Any serious bad movie watcher knows that the films that are very famous for being bad generally aren't really the worst of the worst. Like, Plan 9 from Outer Space? Helpless and very stupid, but it's got its charms - it's not even the worst Ed Wood movie. The subjects of Mystery Science Theater 3000? A good third of them aren't even genuinely "bad" let alone "the worst", and probably not more than a half-dozen of the films featured on that show are actually as soul-scraping as all that. No, if you want to find the really truly world-class terrible movies, you have to go spelunking, past the points that healthy, normal people would dare to go, or even know that you can go.

I bring this up first to agree with myself: Battlefield Earth, probably the most infamous movie of the last 25 years, is not actually as bad as its reputation. Once you've crawled through the toxic ash of Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2, I don't know if you can even honestly say that it's the worst wide-release film of the 2000s. And yet, I still find myself moved to say that yes, this probably does deserve to be called the worst movie of its generation. The difference is that Battlefield Earth cost quite a lot of money: $73 million officially, and while that number was legally found to have been cooked, it was still a costly A-picture, positioned as one of Warner Bros.' tentpoles for the 2000 summer season (along with The Perfect Storm). Anybody can make an astonishingly shitty movie with no resources and talent: it takes some particularly offensive ineptitude to make something as flagrantly awful as Battlefield Earth as a full-fledged studio project. The only films in the last quarter of a century that I can think of to even challenge it as the most jaw-dropping waste of money on something genuinely, blitheringly incompetent is 2004's Catwoman, and perhaps 2020's Dolittle; and even those aren't quite as bad at fundamentals as this is. Whatever else you can say, they both know how to use a spirit level.

Battlefield Earth tells us very quickly how far to lower our expectations: about six seconds after the studio logos are done, when ultra-cheesy neon-green text that scrolls out to tell us that the film is A Saga of the Year 3000, and then about ten seconds later similar text provides the detailed exposition that "Man is an endangered species". But hell, sometimes movies make bad text choices, right? Fuck, Avatar uses Papyrus, and it's the most over-the-top spectacular spend-all-the-money movie in history. And yes, those ten seconds in-between the squirrelly titles also include an establishing shot of the Colorado Rockies that are shown for a brief flash as a photo negative, and Christ knows what that's about, but sometimes movies open with flourishes of style. So let's just chalk it up to that. "Style". We can still hold out hope for a whole minute yet. Admittedly, during that minute, specifically at the 1:17 mark, we get our very first canted angle:

And that's not, like the worst canted angle. There will, in fact, be several dozen worse canted angles in this very movie. It's bad - the weight of the composition is all fucked, and actor Sabine Karsenti (in the role of "Chrissy") should at the very least be left of center, even if director Roger Christian and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens steadfastly refused to do anything about that enormous gulf of empty sky thrown off by how she and all the textured rock are bunched up in the same part of the frame. And it stands out as a weird fucking shot, and once you know the film, it feels laden with foreboding: I haven't counted, so I don't know if Battlefield Earth has more canted shots than level shots, but I wouldn't be surprised in the least if that was the case. And if you use something that dramatic and pointed so indiscriminately, you have not just robbed it of all its power, you make yourself look like an colossal jackass whose fascination with "coolness" has all of the intellectual weight of a magpie tugging at a bit of tinsel, or a baby gazing rapturously at keys jangling.

Still, it's just a canted angle, we can still hold out our swiftly-diminishing hope that, okay, it's not going to be good, but maybe it will merely be bland. I mean, yeah, it's a film that would think nothing of cutting directly from this shot:

To this shot:

But okay, formally speaking, that cut isn't forbidden. It's a tight medium shot cutting to a loose close-up, which is pushing it, and it really sucks a lot that Karsenti takes up basically the exact same screen real-estate in both frames, so it feels like a really defective graphic match, but it doesn't break any rules. It's just ugly and completely unnecessary, in that the cut neither gives us new information nor emphasises anything. But if a student turned in that cut, back when I was teaching editing to undergraduates, I wouldn't take points off for it. So we can still cling to the belief that there might be something salvageable for a good half-minute yet - a half minute in which there are more canted angles ("more" numerically, and "more" in that they are even further off level), and another couple instances of too much cutting between functionally identical shots (one of a man on a horse sliding down a hill, one of the same man processing bad news as Chrissy puts her hand out to comfort him). But the time for dry-heaving hasn't started yet.

