by Brian McKay
I am generally not a proponent of slavish adaptation, and understand that when converting from novel to the silver screen, some liberties must usually be taken. Especially in the case of Robert Heinlein's STARSHIP TROOPERS, whose scant 200 pages barely qualifies it as a novel in the first place. But when doing an adaptation, isn't the general idea to leave in all the best stuff, and get rid of some of the crap?The novel Starship Troopers began with a terrific action sequence as Johnny Rico and his squad did an orbital skydive onto an alien planet, then proceeded to tear the place up as they hopped around in super-powered suits of armor that bristled with weapons and high-tech gadgetry. Unfortunately, after that first chapter, things kind of went downhill. Starship Troopers got short on action and long on political commentary (like Heinlein always did), but he still managed to create an interesting enough pallette of characters against an interesting futuristic society.
"All Bugs and No Power Armor makes Johnny Rico a mediocre boy"
Starship Troopers, the movie, has twice the action but none of the cool gadgetry. Most of the young cast is either bland or annoying, and with the exception of Dina Meyer, you don't really care if they live or die (in fact, I wanted Denise Richard's character to die many times over). Director Paul Verhoeven's attempt at portraying the quasi-facist government of the future are laughable at best, with over the top "FedNet" commercial interludes and officer's uniforms that look like something out of the Tommy Hilfiger Third Reich Spring Collection catalog.
It is "The Future" (da da dum). Buenos Aires (???) is inhabited by pretty lily-white teenagers, apparently the offspring of twentieth century Nazi war criminals. Johnny Rico (who was Phillipino in the novel, but is now portrayed by Aryan poster-boy Casper Van Diem) is the High School quarterback chasing after Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards, as toothy and pretty and empty-headed as ever). All Carmen wants to do when she graduates is become a military pilot, and with her top-notch math skills, she's sure to be a shoe-in. Johnny is intent on signing up with the military just so he can be close to Carmen, against the wishes of his rich parents. Meanwhile, classmate Dizzy Flores (the yummy Dina Meyer) is in love with Johnny, though she is unsuccesful in diverting his attention from Carmen.
When an outlying colony of Mormons are attacked by giant alien bugs, however, the war is on. (On a side note, this scene - which showed a variety of body parts strewn across the ruins of "Port Joe Smith", whilst the spire of a Mormon temple rises above the massacre, brought no end of laughter and snickering from the crowd when I first saw this in Salt Lake City). Carmen runs off to join the military, along with Johnny's best friend, a psychic wunderkind named Carl (Neil Patrick Harris, who ends up looking like Doogie Howser: S.S. in one of the aforementioned uniforms). Not wanting to be left behind, Johnny also signs up, but his grades reveal that he is too dumb to become a pilot with Carmen. Welcome to the Mobile Infantry, Son! Dizzy, who was probably smart enough to do better, follows her beloved Johnny into the M.I.
Sounds like a lame teenybopper soap opera so far, right? It is, but things are about to get better.
After getting stabbed, shot at, and beaten up on a regular basis by Drill Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown), they are sent into action after Buenos Aires is nuked by a bug asteroid (more on that in a moment). On their first meeting with the bugs, our overly-cocky teen soldiers get their asses (and arms, and legs, and spleens) handed to them by a rabid swarm of 8-foot tall arachnids that seem to have no thought process other than "kill Kill KILL". While the swarms of CGI bugs look absolutely amazing (especially in the Planet P Outpost scene modeled after Zulu, where spear-wielding natives are replaced by thousands of bugs swarming the compound), the bugs themselves aren't all that interesting. Granted, not much was revealed about the enigmatic arachnids in the novel, but they were certainly a more intriguing hive-mind race, and obviously advanced to the point of having space travel and high-tech weapons. These bugs are just a bunch of dumb, rabid walking mandibles of death.
The survivors of the disastrous first encounter are regrouped and assigned to "Razack's Roughnecks", who just happens to be led by their hard-assed former high school teacher, Jean Razack (Michael Ironside). There are more battles, more pointless love triangles, more people dying, until the final battle where the M.I. has to try to capture a "Brain Bug" while also rescuing Carmen, whose ship has crash-landed nearby.
