Oh my. I saw this in theaters when it was out, and my viewpoint at that time was that it’s no worse than anything else, it’s just that it gathered bad buzz due to the scientology connection and the fact that everyone knew it was Travolta’s pet project, not to mention the silly costumes. And while it’s true that many movies that get reputations as being awful are often no worse than any of the crap that slides through the multiplexes without comment, upon review I must admit that this film is outrageously, egregiously awful. I guess I should be happy that I have grown in the meantime, but if you were a fucktard 10 years ago and are only now arriving at the general level of douchebag, I’m not sure how proud one can be.
Okay, so we begin with this opening crawl. At least it wasn’t read aloud. It tells us that it is the year 3000, and that in the year 2000 [that is, 8 years ago as of right now], the Psychlos [sounds just a bit off from ‘Psychos’] came and killed off most of mankind. They go around conquering planets and mining them, mostly for gold [although we never find out what they want with it], and teleport it back. We then have a title: “Man is an endangered species!” Now a little background info up front: This is directed by Roger Christianson, who was 2nd unit director on the original Star Wars films. Also, the novel came out in 1980, which means it was POST Star Wars.
Okay, so this mixed-race physically fit babe with high-fashion dreadlocks is waiting anxiously for someone, who turns out to be Johnny Goodboy Tyler, played by Barry Pepper. Okay, our sci-fi hero is named JOHNNY. GOODBOY. TYLER. I don’t know, to me that name sounds more appropriate to a 50s rock star, and I strongly suspect that the “Goodboy” is supposed be a descriptive name, why, perhaps in the vein of “Skywalker.” So no sooner does he show up than his hot GF tells him that his father is dead, and he goes “NOOOOOOOOO!” This is in the FIRST THREE MINUTES, and remember, most of those were the opening crawl. Anyway, the cavemen, who are among the few surviving members of mankind, talk about “demons” and show a cave painting [which unfortunately already-dated editing shows a few times [for IMPACT!], which we assume will be what they think the Psychlo’s are or whatever. Then Johnny makes the first of his SEVERAL inspiring speeches about how they should go out and find a better place to live, one with a Gap, a Wendy’s, and a Citibank ATM, at least, but of course no one else wants to leave. They might as well have a word balloon with an arrow pointing to the others, saying “Afraid of Change.”
Anyway, so Johnny goes out and finds the remains of an amusement park, grown over with a few vines, but remarkably intact, considering it’s 1,000 years later. He then happens upon these other guys, who take him into town. They consider previous humans “Gods” and think that statues are Gods that got frozen in place when Grandmaster Flash yelled “Freeze!” and failed to follow it with “Rock!” I’m sure you’ll agree that this is all SO thought-provoking. To sixth-graders. They take him into this mall [it would have been TOO HOT and META-TASTIC if they had used the mall from Logan’s Run!], where they are attacked by the Psychlos. Now, WHAT were the Psychlos doing at the mall anyway? Regardless, you’ll notice that the color scheme changes from warm orange to cold, evil green when the Psychlos attack. Johnny smashes through multiple panes of glass—now goll-dern it, WHERE have I seen that before?—and finally he and the one good-looking human are captured. The ugly one was shot.
Now, let’s talk about the LOOK of the Psychlos. They are supposedly nine feet tall, and have these high foreheads and dreadlocks, and their heads go back like they’re wearing a beehive hairdo. Travolta obviously demands the best, but Forest Whitaker seriously brings to mind a Pekinese. They wear leather and have HUGE stuffed crotches [please examine the picture at right and tell me if it’s just my dirty mind], and they’re just extremely odd looking, which can distract one throughout and continually take one’s mind out of the movie. And while we’re talking about things one doesn’t want to look at, let’s discuss star Barry Pepper. He has a pinched face that personally, I just find unpleasant to look at. Plus he’s from the Tom Cruise school of acting that tells him to show intensity by clenching his teeth, opening his mouth [so you can see said teeth], and seething, which results in a lot of shots like the one below. Which, truth be told, I just don’t want to look at. And this guy is the star of the movie. Which is not to mention that he has zero charisma and presence. I saw him in some other movie, where he didn’t have the awful hair and stupid dialogue, and he wasn’t so bad, so maybe it’s just the combination of circumstances here.