That comes with the film's third line of dialogue.

The film's first two lines of dialogue aren't treasures: the man, whose name I think we never do hear spoken aloud in the whole movie, but as the credits will proudly tell us, he has been given the extraordinary handle of "Johnnie Goodboy Tyler" (Barry Pepper, whose two years as a promising new actor in the wake of Saving Private Ryan were basically shot in the face by this movie), tells Chrissy, "This is all the medicine I could find," and she replies, "I'm sorry, the gods took your father in the night." Which is pretty blunt exposition, and makes her feel like an NPC in a video game, but that's kind of what she is.

At any rate, Johnnie Goodboy Tyler is of course unhappy to hear this, and so the third line of dialogue in the movie, bless its heart, the one that finally kills of any and all optimism that we might be sitting down for something broadly functional and in any way enjoyable, well, the third line of dialogue in Battlefield Earth is a slow-motion "noooooooo!" That's hard to make work under the best of circumstances, but before we know literally anything about these people besides the fact that Johnnie Goodboy Tyler's father has just died? It's part and parcel of the insane canted angle thing: Battlefield Earth has absolutely no clue how to modulate. It is a movie that goes for the biggest gesture 100% of the time - there's also plenty more slow-motion to come, on top of everything - and therefore has nothing left in reserve by, say, the second scene. Anyway, this the point where one gives up hope: exactly two minutes, to the second, into the movie. 40 of those seconds were studio logos.

The film itself is a vague parable about Scientology: it is based on the 1982 novel by Scientology founder/mediocre science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard (with a screenplay credited to Corey Mandell and J.D. Shapiro, the latter of whom has distanced himself far, far away from the finished product), and was willed into existence by star John Travolta, the second-most famous celebrity Scientologist. Herein, man has been driven to the point of endangerment by a race of tall aliens named Psychlos - from the planet Psychlo, which must be either very convenient or very confusing - whose most alien characteristic is that they have dreadlocks, and six clawed fingers on their right hands, but only five on their left. These sixth fingers are immobile latex, so whenever a Psychlo makes a fist or does really anything else with their right hand, the bottom finger stays pointing up, like they are at an Edwardian tea party, the daintiest motherfuckers in the galaxy. The Psychlos have come to mine all of Earth's gold, and after 1000 years, have not gotten very far; it doesn't help that they can't go basically anywhere without running into enough radiation to explode their very delicate breathing gas, and so they live in a large dome surrounding what used to be Denver.

Terl (Travolta), the head of Psychlo security, has just gotten the hideous news that, owing to his enemies at The Home Office (Psychlo society is apparently one large corporation, which I imagine Hubbard meant to make them ultra-capitalists, though it's kind of more like ultra-Communism), he will be kept on the hideous planet Earth, with its blue skies and green plants - yep, it's that kind of writing - for another "fifty cycles". With endless options for renewal, a Psychlo threat that Christian wants to emphasise as so horrifying to Terl that he puts on an echo effect and loops it, so we hear it as something like "Endless options for renewEndless options for renewEndless options for renewal". Psychlo language is very heavy in business jargon, incidentally; a good Battlefield Earth drinking game would be to take a sip every time a character says "leverage". If you take very, very tiny sips, you might even live to see the end of the movie, though that hardly seems like an appropriate goal.

Anyway, Terl is so pissed off that he decides to run a super-illegal side operation to get some gold for himself, send it back to Psychlo, and buy off the right bureaucrats to get himself back home. The problem is, the richest vein he knows about that the highers-ups don't is deep in territory that is especially hostile to Psychlos, so he needs some particularly smart humans - "man-animals", in another phrase for your drinking game, though even with tiny sips, this and "leverage" together would put you in a coma by the 45-minute mark. The dialogue in Battlefield Earth is extraordinarily bad across the board, but the Psychlo terms are where it really sings. "You are out of your skull bone if you think that I am going to write on the report 'shot by man-animal' as the cause of the death unless I see it!" is a line that Travolta attacks with the hambone relish of a thousand Vincent Prices, and he can still just barely make it work.

Also, it's never "rat-animal" nor "dog-animal", so what the fuck.

