Yes, yes. It’s a stupid piece of shit.
But I’m going to write about it anyway because I want to emphasize exactly why I think it’s a stupid piece of shit.
I’m going to forego any Scientology based analysis because L. Ron Hubbard was writing for a mass audience and the editorial is just as moronic and muddled when you map it to the modern world. Furthermore, many of the mistakes and mixed messages in this film can be found in other blockbusters.
Though it amounts to a standard liberty versus tyranny yarn, it still manages to pollute and pervert this basic idea in some impossibly dumb ways.
First off, the premise is pretty stupid. The Psychlos are an alien race who possess interstellar teleportation technology and have invaded and enslaved humanity for the express purpose of mining gold. Hubbard deserves a smidgen of credit for presenting space exploration as an economic venture, but it strains the imagination that occupying Earth was really worth the effort. The fact that the Psychlos somehow determined that there was enough gold in the earth’s crust to warrant an interstellar military operation and occupation beggars belief. There’s no way that an operation that extensive was profitable. As a footnote, one can only assume the Psychlo government uses a currency pegged to gold and haven’t resorted to fiat currency. So chalk one up for the Psychlos for having a stable monetary policy. Why else would there be such demand for gold?
John Travolta plays Terl, the Machiavellian tyrant who leads the mining camp gulag. The Psychlo operation is portrayed as a corporate for-profit endeavor, but he is ultimately receiving and obeying orders from Psychlo politicians. One could just as easily view the Psychlo occupation as a metaphor for the government. Viewed through this lens, this interpretation is where the film succeeds in scoring a couple points. They’re racist, manipulative, entitled, and self-serving. They benefit from a subservient population and are more than willing to enforce obedience through violence.
The Psychlo occupation embodies the toxic marriage of a military-police state, crony capitalism, and full-on authoritarianism. In short, it’s a dramatized and stylized portrait of the US government.
In one particularly revealing scene, Terl and his fellow goons are discussing raising wages for the human labor force. They reach the conclusion that raising wages would cut into the bottom line and that a mandatory wage floor had to be established. In other words, mandatory minimum wage for human workers. I’m sure that it’s intended to be some kind of commentary on “greed”, but viewed through the lens of Psychlos as a proxy for the State, it produces a different outcome. It’s a strange scene because the labor seems completely coerced and involuntary, but it speaks to the mentality of today’s bureaucrats. Politicians are far more invested in peddling the belief that a “living wage” is possible if the right law is passed. The net result is still the same: enslavement.
Beyond that, the movie descends far and falls fast.
Barry Pepper plays the hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler. A name whose stupidity is surpassed only by the idiotic nonsense that comes out of his mouth for the entire film. Though Barry Pepper gives it his all, the writing is just so bad and the emotions so overblown, there’s simply no redemption to be found in this performance.
The fatal flaw of this character is that he ends up reinforcing the dumbest clichés of atavistic deference towards a Great Leader. When conflict breaks out in the prison over the food supply, Jonnie beats his opponent into submission and mandates that the rest of the proles “eat together” in order to maintain civility. Unity, dammit! And thus, the seeds of resistance are sown with Jonnie anointed as the de facto leader.
Jonnie is ultimately captured by Terl and is trained to seek gold beyond the confines of the Psychlo gulag.
Since humanity has been rendered illiterate and stripped of any memory of its past, it is Jonnie’s acquisition of knowledge which is turns the tide. Knowledge which is acquired not through work and study, but by a Psychlo knowledge ray gun. Awesome.
Terl allows Jonnie to view the last remains of human civilization, and SURPRISE! He’s taken to Washington DC to peruse what one assumes is the Library of Congress. Naturally, he is profoundly reconnected to the spirit of freedom by reading the Declaration of Independence. Don’t get me wrong. There’s some good stuff there. But making a visual and thematic connection to human freedom as an expression of government is a predictable groaner.
Another big howler of a scene takes place in a prison while he attempts to explain the basics of Euclidean geometry to his comrades. Enraptured but befuddled by his explanation of an isosceles triangle, he pronounces in utmost earnestness, “This will save us”. Yes, Jonnie. Math is essential for modern society, but it’s not going to solve the immediate problem of Psychlo occupation.
Despite Terl’s claim that the Psychlos had completely destroyed mankind’s technology in one fell swoop, there is plenty of untouched and completely functional military hardware at Fort Hood.
Thanks to Jonnie’s Psychlo knowledge download, he is able to teach his comrades to use government arms and pilot military vehicles. So from basic geometry to military expertise in a matter of days! Because after all, nothing creates freedom quite like multi-trillions of dollars of military hardware.
Even more implausibly, the Psychlos were unaware of vast stores of gold in Fort Knox despite 1000 of occupation! How they managed to miss out on this detail when they possessed such superior knowledge and technology is a bit of a mystery, but whatever.
The film’s message on guns and the application of violent force is just as incoherent as everything else.
In one particularly inexplicable scene, Jonnie gains control of Terl’s weapon, but hands it back to him as some gesture of trust or something. When push comes to shove, the shooting commences and they vanquish the Psychlos. The humans manage to use the Psychlo teleportation technology to nuke the Psychlo home world. Unfortunately, it only serves to reinforce the myth of freedom as the product of violent struggle and leadership as the application of violent force.
So yeah. It’s an incoherent, risible piece of shit. But some of these ideas are more prevalent than you might think. Hollywood films generally provide a window of insight into what passes for mainstream morality. It’s little wonder that an SF story written by a charismatic figure which transmits the values of his insular, secretive cult got translated into a major motion picture.
The punchline is that they don’t differ too radically from that other cult that gets accorded a lot of legitimacy despite being built off similarly absurd values: the US government.