Besides ripping troopers to shreds with their bare . . . whatevers, the Bugs' large-scale weapons include acid-spewing "tanker" bugs, and big "plasma" bugs who shoot anti-spacecraft flack out of their asses. (I'd hate to be the worker bug who has to hold the lighter up to those cheeks). Also, they can apparently use these jets of plasma to hurl asteroids across the galaxy and smash Earth with them. (They're going to calculate mind-boggling interstellar trajectories and propel asteroids all the way to Earth . . . using Ass-Plasma. Uh-huh.)
Utter stupidities and other scientific impossibilities, like the one mentioned above, litter the script like trooper body parts. When it's not attributing ridiculous feats of interstellar travel to a bunch of dumb bugs, or getting muddled down in the I-love-him-but-he-loves-her-but-she-likes-that-other-guy ridiculousness (though it's still not as unbearable as Pearl Harbor), the film's message about the nature of a facist government are campy at best, as troopers hand out live rounds to kids as souveniers and criminals are executed on prime-time FedNet.
My biggest bitch about the movie, though, is the cheesy armor and weapons. Granted, the power armor of the novel wasn't the central theme, but it was certainly a noteworthy part of the story. The armor in the book was described as making the wearer look like a "big steel gorilla", with the ability to leap over low structures, smash up an alien city, and carry a giddy array of weaponry. None of that here though, folks. Just some cheap-looking body armor that looks like it came from James Cameron's garage sale after he wrapped Aliens, and some dressed-up M-16's. No leaping. No smashing. No gadget fun. Even a scene with Rico wearing anti-grav boots and leaping out of the bug fray with them was cut before filming. Jesus, Verhoeven, you mean to tell me with all that money for a cast of thousands of bugs, you couldn't spend a little more on some decent hardware for our boys and girls? The suits of armor from the defunct FOX network's Space: Above and Beyond looked better than that shit. Thankfully, the CG-animated series Roughnecks: Starship Trooper Chronicles, while not improving much on the story or characters, at least delivers some cool hardware, including jump jets and mech walker units.
So, I've spent a lot of time harping on this film. Yet I've seen it at least five fucking times. Why do I watch this every time it comes on Late-night HBO? Well, obviously, the film does something right - though most of it is in the eye-candy department. Besides the beautifully rendered swarms of bugs, there is gore aplenty. Bugs getting blown up, shot up, splattered. Humans getting decapitated, eviscerated, even melted with acid bug-breath. Lots of pretty gunfire and explosions, etcetera (supposedly, more ammunition was used in Starship Troopers than in any previous movie). Then you've got the gratuitous co-ed trooper shower scene, and the lovely Dina Meyer showing her nice, natural cans not once, but twice! (including one very sexy "hold her shirt up over her head" scene). Denise Richards, oddly enough, remains fully dressed. (Isn't the good actress supposed to keep her clothes on, while the talentless ditz provides the nudity quotient?). Besides Meyer, whose Dizzy Flores is the only character in this thing I ever gave a damn about, there are also enjoyable, albeit two-dimensional, performances from Brown and Ironside.
Drive-In Triple Feature Grab a Pulse Rifle and a Can of Raid Picks for Starship Troopers:
Aliens: The movie that coined the phrase "Bug Hunt" and has been mimicked by many lesser films . . . like this one. "That's great, man! Why don't you just put HER in charge!"
Pitch Black: Giant bugs with sonar! Okay, not the greatest movie, but some decent moments of action/suspense and some cool alien landscapes. Also noteworthy for making Vin Diesel a star - though whether that's a good thing or not, I leave for you to decide. Still, it was pretty cool when he said: "Did NOT know who he was FUCKIN' wif!"I guess it's okay to like this movie, as long as you're honest about what it is. It's a bucket of Sci-fi fast food, with extra gore and a side order of tits. To go.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=343&reviewer=258
originally posted: 11/13/02 16:25:16