Hollywood is a frequent target of yours truly. No raspberries today as it's time to SALUTE those deep-pocketed studios out yonder for fostering the career of Paul Verhoven -- easily the greatest big-budget exploitation filmmaker going. There's no such thing as GRATUITOUS sex and violence in Verhoven's flicks because they're inherently integral to the plot. Hitch had his blondes. Paul's got blood 'n' boobs! Who else would follow the boffo success of Basic Instinct with a fleshy flick about cat-fighting Showgirls? NO ONE!!! Who else would reimagine The Invisible Man as a horn'd up psychopath!!? NO ONE!!! And above all others Starship Troopers (1997, 130 minutes) may best illustrate what makes Mr. Verhoven the sort of Hollywood big-wig CineSchlockers can readily embrace.
The movie: When Mormon settlers colonize the wrong planet, mankind finds itself at odds with a mean, nasty insect race who take to hurling value-sized meteors at our puny blue planet. These unruly bugs must be squashed and it's the job of every good citizen to see to it that happens. In this sci-fi society, perfection is a way of life, order is mandatory and citizenship, the right to vote, to have children, to watch all the cartoons you want is only earned by military service. Enter four friends: Square-jawed Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is itching to slide into home with his buxom honey Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) who won't wave him in til he "decides" to join the mobile infantry. Meanwhile, Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) is ga-ga for Johnny, who's clueless, and Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) just likes to play mind-control games with his pet ferret. Each take their separate service paths after graduation. Carmen is an honest-to-goodness space cadet who finds herself behind the wheel of a massive starship. Carl disappears into the shadowy world of military intel. Rico and Dizzy just HAPPEN to wind up in the same infantry unit, well, she MIGHT've had a little something to do with that. Soon it's off to Bug Central, otherwise known as planet Klendathu, to kick arachnid keister with good ol' fashion MACHINE GUNS and the occasional well-placed nuclear pineapple. Unfortunately, the hide tanning doesn't quite go the Earthlings' way as tens of thousands of bloodied troopers are hurled into the air and hacked in half with extreme prejudice by ravenous bugs on world-wide TV courtesy of the Federal Network (about a hair shy of the Fox News Channel). Yet our heros soldier on despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Rico even manages to find time to swap punches with Carmen's new flyboy toy (Patrick Muldoon). But fear not, the rest of the flick OOZES with deliriously gruesome gore. Heads tumble. Legs fling through the air. Insect innards splatter. And there's even coed showers to wash all the unsightly gack away. CineSchlocker fave Michael Ironside plays the hawkish, one-armed teacher who backs up his "might is right" rhetoric by strapping on a mechanical prosthetic so he can lead ground assaults against swarms of razor-legged arachnids. Oh, and don't overlook "Golden Girl" Rue McClanahan as the kids' blind biology teacher.
Notables: Six breasts. 125 corpses (plus about 9,308,563 off-screen deaths). Multiple decapitations. Puking. Futuristic football. Mooning. Fiddle playing. Horse whipping. One dead dog. Lite S&M. Insect mind meld. Multiple amputations. Throwing knife to the hand. Giant cockroach dissection. Hiney slapping. Massive acid loogies.
Quotables: Grizzled trooper welcomes new recruits, "Fresh meat for the grinder, eh?" Drill instructor apes Goodfellas, "DO YOU THINK I'M FUNNY!? DO I MAKE YOU LAUGH!? DO YOU THINK I'M A COMEDIAN, SON!?" Furious Buenos Aires survivor howls, "THE ONLY GOOD BUG IS A DEAD BUG!!!" Rico's squad leader as they descend on Klendathu, "We're going in with the first wave! Means MORE bugs for us to kill! You SMASH the entire area!!! You KILL anything that has more than TWO legs!!!"
