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The virtue of being bad

Exit stage left, Showgirls. To the showers, Waterworld.

There's a new stinker in town.

How whiffy is John Travolta's first foray into science fiction?

"Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time," Roger Ebert began his review in the Chicago Sun-Times. "It's not merely bad; it's unpleasant in a hostile way."

Readers of the New York Times were duly warned by movie critic Elvis Mitchell: "It may be a bit early to make such judgments, but Battlefield Earth may well turn out to be the worst movie of this century."

The disdain is bicoastal.

"Sure, science fiction gets some leeway in the reality department, but Battlefield Earth doesn't even make sense on its own terms," the Los Angeles Times reviewer opined. "Compounded by a dated visual style, patched-together special effects and ludicrous dialogue, Battlefield Earth is a wholly miserable experience."

Bracing stuff.

But thrilling in its own way. Battlefield Earth, based on the 1982 novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, is not bad for lack of ambition. Travolta worked for 15 years to make this movie, sacrificed salary for it and by all accounts he thinks the $52-million (or $65-million or $80-million, depending on which story you read) was well spent.

That makes its looming failure (box office receipts trailed off ominously during the first weekend) all the more notable. There were expectations of quality. To judge by the near unanimity of the critical wretching, the movie did not meet any of them.

Battlefield Earth has become that rarity, a cultural touchstone. If Citizen Kane looks down from the Olympian heights of moviemaking, then Battlefield Earth is the newest resident of the art form's dank sub-basement.

It would be easy to shrink in horror from the movie that the Toronto Star calls "a bloated sci-fi monstrosity." But Battlefield Earth is a rare gift, an effort against which we can favorably compare our own striving.

Try and come up with an equally maligned work from the rest of popular culture. Name if you can the indisputably worst book or song or painting. (Television doesn't count. With so many new groaningly horrible offerings every week it's hard to keep the leader board current.)

There's certainly no consensus when it comes to the worst song ever. When Dave Barry, the Miami Herald columnist, asked readers for nominations, they sent about 10,000. Yummy Yummy Yummy, I've Got Love in My Tummy appeared on many ballots, but so did Feelings and MacArthur Park. In the end, there were so many contenders he wrote a book, the chapters of which included "Teen Death Songs" and "Weenie Music."

Schlock literature is a genre all its own. Harold Robbins made good money writing badly. But he aimed no higher than the paperback racks at the local supermarket. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the Victorian author who wrote with the lurching manner of someone learning to drive a stick shift, might be considered a standard-bearer of rotten writing just for the opening line of his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents _ except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

Reading this aloud can make your molars shake. But the pain threshold of the average Victorian reader apparently was high and Bulwer-Lytton enjoyed a good deal of popular acclaim.

Critics of modern art might leap at the chance to proclaim the infamous Dung Madonna painting as the worst of its kind. But there are plenty, none of them Rudy Giuliani supporters, who hail the brilliant counterpoint of material and subject.

Unlike movies which will live for decades if not centuries preserved by modern technology, the public is spared from living with the worst examples of architecture.

"All the really bad stuff has already fallen down," said Mickey Jacob, vice president of the American Institute of Architects in Florida.

Transcendent badness cannot exist in the dark. There are reams of bad novels stuffed in bottom drawers, 99 percent of which will never be bound between two covers. And unless you rent a certain room in a certain motel in Immokalee, you'll never see the all-purple forest scene with the wads of gum stuck to it.

That's why Battlefield Earth is such a public service. Its myriad flaws are there for the world to see, to record and ultimately to use.

Just as John Leonard of CBS Sunday Morning did when explaining that, although he didn't much care for the movie Gladiator, it had some redeeming qualities.

"Compared to Battlefield Earth, Gladiator is Citizen Kane."