Friday, February 25, 2011

Ways to Salvage Battlefield Earth

Battlefield Earth is not a good book, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks a good premise. There’s always a market for an alien invasion story, and Hubbard puts a twist on this old favorite by being set a thousand years after the war. There’s some real potential here, buried like a Rolex in a pile of manure.

The biggest issue would be how the Psychlos are presented. The book is plagued by the discrepancy between what we are told about them and what we are shown, so the author would need to pick a scenario.

The first would be that the Psychlos are exactly as sadistic and irredeemably evil as Hubbard insists they are. Instead of ring toss at the Psychlo rec hall, we’d have performance torture sessions. Jonnie, as an experienced outdoorsman, should immediately know something is very wrong the first time he’s taken to the Psychlo compound and notices the complete lack of animal life. We should see vacationing Psychlos going out on man-hunting expeditions. Jonnie should be horrified at the stories of other humans, whose tribes have endured such raids for a thousand years, assuming his own tribe hasn't experienced this for itself.

The second option would be a little more thought-provoking – have the Psychlos as regular guys doing a job, who just happen to be occupying another species’ home planet. Jonnie would be struck by the common ground between him and a Psychlo like Ker, and struggle with the ethics of waging war on an occupier who played no part in the invasion of Earth and who isn’t actively oppressing him now. Jonnie would have to decide how to deal with the Psychlo miners, if he can try to recruit them or if he’s justified in killing them.

Another problem would be the state of humanity. Battlefield Earth is confusing because there’s so much regression amongst the human tribes despite so little reason for it. There’s no ongoing genocide campaign, only the occasional off-screen hunting expedition. And yet the humans remain near extinction and are at a medieval tech level at best, despite a hundred years to rebuild.

So we need to be shown why this is, and see the Psychlo raids that make long-term settlement impossible. Have a dedicated Psychlo security force monitoring the planet via satellite and surveillance drone, sending strike teams to flatten any large collections of campfires. Show us the Psychlos’ attempt at destroying history by torching every last library on Earth in order to slow the humans’ progress. Then have Jonnie visit the humans’ greatest treasure, a hidden city where the surviving records of civilization and science are meticulously preserved and reproduced – that could be the “underground university” the Scots mention and never elaborate on.

All that would make the setting a little easier to swallow, and from there the adjustments are relatively minor. The whole “exploding breathe-gas” thing needs to go because it turns the big, hulking monsters into big, hulking targets If each Psychlo is a struggle to bring down, it becomes a lot more plausible how a small population of civilian miners are able to hold onto an entire planet. Terl’s gold-smuggling scheme is similarly contrived and unnecessary – just have Jonnie sneak his bombs into an ore shipment. Instead of making a fortune illegally obtaining gold, Terl could be aiming for a promotion by coming up with a way to save the company money while boosting productivity through slave labor. And the catrists' mind-control scheme could similarly be tossed overboard, as it's mostly an expression of the author's derangement rather than a central part of the story.

A tricky bit would be rewriting the rules regarding teleportation, since they basically exist to justify the very particular sequence of steps Jonnie takes to save the day. The whole “one portal per planet” rule needs to go, since as I’ve ranted it means that the Psychlo empire, as run from the capital, simply shouldn’t function, and makes the threat of a Psychlo counter-attack a non-issue since they can only arrive during a very specific window. Problem is, if you do that then there’s no reason the Psychlos wouldn’t counter-attack the minute they realized that Earth was in revolt. Kinda a logical Catch-22 – maybe Jonnie has to invent some sort of teleportation jammer? It would cut Earth off from the Psychlo Empire, though at the cost of rendering the captured alien technology useless. Assuming the stupid “teleportation motors” were kept.

So yeah, needs more fleshing-out, but there’s definitely potential there. Obviously you stop the book after the liberation of Earth, and the middle section needs a chainsaw taken to it, but somewhere in Battlefield Earth is a decent story waiting to be told. Just a shame that its author had a bloated ego and an inexplicable hatred of mental health practitioners.

Good grief, I almost want to take a crack at a Battlefield Earth fan fic now. Maybe I’m the crazy one.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Film of the Book

Back in the year 2000, a movie version of Battlefield Earth finally got released. The film had been a pet project of sorts for John Travolta, who’d been trying to get it done for years, but kept running into money or special effects concerns. But just before the damn of the millennium, the circumstances were finally right for Battlefield Earth to see the silver screen.

And it bombed spectacularly.

Since I’m not much of a movie critic, and because Battlefield Earth the film has been picked apart by so many others – the Agony Booth, the Nostalgia Critic, the legends at Rifftrax – I see little need to do a scene-by-scene breakdown of it. My recap will be brief and focus more on story changes than the special effects failures or camera angles.