I was saying, Terl needs the cleverest man-animal to mine the gold, and it just so happens that Johnnie Goodboy Tyler, having fled his people's mountain village in despair, and been caught by the Psychlo patrols, who found him in the remains of a shopping mall that looks to be in surprisingly good shape, given that it's 1000 years old. He tried to escape by crashing through, like, a half-dozen glass panels. In slow-motion. Anyway, Terl's airtight plan is to put Johnnie Goodboy Tyler into the Psychlo's "learn all the information in the universe" machine, to give him the technical know-how to operate the mining equipment; instead, he become a super-genius who can train an entire squadron of humans who have regressed to caveman status how to fly Harrier jets - that still operate fine after 1000 years, you just need to knock the quarter-inch of dust off them - so they can get into a dogfight in the Psychlo dome, while also warping a nuclear weapon back to Psychlo to destroy the entire planet. Terl's intelligence, meanwhile, goes so far as assuming that raw rat is a human's favorite food, after watching Johnnie Goodboy Tyler eat one rather than starve to death.

20 years later, I remain undecided whether the writing or the filmmaking is the greater disaster. The writing puts up an irresistible fight. The entire plot hinges on the villain being the most spectacular idiot conceivable, and also on the entirety of Washington, D.C. being almost entirely intact - and still on a fully-functioning power grid! - 1000 years after man became an endangered species. The dialogue includes gem after gem after gem: the village elder sagely tells Chrissy, waiting for Johnnie Goodboy Tyler to come back and save them all, "Hope is an admirable quality, but foolish isn't". Several humans, a millennium after the last baked good was eaten, suggest that Johnnie Goodboy Tyler's plan is a "piece of cake", a catchphrase that the film thinks so highly of that it allows one of the characters who has gotten the most screentime, which basically means he has the most character development, to quietly whisper it to himself, mournfully, before deliberately killing himself to stop the Psychlos. And as I said, there's no end to the delirious sci-fi gobbledygook that the aliens are required to say. "I am going to make you as happy as a baby Psychlo on a straight diet of kerbango," is one of the most torturous lines, delivered by a Psychlo prostitute with a gross CGI tongue, played by Travolta's wife Kelly Preston. But I am partial to the idiotic, weirdly bowdlerised Psychlo cursing as when Terl, knocking his head on a low doorjamb, screams "Crap-lousy ceiling!"

Oh, it's a bad script, all right. But it's also such a hideously-made thing! The rat-a-tat editing and canted angles I have mentioned; I have not, however, talked about the addition to using screen wipes between scenes. But not just any wipes! These are wipes that start at the middle and go to the left and right, like curtains opening. It is the stupidest shit. I am fond of recalling the film's DVD case, which couldn't find a more enthusiastic critical pullquote to put on the back than "Great scene transitions!", which I've always found extra-hilarious because the scene transitions are, in fact, terrible.

The acting, of course, is hopeless, and was never going to be any better; still, watching Barry Pepper pounce around like a pantomime spider-monkey while mocking the villagers' fear of demons gives us an early sign of just how far away from anything reasonably human the cast is going to be going, and Travolta's lip-smacking villain turn seals the deal. Weirdly, the film has one genuinely great performance: Forest Whitaker is on hand to play Terl's assistant, Ker, and he has somehow come to the conclusion that the way to survive this is by taking it extremely seriously, and playing the part of an inept Machievellian whose greed and venality drives him to try at every turn to outsmart his boss as a complex character of conflicting motives. It's quite a sight, almost more garish as a direct result of how jarring it is compared to everything else in the movie than another dopey melodramatic baddie would be. God knows what Whitaker thought he was up to, or why he felt this would help him survive the movie, but it sure as hell is something.

Anyway, you have a disaster of a screenplay meeting dreadfully overdone and under-thought filmmaking, plus $40+ million of crappy CGI and elaborately cheesy sets, and that gives you Battlefield Earth: a most polished, grandiose sci-fi epic that also feels like it was made by giddy teens in the basement of a local factory. It earns every little bit of its infamy, but it's also one of the most hilarious bad movies I have ever seen, largely because of how grandly messy its ambitions are compared to how wildly ill-judged every single one of its choices is. And also because Travolta looks like a Rastafarian Conehead with metal boogers hanging a foot down from his nose, to be sure. It is a gift that keeps on giving, Battlefield Earth, one of the worst movies I have seen the most times (enough that I've lost the count, but this was for sure my fifth viewing, at least), and have probably pushed on more bad movie-curious people than anything this side of The Room. There really is nothing else like it: many films are bad in the same way, but none so comprehensively, nor at such remarkable scale.