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Starship Troopers

Sony Pictures // R // August 4, 2008
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Don Houston | posted July 27, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Background: Robert Heinlein was one of the most influential science fiction writers of a foregone generation, influential in politics, and an early adopter of racial equality. Having served in the military and written extensively about his belief in a meritocracy, Heinlein suggested a balance between the "rights" everyone was given with the responsibilities of citizenship; all in stark contrast to his peers given the age when he wrote a controversial novel called Starship Troopers back in 1959. The novel focused on a rich Filipino named Johnny Rico, a high school athlete and pretty boy who defies his family to join the military as a ground pounding mobile infantry grunt. The Earth Federation is involved in a conflict with an alien race of super destructive and huge bugs, their high tech weaponry serving to balance their survivability against the physically superior race. The idea that one must earn the ability to vote or run for office via military service was not new, even years later it is often a selling point for candidates running for office to expound upon their military records. The novel was considered to promote military interests, right wing thinking, and anti-intellectual ideas, the critics forgetting that it also starred a minority who rose through the ranks in a system far from any that were popularly supported at the time (this was pre-Civil Rights marches folks!). So imagine this seemingly dated material translated into movie form thanks to director Paul Verhoeven (of Robocop fame) in 1997; the height of the Clinton years, generating substantial controversy from both sides of the political aisle.

Movie: Starship Troopers (Blu-Ray) is the latest version of the movie to date, taking full advantage of the high definition format to make it look better than ever before. For those who might have missed the wave of criticism, let me tell you that Verhoeven's version of the novel is a completely different take on it, Heinlein probably rolling over in his grave as a result of what the director did. The story still stars Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) but he's as white bread a pretty boy as ever existed in a war movie. He's still rich and his parents want him to go to college, the young man joining the military to impress pretty gal Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), a smart, pretty gal that is naturally drawn to his charms. Once in the military, the couple was split up due to her superior math skills warranting service piloting spaceships and his sub-par scores rating a one way ticket to the futuristic equivalent of the Marines (the Mobile Infantry who get mowed down in vast numbers by the enemy).

The added element of romance was alien enough for the movie version since no such dynamic existed in the novel but Verhoeven's anti-war propaganda permeated through every aspect of the flick too. The military is made to be full of incompetent commanders, hinting that the initial attack by the alien bugs was actually staged by the Federation to invoke hawkish sentiments, a ploy used historically many times in the past. The characters are all wooden and fairly dense, Johnny himself always asking advice of those around him to show how insecure he was without a rifle blaring in his hand. The rigors of boot camp are displayed, the taste of first combat, and near death coming all too soon as Johnny and his squad use decidedly low tech weapons (no powered armor suits for this cannon fodder!) to fend off attacks, establishing that everybody fights to the end, follows orders unquestioningly, and does as they are told, lest society itself fall apart.

The enemy is much like Earth insects too, a hierarchy coming into place as the movie progresses but the warrior cast mindlessly decapitating human soldiers with ease, tank bugs spewing fiery acid to melt flesh, and showing coordinated attack patterns indicative of intelligence. The love interest includes the expected "Dear Johnny" letter, a second love interest in fiery Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), and an assortment of stereotypical characters found in just about every successful war movie made in the last 60 years. Particularly effective role models like Career Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown) or Lt Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside) were few and far between but the excesses of Verhoeven's budgetary exploits (he allegedly spent around $100 million on the production) allowed for some extremely subversive side bar material in the form of commercials, news reports, and even double entendres where the viewer is challenged, dared even, to consider a government controlled media as typically going against the best interests of the populace.

The handful of battles were so ultra violent that the shock value when this was released was much higher than now, even the pokes at current society unavoidable but quite in line with traditional war movies. The movie has numerous continuity flaws, clips that pushed the Nazi themes too far, and layers of political double speak heavy handedly shoved down the throat of the viewer but the style alone merited this so-called "action movie" (it was much more of a subversive anti-war rallying cry and parody of the ideas from the book, counter to what the professional critics pronounced it upon release) more than a little love, my appreciation for the original novel as a youth not impacted in the slightest by the appeal of the movie so I rated this one as Recommended.

Picture: Starship Troopers (Blu-Ray) was shot on 35mm film stock in color for theatrical release in 1997 by Director Paul Verhoeven with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. I've seen this at the theater, on VHS, the original DVD release, subsequent Super Bit release, and even in the upgraded version several years back so I can definitively state that this is the best version I've seen to date. The colors were accurate, the grain minimal in all but a handful of portions, and the darker sections devoid of macro blocking; the AVC codec encoded flick looking substantially better than anything to date. In fact, the lower compression rate helped make the movie look almost as if it were a recent release rather than a show released over a decade ago. Such is the power of Blu-Ray and such is the reason for my admiration for this remastered release cleaned up over what has come before. The 1080p picture had a video bitrate typically hovering in the 28+ Mbps range with the added resolution enhancing the humans more than the CGI aliens but looking worlds better than the sequels (my review of the third, horrible volume in the series forthcoming to detail just how any advances in technology were offset by the drastically lower budget).

