– Summary –
Director : Paul Verhoeven
Year Of Release : 1997
Principal Cast : Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Jake Busey,
Doogie Howser Neil Patrick Harris, Clancy Brown, Michael Ironside, Seth Gilliam, Patrick Muldoon, Brenda Strong.
Approx Running Time : 130 Minutes
Synopsis: In the future, Earth is under threat of bombardment from asteroids sent our way by a race of insectoid aliens on a distant planet. The military forces of Earth, hyping up their chances against an implacable and calculating enemy, wage war against the “bugs”, although often at the peril of underestimating the enemy strength. Carnage and gratuitous violence ensues.
What we think : Screw you, haters – I loved this film when it came out, and although it has plenty of issues, still makes solid, violent entertainment. It’s the kind of film your mother would hate you watching, the kind of film “they” say turns normal folks into mass murdering psychos and stuff. Sod ’em: Starship Troopers is an absolute cheeze-blast of carnage through your eyeballs. It’s stupid fun with an unsubtle message just lurking below the surface.
I don’t quite know why, but this is one of my all time, top 10, favorite films ever. Paul Verhoeven’s brutal, violent, analogous diatribe against unilateral militarism remains an enthralling take on Robert Heinlein’s original novel – even if the film departs from the source material by a wide margin. Critics of the film have stated that it’s a filmed version of the book in name only, which of course means the film isn’t that great (not sure what logic algorithm “they” used to justify that statement!) and isn’t the kind of story Heinlein wanted told. I admit to never having read the book, so my appreciation for this film isn’t colored by a prejudicial eye for how the story should be made, rather than how it is made. I may have mentioned in a previous post, many years back, that Starship Troopers was my most watched film ever – I’ve seen this film more times than I’ve had hot dinners, I think, because at one point a friend and I watched this (on stodgy old VHS when it originally came out… before the advent of DVD!) once a week for a year at least, not counting four or five times I went to see it in the cinema as well. In short, of all the films I’ve ever seen, Starship Troopers is the one I feel most qualified to write about.
Starship Troopers follows the story of Johnny Rico (Casper van Dien), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) and Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) as they graduate from school in the far future, to join the Mobile Infantry to serve their country. Humans have developed space travel, and Earth is under threat from a race of aliens on a distant planet, Klendathu. The “bugs”, as they’re known, have the ability to send massive asteroids and meteorites towards Earth, although planetary defenses have been built as a last line of defense. The Mobile Infantry, which is the Army wing of the massive military machine Earth now possesses, sees Johnny Rico and Dizzy Flores sent into action after a stint at Boot Camp, while Carmen Ibanez joins the future version of the Air Force – known in this film as “the fleet” – which leads to all manner of violent and gory confrontations between the forces of humanity and the local populations of the Bug planet. This, strangely, is the nutshell version of the story told in Starship Troopers, a version it would be remiss of me not to pause for a moment and add a simple caveat to that – Troopers is as violent a film as you’re likely to find outside an Eli Roth convention. If you want boobs, they’re here. If you want blood and guts, that’s here too. If you want massive special effects and plenty of action, then you’re right to watch this film. Starship Troopers never pretends to be some sort of meditation on the human condition, at least, not that I’ve ever seen. It’s a sci-fi action film, and if you go in expecting more, you’re gonna be disappointed.
Dutch director Verhoeven, famous for classics of the medium such as Basic Instinct, Total Recall, er… Showgirls, and, um, the original RoboCop (sorry, got lost at Showgirls there for a second!) takes us into outer space with one of the most misogynistic, hyper-real diatribes against unilateral militaristic capabilities ever produced. Troopers is like a shot of adrenaline into your eyeballs, a sensory overload for the sleepy – it’s the kind of film you turn up loud if you hate your neighbors. The cast all look like they’ve stepped off the catwalk, the script feels like it was hewn more than written, and the acting is – and I use the term “acting” loosely – about as solid as the scripting: Starship Troopers is the ultimate B-movie with A-movie budget. There’s an energy, a self-indulgent “I’m pleased with myself” feel to the film, as if Verhoeven is not only laughing at the characters he’s showing us, but laughing at us as well. Troopers is an indictment on the military mentality, with references to overt Nazism, the current state of US overpowering patriotism in the face of immense adversity, and the herd-like mentality humanity displays when confronted by a common enemy – for better or worse.
Lead actor Casper Van Dien is visually suited to this kind of role, his enormous chin preceding him through every scene like a shark through a school of minnows. He can’t act for crap, and his emotional range resembles that of a half chewed dogs toy. He’s supported by Denise Richards, whose main claim to fame these days was that she once kissed Neve Campbell in Wild Things, and stupidly married Charlie Sheen. Richards actually prances through this film (no, she does! Just watch her walking into shot or across the scene – he head bobs up and down like some kind of carnival sideshow attraction!) like she owns it, although it seems Verhoeven didn’t pony up enough cash because she’s about the only one we want to see with her clothes off who doesn’t reveal all. Dina Meyer, who was solid if forgettable in Dennis Quaid’s dragon-y adventure Dragon Heart, is solid if forgettable as Johnny’s infatuated friend (she’s infatuated with Johnny, while Johnny has the hots for Carmen – yeah, it’s a love triangle played out in a war… ahh love, ain’t it grand?) Dizzy Flores, but compared to the rest of the cast acting their way through this “hoo-raaa” script, she’s damn near an Oscar winner. Doogie Howser plays a telepathic friend of the trio, who ends up becoming some sort of Gestapo-type upper echelon military type, and he also does well with his limited (and limiting) screen time. Verhoeven alumnus Michael Ironside plays the one-armed school teacher-cum-Lieutenant, Razczak, whose best line is a gruzzling “C’mon you apes, you wanna live forever?”, a line I thought was a cliche from somewhere else! Clancy Brown chews his way gloriously through the role of Boot Camp Instructor Zim, channeling R Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket. Jake Busey, who provided a creepy anarchist in Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, as well as one half of a mass-murdering duo in Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners, provides the bulk of the sly comic relief here, and it’s a shame we don’t see him more often on screen.
