March 24, 2008 by korshi
This week was quite cinematic for me: I worked my way through Manhattan, No Country for Old Men, The Passion of the Christ, Step Up (probably shouldn’t admit to that one), Solaris and Battlefield Earth. The best one by a long way was No Country for Old Men, and if you’re interested in tense, bloody and beautiful modern westerns you should go and see it. This post isn’t about Old Men though; it’s about Battlefield Earth, the child of two old men, one of them dead: L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology and author of the novel, and John Travolta, an actor of some note who you may have seen dancing in a dress and fatsuit in Hairspray. I’ll talk about Solaris in a future post.
Battlefield Earth gets 3% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes, which means, at a simple calculation, that it’s 7 times more awful than Step Up, and about 32 times worse than No Country For Old Men. No words can really do it justice, but it’s basically a sci-fi film, in which a group of post-apocalyptic cavemen rise up against the evil aliens who have ruled them for a thousand years. I watched it with a bunch of friends with whom I’ve formed a sort of awful-movie appreciation club, so we went in fully prepared for its mindnumbing crapness (although around the one-hour-ten mark I was considering sparing them further torture). I thought that watching it might give me some insight into the mind of the man who created one of the world’s biggest (or at least noisiest) sci-fi religions. Unfortunately, on the surface at least, no insights were forthcoming. It’s just a really shitty science-fiction movie.
The villains are the Psychlos, a race of 9-foot tall giants, who inexplicably all have dreadlocks and enormous codpieces. I was interested to see how they’d handle the giant size of the aliens visually; rather than doing something clever like trick-perspective or CGI, however, the solution is to put all the actors on stilts, which they lazily disguise with knee-high fuck-me boots and ubiquitous trench-coats; unfortunately the actors don’t seem to have practiced stilt-walking much, and never seem to manage anything beyond an awkward amble, even when the script calls for them to run.
About half the film is in painful slow-mo, and the lines and scenes are replayed to us two or three times to beat the point home. The cinematography is also incredibly hard on the eyes; aside from a few women (more on them later), the characters and scenes are all deliberately and spectacularly ugly; every shot is over tinted, and, by the director’s proud admission, there is not a single shot which is not tilted to some neck-straining degree; he wanted it to look like a comic, apparently. A crap one. (Yes, ugliness is not necessarily a bad thing in a film, but taken together as a package, this is one long painful assault on your senses).
So what did I learn about L. Ron Hubbard? Well, more than I first thought. I have to actually buy and read Battlefield Earth, and see if the sins of the film started with its parent; but I suspect they did. The story is a fairly good illustration of the misanthropy and arrogance many people attribute to Hubbard; as Punch noted, the plot shows to good effect his “excellent understanding of evil impulses, particularly deviousness, which helps with the plot, and [he] is well-enough aware of his weaknesses not to dwell upon frailties like love, generosity, compassion.” 
I don’t want to talk too much about Hubbard or Scientology since I’m saving that for later, but there are a few fun things I came across while trying to better understand Battlefield Earth. The book was prefaced, for example, with an introduction in which Hubbard, or possibly one of his ghostwriters fussily tries to define science fiction, name-drops some famous writers (“Bob Heinlein”) and then places Hubbard firmly in the pantheon of those who “helped start man to the stars”. Take this example, illustrating his ability to use a Latin dictionary:
How do you look at this word “fiction”? It is a sort of homograph. In this case it means two different things. A professor of literature knows it means “a literary work whose content is produced by the imagination and is not necessarily based on fact; the category of literature comprising works of this kind, including novels, short stories, and plays.” It is derived from the Latin fictio, a making, a fashioning, from fictus, past participle of fingere, to touch, form, mold
He moves on to sniffily define fantasy:
Actually they don’t mix well: science fiction, to be credible, has to be based on some degree of plausibility; fantasy gives you no limits at all. Writing science fiction demands care on the part of the author; writing fantasy is as easy as strolling in the park. (In fantasy, a guy has no sword in his hand; bang, there’s a magic sword in his hand.) This doesn’t say one is better than the other. They are simply very different genres from a professional viewpoint.
I like how Hubbard is at pains to emphasise his authority on the subject, as a “professional”. A much better definition of fantasy, however, can be found in his “biography”. Here are some choice samples:
Growing up in the still-rugged frontier country of Montana, he broke his first bronc[o] at age three and became the blood brother of a Blackfoot Indian medicine man by the time he was six.