Like the novel, the movie starts with an infodump about how the humans are near extinction thanks to Psychlo invasion, but while the former accomplishes this with a scene introducing our antagonist, the movie uses a text crawl, which although cheap does make Terl’s later introduction marginally more dramatic. After that we’re taken to Jonnie’s village, where there’s another minor alteration for the sake of drama – rather than seeing Jonnie moping over his father’s lack of a funeral and bullying the village into giving him one, instead we see Jonnie race home with some healing herbs only to be told that he was too late and his father has died. And really, in that kind of situation, what can you say except "NOOOOOOOO!"

So Jonnie leaves his mountain village despite the elder’s claim that monsters will get him if he leaves the safety of the highlands. He bumps into two more cavemen, they wander into a remarkably well-preserved shopping mall, and then blammo, Terl has his big entrance, struts in gun a-blazing, and captures them. See, the movie Psychlos are smart enough to utilize the humans as slave labor rather than hunt them for sport. This will not stop Terl from having to convince his boss that Jonnie and others should work as a mining crew, mind you – I mean, humans using pickaxes to renovate a ceiling is one thing, but humans using picks to tunnel for gold?!

Jonnie becomes leader of the human slaves thanks to… anyway, things progress much like in the book: Terl blackmails his boss, and Chrissie gets an explosive collar. But instead of spending time showing the humans working at The Lode, the movie has them meet Terl’s gold demand by raiding Fort Knox, which the movie Psychlos completely overlooked while stripping Earth of everything of value. Then the humans go to a military base in Texas, I think, and find miraculously-intact nukes and Harrier jets. No chapters-long search for uranium, no disaster at The Lode forcing them to scrounge up some more gold from a dues ex machina, and no Terl freaking out about secret agent Jayed.

There’s an “action-packed” climax, nukes get teleported to Psychlo to blow it up – which is shown, rather than revealed hundreds of pages later – Ker defects to the good guys, and Jonnie blows Terl’s arm off with the collar he’d put on Chrissie, then puts him a cell at Fort Knox as “leverage” and to ensure an ironic punishment. There’s the suggestion that there might be other Psychlos out there preparing for a counter-attack, and the movie ends.

It is very much a condensed version of the book. The Village of the Idiots is greatly reduced in importance, and Chrissie is the only other inhabitant to be given a name on screen, as far as I know. There’s no Brown Limper, no Parson Wossname, no Aunt Whossit. And the role of radiation as a Psychlo deterrent is cut out, thus begging the question of why the “monsters” never go up there, as well as removing the “plagued by mutations” angle. Oh, and no Pattie. Nor is there a Bittie, though there is a caveman who keeps gazing at Jonnie in a distinctly homoerotic manner.

In general, the moviemakers culled the cast herd. The only characters are Jonnie, Terl, Ker, and Chrissie, and the rest are pretty much nameless extras. There’s no mission to Scotland, so the closest we get to a Robert the Fox character is a guy wearing a fox’s skin as a mask, which I guess is a shout-out to fans of the book. No Angus, no Dunneldeen, no… uh… you know, those guys. No Colonel Ivan, no multinational force of freedom fighters. Heck, for all we know the only Psychlo foothold on the whole planet was the one in Colorado. And really, these omissions don't hurt the story in the slightest.

Now, Battlefield Earth the movie has a horrible reputation, but truth be told I kinda like it. It’s awful, but entertainingly so, like most of the fodder for MST3K. Die-hard fans of the book – yes, they exist, and they’re braver souls than I am for holding on to their opinion in the face of such massive opposition – complain about adaptation decay. And they have a point, since the Psychlos in the book weren’t so facepalmingly stupid as to overlook Fort Knox in their effort to strip Earth of its gold.

But for all its omissions I find the film rather faithful, because all of the stupid things in the movie are just magnified from stupid things in the book. In the book, Jonnie says a few sentences and gets a host of strangers to swear their loyalty to his cause – in the movie, a bunch of cavemen just show up and do Jonnie’s bidding. In the book, nukes and old guns and books are still functional a thousand years after the apocalypse – in the movie, airplanes are good to go after a millennium in a hanger, and a flight simulator was bucking about and powered when the cavemen entered the bunker.

All things considered, the screenwriters did a good job with what they were given. They had the sense to stop the movie after the obvious climax, didn’t waste our time with a lot of mining and searching in the lead-up to said climax, and culled the cast of its extraneous characters. And hey, they improved the Psychlos in one huge respect – rather than a scheduled once-a-year teleportation surrounded by a communications blackout, in the movie Terl is able to call planet Psychlo (using a magical transdimensional radio) and request reinforcements.

