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THE BATTLE FOR `EARTH' TRAVOLTA'S SCIENTOLOGY TIES RAISE CONTROVERSY OVER NEW FILM.

Byline: Glenn Whipp Film Writer

John Travolta swears that his new movie, ``Battlefield Earth,'' has absolutely nothing to do with Scientology. Now, whether his right hand was resting on a stack of L. Ron Hubbard's ``Dianetics'' when he said this is another matter entirely, but you get the idea.

A 25-year member of the sect, Travolta is one of Hollywood's most outspoken Scientology advocates, but he's a little sensitive that his new movie, based on a sci-fi pulp novel written by Scientology founder Hubbard, is being seen by some as an advertisement for the religious group.

``It's about popcorn and entertainment,'' says Travolta, who has been on a 15-city tour to promote the film which he co-produced. ``(Hubbard) is as famous for his work as a fiction writer as he is for his work as a philosopher, and I hope people realize that. This film is not about Scientology.''

Others aren't seeing it that way. Anti-Scientology organizations like FactNet and the Lisa McPherson Trust have been fervently working overtime in the past few months on the Internet, alleging, among other things that the ``Battlefield Earth'' movie contains subliminal messages and that proceeds from the movie's merchandise will go directly to the Scientology church.

Formally established in 1954 by Hubbard, Scientology has faced government as private lawsuits, charging fraud, tax evasion, financial mismanagement, and conspiring to steal government documents. On the other hand the church has claimed it was being persecuted by government agencies and by established medical organizations.

The religious dispute about the film has been the talk of cyberspace, but not exactly Hollywood, where people are more focused on why Travolta would jeopardize his career by making this movie in the first place.

``Battlefield Earth'' has been plagued by bad buzz. The Wall Street Journal termed anticipation for the film decidedly ``earthbound,'' and the movie's distributor, Warner Bros., has kept it fairly well hidden from the media until a few days before its opening. (Disney, by comparison, just screened nearly its entire summer slate for the press.)

`` `Battlefield Earth' has the stench of death,'' says one Hollywood producer, who happens to have a film opening this summer as well. ``It should never have been made. It's an $80 million vanity project for Travolta.''

Travolta naturally disputes that point, calling Hubbard's book ``the fine wine of the genre.'' And his longtime manager, producer Jonathan Krane, says that ``Battlefield Earth'' came in at $52 million.

``Maybe they're thinking $80 million Canadian,'' Krane says. The film, which was independently financed (``without a dollar coming from the Scientologists,'' Krane says), was shot in Montreal to reduce costs. Travolta also reportedly cut his usual $20 million price tag by a third.

Travolta became interested in making a movie of ``Battlefield Earth'' in 1982, when Hubbard passed along an autographed copy of the just-published, 430,000-word book to the star. Although Travolta wasn't a big fan of science fiction, he says the futuristic novel about a group of beleaguered humans fighting their evil alien overlords on Planet Earth, circa A.D. 3000, was ``good fun . . . a classic tale of good vs. evil.''

When Travolta's Hollywood clout began to recede (think ``Staying Alive''), Scientology officials tried to get the ball rolling themselves, erecting a 30-foot-high inflatable figure of Terl, the chief alien villain, on Sunset Boulevard in 1984 to attract studio interest. A director was hired and auditions were held in Denver, but the low-budget project soon fell apart.

That might have been the end of it had Travolta not revived his career a decade later with ``Pulp Fiction'' and a string of successive hits that included ``Phenomenon,'' ``Get Shorty,'' ``Michael'' and ``The General's Daughter.'' Travolta again could make any movie he wanted, and the movie he wanted to make remained ``Battlefield Earth.''

His passion wasn't shared by everyone in his camp. Premiere magazine recently reported that Travolta ``threatened to bolt William Morris (his agency)'' if it didn't help him set up ``Battlefield Earth.'' Fellow Scientologist Tom Cruise reportedly thought the movie was a bad idea, too, passing along his opinion to Warner Bros. (Cruise's spokesperson denies this.)

