Of Bloody Gladiators And Aliens

A protester holds a placard saying "Protect priracy, maintain woman's dignity" during a demonstration in Hong Kong Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2006.
AP Photo/Kin Cheung
This week John Leonard reviews Gladiator starring Russell Crowe and Connie Nielsen, and Battlefield Earth with John Travolta.
If I start babbling about the eight dynamics, the 24 logics and the 58 axioms - about e-meters and basic engrams, gorilla goals and Alice games, capping beams and black Thetans - you'll know that I've been brainwashed by John Travolta. That his new movie, Battlefield Earth, is a supersonic shot of subliminal Scientology, beamed from the brain fevers of L. Ron Hubbard straight into my pineal gland.

But before we hyperventilate 1,000 years into the alien future, let's flash back 2,000 years into the swords and sandals past. Ridley Scott's Gladiator has its moments, most of them scenic, like dusty Zucchabar in the boondocks, the Colosseum, and terrific tigers. But between these moments, Russell Crowe as Maximus must carry a grudge.

First, just after killing lots of hairy Germans, he's told by his emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), that he must turn Rome back into a republic.

Then Marcus tells his whiny son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), that he doesn't love him enough to let him rule. So Commodus kills his father, and Max ends up a slave in the sticks, where Oliver Reed as a P.T. Barnum of bloody fun and games sees him as his ticket back to the big time.

There, Max and the barbarians win a replay of the Second Punic War. So Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), daughter of dead Marcus, sister to crazy Commodus, decides that Max, a one-time fling, can save them all. In the middle of the Colosseum, Max will make his longest speech in the movie.

The Leonard File
Read past reviews by John Leonard.
From The Insider, we know that Russell Crowe can act. Too bad Ridley Scott didn't let him.

From Gibbon, we know that Commodus was strangled while drunk in his bed, with the help of his favorite concubine.

But Gladiator wants to be High Noon. Nor do I see the point of a sword-and-sandals movie without a Roman orgy. But I'm a purist.

Nevertheless, compared to Battlefield Earth, Gladiator is Citizen Kane.

In 3,000 A.D., what's left of humankind after an invasion by aliens who are 9 feet tall and call themselves Psychlos is either hiding ou in the Rocky Mountains or slaving in the mines.

The worst of these aliens is John Travolta, who thinks he's going home. The second worst is Forest Whitaker.

Both are fooled by the indomitably blond and savagely braided Barry Pepper, who steals gold bars from the former Fort Knox and then runs around a lot like the Last of the Aryan Mohicans in a high-tech revolt of the masses.

Say what you will about L. Ron Hubbard, but he wrote this sci-fi potboiler long before he started his own religion. He can't be blamed for acting that would embarrass Cub Scouts on amateur night in a psycho ward. There was more Scientology in Wild Palms, the Oliver Stone miniseries on ABC.

If paranoids on the Internet need some subliminal messages to worry about, they should get real and look around. Every year, American businesses spend a trillion dollars on marketing. Every day every American is dumped on by 3,500 advertising messages, surrounded by 300,000 TV commercials, 2.5 million radio commercials and 12 billion display ads. One awful movie is helpless to complete with the Golden Arches and the Nike swoosh.