The two lead actors get a lot of flak, but I’ll disagree with the critics here. Jonnie’s actor won a Razzie for his performance, which is missing the point to some regard – yes, movie Jonnie is a one-dimensional twerp whose only emotional responses are “angry” and “none,” but that is exactly how Jonnie was written. Likewise, Travolta’s acting is perfect for Terl – hammy, arrogant, and deep down, a pathetic attempt at villainy. This is a character who swears by “the evil gods” and makes an incriminating boast to a corpse in the book, and who doesn’t notice an explosive collar attached to his arm before hitting the trigger in the movie.

So it’s a bad movie, yes, but it’s for the most part faithfully bad. They didn’t botch something wonderful, they made an awful adaptation of an awful book. I’m almost disappointed that the movie bombed and dashed any hope of sequels. I’m curious as to how anyone who tackle the mess in between Battlefield Earth’s first climax and its grand finale, and wonder just how they’d film the “introducing JONNIE!” bit at the Kariba conference. Who knows - maybe a talented screenwriter could have come up with a compelling plot to bridge the two. Maybe they would have treated the Psychlos differently after the reveal about the implants.

I mean, Battlefield Earth has a decent premise at least. In the right hands something worthwhile might have been made from it. So maybe that was the filmmakers' dilemma - faithfully adapt something lousy, or try to improve it? Their mistake was keeping the wrong things and not doing enough with their modifications. Who knows, in a few decades Hollywood might take another crack at it, and I'll probably be foolish enough to pay money to see how they do.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Battlefield Earth and Scientology

So I’ve written half-baked essays looking at Battlefield Earth as a narrative and as science fiction, but now it’s time to address the thirty-foot, fluorescent elephant tapdancing on the kitchen table – how Scientology fits in to the book.

I must issue a warning – I am no expert on Scientology. I do not have any official documents or first-hand accounts of the group’s beliefs, because I’m not willing to pay them money to hear about thetans. My knowledge has been pieced together from Wikipedia, that South Park episode, and other random sources. But I’ve never been one to let my lack of qualifications get in the way, so let’s dive in, shall we?

The most obvious thing to talk about is psychology. It is hard to overstate the enmity Hubbard felt for the field of mental health – he listed them as the number one threat to Scientology, followed by the media organizations that were fronts for psychiatrists, then the political figures involved in health and education who were also connected to psychology, and finally the bankers and financers trying to undermine Scientology who were, again, members of boards of psychiatrists. According to Hubbard, psychologists themselves had:

…the power to (1) take a fancy to a woman (2) lead her to take wild treatment as a joke (3) drug and shock her to temporary insanity (4) incarnate [sic] her (5) use her sexually (6) sterilise her to prevent conception (7) kill her by a brain operation to prevent disclosure. And all with no fear of reprisal. Yet it is rape and murder

So it’s no surprise that Hubbard named Battlefield Earth's alien bad guys the "Psychlos," who were controlled by a cabal of charlatan physicians called the "catrists" who exhibit many of the traits listed above. They represent a worst-case scenario for Hubbard, in which psychiatrists manage to take over the minds of an entire civilization, in order to… well, I’m not sure what the catrists were getting out of it. They probably did it all just for the evil of controlling others’ brains. I haven’t heard anything about the cabal of psychiatrists that controls the world wanting to reshape society around mining, so it's unlikely they did it just for the money.

And really, we get most of the book’s villains from Hubbard’s conspiracy theories. We have Arsebogger the corrupt and slanderous journalist, and a whole race of avaricious, soulless bankers subservient to the Psychlos and by extension the catrists. We’re told how the catrists were involved in the indoctrination of young Psychlos, and how the catrists used the ruse of medical treatment to implant their mind-control devices. The only thing missing is a psychiatrist-controlled politician, but instead of having Brown Limper become corrupted by an ancient psychology textbook, Hubbard decided to throw in Hitler.

Battlefield Earth, where if you oppose Jonnie you’re either an evil psychologist, one of their puppets, or a Nazi. Or a cannibalistic child molester from a mongrel African tribe.

Of course, I’m not sure how much an eternal opposition to psychiatrists is part of modern Scientologist teachings, so it’s time to look deeper. Back in the chapters concerning Jonnie's recovery from his injuries sustained halting the gas drone, I mentioned Dianetics, Scientology's precursor. Dianetics is all about discovering the subconscious triggers that are making you near-sighted/leukemic/gay, then defeating them with the power of positive thinking. This developed from Hubbard's story (that conflicts with medical and service records) about being left crippled and blind after his service in the Navy during WWII, but curing himself through sheer heroic willpower, much like how Jonnie recovers from brain damage thanks to his awesomeness.

