Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Some big news and big changes!

Well, now that the 2012 stuff is out of the way, we're starting this year off with some big news.

I mean really big.

As of this post, The Third Row is now a sponsored site!  With that, I'm sure all 5 of you are now groaning and rolling your eyes, rightly concerned at what a sponsor influence will do this blog.

Rest assured, however, that just because I'm now taking money from the Church of Scientology, I won't allow that to effect the content of this site.  Opinions will remain as they always have been.

Now, to celebrate this deal, I would like to discuss a movie that, on a recent watch, I have found to be a much better film than we previously gave it credit for.

In fact, I will be so bold as to assert that this movie, so reviled, mocked, and scorned when it came out, is actually a product ahead of its time.  It had a bold vision that we weren't ready to handle.

Twelve years later, and I think we can now look back and truly appreciate the message Battlefield Earth had for us all.  That's right, you heard me.  This saga of the year 3000 actually contained strong messages for us still living in the 2000s.  Like Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers before it, this was an unfairly maligned movies whose themes underly darker elements of our own life and times, and now we need to wake up and see them.

Again, like Starship Troopers, Battlefield has proven to forecast problems that would become more relevant after the movie's release, although in the case Battlefield, the ideas were addressed not as a dark satire, but rather a coded call to stop the problem before it became too late.  Where Starship Troopers's message of a military state has since been compared to our military struggles in the Middle East and the nationalism that comes about as a result, Battlefield Earth instead provides a parallel for our current financial problems, and prophesied the Occupy movement by a solid decade.  This is even before going into the fact this movie itself is adapted from a novel written 12 years prior, so frankly Hubbard foresaw this situation a good 20 years before it became a major issue.

Sounds crazy?  I thought so too, but the more I thought about it, the more it fell into place.

The movie takes place in the United States in, as the subtitle declares, the year 3000.  The world is now under the command of an alien race known as the Psychlos.  Now, many have tried to claim these Psychlos are representative of psychology and thus that this movie is Scientology propaganda.  I feel director Roger Christian had a stronger idea.  Rather than depicting the Psychlos as a clear government, the only sign of any sort of governmental authority being a passing reference to a senator, the movie instead makes wider references to the alien Psychlos as a corporation.

Even their homeworld appears to be a Hellish city factory, echoing back to the ruined and corporate-controlled future of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner

That's right.  This movie gives us a setting where the United States (the whole world really, but for this movie, the focus is on the good old U.S.) is the slave race of a group of ruthless corporate profiteers.  They establish in the opening crawl that the Psychlos only care for the Earth for one reason - its mineral resources.  More specifically, gold.  Christian's message is clear - the corporatocracy sees our country as simply a stone to be bled, and its people are little more than chattel to be used, abused, or exterminated at the convenience of those above.

This is, of course, embodied best in the character of Terl, played with a villainous zeal by John Travolta.  While at first glance a simple and coldblooded thug, when denied the prospect of promotion, what does he do?  In true corporate fashion, he commences under the table trading.  Hiding information from his colleagues, stealing ideas from his subordinate Ker (Forest Whitaker) but still leaving evidence to frame him if things go wrong, blackmailing anyone who could block his efforts, even murder.   What is Terl's game?  He's been told about a shipment of gold hidden away that many of his colleagues don't know of, and he sees this as his chance to cash in.  Further, in his quest for these greater profits, and recognizing the gold is in an area containing radiation deadly to Psychlos, he sets to work enlisting 'man-animals' to mine it for him.  In an age where outsourcing and relying on sweatshop labor are more and more publicized, Terl is the face of the modern corporate raider.  Years ago, we scoffed, but now, he gains a horrific relevance.

It's with this established that we introduce our movie's hero, Johnny Goodboy Tyler, played with an idealistic streak by Barry Pepper.  Criticized by those in his tribe for daring for something greater than the primitive lives he and his people have been reduced to at the hands of the Psychlo, he sets out seeking something greater.  Through his adventures, Johnny and his friends become prisoners of the Psychlo, and subsequently, part of Terl's slave labor force.  Johnny stands out to Terl due to his determination and his cleverness.  In fact, Terl has never seen a clever human before, and even gladly sacrifices his own subordinates to test this cleverness.  This also further shows Terl's own callous nature towards those around him in pursuit of his own interest.  After all, the only reason he even indulges Johnny's curious nature is because he sees the potential to make a slightly more useful animal out of him.  In furthering this, Terl makes the mistake of educating Johnny.  Allowing him to learn the ways of his enemies and their weapons.

It's in this education that's worth noting the movie makes a point of having Terl show Johnny samples of humanity's past.  Most damning here is the fact he brings him into a library where Johnny discovers replicas of the documents of the founding fathers.  The implication is, again, quite clear.  Terl, this movie's poster child for a callous, unseen, plundering corporation is flaunting the fact he and his people are above government reproach.  The rights people have believed protected them have done nothing to stop these people from turning them into little more than slave labor for their own benefit.

The fact Christian chooses to show us what looks to be humans looting here DOES invite some degree of comparison.

Here's where Christian's film becomes not just an eerie coincidence but a call to arms.  Though Johnny has feigned agreement with Terl in teaching his companions how to mine, he has begun to rally them in forming a rebellion.  When the others suggest giving them what they want, or simply hiding in the radioactive areas, knowing the Psychlo can't go there, Johnny argues that neither is any way for the people to live.  As Terl's cold-blooded actions bring the threat closer to his circle of friends, Johnny's associates become galvanized and share his will to fight back.  What follows is a rebellion fueled by knowledge and pure will over weapons.  Despite the fact that Terl previously explained how humanity's armies were formerly crushed in a matter of minutes, the humans still largely fight with their own weapons, with only a few claiming Psychlo weapons or vehicles in combat.  In this particular sequence, it's worth noting how much of the ground combat has clear visual parallels - the humans all bear crude melee weapons and in arming themselves, run through the Psychlo base sacking and looting, while Psychlo guards appear armed with what looks like riot gear (not the first time in the movie some of it has been used, by the way.)  Despite these guns, humans still fight them on largely equal footing.  Besides this, the real goals of Johnny's rebellion here come two goals, the first of these, to destroy the glass dome around the Psychlo colony, taking them out of their own encased world, into a world where they won't be able to survive*.  The other, to use humanity's own innovations, dangerous to the Psychlo, to destroy their entire world from within, in this case taking the form of a nuclear device.  While a bit of a crude way to go, the idea of destroying the corporation from within still rings clear.

*It's worth noting they establish how the gas the Psychlos breath is toxic to humans - given the concerns of gas weapons, this could be taken as reference to the reckless environmental damages dealt by corporations in their careless pursuit of profits.  In fact, from what little we know of the Psychlos from the movie, this is essentially their entire raison d'etre.  Granted, this also lends itself to a colonial theme, but given how frequently they refer to corporations rather than government, it's hard not to see which way Christian wants this to be read.
This is, of course, only a quick overview, but it's actually quite fascinating.  For a film that has been castigated by the Razzie awards not once but twice, it is rather unfairly maligned.  Roger Christian's bold attempt to adapt L. Ron Hubbard's epic work of science fiction (which, in itself, marked one of the first uses of splitting a single book into multiple movies) has become a cautionary tale of the increasing power of corporations, and a call to resist them.

Had it not fallen on such deaf ears a decade ago, would we be in the spot we're in now?

Check back here tomorrow, I'll be going further into this then.
 ...it's not like this is the first time I've left you guys hanging.

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