels. "I'm not in favor of his religion by any means," Mr. Romney, a Mormon, said. "But he wrote a book called 'Battlefield Earth' that was a very fun science-fiction book."

Let's take this opportunity to revisit the plot via from my review of the box-office-imploding screen adaptation from seven years ago (can that be right?):

Battlefield Earth displays that unique fusion of simplicity and convolution found in the kind of open-ended saga, often with a faintly Oedipal tinge, that a 5-year-old might tell himself when he is supposed to be taking a nap. The resemblance is strengthened by the name Hubbard gives the hero: Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper). Jonnie is a member of the remaining tribes of cave-dwelling Caucasians who are what is left of humanity in the year 3000, following Earth's colonization by evil invaders called the Psychlos: a mildew-covered race of beings who are nine feet tall, dreadlocked, have six fingers and wear codpieces. They are terribly greedy, and busy themselves raping Mother Earth through technological operations of some not-very-well-defined nature.

Chief of security is a disgruntled Psychlo named Terl, played by John Travolta, who is obviously having a very good time. Terl's responsibilities include blackmailing fellow Psychlo Forest Whitaker and laughing at his own jokes. Once Jonnie leaves the caves to make his way in the world, he and a couple of other "man-animals" are captured by the Psychlos and imprisoned in subterranean holding pens. These scenes are murky and have the feel of a documentary about hippies filmed in a closet.

Impressed by the intelligence of rebellious Jonnie, Terl decides to experiment using man-animals for skilled labor. He straps Jonnie into an unused dentist's chair (the aliens having long since abandoned oral hygiene) and blasts him with a concentrated ray of Pure Knowledge. In short order, Jonnie speaks fluent Psychlonese and begins offering his cave-man peers introductory lectures in trigonometry and molecular biology. They gaze at him in wonder, and he becomes their unquestioned leader, which only seems fair.

Terl then takes Jonnie to one of the larger branches of the Denver Public Library - and leaves him there, in the ruins, to contemplate the futility of resisting the Psychlo empire. This scene is what Aristotle called perepetia: a moment of reversal in the plot. For by the time Terl returns, Jonnie is examining a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence.

At this point, about an hour into Battlefield Earth, the slenderest threads of coherence and plausibility are finally brushed away. We suddenly learn what the Psychlos are doing on Earth: mining gold! Fortunately they never noticed Fort Knox. So Johnny and his friends have no trouble meeting their work quota. Meanwhile, they concentrate on learning to fly thousand-year-old fighter jets, and soon master the post-Einsteinian technology necessary to transport a bomb across the intergalactic void to destroy Planet Psychlo on the first try.

The cavepeople greet each new challenge by declaring it a "piece of cake": a haunting idiom, since they have spent the last few centuries as hunter-gatherers. The closing scene shows Terl caged by the earthlings - in a vault at Fort Knox. Which is kind of ironic, see, because he's so greedy. A sequel looms.

We never got it, alas. We are not worthy. (Full text of review from In These Times here.)

UPDATE: Check out a still from the film showing Travolta and Whitaker at Big Head DC. (Given how bad my cold is, and how hard that makes any serious effort just now, I may actually watch Battlefield Earth again for laughs.)

May 1, 2007 12:11 PM | | Comments (9)



There ought to be a Constitutional amendment barring from public office anyone who uses "fun" as an adjective.

The movie has my vote for worst ever. I made the case at Berube's worst sequel ideas ever Pandagon post awhile back. But I remember reading the book around age 12 and thinking, "Anyone who can get me to finish a 1000-page book deserves a little respect." I was unable to finish most 18th C English novels in grad school. Should I lose tenure for this?

I don't think it's fair to judge the novel by the movie. Ever.

I admit that I've never read the original (or seen the movie), but a lot of SF writers whom I respect consider Hubbard to have been a pretty good genre craftsman before he went nuts (or really sane)....

Insofar as Hubbard has any reputation as a pulp writer, it's for his work from the 1930s and '40s -- decades before he cranked out Battlefield Earth, which is the work of a pill-popping megalomaniac cult leader in bad decline.

I tried reading BE. It is garbage. The film, on the other hand, is enjoyable in its sheer terribleness. Travolta considers the source material to be great literature, and my recollection is that the film is quite faithful to it. This teaches us the importance of storing trash in a suitable container.

Constructivist, that depends. Are you an 18th-century English lit specialist?

Never read BE, but Hubbard did write a fairly entertaining space opera about a race of hyper-intelligent elephant-like creatures who attempt to conquer earth but are undone by mankind's relentless ingenuity. Can't recall the title.

I read a great deal of BE, and while it has been a while, the movie plot as described above for the movie sounds pretty close to the book.

The book was quite bad.

This was the Best Post Title Evar.

rm, while it would be fun to (belatedly, sorry) answer yes, in fact the answer is no. although wouldn't you know that my research is pulling me back toward the 18th C, kicking and screaming all the way....

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