by Mel Valentin
It’s difficult to imagine what studio executives were thinking when they greenlit Paul Verhoeven’s ("Showgirls," "Basic Instinct," "Total Recall," "Robocop," "Flesh + Blood," "The Fourth Man," "Soldier of Orange") adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Hugo Award-winning science fiction/war novel, "Starship Troopers." They obviously wanted another "Star Wars" (like every other studio and studio executive). Verhoeven and his screenwriter, Edward Neumeier ("Robocop") Critics derided Verhoeven’s adaptation as an apologia for fascism (it wasn’t) and audiences rejected the idiosyncratic mix of teen melodrama, campy, satirical tone (praised by some, accurately), gore-soaked war film, and effects-heavy science fiction/action film. "Starship Troopers" failed to become Hollywood’s next, great franchise, earning back roughly half of a reported $105 million budget during its domestic box-office run in 1997.Starship Troopers centers on Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien, selected for his looks more than his acting talent), a semi-bright, high school jock and prime beneficiary of everything a Future Fascist Utopia™ has to offer. In this Future Fascist Utopia™, citizenship is a privilege, not a right, a privilege obtainable only through military service. What citizenship gives you in a Future Fascist Utopia™, however, is never explained in any detail. Citizens are, presumably, allowed to vote, but voting, if it happens, seems to play little or no part in how government leaders, indistinguishable from the military, are chosen. However decisions are made, Rico lives in material comfort. Service, reinforced by frequent doses of government-created propaganda, lies in Rico’s future (this despite his parents’, both non-citizens, objections). In other, supposedly relatable ways, Rico’s a typical high school jock: He dates one of the most attractive, if vapid, girls in the school, Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards, bland, blank), while another, Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), openly lusts after him. His best friend, Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris), isn’t a jock, but a promising psychic and, thus, a future member of the Future Fascist Utopia’s™ elite.
"Ode to fascism, critique thereof or kick-ass sci-fi actioner?"
Future Fascist Utopias™, however, can only exist when they (a) suppress dissent, through propaganda and, if necessary, state-sanctioned violence, (b) actively search for and engages external enemies (real or imaginary), the better to create and reinforce nationalist- and ideology-based solidarity. The Future Fascist Utopia™ found in Starship Troopers finds the perfect enemy in the Arachnids, jumbo-sized insect aliens located on the other side of the galaxy. Conflict over territory between humans and the Arachnids escalates when human colonists (described as “Mormon extremists” by an off-camera narrator during a Fed-Net broadcast) settle on an Arachnid planet. The Arachnids decimate the colonists and, as a warning against future attempts at colonization, redirect an asteroid, sending it hurtling toward Earth. The asteroid obliterates Buenos Aires, Rico’s hometown.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s rewind to the 20-minute or half-hour mark where (and when) Starship Troopers switches from saccharine high school melodrama to combat training (a.k.a., boot camp). Rico’s poor grades left him with exactly one choice for military service, the Mobile Infantry. Along with Flores, who joins him mid-training, Rico’s trained by a career drill instructor, Sgt. Zim (Clancy Brown, over-the-top, as, presumably, directed by Verhoeven). Only Ace Levy (Jake “son of Jake” Busey), another raw recruit, survives the initial and subsequent campaigns against the Arachnids. The other, mostly generic, if coed, recruits, are, as expected, Arachnid fodder, dying in gruesome, graphic manner, making the point, an obvious one, but one still worth making, that war has little regard for dreams, ambitions, or physical appearance.
Military leaders decide to invade Klendathu, the Arachnids’ home world first, a decision that ultimately proves disastrous. The military’s lack of preparation, due in no small part to hubris, play significant roles in that first, devastating defeat, as clear a critique of military arrogance and incompetence as you’ll find in a big-budget blockbuster wannabe (made, to be fair, palatable by the futuristic setting). Rico also makes a mistake during pre-combat training and it almost results in leaving the MI, but the tragic, if fortuitous, destruction of Buenos Aires, converts him into one of the MI’s prime killing machine. The romantic melodrama returns with Ibanez, now the co-pilot of a sizable outer-space cruiser, and her pilot boyfriend, Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon, also blank, bland), but that’s really just a distraction from Verhoeven’s larger purpose, to satirize fascism, to satirize war-mongering, to satirize the dehumanization (literal here) and demonization that war-mongering entails, and ultimately, to critique moviegoers who take pleasure from the realistic depiction of violence on film.Verhoeven’s larger points, however, were missed both by critics, who criticized him for romanticizing fascism (a claim he wouldn’t deny, but only to set-up his own critique) and for inflicting gratuitous carnage on multiplex audiences (carnage, yes, gratuitous, no). That he also made a film with state-of-the-art visual effects, effects that (mostly) retain their persuasiveness fourteen years later, and directed visceral battle scenes were also held against him when, in fact, the opposite was true. Seen, correctly, as political, cultural, and military satire and not as romanticizing or fetishizing fascism, incorrectly, as well as, ideology aside, an action war film with a science fiction setting, :Starship Troopers" is a film worthy of revisiting repeatedly, a film deserving of its well-earned cult status.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=343&reviewer=402
originally posted: 03/02/11 08:54:55