He came to know old Shanghai, Beijing and the Western Hills at a time when few Westerners could enter China. He traveled more than a quarter of a million miles by sea and land while still a teenager and before the advent of commercial aviation as we know it.
He returned to the United States in the autumn of 1929 to complete his formal education. He entered the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he studied engineering and took one of the earliest courses in atomic and molecular physics.
Returning to his classroom of the world in 1932, he led two separate expeditions, the Carribean Motion Picture Expedition, sailing on one of the last of America’s four-masted commercial ships, and the second a mineralogical survey of Puerto Rico.
Viewed alongside an illustration (right) from the original publishing, we can start to see an outline of the man who created Scientology; a product of the pulp era. His biography is that of Indiana Jones, of Doc Savage; his characters are leering giant monsters, bronzed he-men and blank-faced damsels.
There are only two female speaking parts in Battlefield Earth; one is the main character’s beautiful plot device of a girlfriend, absent for most of the film, doting, needing to be rescued. In a concession to noughties sensibility, she can be glimpsed with a machine gun at the end, but it’s a shallow concession when she has no personality to speak of.
The other female character is an alien uber-slut, acted, charmingly enough, by John Travolta’s wife, Kelly Preston. A cone-headed secretary who performs sexual favours for her boss with her foot-long tongue, she is doing it all for a “a big house on Psychlo”. Did someone say binary? My Gender Studies tutor would have a field day.
Apart from the chauvinism, there’s also the same scientific positivism that filled early sci-fi, a faith that technology is The Answer. The cave-man hero, filled with knowledge by the Psychlo’s “learning machine” goes about rediscovering the lost history and science of earth; he reads the Declaration of Independence, and a Harrier Jump-Jet manual; the latter comes in handy when he teaches his cave-man followers to pilot some suspiciously well-preserved examples, and engage and destroy the alien-space craft in a battle eerily reminiscent of the Death Star run.
Speaking of the Death Star, there’s a kind of Atomic Age miracle at the end, when the god guys teleport a nucular (sic) bomb to Planet Psychlo, and thanks to the reactive gas that makes up its atmosphere, utterly annihilates it. The morality of this sort of muscular vengeance isn’t really considered; does the entire planet deserve to die? I mean, the Belgians did some terrible things in the Congo, but it’s hard to argue that if Congolese had wiped Belgium off the map that would have made it right. Is it unrealistic to point out moral flaws in fiction? Maybe, but Hubbard was the one extolling the power of sci-fi to prepare our minds for the future.
Other bits of Hubbard’s nastiness show through at other times; when our hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, is strapped to the learning machine, he is addressed by a diminutive alien from a dead race, whose short speech is so full of “ridiculous bowing and scraping”- honourable-this and humble-that, that it put me in mind of those awful parodies of Chinese and Japanese speech you that regularly appeared in pre-PC literature, where everyday politeness is translated in a way which makes them like the biggest suck-ups ever. The alien is called a “Clinko” in the film; in the book it was “Chinko”.
But the most important point of the film is easy to miss: the villains are Psychlos. They are run by a cult called the Catrists, who “implant… metallic capsules in Psychlo babies’ skulls so they grow up to become sadists“. L. Ron Hubbard hated – really, really, truly hated – psychiatrists.
Understanding why is pretty important, and not only because Scientology’s current campaign, spearheaded by Tom Cruise, against Psychiatry could have some pretty serious consequences at some point if anyone takes it seriously. I think that the roots of this irrational hatred are tied into the appeal of Scientology.
Scientologists have some fairly serious accusations against their psychlo foes. Hubbard claimed they were responsible for the holocaust; more recently Scientologists have assigned to them responsibility for September 11th. Their evil stretches back a lot further though; the spirit of Psychiatry was alive in those countless evil aliens who conditioned our spirits with irrational impulses over their billions of years of existence (including the famous Xenu), resulting in everything from psychological disorders to physical diseases. In one bizarre aside, he describes one of their most effective techniques:
take a sheet of glass and put it in front of the preclear — clear, very clear glass — which is supercooled, preferably about a -100 centigrade. You got that? Supercooled, you know? And then put the preclear right in front of this supercooled sheet of glass and suddenly shove his face into the glass. Now, that’s pretty good. I mean, that was developed about five billion years ago by a whole-track psychiatrist.