Time codes: TV reporter gets ripped in two (1:50). Second FedNet report: Children play with guns / Writer of flick is condemned to death / Cow and Mormons butchered by bugs (22:19). God bless Mr. Verhoven (29:08). Our hero gets a high-tech Dear John letter (38:45). Cadet has his brainpan ventilated (41:22). Third FedNet report: Doogie demonstrates how to properly machine gun a warrior bug / Kiddos stomp insects in the street (52:32). Two-man brawl to the plaintive crooning of Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You" (56:50). Diz finally bags her man (1:21:00). The big, Zulu-inspired CGI money shot (1:29:00). Final FedNet report featuring an unpleasant probing (1:58:10).
Audio/Video: Home theater nuts, er, aficionados will swear they perceive a slight, more film-like look to this new anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer. But there's not a huge enough diff to make for an interesting Pepsi Challenge. Same soaring Dolby Digital 5.1 track as the original disc.
Disc 1: The Federal Network gives the first release's yawn-worthy menus an eye-popping, motion-video overhaul, effectively mimicking the "Would you like to know more?" interactivity alluded to in the film. In the first of two new commentaries, Verhoven is joined by Casper, Doogie and the tasty Ms. Meyer in a lively track that often finds the actors taking playful stabs at their director's, um, "exuberance," complete with voice impressions. Doc Howser also goes on a brief tirade on the evils of Pan and Scan. Hang in to the end of the track and hear Paul's confession concerning the original Robert A. Heinlein novel. That's followed by an isolated score featuring intermittent insights by composer Basil Poledouris who's worked on everything from The Hunt for Red October to films for CineSchlocker fave John Waters and TV's all-to-short-lived "Misfits of Science" starring a young Courteney Cox.
OK, so, what's recycled? Verhoven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier's superb commentary in which they addressed their baffled critics and drew very clear lines on the flick's true subtext. Neumeier is especially engaging, while Paul sometimes gets a bit too wrapped up in rabidly pointing out what's CGI, what's a model and what's real.
Disc 2: Definitely loaded for bug! There's the brand new "Death From Above" documentary that explores the flick from script to screen via cast and crew interviews (32 mins). Gorehounds will especially savor the often gruesome "Know Your Foe" section with detailed profiles of each bug, as well as insights from FX guru Phil Tippet (17 mins). Among the choicest of gleanings is that the Brain Bug is sort of a cross between "Orsen Wells and a grub." Several picture-in-a-picture FX comparisons are included, with probably the most amusing being that of a guy hosing down the cage walls with a blood-filled fire extinguisher in that "Censored!" bug butchering of a cow (23 mins). Ubiquitous storyboard comparisons (12 mins). A short featurette on the "Starships of Starship Troopers" highlighting the effective mixture of practical and CGI modeling (3 mins). Conceptual art gallery with more than 140 images of bugs, costumes, ships, sets and logos. Widescreen theatrical trailer, plus reels for Resident Evil, Final Fantasy and Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles
In the recycled bin are those deleted scenes of Carmen cavorting behind Rico's back that made test audiences go bonkers (about four minutes, plus the extended "kiss" ending). Although, CineSchlockers won't mind ogling Ms. Richards in her skivvies for a second or so. Two scene deconstructions with commentary by Verhoven (7 mins). The pretty dern cool "Don't Look Now" bug test reel (1 min). Exceedingly frightening auditions by Casper and Denise (4 mins). Finally, the "vintage" featurette from the original disc (8 mins).
To the keepcase purists out there, yes, this sucker's made of cardboard. Yeah, the proof of purchase tag makes it close all funky. There's no production notes and the "Brain bug" inexplicably became a "Smart bug" on the track listings. Somehow we'll all just have to press on in our lives, but maybe a half-star deduction will lessen the sting.
Final thought: Paul Verhoven is a masterful, latter-day exploiteer whose fiendishly subversive, gloriously gruesome space opera goose steps with an infectious twinkle in its eye. An absolute must have for any self-respecting CineSchlocker. Collectors Series.
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G. Noel Gross is a Dallas graphic designer and avowed Drive-In Mutant who specializes in scribbling B-movie reviews. Noel is inspired by Joe Bob Briggs and his gospel of blood, breasts and beasts.