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Two evil empires; two bold heroes fighting the imperial hordes for liberty, family values, and something resembling the American way—is Reagan still president? And, if Gladiator and Battlefield Earth express the continuing appeal of Reaganism, why is it that the more cynical of the two action epics is the hit?

There are reasons, and some might even be good ones. While both films feature hammy performances, wholesale slaughter, and myriad digital effects inadequately camouflaged by deep shadows, Ridley Scott’s R-rated Gladiator is more visceral than Roger Christian’s PG-13 Battlefield Earth. Gallon for gallon, the sword-and-sandal picture (set roughly 2,000 years in the past) sprays much more simulated blood than the sci-fi flick (set roughly 1,000 years in the future). For those seeking popcorn and circuses, there’s really only one choice.

Perhaps, though, Gladiator also better expresses the circumscribed principles of these isolationist times. Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe) fights for what the film calls “the dream of Rome,” but he doesn’t believe in it. All he cares about is getting home to his family in Spain, and the only person who can persuade him to accept a new assignment is Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), who commands him not as an emperor but as a surrogate father. When both the emperor and Maximus’ wife and young son are butchered by the emperor’s villainous son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the general goes into a self-pitying funk.

Captured, enslaved, and sold to a promoter of gladiatorial bouts, Maximus wearily accepts the kill-or-be-killed ethos. The only prospect that can motivate him is revenge against new emperor Commodus, and the only feeling that can restrain him is mercy for children. Furnished with opportunity to kill Commodus—and thus end this 150-minute spectacle a merciful hour earlier—maddened Max restrains himself because of the presence of Commodus’ innocent 8-year-old nephew. (It would be traumatic, of course, for a kid who routinely watches slaves and beasts fight to the death to see his odious uncle run through.) Maximus may be the first hero of the genre who could get certified to operate a day-care center.

There are no moppets stifling the action in Battlefield Earth, which transpires mostly at a Colorado mining operation run by the evil, 9-foot-tall (and none too attractive) Psychlos. This alien race conquered Earth in nine minutes, boasts Psychlo Chief of Security Terl (John Travolta), so the occupying force expects no resistance from the puny humans. That’s why the unscrupulous Terl, who runs an unauthorized gold-mining operation on the side, feels secure training “man-animal” Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper) to operate it. “I know everything about you,” Terl warns Jonnie, even as the movie tries to muster some gross-out humor from Terl’s misapprehension that humans’ favorite food is raw rat, since he once saw a starving Jonnie devour such a meal.

Such logical discrepancies are typical of sci-fi flicks, yet for some reason Battlefield Earth has been deemed more egregious than most. Prominent critics have labeled the movie—which is no more tedious or moronic than, say, Lost in Space or Mission to Mars—one of the worst of all time. Could this be because it’s adapted from a novel by sci-fi author turned Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Travolta’s personal savior?

Scientology is a nasty business, and the premise of Battlefield Earth is indeed linked—as Richard Leiby detailed last November in the Washington Post—to Hubbard’s crackpot theo-psychology. (According to Hubbard, every hang-up Freud blamed on sex, death, excretion, and mom can actually be attributed to aliens.) Yet co-producer Travolta is not dissembling when he claims that his latest project—which he’s been trying to make for almost 20 years—is just a movie. Hubbard’s teachings can be discerned in the film, but the principal moral is as ancient as, well, Rome: freedom and dignity for all men. (Women, too, of course, although they play an even smaller role in Battlefield Earth than they do in Gladiator, which at least needs a female character for the intimation of kinky sex essential to all movies set in Caesarville.)

In a narratively absurd but thematically crucial scene, Terl takes Jonnie to the ruins of Washington, where he shows him the devastated Library of Congress. Of course, the first bedraggled tome Jonnie picks up contains the Declaration of Independence, which inspires him to become the 31st century’s Ethan Allen. Jonnie’s transformation from slave into rebel leader gives Battlefield Earth a more earnest and sweeping moral than Gladiator.

In Hollywood’s pre-ironic age, movies set in corrupt classical Rome always turned on either the coming redemption of Christianity (Ben-Hur) or the promise of democracy (Spartacus). But Scott’s slick, shallow toga party has a punier disposition: Like Braveheart, which combined carnage (for young male spectators) with a dashing, dutiful-husband hero (for their dates), Gladiator is as suburban as an SUV. Battlefield Earth may be the less artful of the two, but at least it cares about something bigger than Hollywood’s latest marketing wisdom—even if that something is a creepy cult’s notion of freedom.

Although its genre is utterly antique, Gladiator has its postmodern aspect: It’s a bloody spectacle about the staging of bloody spectacles. In that sense, it’s as self-reflexive as writer-director Mike Figgis’ Time Code, which means to be as innovative as the digital-video cameras with which it was shot. The only thing that’s really fresh about this split-screen experiment, however, is the mix-and-match soundtrack, which draws on the current vogue for the DJ as auteur.

Like many of Figgis’ films, Time Code takes a satirical view of filmmaking; all the major characters are in the biz or sexually involved with someone who is. This time, though, filmmaking itself is the essential subject. The story is told in four 93-minute takes, shot with improvised dialogue and no edits, that are shown simultaneously on the screen’s quadrants (or “windows,” to use the common PC term). Two bickering lovers (Salma Hayek and Jeanne Tripplehorn) head to the office of a production company, whose owner (Stellan Skarsgard) is breaking up with his wife (Figgis paramour Saffron Burrows); at the same time, a masseur (Figgis regular Julian Sands) arrives at the office, an executive (Holly Hunter) tries to get the distracted boss to focus on work, a director (Richard Edson) seeks to cast his new film, and an agent (Kyle MacLachlan) brings in a pretentious young director who pitches a film that sounds like…Time Code. “Montage has created a false reality,” she says.

Figgis’ movie has no montage, of course, and boasts moments and conversations that are aimless enough to pass as morsels of reality. Sometimes characters from one frame enter another, a series of seismic tremors unifies the four narratives by shaking all the quadrants simultaneously, and ultimately the central characters converge on the same site. As storytelling, Time Code is just Magnolia times four: conceptually clever, intermittently amusing, but ultimately pointless. Figgis’ cameras may be brand-new, but his precedents mostly date from the late ’60s and early ’70s: Woodstock, Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, and Altman’s Nashville.

Although Time Code was improvised, Figgis’ mode is probably closer to Mike Leigh than Warhol. The actors and the director refined the story and dialogue through numerous takes, finally settling on the 15th. (Warhol never showed such patience, although he might have called it inefficiency.) Like Altman, Figgis overlaps dialogue with an intricate sound mix, but the split-screen scheme requires even more complexity; he mixes the soundtracks up and down to provide aural cues as to which screen to watch.

Given that none of the stories are all that interesting, the permanent sound mix seems arbitrary. It would have been more provocative to see Time Code at one of the screenings where Figgis mixed the sound live—part old-fashioned bard, part newfangled DJ. The director says the DVD will give viewers control over the four audio tracks, making this one of the few movies that may work better on TV than on the big screen. Like so many of the new interactive entertainments, Time Code offers much promise but little substance. CP