But that is a minor detail, a mere lead-up to the link between Battlefield Earth and one of Scientology's most notorious beliefs. So it's time to talk about thetans, and tell the always-entertaining Xenu story.

Those subconscious triggers I mentioned a paragraph ago that cause all your mental and physical maladies? They come from memories, and I mean all your memories - childhood, pre-natal, past lives, and past alien lives. Y'see, 75 trillion years ago an alien overlord named Xenu solved his empire's overpopulation problem by collaborating with, you guessed it, psychiatrists. Under the pretense of tax inspections, he shipped billions of aliens to Earth, secured them at the bases of volcanos, and then used H-bombs to cause eruptions. As if that wasn't enough, Xenu had these aliens' souls captured and subjected to over a month of intense 3D movies in order to thoroughly scramble their minds. These wayward alien souls, called thetans, were left to wander Earth until getting lodged in human bodies, where they make your life miserable unless you pay Scientology for spiritual healing.

If I've done the math right, it takes about a $157,000 investment before a Scientologist is deemed ready to learn this terrible truth. According to Hubbard, an unprepared mind who learns about Xenu is struck with a triggered bout of pneumonia, so apologies in advance if my blog sends you to the hospital.

So what do thetans have to do with Battlefield Earth? The catrist mind-control implants, of course! True, it’s a case of aliens messing up other aliens, but the implants remain an evil influence that Jonnie and his heroes are able to learn a way to counteract and extract, just like Scientologists can remove thetans with e-meters. And really, the Psychlos in general can be thought of as a thetan analogue. The catrists, through the Psychlo empire proper, were able to change the way the other galactic powers thought and behaved, at least until Jonnie "removed" them and showed everyone the right path. And I'm sure you could make a case for how contact with the Psychlos and thus the catrists by proxy was able to corrupt the Brigantes and Brown Limper.

But when you get down to it, the biggest Scientologist influence on Battlefield Earth is the story itself. It’s a form of wish fulfillment for Hubbard, a way to rewrite reality to better suit him. Consider - a man is ostracized by his neighbors for his nontraditionalist thought, and goes off in search of enlightenment. He makes some terrible discoveries about a great catastrophe in Earth's past, and how humans are in thrall to alien forces. Through his brilliance and charisma, the man is able to convert others to his side and lead them to defeat these overlords, which include a monstrous order of psychologists who hold millions in thrall. Even though corrupt human governments side against him, the hero is proven right, and leads his followers to a golden age of peace and prosperity, becoming the most wealthy and revered person on the planet.

So remember when I mentioned how Jonnie had all those Marty Stu traits, and in early book art bore a resemblance to Hubbard? Yep, Battlefield Earth is a self-insert fanfic... well, okay, maybe not. It's an original setting, not an established work.

Doesn't make it less scary, though. In Battlefield Earth, Hubbard is wholeheartedly in favor of Psychlo genocide, touts them as the bane of all life, and has characters explain that ever since those dastardly catrists took over the Psychlos, killing them is more an act of mercy than murder. If the Psychlos are how Hubbard thinks of real-life psychiatrists, is he advocating the violent death of every psychologist on the planet? Does he think of those "controlled" by psychologists as less than human, fair targets for the war to save mankind's soul?

Very cult-like, where a small clique of like-minded individuals is encouraged to see every outsider as a sub-human enemy. Very disturbing.

From all this, you might be wondering if Battlefield Earth is an attempt to quietly convert others to Hubbard's way of thinking, to inspire a burning hatred of psychiatrists and prepare them to follow a Jonnie-like figure. The answer is far less subtle: Battlefield Earth was indeed written to get people into Dianetics and Scientology, but not through themes, but through corporate synergy. The book reached the top of The New York Times' bestseller thanks to obedient Scientologists buying it in bulk, returning the unopened boxes of books, and buying them again. With one Hubbard book at the top of the charts, sales of Dianetics improved just from people checking out what else he'd written. Battlefield Earth wasn't really a book intended to be read, which explains a whole lot.

Manipulation of sales figures aside, I guess Battlefield Earth could have been an attempt to indoctrinate as well, but it's just as possible that Hubbard couldn't not write a story about evil psychologists. The only way to know for sure would be to read his other books, to see if Mission Earth has sinister psychiatrists manipulating everything behind the scenes.

...Oh goodie.