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BATTLEFIELD EARTH

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STARRING JOHN TRAVOLTA, BARRY PEPPER, FOREST WHITAKER, KIM COATES, SABINE KARSENTI DIRECTED BY ROGER CHRISTIAN BUZZ-O-METER 6

WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL? Travolta’s labor of love finally makes it to the big screen.

Battlefield Earth is the most controversial movie of the summer. Which may seem strange, because on the surface it’s a fairly straightforward sci-fi epic: The year is 3000. A sinister race of strip-mining nine-foot-tall aliens, the Psychlos, have conquered the planet. Travolta is Terl, their cackling high-rise chieftain, with dreadlocks in his hair and ”breathing tubes” in his nostrils. Pepper plays Johnny Goodboy Tyler, a young hunter trying to save a lost Rocky Mountain tribe of humans.

So what’s the controversy? Travolta is a Scientologist, and Battlefield is based on a 1982 novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the religion’s late founder. Which leads some critics to hint that Earth amounts to Scientologist crypto-dogma, allegedly packed with subliminal messages. ”That’s all just silly propaganda,” says Christian. ”If a Jewish producer hires a Jewish writer and a Jewish director, does that mean we’re going to get secret messages that are converting us to Judaism?”

Religion aside, Earth remains Travolta’s ”absolute passion,” the director says. Sounds like it: The star endured a roasting-hot summer shoot in Montreal while wearing head-to-toe padding. But Pepper’s convinced that the heat from skeptics will cool down as soon as the movie’s out. ”I really can’t wait ’til those same people see the movie,” he says, ”because they’re going to be blown away.” They’d better be, because Terl’s already planning a sequel. (May 12)