Sound: The primary audio track was a 5.1 English in True HD, providing more separation than previous releases, tightened (but plentiful) bass, and a solid blend of the score with the vocals and effects. The score supported the visual elements of the movie nicely, with what most people would consider an aggressive but well placed soundstage; the battle sequences faring best in the upgrade but no weak spots worth mentioning noticed in my initial outing with the flick (the alternative movie track was in French Dolby TrueHD and it sounded okay when I spot checked it but I spent more time with the extras and two commentaries than listening to it). The audio bitrate was usually closest to 2 Mbps but the range varied from 1.4 as high as 2.8 from what I observed, admittedly not paying a lot of attention to the numbers when the aural qualities were so decent to begin with this time. There were subtitles in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish, the translations seeming to take few liberties with the material.

Extras: One of the biggest complaints I have received about Blu-Ray releases has been the relative bare bones nature of the discs to date. While this is not always the case, it strikes me as crystal clear that double (and triple) dips are going to be the future of the high definition format just as they were with SD titles, so I was pleasantly surprised at the wealth of goodies included here, especially given the lame import version reviewed earlier this year. First off were the obligatory trailers to other releases by the company, easily skipped via remote control, and the two "Special Edition" audio commentaries ported over to this one. One of them was with Director Paul Verhoeven and screenplay writer Edward Neumeier, Paul acting like a kid trying to impress his peers with his undying love of the technical advances they made and railing at the critical panning the movie received by his own tree-hugging friends in the press when the movie came out but also providing the best breadth of knowledge on the show. Neumeier was definitely second fiddle here but interjected comments relating more to the changes made and backing up what Paul went over. The second commentary included Verhoeven, who played alpha male yet again, but this time balanced out by lead actors Casper Van Dien (Johnny Rico), Dina Meyer (Dizzy Flores), and Neil Patrick Harris (Carl). Verhoeven might as well have included just Casper given the unbalanced way each of his two sidekicks were presented (Casper jumped in more than the others put together with mostly innocuous comments) but the hardships of filming were covered better by him than the director could muster.

The bulk of the rest of the extras were all over the place in terms of quality, as if an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach was the key to making fans happy (I have to say I liked the premise of this approach and wish other companies would try it for a change) though in standard definition. There are numerous ways to watch the movie itself, be it with the "Fednet" selection that had related material come on screen in pop up video style, the BDLive enabled method (pending on my own machine) that provided some additional trailers and material via the internet, or the Blu-Wizard mode that allow you to select which features you want popping up during the playing of the movie. Those features are; Death From Above: Lasting over a half hour, it contained interviews of the cast and creative staff ranging from the 180 degree flip of the politics of the book to the movie version, casting, discussion about war time propaganda, and even the adverse reaction to many when the movie came out; three featurettes including a Making of Starship Troopers, The Spaceships of the movie, and the Bug Test Film (each self explanatory and relatively short but worth watching). There was a Know Your Bug collection of clips concerning each of the alien lifeforms from the show, a lengthy FX Comparison section that will give special effect aficionado's a lot to appreciate, a Storyboard Comparison chart that showed how some scenes evolved over time from concept to film, Verhoeven going over two action scenes (the Tank Bug Ride by Johnny and the destruction of the Rodger Young cruiser), five deleted scenes that were heavy on Carmen (Denise Richards) material, and two casting screen tests, again with Denise Richards and also Casper Van Dien.

A separate extra well worth trying out a few times was a quiz that acted as a recruiting device, asking the viewer a series of multiple choice questions to see which branch of the military you would be best suited for, providing clips from the show at regular intervals to keep it interesting (as well as a score; mine nothing special because I took it before rewatching the movie but ranking as pilot material before my second bout showing me worthy of fleet There was also a feature where you could upload a digital image of yourself and the movie would place you in the movie, but be careful what you wish for considering the nature of the movie (where a great many people are horribly ripped apart). I wish the deleted scenes section was longer and that the commentaries yielded more information, but there have been few Blu-Ray releases with as broad and deep a selection of extras at this writing.

Final Thoughts: Starship Troopers (Blu-Ray) should appeal to those that aren't clued in about the manner it spoofs war (and war movies, Verhoeven quite up front about the many movies he borrowed material and elements from) as much as the most liberal, anti-war advocates out there, even catering to action junkies willing to set their brains on neutral to skip the politics of the movie and just appreciate it on a baser level. The technical upgrade was readily noticed, the extras extremely packed in (though not upgraded), and the entire package well worth a rating of Recommended despite the romance elements so poorly crammed in and the flipping of the original book's politics (Heinlein probably rolling over in his grave endlessly since this came out). While far from a perfect movie, Starship Troopers was a lot of fun and one of the better tongue in cheek Verhoeven films in my estimation, so consider it as worthy of your attention when it comes out next week in Blu-Ray.

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