Anyway, so he’s carried over the ruins of this city [thanks, Logan’s Run!] and to this vast city from which fireballs sometimes issue [thanks, Blade Runner!], which is under a huge structure of glass. This is because the Psycho’s can’t breathe Earth air, and keep it according to their specifications inside. Upon landing, Johnny, who is a rebel, you know, grabs a guard’s gun, shoots the guard, then DROPS the gun and runs. Oh sure, yeah, you’re an escaped prisoner in hostile territory, but you won’t need any kind of defense. Nah. Just slow you down.
This is when we first see Travolta, and at first he’s just roaring, then suddenly he switches to English, meant to convey that WE are suddenly switching to the Psycho language. I guess this is as good a time as any to discuss the Travolta problem. Now, he’s been around so long that there are certain roles you expect to see him in, and certain roles he could effectively switch into… and then roles like this, that are just NOT what you want to see him in. Furthermore, his character is this snide, smug asshole, not too far from his regular range, and similar to the villain he played in Broken Arrow, and it all adds up to the bizarre effect that you don’t really get into his character, you’re just watching JOHN TRAVOLTA be John Travolta in a REALLY bizarre outfit.
While we’re talking about major problems, lets discuss the breathing apparatus that either Johnny or Terl [that’s Travolta] has to wear when in the other’s territory. It’s this thing that fits right on the nose, and has tubes coming down right out of the nostrils, looking very much like long ropes of snot. And aside from that, it’s just not cinematic to have this huge distracting thing RIGHT on your character’s NOSES throughout large portions of the movie. I can see where the filmmakers had a problem, because the difference in the air is a key plot point, I just can’t help but think there must have been a better solution. Again, it makes long portions of the movie just really unpleasant to look at.
Well, we’d better start talking about the plot, or we’ll never get anywhere, will we? You could discuss this film’s problems until the cows come home, go to sleep, and wake up to go out the next day. So we suddenly start taking a turn into interstellar beurocracy. It seems that Terl wants to get off that planet, but some fat asshole Psychlo, who looks like some alien version of the French Aristocracy, tells him he has to stay there forever! Forever! Forever! The line is repeated three times for [astonishingly cheesy] effect. None of this is to mention that all the Psychlo’s talk in this tone of faux-erudite snide tone, which makes all their scenes seem like really bad sci-fi Shakespeare. Meanwhile, Johnny’s down in prison, where a bunch of other prisoners of varying human tribes are also interred. He refuses to accept the rule of the guy who has become the kingpin of the cell—because Johnny’s a FIGHTER!—and he has no sooner beat him up than he is making an inspiring call for UNITY! Seriously, ask this guy how his day’s going and within 30 seconds you’ll be the recipient of a rousing call to freedom. Around now I have written in my notes that “This is one of those movies in which you really don’t know what bizarrity you might see next,” and also, because it has the lethal combination of being so cheesy AND so dramatically inert, that “This movie MAKES you hate it.”
Okay, so while we’re looking at all this, we note that the prisoners, humans who have lost all culture and are reduced to living in caves, are all so fit, gorgeous, and glow with the freshly-scrubbed look of the spa! For example, look at the prisoner in the picture above. This is a CAVEPERSON. And I’m afraid the entire movie is like this, because what if you had to look at someone who wasn’t gorgeous? I mean, like, ewww! Terl then has some scene in which he has to deliver the line “Before you prove you’re a complete imbecile, check the combo gradients!” Oh no, NOT the combo gradients! Anyway, soon there’s more talk about policy, personnel and politics, including many mentions of someone getting “leverage” over another, and Terl hits on an idea. He’s going to teach Johnny, the “man-animal” [yeah baby, that’s what I need] to mine for him and this will… accomplish… something. Apparently it was all a bigger deal and made more sense in the book. OH, then there’s this whole thing, which I believe was their attempt at levity, for the Psychlos to try to determine the man-animal’s favorite food, so they could control him. The allegedly “funny” part is that the first thing Johnny has to eat in days is a rat, so Terl assumes… you know, it’s not even worth completing that sentence.
