The moment may finally have arrived for some ambitious pop-culture-studies major to pen a senior thesis on ''The Semiotics of Dreadlocks in the Cinema.'' He could start with the real-McCoy Jamaicans of The Harder They Come, move on to Whoopi Goldberg, and devote an entire chapter to the demonization of Rasta braids as signified by the creature in Predator and Gary Oldman in True Romance. The thesis could then culminate with one of the more spectacular links in the dreadlock chain. I refer, of course, to John Travolta and his epic hair in Battlefield Earth. These may be the dreadlocks to end all dreadlocks which is to say that no Hollywood star is going to want to be caught dead in them after this.
Travolta's mane seems to erupt from his widow's peak and crest like a ski slope in back, dwarfing his entire head. As for the braids themselves, they hang like unruly snakes. The actor appears to be suited up for a satanic road company of Cats. In fact, he plays Terl, an evil alien from the planet Psychlo, but let's not kid ourselves: He looks ridiculous. He has been given massive clawlike hands, steely green eyes topped with wispy flyaway eyebrows, and skin the color of 1,000-year-old Roquefort. If you squint and glance sideways, he might come off as menacing, but head-on, he's just the old, goofy Travolta swathed in ugly makeup and designer nostril tubes. And when he speaks...forget about it.
We expect, at the very least, a dark voice, a Darth voice, but Travolta's has always been reedy and high. He tries to make Terl into one of those literate, crisply enunciating villains, but all that means is that he sounds like a fifth grader impersonating Dr. Frankenstein, complete with a vaguely British accent that comes and goes. When Travolta plays heavies, in movies like Broken Arrow and Face/Off, he leans too blatantly on sarcasm, not realizing that it's a rhetorical weapon that signifies weakness. In Battlefield Earth, he sniffs with hammy ''aristocratic'' disdain as he delivers lines like, ''A man-animal getting leverage with a Psychlo? That'll be the day!'' He even has a diabolical cackle. All that's missing are the horns.
Battlefield Earth is based on a 1982 dystopian-fantasy novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the late founder of Scientology. Travolta, well known as a follower of Hubbard's, is one of the producers, but he claims that both the book and the movie have nothing to do with Scientology, and he may be right. Directed by Roger Christian, a former set decorator who worked on some of the Star Wars films (he did second-unit duty on The Phantom Menace), Battlefield Earth is just a lumbering, poorly photographed piece of derivative sci-fi drivel, full of grunting extras scampering around in animal pelts and more dank, trash-strewn sets than I ever care to see again. Hasn't Hollywood picked over the crumbling urban carcass of Blade Runner long enough? Battlefield Earth incorporates elements from Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Logan's Run, and in one ludicrous sequence Top Gun, and most of this patchwork has a grimly tacky, backlot look, even chintzier than that of John Carpenter's Escape From... films. The entire movie seems lit by a 40-watt blue bulb. It's future-schlock doomsville.
So who are those man-animals, anyway? They're the poor, bedraggled remnants of the human race, whose civilization was blasted to ruins, in a mere nine minutes, by the Psychlos, who then enslaved them. Terl, the Psychlo chief of security, has been assigned to patrol the bombed-out hellhole that is now Earth. He must put down an uprising led by Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper), a renegade hunter who tries to reconnect his minions with their civilized past. Pepper, so spooky as the Christian sniper in Saving Private Ryan, has melancholy eyes and a long, lean poker face honed to a perfectly sharp point. He looks like Johnny Depp with his cheeks plastered back by a wind machine, but here, the character he's playing seems lean in spirit as well all sinew and will, a hero without joy.
Dismal as it is, Battlefield Earth is one of the few big-budget follies that actually inspired me to feel sorry for its star. Travolta did it to himself, of course it may take a blind zealot to believe that L. Ron Hubbard is an inspired science-fiction writer but there's something in this actor, a naked lack of vanity, that makes you feel protective of him; he's too ingenuous a performer to be wasting his time on shoddy nonsense like this. He probably thinks that he's stretching by taking on the role of a hirsute, putty-faced bad guy. But there's a big difference between playing someone you love to hate and someone you'd love to have over for a Halloween party. D