Battlefield Earth: Still Making the World Safe From Scientology Nearly 12 Years Later (UPDATED)


UPDATE: Scroll down for our own video of Terl the action figure talking about Battlefield Earth!

Last night, I noticed this excerpt from a Canadian interview show, and boy, did it bring back memories.

It’s a priceless reaction by actor Kim Coates when he’s asked about Battlefield Earth by CBC show host George Stroumboulopoulos (who mercifully goes by “Strombo”). I mean, imagine having that movie on your resume. Take a look at Kim’s reaction in this video, and then after the jump we’re going to take you down memory lane.

In the year 2000, when Battlefield Earth opened, I was a staff writer at a newspaper that no longer exists, New Times Los Angeles. At that paper, I had done several stories about Scientology right there in the city where its administrative headquarters are.

So naturally, I jumped at the chance to write about Battlefield Earth, and I came up with a gimmick. Our film reviewer, Luke Y. Thompson, was one of the few critics in the country who actually enjoyed the film — in particular the campy scenes that had John Travolta going over the top as the whiny, bitchy Psychlo security chief “Terl,” some of which were removed in the DVD version for some reason.

Thompson was also an avid toy collector, and he made me a great gift of a large, talking Terl action figure — which I still have in my office to this day.

Twelve years later, and still on its original batteries, the Terl doll, at the push of a button, utters a series of one-liners, as well as some shooting sounds. And those responses gave me an idea: I wanted to use them to write something that pointed out the obvious, that of course the Church of Scientology was counting on Battlefield Earth to be a hit and help with recruiting, no matter how many denials the film’s camp put out that there was no connection between the film and the church.

At the time, the paper had a column by editor Rick Barrs called “The Finger,” which poked fun at local politicians and culture while referring to itself as an “appendage” and various other terms. On occasion, I’d submit something to Rick for the column, and that’s why this piece is “as told to” Tony Ortega, and explains all of the finger references.

New Times Los Angeles closed in October 2002, and its archives are no longer on line. Thankfully, someone snagged this story for the Internet, where I retrieved it. (Some years back, we managed to get the rights back to NTLA’s archives, so I can reprint it here in its entirety without copyright issues.) It brings back a slew of memories for me, and I think it actually holds up pretty well. So, from 12 years ago, here’s my column, in which I interview the Terl action figure about the movie, with the action figure’s actual answers…


Dianetics Boy
John Travolta won’t talk to The Finger — but his action figure will
May 25, 2000

As told to Tony Ortega

The Finger was counting on John Travolta to talk candidly about Battlefield Earth, his colossal summer disaster — er, blockbuster — but the glad-handing star was suddenly nowhere to be found after weeks of high-profile pimping for the L. Ron Hubbard epic. Instead, his 11- inch-tall counterpart, the action-figure Terl, agreed to answer questions about how the box-office flop might affect Hubbard’s wacky religion, Scientology.

The miniature alien security chief from the planet Psychlo seemed to be taking Battlefield Earth‘s dismal showing at the box office with stoic calm. In fact, he stood — silent and motionless, clad in massive platform shoes and a black leather outfit and looking for all the world like a dreadlocked KISS Army reject — aiming a laser blaster at no one in particular. The action figure resisted all of The Finger’s attempts to question it until, with a squawk and a round of gunfire, the tiny Terl came to life when this digit pressed itself against a button on his heavily armored chest.

What follows is a transcript of the conversation that ensued, with The Finger’s probing interrogation and actual responses from the Terl doll.

The Finger: First, I wanted to thank you, Terl, for coming through when your overweight human counterpart didn’t have the guts to answer phone calls.

Terl: I’m a Psychlo of my word.

The Finger: Did you read what critics had to say about your movie?

Terl: Ratbrain!

The Finger: Yeah, I don’t blame you for being sensitive. Battlefield Earth opened May 12 to the most unified chorus of critical derision since Ishtar. Let me just refresh your memory if you’ve forgotten: ‘You don’t watch it, you survive it,’ said the Denver Post. The Detroit Free Press said the film ‘stinks of moldy cheese.’ ‘Just plain dumb,’ said the Dallas Morning News. ‘Like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. Not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way,’ wrote Roger Ebert. ‘One of the most painfully excruciating experiences of my life,’ opined the Sacramento Bee. ‘Wouldn’t tax the smarts of a troglodyte,’ chimed in the Washington Post. ‘Deeply dumb,’ said USA Today. But the New York Times delivered the cruelest blow: ‘It may be a bit early to make such judgments, but Battlefield Earth may well turn out to be the worst movie of this century.’ That’s just gotta hurt, eh?

