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Today's Science Fiction movies must compete with action thrillers and comic book films, which makes Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel Starship Troopers sound like a natural. Action-packed and light on characterization, Heinlein's story of soldiers vs. monsters on distant planets was noted for its endorsement of a one-world rule positioned somewhere between ancient Sparta and Nazi Germany. Its authoritarian society maintains a perpetual war footing, and military service is required for citizenship.
Producer Jon Davison reunited the talent that had hit a bulls-eye with the previous decade's RoboCop: writer Ed Neumeier, special effects animator Phil Tippet and director Paul Verhoeven. Neumeier and Verhoeven were after more than spectacular visuals of galactic combat. Heinlein's "Space Marines" concept had already been exploited by James Cameron's 1986 Aliens. Audiences had loved RoboCop's combination of pulp mythology and biting political satire. What might Davison's crew do with Heinlein's story about interplanetary infantrymen in a war of extermination against an alien species?
Starship Troopers is a milestone film, if only because it shakes Sci-Fi free from the limp mythology of the Star Wars series, with its hand-me-down swashbuckling and wholesale borrowings from authors like Robert Heinlein and Frank Herbert. Troopers goes in for violent gore and grotesque images straight from old horror comics, as when a "Brain Bug" pierces a man's skull and sucks his brain matter out through a siphon. Audiences were shocked by jolts like that one, but they resented other aspects of the film. As in RoboCop the main object is political satire, but the dark ironies sailed over the heads of disgruntled critics, some of whom thought the film glorified fascism.
Troopers' stylized future world conforms to no previous genre model. The high school kids look like fashion models and are as earnest and thoughtless as the characters of an Archie comic. Beautiful teen queens Carmen and Dizzy compete for the affections of the dumb but sincere Johnny Rico. Dizzy pines for Rico but Carmen has him dazzled with her killer smile.
That petty romantic triangle, almost as simple as a Popeye cartoon, is modeled after old pro-recruitment films about the armed services. In contrast, the future society's philosophy is examined in full detail. Unfortunately, movie audiences have, with few exceptions, consistently rejected cerebral Sci-Fi movies. In the absence of giant Tex Avery-style billboards proclaiming, "This is satire", they assumed that Troopers was a confused, gory space opera about stupid characters.
It doesn't flatter the filmmakers to report that most critics didn't "get" Starship Troopers either; some were put off balance by the exaggerated violence and the troopers' co-ed shower scene. But several reviewers, including Manohla Darghis, accused the movie of celebrating Nazi iconography. Critics that had immediately picked up on the satirical overkill of RoboCop did not understand that Neumeier and Verhoeven were criticizing modern society's drift toward corporate fascism. Somewhere along the way, Starship Troopers sent out the wrong signals. 1997 moviegoers did not like being told that they were pawns of an aggressive empire.
The world of Starship Troopers isn't an extrapolation of the Third Reich, it's an extension of today's post- Cold War realities. The world has been unified under an all-powerful Federation that limits democratic input and restricts voting to military veterans. The government controls all media. Racism has been abolished but minority cultures and languages have been eliminated: Carmen's last name is Ibanez, not Ibañez. Buenos Aires is as "American" as Beverly Hills. High School indoctrinations preach a kinder, gentler form of fascism: all political power stems from military power, in short, brute violence.
This future society offers few choices. Only the elite (like the wealthy Ricos) can afford to opt out of military service; we don't see what careers are open to non-enlistees. Rico and his friends enthusiastically submit their SAT scores to the military and are placed in the ranks according to their individual aptitudes. The swearing-in ceremony has a built-in Stop-Loss codicil. Enlistees serve for a minimum of two years -- and for as long as the army decides they are needed.
The film's space combat is like Sgt. Rock on steroids. The pumped-up troopers charge onto the bug planet as if hitting the beach in a John Wayne battle epic. Colorful roughneck jargon abounds: "This place crawls!" ... "What's your malfunction?" Phil Tippet's CGI insect monsters, wicked horrors with legs like African Assegais, overwhelm the troopers' massed machine gun defenses like the warriors of Zulu. Verhoeven gets plenty of shocks from troopers being speared like fish and ripped into pieces. High above, the Federation space fleet cruises in tight orbital formation. Starship Troopers fulfills the visual promise of older Sci-Fi thrillers limited by conventional special effects. Alien bug monsters attack by the thousands. Insect-made plasma projectiles slam into the space armada, ripping a giant cruiser in two. Dozens of airmen spill into the inky vacuum of space.
Troopers' unsubtle satire didn't register with audiences dulled by blatant pro-war, pro-aggression fare like Rambo and Top Gun. The Mobile Infantry troops tattoo themselves with the message "Death From Above", a Vietnam-era slogan reminiscent of morbid Nazi insignia. A FedNet media report shows a sickening "uplift" segment where schoolchildren are encouraged to stomp cockroaches. In another, Carl demonstrates that one carefully placed shot will drop a monster bug in its tracks, a tactic that seemingly hasn't trickled down to the combat infantry. The only efficient way of fighting the Bugs is to carpet bomb their massed formations with Vietnam-like Napalm.