“Preclear” here means someone who has yet to experience a Scientological enlightenment. Elsewhere he describes the astonishing license given to psychiatrists:
A psychiatrist today has the power to (1) take a fancy to a woman (2) lead her to take wild treatment as a joke (3) drug and shock her to temporary insanity (4) incarnate her (5) use her sexually (6) sterilise her to prevent conception (7) kill her by a brain operation to prevent disclosure. And all with no fear of reprisal. Yet it is rape and murder.
Astonishing stuff. Rather than just dismiss it, though, I should say that psychology, and psychiatry, have not always been as benevolent as they are today. The early history of these sciences reads like a horror story: routine ice pick lobotomies, electro convulsive therapies, conditioning babies to fear fluffy objects and a long list of dubious experiments and treatments. Our present knowledge about the brain was bought at a high cost, but modern day research and practice are miles and miles from their classical ghoulishness.
Even if Hubbard was inspired, in part, of these types of abuses, I don’t think it explains the pathological hatred of the Psychiatric profession that has formed in Scientology. There’s a couple of fuller explanations I’ve seen suggested.
Hubbard wasn’t always opposed to Psychiatry. In 1947, suffering from an inability to find equilibriuim in cicil life, he wrote to the Veteran’s Administration asking to be seen by a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst. Indeed, he originally saw his technique of “Dianetics” as a tool for Psychiatrists.
“With the techniques presented in this handbook the psychiatrist, psycho-analyst and intelligent layman can successfully and invariably treat all psycho-somatic ills and inorganic aberrations.”
Given that Dianetics is not based on any research, or indeed reality, it would never be accepted by a profession that for all its faults is founded on the scientific method. Did Scientology turn on Psychiatry when they saw their techniques laughed at, or worse, ignored, by mental health professionals?
Psychiatry was, and still is, controversial in many quarters. Rightly or wrongly, people have never liked the idea of treating mental problems with physical medication. In choosing Psychiatry as an enemy around whom they could rally their supporters, Hubbard created the real-life equivalent of Big Brother’s 2-Minute Hate.
The truth is, it’s probably a combination of the two; but a more interesting point is raised by the literature produced by Hubbard denouncing Psychiatry. Let’s go back to his introduction to Battlefield Earth, where he told us that “fictus” is the past perticiple of “fingere”.
I do notice that every time modern science thinks it is down to the nitty-gritty of it all, it runs into (and sometimes adopts) such things as the Egyptian myths that man came from mud, or something like that.
Hubbard wrote that earlier letter to his superiors asking for psychological help at a low point in his life. He was suffering from “long periods of moroseness and suicidal inclinations”. In the process that followed, in which he created Dianetics, and ultimately Scientology, he was creating something which denied the soulless, pagan materialism of modern science, and re-exalted Man; a mythology in which we are fallen gods with infinite potential. By contrast:
The psychiatric idea of man is a Godless, soulless piece of meat. They demand their rights to butcher at will. They mock every Christian sentiment. According to them, everyone is helplessly mad and anyone who opposes them is especially so. Yet where are their cures? They only have victims. They torture and kill out of sight in their institutions.
This is the core theme of Battlefield Earth: “the indomitable spirit of man prevailing over those who mistakenly regard him as an animal.” At its core this is what Scientology believes: that this universe is the playground of gods, but that some chose to use their powers to blind others, until we forgot ourselves and thought we were human. It’s an idea that goes back to Orphism and Gnosticism, and which eventually finds expression in almost every religious tradition. Hubbard cast it in the language he knew, the language of science-fiction, of weird devices and electrical resistance, of space opera and acronyms and futuristic abbreviations. If we can only audit our way from pre-clear to clear, avoid the brain-washing center on Venus and use our E-Meters religiously, we can escape this mortal coil, and this MEST (matter-energy-space-time) universe will no longer hold us prisoner.
This and all other quotes taken from an online copy of the introduction hosted at http://www.battlefieldearth.com/author/the_intro.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theta ; The source within Scientology seems to be the “Factors”: http://www.bonafidescientology.org/Append/01/page03.htm