Travolta, for his part, doesn't seem to care about anyone else's opinion.

`` `Battlefield Earth' is the pinnacle of using my power for something,'' Travolta told the New York Daily News. ``I can get things done that a studio might not normally do. I told my manager, `If we can't do the things now that we want to do, what good is the power? Let's test it and try to get the things done that we believe in.' ''

The inevitable question then is this: If Travolta believes this strongly in the movie, isn't there something more to the material other than mindless entertainment?

In his introduction to ``Battlefield Earth,'' Hubbard waves off connections between Scientology and the novel, calling the book ``pure science fiction.'' He wrote the book in 1980, returning to space operas after his Scientology church had been battered by years of lawsuits and investigations alleging fraud and brainwashing.

The book was a best seller, although the sales figures were later tainted by revelations that Scientologists often bought boxes of the novel themselves to drive it up the best-seller charts. And while the potboiler plot of ``Battlefield Earth'' seems rather innocuous, some see definite similarities in it to Hubbard's Scientology teachings.

``It's clearly meant to be an allegory,'' says Scott Martin, the science-fiction editor at SPACE.com. ``Hubbard himself noted that it's not so much about the aliens as about the unconscious forces keeping human beings in slavery. Chief among these forces are socially enforced superstition, as well as personal feelings of fear and inadequacy.''

Shorthand comparisons tie the name of ``Earth's'' black-hearted aliens, the Psychlos, to psychologists, a group Hubbard fought and derided in his teachings. Martin says that's a bit simplistic, and that the true connection lies with the church's teachings about the ``thetan,'' a person's spirit or soul.

``The interesting thing is actually how similar Scientology is to a lot of early science fiction,'' Martin says. ``Both offer fantasies of universal power and wish fulfillment. Where else do readers get to vicariously destroy planets, save the world and be the omnipotent, square-jawed hero?''

There have also been reports that profits from the film's merchandising deals will go to Author Services Inc., the agency that handles all of Hubbard's books. Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder denies that Author Services is connected to the church, but others believe the relationship is there.

``There's no way that this movie would be happening without Scientology's backing,'' says Stacey Brooks, a former member of the sect and current president of the Scientology-watchdog group Lisa McPherson Trust. ``This is one example of how Scientology insinuates itself in various aspects of the culture.''

Krane says the arrangement with Author Services is standard practice, as rights holders normally receive a cut of merchandising when a film is based on their work. Moreover, he says that Author Services is a ``profit-oriented organization that has every right to make money from Hubbard's books.''

``All the anti-Scientology blather surrounding this movie is just pure nonsense,'' Krane adds. ``You didn't hear anything like this when DreamWorks made `The Prince of Egypt.' Where were all the stories about Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg and their Jewish faiths when that movie came out? There weren't any. And that's why I find all this focus on John's Scientology a little laughable. The movie isn't about that.''

And even if it were, says Fuller Theological Seminary's Robert Johnston, there wouldn't be anything wrong with that.

``All movies offer meaning and provide a perspective on life,'' says Johnston, a professor of theology and culture. ``The Scientologists have as much right as anyone to portray their take on reality. And I have to believe that somewhere in the movie, there is something that speaks to Travolta besides popcorn entertainment. If he loves the story so much, it must speak to him in some way. And I don't mind that. That's what good stories are all about.''

CAPTION(S):

4 photos

Photo: (1 -- cover -- color) 'BATTLEFIELD EARTH'

(2 -- 3) At left, Jonnie (Barry Pepper) faces the Mark II Psychloship, while Psychlo District Manager Zete (Michael McRea) is flanked by guards in ``Battlefield Earth.''

(4) John Travolta stars as Terl in the epic sci-fi ``Battlefield Earth.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 12, 2000
Words:1381
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