Other more subtle messages are present as well. The FedNet media breaks dispense orchestrated Federation lies. We're shown the gory aftermath of a Mormon outpost butchered by Bugs, and don't know if the pilgrims went there to flee Federation persecution, or if they were encouraged to colonize a Bug-adjacent planet so that their massacre could be used to motivate retaliation against the Bugs. The FedNet warns that the "Bug menace" must be eliminated because they threaten Earth by blasting meteors in our direction. Although Starship Troopers never states it outright, we suspect that the Bug Meteors are the Insects' response to the Federation's invasion of their faraway planetary system. Chauvinistic propaganda paints the Bugs as fit only for extermination and dismisses their defensive capabilities -- the same way the American army underestimated the Vietnamese. 3
But what really sent the wrong signals were the film's Nazi uniforms. Audiences that paid no attention to the Federation's fascist ideology resented Neil Patrick Harris appearing in a leather SS getup for the final scenes. Seemingly incapable of believing that a Science Fiction movie could be so subversive, a number of critics opined that wild man Paul Verhoeven had slipped a cog and was endorsing Naziism, and that his movie was in rotten taste.
Starship Troopers isn't about Nazi fashion sense; it says that we are already very much like Nazis. 1 Couple that unpopular sentiment with the general distaste for Verhoeven's vile Showgirls, and Troopers was denied the success of a breakout hit. 2
Starship Troopers is beautifully photographed by Jost Vacano. Its designs and special effects are dazzling. The casting is excellent, with personnel like Rue McClanahan, Jake Busey, and Clancy Brown making very strong contributions. Michael Ironside is immediately convincing as a fascist zealot, telling Johnny Rico that he's free to choose his destiny - within the Federation's narrow limits. Dina Meyer and Neil Patrick Harris peg their characters perfectly, while director Verhoeven gets exactly what he wants from Denise Richards and even the unexpressive Casper Van Dien.
Sony's Blu-ray of Starship Troopers captures the full impact of the film's theatrical presentation. The added resolution lends much more detail to the dazzling space vistas and makes the young actors' complexions look too flawless to be real.
The extras come at the viewer like an onslaught on Klendathu. Helping to cope is a function called "Blu Wizard", which allows one to customize the playback of extras, or bookmark ones that have already been viewed. "FedNet Mode" is a trivia track enhanced with graphics and opinions from filmmakers & actors on the film's politics. One commentary gives Paul Verhoeven a track of his own and a second combines him with his cast.
Other extras include a rundown on the film's various Bug types and spaceship designs; Comparisons of early special effects and storyboards to the final product, deleted scenes, screen tests and a making-of docu.
In the newer making-of docu Death From Above Verhoeven, Davison and Neumeier are not bitter about the disappointing reception of their film. But remember the old Hollywood proverb: make a retro-futuristic faux-fascist propaganda movie that tells the audience that they're all budding Nazis, and you might encounter some resistance! Starship Troopers will become a classic precisely because of its cultural audacity.
Sony also offers the Blu-ray Starship Troopers Trilogy three-pack, which unites the original Paul Verhoeven film with its underachieving Direct To Video sequel, and a second new sequel, the rather interesting Starship Troopers 3: Marauder.
Note: A brief glitch has been reported in the mass attack on the station near the end of the film, a continuity fumble that misaligns some audio and repeats a bit of footage. It's a very fast mistake; I didn't notice it on my first viewing.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The same thing happened on a much smaller scale with Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's 1965 It Happened Here, which was essentially denied a release after accusations that it promoted fascism. A majority of British critics resented any implication that England would ever have knuckled under to Hitler ... even though a strong fascist fringe had been active during the 1930s.
2. I attended a late - October press screening at Westwood's Village theater. In time-honored Hollywood fashion, producer Jon Davison spent the entire show pacing the lobby, alone. Both that audience and the opening weekend crowds at the Cinerama Dome gasped in disbelief at Verhoeven's gross-out violence and laughed uncomfortably at the co-ed shower scene and the jingoistic dialogue. All were clearly impressed by the space scenes and frightening effects -- but they plain didn't "get" Starship Troopers' take on a propaganda film from the future. By the way, the film's aspect ratio at both screenings wasn't as wide as 1:85 ... it didn't even seem as wide as 1:66.
3. Starship Troopers has taken on a new life post- 9/11, with extremist claims that a secret government conspiracy purposely made the World Trade Center Towers fall. That irrational notion is prefigured in Troopers by the suspicion that the Bugs really can't shoot meteors all the way to Earth, and that the meteor that destroys Buenos Aires was actually launched by the Federation to justify its all-out assault on the Bugs. No outright evidence in the movie supports this, although the vast distance between here and Klendathu (Federation ships go into hyperspace to make the trip) makes Bug-launched meteors seem impossible. With writer Ed Neumeier involved, there's little doubt that the suggestion of a faked Bug attack was intentional. The Brain Bugs treat their millions of Bug warriors as expendable, a philosophy shared by our own corporate powers with their "human resources" policies.
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