He had made a triumphant comeback with Pulp Fiction, but John Travolta’s star power was no match for the alien invasion that was Battlefield Earth.
The sci-fi epic, based on the novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, was released 20 years ago this month and became one of the most notorious flops in cinema history.
The film, which Travolta co-produced and starred in as the evil alien Terl, was savaged by critics and shunned by audiences, earning a measly $29.7 million from a whopping $73 million budget.
It also swept the Razzie Awards, the Oscars of bad movies, winning eight trophies including worst picture of the decade.
But the film’s damage was not limited to Travolta’s career. It also brought down Franchise Pictures, the independent studio that backed it, after it was sued by its investors for fraudulently inflating the film’s budget by $31 million.
Battlefield Earth is set in the year 3000, when Earth has been conquered by the Psychlos, a race of giant humanoid aliens who enslave humans and exploit the planet’s resources.
Travolta plays Terl, the head of security operations on Earth, who schemes to get rich by secretly mining gold with the help of a rebellious human named Jonnie “Goodboy” Tyler (Barry Pepper).
The film was a passion project for Travolta, a devout Scientologist who had been trying to adapt Hubbard’s book since the mid-90s.
He envisioned it as the first part of a two-part saga, covering only half of the novel’s story.
He also recruited his manager and production partner Jonathan D. Krane, with whom he had made hits like Michael and Primary Colors, to help him realize his dream.
But major studios were wary of the film’s script and its links to Scientology, a controversial religion that counts many celebrities among its followers.
Travolta finally found a willing partner in Franchise Pictures, a company that specialized in financing stars’ pet projects.
The film was directed by Roger Christian, who had won an Oscar for his art direction on Star Wars.
But the production was plagued by problems, such as reshoots, animal abuse allegations and Travolta’s lavish spending.
The film’s budget ballooned to $44 million—or six times more than its original estimate.
The film was also criticized for its poor special effects, its tilted camera angles and its heavy use of filters that gave it a murky look.
Critics were merciless in their reviews, calling it “a stunningly inept and hilariously bad sci-fi opus” (Variety), “a flat-out disaster” (Rolling Stone) and “plan 9 from Scientology” (Salon).
Audiences were equally unimpressed. The film opened at number two at the box office behind Gladiator, but quickly dropped out of the top ten.
At one publicity event for the movie, The Washington Post’s Sharon Waxman reported that when Travolta hopefully asked whether the gathered journalists had enjoyed the film, he was met with complete silence.
The film’s executive producer Ashok Amritraj recently confessed to The Independent that the film “never should have been made”.
He said: “I think it was a very bad idea from day one. It was a book that should have stayed a book.”
He added: “It was one of those movies where you just go: ‘What were we thinking?’”
Travolta’s career never recovered from the debacle. He went on to star in several more flops and critically panned films, such as Swordfish, Domestic Disturbance and Gotti.
He also parted ways with his long-time manager and production partner Krane after the disastrous fallout of Battlefield Earth.
Needless to say, plans for a sequel were scrapped.