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March 3, 2012

4

Movie Review – Starship Troopers (1997)

by NIR SHALEV

In 1959, Robert Heinlein published a book titled Starship Troopers which contained a futuristic militaristic society with a protagonist who’s a soldier from the Philippines. Juan “Johnnie” Rico joined the Mobile Infantry Division and went to war with hundreds of thousands of other soldiers against an alien insect race. The book induced a state of boredom in most of its readers, is excessively self-centered, and contains a positive view of a militaristic regime.

Enter screenwriter Edward Neumier, who wrote the screenplay for Robocop (1987) and everything else having to do with Robocop from 1987 to the present. That was his first collaboration with director Paul Verhoeven. Starship Troopers is their second collaboration and just by changing the original story almost entirely it becomes a superior product.

In the film version, we witness a futuristic alternate Earth in which a fascist, militaristic regime actually works and across the entire globe. As a result, everybody on the planet is beautiful; there is no crime anywhere; no one is poor; and anyone who doesn’t join the army after high school (and sometimes during high school just so they won’t have to sit through classes anymore) eventually grows terribly bored.

Rico in this film is played by Casper Van Dien and he was purposely cast because he has a stereotypical Aryan look; blond hair, blue eyes. He is also a sort of Adonis, much like most other males and as expected from the world in which they reside. Rico’s not a terrible student but would make a better soldier than a scientist or a psychic (remember, this is an alternate Earth) and after graduating from high school, he and his friends join the Mobile Infantry Division in the army. There the film moves from school to basic training and we are subject to hijinks, hilarity, unisex showers, testosterone, and an accidental death.

The other actors in the film that circle around Rico throughout the film are Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Patrick Muldoon, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris, Seth Gilliam, and Michael Ironside.

Now to the more interesting part: the human race, as depicted in this film, is at war with an alien insect race generally referred to as Arachnids; they exist on three different, ridiculously far away planets called Klendathu, Tango Urilla, and Planet P. One day a news report claims that most of South America had been decimated, including Rico’s hometown of Buenos Aires and the entire planet goes to war against the Arachnids.

We then leave the Earth and spend most of the remainder of the film on strange alien planets, watching human soldiers fight against alien species of various kinds and for the most part, the humans are massacred en masse. We watch as Rico rises in the ranks to lieutenant, and most of the main characters are there with him throughout all of the battles. Each battle is unique as different aliens of varying sizes appear before the audience and terrains constantly change, just so the filmmaker doesn’t repeat himself and bore the audience. One particular battle towards the film’s end purposely pays homage to the final battle from Cy Endfield’s classic film Zulu (1964) by resembling it closely.

The special effect have remained awesome even after 15 years; the bugs feel like they’re physically there, the starships and explosions look terrific, and the incredible amount of blood and gore is still awe-inspiring. The transition between practical special effects and CGI is still very impressive. This film came out one year prior to Saving Private Ryan and I find that it has stronger messages to display and far more entertaining battle sequences. There is nothing glorious about the carnage of war, but when a film is so colorful and deliberate in its humor, one has to be entertained by this level of violence. Otherwise, one would find the film goofy, ridiculous, and possibly even hurtful.

What I love about the film is that the characters resemble recognizable human beings but lack most tender emotions. There isn’t much conflict out there so there are never any grey areas, no middle ground. You’re either happy or you’re angry. Such is the world in which Starship Troopers takes place. And the boot camp sequence of the film wouldn’t be as entertaining as it is if it wasn’t for Sgt. Zim (Clancy Brown). In one particular sequence, a soldier decides to voice his opinion: “Who needs a knife in a nuke fight, anyway? All you gotta do is push a button, sir.” Sgt. Zim then asks the soldier to put his hand on the wall behind him. Then he throws a knife right through the soldier’s hand and says, “The enemy cannot push a button if you disable his hand.” The sequence is effective because even though it speaks the truth it’s played with comedic intentions. Most of the violent sequences in the film, outside of the carnage of war, are played for hilarity. It’s one of the film’s charms and part of what makes it unique.

Paul Verhoeven is a very versatile filmmaker. Robocop is a social commentary on the evils of a corporate-run world; Total Recall is a unique look at reality and our interpretation of what is real; and Starship Troopers is a satirical take on a fascist world that honestly seems to work. No one ever said that fascism doesn’t work; it just depends on who’s in charge.

I for one wouldn’t mind living in the type of world depicted within this film; I would be born handsome and generically perfect just like everyone else. It would be our birthright to be the perfect beings and not subject to its opposite and no one would ever complain. It sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Yet from our point of view, there isn’t any variety on their planet. Not encountering errors would mean no true freedom; and for them that would be the opposite. There wouldn’t be any real choices to make because there isn’t much to do anyway and again, no variety. We’d all prefer to live in an imperfect world that we could make perfect for ourselves. Through their eyes, we’re pathetic and through our eyes they’re conceited prigs. What the film offers is the insight that both our worlds make sense to the people living inside them and we wouldn’t have it any other way. We should be grateful for what we have because it works well for us and I’m glad that their world works for them.

Starship Troopers is great escapism and a terrific insight on an alternate Earth that is both recognizable to us and imperfect through its perfections. It’s an action film that’s terrifically gory and exciting, boasts amazing special effects and makes us think and think hard. Though appearing goofy, it’s intellectual and it makes us laugh without seeming cheap. It’s a special kind of film and I’m not surprised that it flew over most viewers’ heads.


4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Miriam
    Mar 4 2012

    I wish I’d taken a chance on this at the time, but allowed my dislike of Heinlein’s work to dissuade me. I really liked Robocop so I’ll give it a look now.

    As a Robocop fan, Nir, can you identify a TV version of the story for me? It was a mini-series length, not a full series, that I really enjoyed. I taped it but loaned it to someone, haven’t seen it since, and can’t remember the production particulars.

  2. Mar 4 2012

    @Miriam, the mini-series is Robocop: Prime Directives and I don’t recall whether I’d watched it or not.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0220008/

    There was also an animated series in the mid-90s.

    And here’s some useless info (aka trivia): Frank Miller, writer of the Sin City comic book series co-wrote the screenplays to the second and third Robocop films, and that why they’re terrible films. Well, the second was decent but the third was just awful.

    And give Starship Troopers a chance. It’s semi-visually representative of WWII, but in space. Neil Patrick Harris comes dresses in some later scenes as an SS officer. It’s awesome.

  3. Miriam
    Mar 4 2012

    Thank you! The four episodes are in my Netflix queue. It’s a little risky to revisit old TV but I remember the cityscape bits as being a particularly clever and entertaining background for the story.

  4. Mar 4 2012

    Yuppers. :O)

    There is a great shot in Robocop (1987) in which, when Robocop knocks a man out of a window, the news cameras on street level focus on that person’s landing on the pavement. If the news isn’t violent it’s not real news, nor is it interesting. And then there’s a similar shot in Starship Troopers where a soldier is being hoisted up in the air by one of the “infantry” Arachnids and is chomped in half by its mandibles. The camera then cuts to focus on the war reporter that’s shooting the grizzly, gory action.

    I love that Verhoeven always incorporates media shenanigans and evil corporations into his films. :O)

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