So Terl has this thingy that beams knowledge straight into Johnny’s ol’ noggin, and then Terl takes him to the Denver library, where he peruses the Declaration of Independence [they have a copy in Denver?—don’t tell me, I’m sure this is some trivia item of some kind], and then it’s one of those things where he reads all the books and soaks up all human knowledge in an afternoon, although if he really has such an advanced intellect I’d suggest it’s time to apply it to that hair. Anyway, then Johnny delivers his latest rousing speech to the assembled prisoners, and they all shout “YEEEEAAH!” like frat boys, but the whole scene is in English, including many supposed shifts of language, and I was surprised the movie just left us to understand that Terl cannot understand Johnny and his buds.
Then Terl brings out Johnny’s GF who is obviously some sort of model, and they blow the head off this cute blond surfer bear. Now we have some ‘plight of the prisoners’ stuff and I have written in my notes: “Scenes of ‘their pain’ – SO traumatic – overdone.” Then Johnny has united all the disparate tribes in revolution—which obviously necessitates a lot of slo-mo. You might also take note of a few shots that employ a tilted camera. Then Travolta’s wife Kelly Preston shows up as a sexy Psychlo, and then Terl takes over the whole planet! It’s amazing, this whole thing is based around this corporate workplace drama, and there seriously are several mentions of the “Home Office.” I can just see the follow-up: EXPENSE REPORTS OF THAR.
SPOILERS > > >
Then Terl teaches Johnny to fly, and then it’s one of those tired old things where Johnny no sooner laments that he doesn’t have more men when a whole army of goons shows up—same thing happened in Krull. They fly to Washington DC where more faux mythology happens as Johnny says “This is where our people’s history is buried.” OH, OH, OH, then my favorite line! Johnny has a plan not only to overthrow the Psychlos, and also destroy their planet, their WHOLE PLANET, and he says “We’re going to destroy their planet—but we’re going to need some extra supplies!” Like what? Styrofoam cups? White out?
Okay, so we’ve had all this old claptrap about how great freedom is and all this American heritage bullshit—which I supposed DENVER fits into somehow—so I don’t think it’s any accident that we soon have an ARMY RECRUITMENT POSTER put in front of us front and center [see above]. Around this time Johnny has his hair back [preferred] but has this stupid braid poking out the side. You’ll also notice that his caveman buddies have also vastly increased in knowledge and intelligence, and I guess we’re supposed to assume that Johnny is running a little series of continuing education courses, although we never really see that.
Dear lord, I cannot even believe I am still writing this review. There’s just so much badness that must be recorded! I’ll just barely skip over the part where they clean out Fort Knox, which is still largely intact after 1,000 years. Then Johnny gets “leverage” over Kur [Whitaker] with this whole video tape—and suddenly Johnny starts barking like an ape… which I guess was summoning his caveman pals. Then you’ll notice that his girlfriend is all excited that Johnny wants CHILDREN! Then you have a shot [around 131:40] specifically of this pink walkie-talkie from like 1974. I truly don’t get it.
Okay so now the revolt begins, and while narrative sense has been missing for some time, now filmmaking cohesion also goes by the board. There is this caveman revolt, featuring MANY shots of Johnny’s girlfriend fighting, to counter the fact that we haven’t seen a woman do anything so far except act concerned and express a wish for babies, and, in the case of Terl’s new secretary, imply that she gives head worth staying home for. Then, get this—NOT ONLY are there a fleet of F-14s [or whatever] that still work FINE after ONE THOUSAND YEARS [and think about how long your average computer lasts], BUT all the cavemen know how to fly them! And not only that, but know how to fly them well enough that they can hover within the tiny confines of a floor in a burnt-out office building! But listen buddy, if you doubt this, you doubt AMERICA! And I forgot to mention that previous to this we’ve had a Matrix rip-off sequence in which Johnny runs in skip-frame slo-mo through a hail of gunfire that caused a bunch of gravel-like debris to fly around through the air. We never really find out where he’s running to or what he’s trying to do, but it doesn’t matter: HE IS RUNNING.