Terl: Exterminate all man-animals at will!

The Finger: At least the New Times‘ reviewer, Luke Y. Thompson, was one of the two or three critics in the country who actually enjoyed Battlefield Earth. And why not? No science fiction flick since Plan Nine from Outer Space has more laughs. Thompson was just grateful that the movie was at least more entertaining than Hubbard’s dreadful 1,048- page novel. He wrote that it was Travolta’s over-the-top camp — think Pee Wee Herman meets Darth Vader — that really made the movie a hoot.

This digit decided to get a look itself and squeezed past the large crowd — all six filmgoers — at Santa Monica’s Cineplex Odeon Broadway on the Monday after opening night. Thompson was right: Seeing Travolta as a post-apocalyptic Rastafarian who treated Forest Whitaker like his space-alien bitch was a cinematic triumph. You go, Terl baby!

Terl: I give the orders, do you understand?!

The Finger: Uh, sure.

Anyway, this appendage noticed that some movie critics were unsure about the connection between Hubbard’s science fiction tale and his notorious science fiction cult, and many were downright stupid about Scientology. Some of them seemed unaware that the Commodore, who died in 1986, loved making movies of his own out at his Hemet compound, and that he dreamed of promoting Scientology through the mass appeal of Hollywood. Trouble was, Hubbard never could get studios to bite on a science fiction screenplay he wrote, which was based on the beliefs of Scientology itself. The cult is normally very secretive about its core tenets which, court records show, involve an evil galactic overlord named Xenu who supposedly blew up Earth’s volcanoes 75 million years ago to vaporize surplus aliens whose disembodied spirits now live in clusters inside unwitting human beings. (Dianetics is the process by which, for a very high fee, Scientologists can purportedly free you of your inner alien horde.)

In his 1977 screenplay, “Revolt in the Stars,” Hubbard planned to come clean about Scientology’s wacky origin myths in a Star Wars-like space opera. But Hollywood execs wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.

Instead, Hubbard pinned his hopes on Battlefield Earth, a novel he wrote in 1982 that rips off just about every science fiction story that came before it.

But Battlefield Earth made no mention of Xenu or other Scientology secrets, and some morons have made the mistake of thinking that the story has no connection to Hubbard’s religion. The most surprising gaffe appeared in a piece by Lynn Hirschberg in the May 14 New York Times Magazine. For the Times, the piece was surprisingly puffy, and late besides (by the time the article appeared, the movie was already well into its nosedive; meanwhile, the Washington Post and L.A. Times had already done the same story, ostensibly about Battlefield Earth‘s producer Elie Samaha). Hirschberg asserted that Scientology would not benefit financially from the movie since the rights to Hubbard’s book had been acquired in the 1990s from Author Services, Inc., “a Los Angeles agency that handles Hubbard’s fiction and is not affiliated with the church.” But The Finger checked with one of the church’s most high-ranking members ever to defect, Stacy Brooks, and she says that’s a stupid blunder for a good newspaper to make. Brooks should know — she worked for Author Services and was once one of the top people in Scientology’s public relations force. Brooks says only the most trusted members of Scientology’s Sea Organization get to work at Author Services. Declarations filed in court, meanwhile, show that Author Services is not only made up of church officials but at one time actually ran the Hubbard empire and religion. Recognizable for the curious quasi-naval outfits they wear, Sea Organization members are among the most dedicated of Hubbard’s believers.

Hey Terl, they sign billion-year contracts, agreeing to come back, lifetime after lifetime, to serve Hubbard for little pay.

Terl: You wouldn’t last one day at the academy.

The Finger: And thank God this digit doesn’t have to.

Besides selling the rights to the movie, Scientology also gets a cut of toy sales generated by Battlefield Earth. The Terl figure and several other characters from the movie were produced by Trendmasters, a company that also produced toys for Independence Day and Godzilla. In fact, alert toy experts tell this protuberance that the jet fighter and tank being sold under the Battlefield Earth logo — neither of which show up in the film — are really leftover toys from the Godzilla line with a new coat of paint. After Battlefield Earth‘s opening, Trendmasters may have to figure out a way to recycle a lot more toys.

