Paul Verhoeven's massive 1997 film adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein's controversial novel Starship Troopers blindsided then polarized critics and audiences expecting a standard Aliens-type sci-fi thriller. Pitting mankind's 23rd century military might against an alien race of giant bug monsters, it was a film of unparalleled extremes: virtually non-stop grisly violence contrasting a darkly satirical approach with its heroes operating within an overtly fascist society. Was it art or "war porn?" A clever political satire or crass exploitation? The British Blu-ray disc is not region-encoded, and while the standard-def extras are carryovers from the DVD release, the 1080p transfer is a knock-out.
A U.S. Navy veteran and virulent anticommunist, Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers in 1959, at the height of the Cold War; the novel was his direct response to SANE's founding and their calls for a suspension of nuclear arms testing. Greatly angered by their actions, Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers while he and his wife co-founded the Patrick Henry League, a pro-testing advocacy organization.
In the movie, this very '50s hawkishness is very loosely adapted into a broader if straight-faced satire of fascist-styled totalitarianism and gung-ho militarism in a narrative that also parodies war movie cliches. The central character, Juan "Johnny" Rico (Casper Van Dien), is an aimless rich kid fresh out of high school who enlists chiefly to be near his much smarter and ambitious girlfriend, Carmen (Denise Richards). Soon enough she dumps him to pursue a military career as a starship pilot, while he gets swept into the front-line fighting once war is declared between earth and the big bugs from the planet Klendathu. There are standard war movie genre subplots involving Rico's platoon, a heroic mentor figure (memorably played by Michael Ironside), and a comic relief character (Doogie Howser's Neil Patrick Harris) who enters military intelligence and ends up an SS-like officer.
Part of the film's polarizing reception is the result of its seemingly conflicting approach, one that mixes Terry Southern-style satire and its singularly unreal aspects - such as its too beautiful to be believed Aryan-looking cast of high school graduates, especially Richards' Barbie Doll mathematical genius/ace pilot - with intense battlefield footage, no matter that the "enemy" are CGI-generated bug monsters. The opening teaser scene (most of the story then unfolds in flashback) shows a typically chaotic moment as a television reporter is grabbed by one of the creatures and literally ripped in two.
Indeed, the film is a veritable catalog of clinical dismemberment and disembowelment. That a mix of special make-up effects and CGI can now achieve such startling imagery is undeniably impressive - but the argument has also been made that movies like Starship Troopers are merely perverting the technology for cheap visceral thrills - thrills that gradually immune us to a revulsion our humanity requires.
When I first saw the film back in 1997 at Hollywood's Cinerama Dome, mine was a typically conflicted response. I was appropriately amused and horrified by the political satire: the 1984-like public education system, the televised public executions (Heinlein was a proponent of capital punishment), the spoofs of army recruiting ads and Cold War era propaganda, etc. - but also found the graphic violence overwhelming and the gleeful reaction by many in the audience (cheering appreciatively at the most extreme effects) rather disturbing.**
For this reviewer, the impact of such scenes is different from, for example, the methodical dismembering of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is done on the level of a Warner Bros. cartoon. In Starship Troopers, one gets the sense that Verhoeven goes for the jugular (literally, in some cases) simply because CGI technology now made such effects possible. In any case, it's hard to imagine studio politics didn't play into the film's completely inapt R-rating. If any film released in 1997 warranted an NC-17, this one did.
Nonetheless, this is an incredible production, a real epic. If it liberally quotes from The Longest Day, The Alamo, and Zulu among others, it does so with great panache and effectiveness. At 130 minutes it's overlong and overdone, wearing out its welcome long before it's over, but it's also never boring and crammed with epic action.
Video & Audio
The region-free Blu-ray disc of Starship Troopers is extremely impressive. Menu screens and subtitles are available in no less than nine languages: English, French, Spanish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, and Dutch. Audio is similarly varied: 5.1 Dolby Digital in English, French, and Spanish; DTS 5.1 in French and Spanish, and uncompressed PCM 5.1 in English. As one might expect, the audio positively rumbles and roars throughout booming and ablaze with machine gun fire, explosions, and Basil Poledouris's impressive score. The audio is very bass-heavy and the surround speakers get an excellent workout.
I was very impressed with the 1.78:1 image (adapted from the 1.85:1 OAR) which is near-flawless. Particularly surprising in this age where CGI effects are evolving by leaps and bounds every few years, the 11-year-old Starship Troopers hasn't really dated much at all, and the $105 million production is all up there on the screen and then some. (The film was an unusual co-production of Touchstone and TriStar.) The 1080p / VC-1 presentation overall makes a great demo disc for one's home theater system.
Less impressive are the supplements, just 30 minutes worth, all of which are carried over from the standard DVD release. Included are five deleted scenes, making-of featurette material, screen tests and a teaser trailer. Also included are trailers for three Touchstone titles, all in high-def: Wild Things, The Invisible, and The Lookout. Notably missing from all this is Verhoeven's audio commentary from the 1998 DVD.
Time has been kind to Starship Troopers: beyond the fact that its visual effects have aged as well as they have, the satirical ambitions are now more in synch with the current international political climate and the picture's humor now plays gutsier than it did eleven years ago. The Blu-ray's supplements are wanting, but the transfer is excellent and the disc overall is Recommended.
My thanks to reader Kraig A. McGann, who kindly offered to let me take a gander at his Blu-ray copy of the film for this review.
** I had a similar reaction at the U.S. premiere of Kinji Fukasaku's somewhat similar Battle Royale (2000). I found it the most brilliantly horrifying film of its kind since A Clockwork Orange yet equally horrified by the audience's reaction to it. As with Starship Troopers they laughed and applauded the film's grimmest scenes as if they were action set pieces in a Jackie Chan comedy.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest books, Japanese Cinema and The Toho Studios Story, are now available for pre-order.