Anyway, there’s a fairly nice in-city dogfight, although now that I think about it I can’t really puzzle out how the caveman rebels or the fighter jets got into the glassed-in city. Regardless, this one jet crashes into the glass, which causes the structure around the whole city to crack—but not break. Meanwhile, below, the caveman rebels are engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Psychlos. The guy stuck in the big glass structure blows it up, and you have some fairly nice scenes of this massive glass structure cracking apart and coming down, huge pieces of superstructure hitting the ruined shells of buildings and causing them all to collapse. Well, pretty fucking dumb idea for the cavemen to be fighting in the streets while shattered glass is raining from the sky and huge amounts of twisted wreckage is coming down everywhere along with massive chunks of destroyed building, right? But wouldn’t you know—they’re all FINE! Not a scratch. I guess nothing can harm you when you’re, you know, a really GOOD PERSON.
Meanwhile Johnny is going hand-to-hand with Terl [snore], and some guy with the nuke has been transported to the Psychlo planet [conveniently named Psychlo], although I don’t recall seeing him go there. Anyway, he blows the nuke [aka the “supplies”] and for some reason I don’t need to fully understand, this causes the entire planet to explode. Let’s just accept it and let the movie end peacefully. They lock up Terl in Fort Knox—close but so far from the gold the film never successfully established that he lusted over—I believe this is supposed to be ironic in some way—and the thing mercifully ends.
< < < SPOILERS END
Wow. I mean really—wow. This is misguided on so many levels. But first, there are a few positive things to say about it, and I thought we may as well get those out of the way first. For one, it is somewhat interestingly different to see spaceships flying around Colorado landscapes. And this results in a very nice, beautiful look to some of the nighttime spaceship scenes, where you have a gorgeous blue night sky with these fluffy white clouds hanging—it’s just very pretty. I like the idea of the huge glass bubble, and it’s always fun to see ruins of American cities, despite how very shopworn this idea is by now. And there’s a moment where the ships are flying over the glass bubble at night, and you can see the reflections of the clouds in the glass, and you know, it’s just quite a pretty and different view for a science fiction movie. And there you go—that is the sum total of all the positive things I have to say about this movie!
As for everything else, it really is more dreadful than could possibly be imagined. Apart from the stink of Scientology and the whole sense that, despite Travolta’s denials, this whole thing exists to advance the word of Scientology and draw new believers into its fold, there’s just so many things here that don’t work. Science fiction films walk a fine line where their visions of a different world can easily cross the line into the ridiculous, and sadly this movie went way over. First, there’s the freshly-scrubbed cavemen, straight from the spa, and the fact that they’ve somehow lost all lore of previous humans, despite retaining names like “Johnny.” Let’s not even get into the middle name of “Goodboy.” Then there’s the fact that not a lot of people want to see Travolta at all, and certainly don’t want to see him in a bizarre leather getup with a dreadlock beehive and delivering sniveling stage laughs. There’s the visual unpleasantness of Pepper, the breathing apparatuses right smack dab on their noses, the moldy call-outs to the American heritage of fighting for freedom, the fact that every time Johnny takes a breath he’s delivering an impassioned call for liberty… If you’re a certain age, you certainly recall how, after the success of Star Wars, your best friend started writing a sci-fi epic of his own, with creatures and spaceships and a “concept” and all that, which was cringingly banal and awful, and I guess the difference is that this one got published. And made into a movie.
I had thought, like others before me, apparently, that the main problem was adherence to the novel, but I read a post by someone who lamented having to read the novel, and he assured us that the film departed in many significant ways, thus making the film’s problems all its own.
Anyway, truly abysmal. There is a laugh-a-second to be had here, however, with the right combination of friends and booze and crunchy snacks, so I suggest you get some buddies together and go for it. It will certainly blow your mind, though perhaps not in the way the filmmakers intended.
Yes, because it really is truly, hilariously awful.