Battlefield Earth‘s dismal first weekend resulted in an $11.5 million box-office take the third-worst result for a film opening in 3,000 theaters in movie history. The movie has a long way to go to recoup the $70 million spent to produce it (which includes $5 million put up by Travolta himself). The film’s flop also puts a dent in Scientology’s attempt to convince the world that Hubbard was not the crackpot that military, government, and court documents make him out to be.

Make no mistake, says Brooks, who once handled some of the most sensitive publicity affairs for the church: Battlefield Earth was very deliberately intended by Travolta and the church as a public relations campaign to promote L. Ron Hubbard and, by extension, his religion. But The Finger doesn’t expect lame-ass movie critics, even at the New York Times, to know an E-meter from a Psychlo blaster.

Terl: That’s the first intelligent thing you’ve said yet!

The Finger: Brooks was relieved that the film was taking such a nosedive: “What they have on their hands is something that is going to set back their recruitment very severely, thank God.” And she added that the setback couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the church. In Germany, France, and other European countries less squeamish than the United States at looking at how religions operate and how they treat their believers, politicians have labeled Scientology a money-making scam and are considering severe restrictions on it. In Florida, meanwhile, the suspicious 1995 death of a Scientologist at one of the religion’s holiest sites continues to generate controversy. Looks like the church’s long-term plan of taking over the world (“clearing the planet”) is in serious jeopardy.

Terl: Man is an endangered species!

The Finger: Can it, Dianetics Boy.

And, as mentioned in the comments, here is Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder talking about David Miscavige’s obsession with the movie behind the scenes. (They’re being filmed fishing from Marty’s backyard in Ingleside on the Bay, Texas by Rinder’s lovely girlfriend, Christie Collbran.)

In 2010, more hilarity: Battlefield Earth was named the worst movie of the the decade by the Razzies, and in a wonderful show of good sportsmanship, co-writer J.D. Shapiro actually showed up to accept the prize! He also penned a hilarious piece for the New York Post titled, “I penned the suckiest movie ever – sorry!” In the piece, he hints that it was John Travolta wanting to adhere to notes that L. Ron Hubbard made for how to adapt his novel as a movie which ended up make it suck so badly. We’ll take his word for it!

Here’s a video of Shapiro accepting his award at the Razzies…

And here he is on CNN talking about the movie with Don Lemon…

And finally, we’re happy to see that there’s a new generation of youngsters learning that Battlefield Earth is not just a bad movie, it is a soul-sucking, brain-damaging, insultingly stupid piece of dreck that is almost impossible to sit through and understand.

And to think, when in 2007 he was asked for the name of his favorite novel, presidential candidate Mitt Romney answered, Battlefield Earth. Chuckling at that admission, Slate pointed out that the book is really no better than the movie…

Everything about the book is bad. Just a few sentences into the first page, you’re confronted by this sentence: “Terl could not have produced a more profound effect had he thrown a meat-girl naked into the middle of the room.” (A clothed meat-girl apparently gets a big yawn.) Hubbard’s soundtrack for the book, when played, either attracts mice or repels dogs, or both. The movie, which starred John Travolta, is what therapists show to the producers of Ishtar and Glitter to help them feel good.

Last year, Romney indicated that he’d moved on to the Twilight series, so, um, good for him.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little excursion to the past. I feel like I just handled an engram on my whole track and my needle is now floating. Hip hip hooray!

Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.

New readers might want to check out our primer, “What is Scientology?” Another good overview is our series from last summer, “Top 25 People Crippling Scientology.” At the top of every story, you’ll see the “Scientology” category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories. As for our regular features, on Thursdays we do a roundup of world press, on Fridays we visit L. Ron Hubbard on the yacht Apollo circa 1969-1971, on Saturdays we celebrate the week’s best comments, and on Sundays we publish Scientology’s wacky and tacky advertising mailers that people send us.

As for hot subjects we’ve covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and is now being sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology’s “Mecca,” whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.

Other stories have looked at Scientology’s policy of “disconnection” that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We’ve also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there’s plenty more coming.