The New Zealand cult awareness group Cultwatch and the Colorado nonprofit organization F.A.C.T.Net both claim the movie features pro-Scientology subliminal messages and that the church has secretly financed the Warner Brothers film. ''There's no correlation at all to Scientology,'' sighs producer-star Travolta, who struggled for 10 years to get his pet project off the ground. ''Even in the preface, Hubbard made it clear that this is simply a science fiction book.''
Still, director Roger Christian was braced for controversy from the beginning. ''I know there are wars going on against the church, and I knew we would be used for that,'' he admits. ''But when people have asked if there are subliminal messages, I've said, 'Yes, there are, because I've buried messages about Buddhism!' I'm basically a Buddhist and I'm at the helm of this thing, so if anyone should accuse the movie of promoting something, it should be my philosophy.''
Costar Barry Pepper (''The Green Mile'') thinks that the protests smack of bigotry. ''If you remove the name Scientology from this conflict and replace it with Christian or Jewish or Buddhist, you'd be dealing with a very spiteful and hateful rumor that most people wouldn't stand for,'' says the devout Christian. ''But people fear what they don't know, and Hollywood loves to focus on these silly controversies.''
Ironically, critics have slammed the film not for its supposed hidden meanings, but for its lack of any meaning at all. EW dismissed it as ''just a lumbering, poorly photographed piece of derivative sci-fi drivel,'' and even costar Forest Whitaker admits the movie is lightweight summer fluff. ''There's no deep thing about religion even in the movie, and there's the flaw,'' he says, noting that the Luke Skywalker's quest for the Force in ''Star Wars'' is a strongly spiritual theme. ''In the simplest way, this movie is about bad guys who take our land and we humans try to take it back.''
But the controversy and the bad reviews aren't getting to Travolta, who's used to taking a beating for his Scientology beliefs. ''It used to be when I brought up the philosophy, people would say, 'Uh, isn't [Hubbard] a science fiction writer?''' the 46-year-old star says. ''So it all depends on what angle someone wants to look at it from.'' Considering that ''Battlefield'' goes up against ''Gladiator'' this weekend, the real sci-fi fantasy may be winning a box office victory.