The script, as I mentioned, is filled with cornball lines and cliched American optimism and gung-ho-ness. There’s barely a scene when you aren’t left scratching your ears out with the sheer awfulness of some of the dialogue, it’s so truly terrible. I mean, it is terrible. Even now, watching it again for the first time in nearly seven years, I had forgotten how juvenile and testicle-shriveling this film’s screenplay is – the characters relate to each other through mumbled jingoistic half-sentences, the chest-beating screaming in the heat of battle this films’ equivalent to a menage-a-trois of emotional outpouring, and you get the feeling that if you actually had to watch these people sit around having an actual conversation, a dimensional fracture in the universe might open up and swallow them to a distant galaxy out of a sense of galactic horror. 1-dimensional characters aside, the script isn’t Verhoeven’s focus here. Nope, it’s the blood and guts.
Verhoeven came to the US from the European film scene, and anybody who’s ever watched a film out of continental Europe at any point will know that that crowd aren’t ones for being subtle on the sex and violence. Man, if you’re gonna hint at tits, just show the audience some tits. They’re adults, they can handle it. Verhoeven’s European sense of film-making, boobs and blood all mixed together, ended up repulsing the majority of the US audience, I think, who certainly weren’t used to such extremes of both nudity and violence being portrayed in mainstream Hollywood. Basic Instinct flirted with controversy, Showgirls was essentially a mainstream soft-porn flick with a massive advertising budget and massive “word of mouth”, and even Hollow Man had a completely unnecessary rape scene right in the middle of a completely over the top film. Western audiences, unused to this style of cinema, found his films hard to balance out as “entertainment”: they were usually violent, either over the top or justifiably so, or overtly sexual, or both, and many couldn’t handle it. The artistic merit of Basic Instinct, and what that film gave us (Sharon Stone’s beaver notwithstanding) can be discussed until the end of time, but you very rarely see anyone stop and discuss the merits of a schlocky, logic-free D-grader with plenty of pricey digital effects.
Starship Troopers‘ glorification of fighting in the military is the point most people take away from this film. The error they often make if that Verhoeven is actively laughing at those people – Troopers is an indictment on the military structure, the glorification of war and the most base of all human traits: fear of the unknown. One line in the films’ first act, in a classroom if you can believe it, seems to say that “violence is the supreme authority by which all power is derived”, even though Flores herself questions this by saying that she was always taught that “violence never solves anything”. I guess one could argue either way, but Verhoeven doesn’t have time to argue, man. He’s busy showing us how cool the military hardware of the future is going to be, and how cool it will be to fight on a distant planet. Well, cool up until you get yourself hacked apart by the razor sharp pincers of a hundred giant bugs. The underlying subtext of this film isn’t nearly as underlying as it wants to be, and Verhoeven isn’t subtle enough a director to do much about it – either that or he just doesn’t care. He moves the story along at a rapid pace, condensing time down to key character-driven moments and hurrying to get to the good stuff: the humans landing on an alien planet and getting their asses ripped out. Which they do. You’ve never seen so much human carnage on such a grandiose scale, and Verhoeven’s pornographic camera takes us into the thick of it. Limbs and bodies fly apart as the Bugs hack into the military forces on the ground, while in orbit, the massive starship fleet comes in for a pounding by giant blue Bug Poo launched their way by enormous giant poo-shooting Bugs on the surface. Sounds crazy, and it is crazy, but it all makes sense in a kind of warped, Verhoeven kinda way.
The final third of the film, which pits Johnny, Flores and Carmen against overwhelming alien odds, is a staggeringly mounted series of action sequences, each leading right into the next seemingly without pause, and you can almost see the grin of delight Verhoeven must have had while directing this stuff. At times, I half wished he’d scored Steve Austin to come on set and say “I ain’t got time to bleed” at one point and make this film the genre classic it almost could have been. As it stands, Starship Troopers is the corny, derivative and wholly entertaining debacle of violence, depravity and warped sense of humor we know Verhoeven has – shit man, look at Total Recall and tell me that film’s not the funniest Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy ever made. Anybody who can turn Michael Ironside into the future equivalent of Charlton frickin’ out-of-my-cold-dead-hands Heston is okay by me. There’s no sense to this film whatsoever, so you can’t go into it looking for outdated concepts like “subtlety” and “intelligence”, because they are in short supply here. There’s no way this film should be as entertaining as it is, but I think if you’ve made it this far through this review, you’ve been given fair warning on what to expect.