Screenplay : Edward Neumeier (based on the novel by Robert A. Heinlein)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Casper Van Dien (Johnny Rico), Dina Meyer (Dizzy Flores), Denise Richards (Carmen Ibanez), Jake Busey (Ace Levy), Neil Patrick Harris (Carl Jenkins), Clancy Brown (Sgt. Zim), Seth Gilliam (Sugar Watkins), Patrick Muldoon (Zander Barcalow), Michael Ironside (Jean Rasczak)
After the $40-million debacle that was "Showgirls," director Paul Verhoeven had to do something to salvage his career. With that single movie, he had turned from a star director into a laughing stock. Something had to be done, but what?
His answer: simply blow "Showgirls" out of the collective memory.
Which is exactly what he does with the $100-million "Starship Troopers," a relentlessly violent comic book of a movie that pits mankind against a race of giant, swarming insects. It's the ultimate in us-against-them chivalry, where the enemy has no redeeming factors unless it's dead. Verhoeven has simply collected every war movie cliche known to man, and transplanted them into a loud, garish spectacle of futuristic ultraviolence.
Of course, this is hardly new terrain for Verhoeven, which is the most obvious indicator that this movie is his plea for redemption after "Showgirls." He just followed the old adage of doing what you do best, and all will go well.
Verhoeven had made a number of critically-acclaimed movies in his native Holland before exploding onto the American scene with "RoboCop," a disarmingly original and violently satirical take on cop movies and megacorporation dominance. He upped the ante a few years later with "Total Recall," the look and feel of which has been recycled by production designer Allan Cameron ("Far and Away") for "Starship Troopers."
Based on the famous sci-fi novel by Robert A. Heinlein, "Starship Troopers" is a movie that is carefully constructed to appeal to the rambunctious, devil-may-care 12-year-old boy in all of us, but is not appropriate for 12-year-old boys. Loud, garish, and full of spurting blood, disembowelings, dismemberments, and beheadings, "Starship Troopers" is like a non-stop video game assault on the senses. Once it gets going, it doesn't stop to look back or even take a breath.
Unfortunately, the movie takes almost a full hour to get going. The first half is given over to the development of the young protagonists, an attractive group of teenagers who joined the Federal army right out of high school with high hopes and aspirations. Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is the rich kid who goes against his parents' wishes by following Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), his always-smiling girlfriend who dreams of becoming a pilot. A love triangle (or is it a square?) develops when Carmen dumps Johnny for Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon), another pilot, and Johnny begins developing feelings for Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), the girl who's had a crush on him since their high school days.
All of this is cheesy and melodramatic in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way; Verhoeven piles it on right down to prom night, David Bowie songs, and lines like, "My parents won't be home tonight." It's impossible to believe that Verhoeven didn't consciously recruit these unknown actors simply because they had appeared on either "Melrose Place" or "Beverly Hills 90210." They know how to smile and look pretty, until the bugs arrive on the scene.
This is arguable where the movie really begins, and the mega-millions that were saved by using unknown actors and spent on special effects really shows. On a strictly visceral level, the movie looks fantastic. The hordes of ten-foot spider-like arachnid warriors, with their clicking legs and razor-sharp talons are a sight to behold, swarming across the mountains in a seemingly endless wave. Creature designed Phil Tippett (who won an Oscar for "Jurassic Park") has outdone himself here. Digital effects are taken to a new level, especially some of the scenes in outer space that were obviously inspired by the final battle in "Return of the Jedi."
Most of the battle are waged on the desert landscape of the bug's native planet. For the sake of simplicity, it's best to forget that even with today's primitive technology, all mankind would have to do is send a couple of nuclear warheads to decimate the entire planet. It's much more fun to fight it out "Aliens"-style with high power machine guns and rocket launchers that blow the bugs to slimy green pieces one at a time.
Verhoeven films the land battle scenes in rapid fire that throws vicious gore at us from all angles, but never stops to contemplate it. No bones about it, "Starship Troopers" is one of the most violent movies to come out in recent years, but so much is happening so fast that we don't have a chance to think about it. People die by the thousands at the hands of the bugs, and death is never pretty. Yet, like "RoboCop," Verhoeven invests a gruesome thrill aspect to the violence, so you almost feel let down if someone dies a less-than-grisly death. The fact that most of the characters are one-dimensional gives us the added benefit of not feeling too bad when they become insect fodder.
"Starship Troopers" attempts to repeat the same satiric wit that flowed through "RoboCop" by inserting news breaks and commercials throughout the movie (Edward Neumeier, who adapted the screenplay here, also wrote "RoboCop"). Many of these are commercials to join the Federal army, which are a direct shot at the "Be All You Can Be" ads sponsored by the U.S. Army. The ads show smiling young men and women joining up and loving life, which is then contrasted sharply with the same people being torn limb from limb in the battles the commercials neglect to talk about.
These passages help round out the movie, and make it more than just a gross-out shoot-em-up. Verhoeven knows what he's doing, and he knows what he wants. The resulting movie is repulsively thrilling and often downright hilarious. Verhoeven likes to walk the line between laughs and flying body parts, and he sometimes pushes the envelope a bit too far. By the end, "Starship Troopers" borders on becoming disturbingly repetitive, and although the ending is a bit abrupt and unexplained, it is still welcome. After all, once you've seen a few thousand bugs shot to pieces, what more is there to see?
©1997 James Kendrick