“If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn’t work, no one will listen to me. So I’m going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it’s only good for killing fucking bugs!” — Paul Verhoeven
I remember thinking the marketing which led up to Starship Troopers’ release was awful. At first glance the cast looked like it belonged in a teenybopper drama. Meanwhile the over-the-top macho mentalities didn’t come across well in the 30-second TV spots, which didn’t have enough time to convey the fact the filmmakers were indeed in on the joke. My overall preconception of the film was this: it looked like a straight-to-video movie which somehow wormed its way into theaters.
Yet I still went to see it on opening night, shuffling into the theater with the lowest of expectations. I had nothing better to do on a Friday back then. There were maybe six other people there including, I think, a local film critic who occasionally shone a flashlight on his notepad and repeatedly touched the illumination dial on his watch. He didn’t look too happy.
You’ll remember in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop that the narrative is occasionally interrupted by satirical advertisements and news segments, as if the film has absurd commercial breaks baked right into it. (It pains me to think we can expect nothing nearly as creative, original, or daring from anything coming out this summer.) Likewise, Starship Troopers opens with war propaganda, simultaneously establishing the tone for its irreverent attitude and setting up the plot’s simple premise: it’s the future and humans really hate aliens. In fact, humans hate aliens so much that young men and women everywhere can’t wait to fight the bastards.
That’s when we’re introduced to Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his high school friends. The film, quite ingeniously, feels like a teenybopper drama for the first thirty minutes or so, but only so it can jerk the rug out from under our heroes’ feet. Rico has a hot girlfriend (Denise Richards), a hunky rival (Patrick Muldoon), a bad girl acquaintance named Dizzy (Dina Meyer), and an ultra-nerdy best friend played by Neil Patrick Harris, whose casting in an R-rated romp was wonderfully scandalous. Remember, he’d yet to shed the Doogie Howser persona we knew so well.
There’s even a cheesy prom scene which hints at what’s wrong with Rico’s life: it’s too sheltered and idyllic for him to have any inkling what he and his friends are actually signing up for when they join the Mobile Infantry. Rico doesn’t get his first hint until he turns in his papers to a double-amputee who assures him, “You’ve made the right choice, son. Mobile Infantry made me the man I am today.”
Rico’s girlfriend is sent off to the space navy, his brainy best friend gets absorbed by the science and technology sector, and Rico himself ends up in one of the toughest squads in existence. (His hardcore drill sergeant is played by the criminally underrated Clancy Brown, who I love to see in genre movies, not only because he takes them so seriously. The same can be said of Michael Ironside, who plays an even bigger part in the story.) There Rico makes new friends for the first time in his adult life, including Jake Busey, whose maniacal appearance instantly washes away the Dawson’s Creek vibe from the earlier portion of the picture.
Just when Rico’s finally beginning to gel with his new life, who of all people should suddenly transfer to his squad? Why, it’s bad girl Dizzy, who has been pursuing Rico since high school. Seems suspicious, don’t it? Here’s something I really love about Starship Troopers: in practically every movie in which the leading character is pursued by two love interests, he or she always ends up with the wholesome, slightly less attractive option. Not our boy Rico. Soon after his girlfriend dumps him via email, Rico hooks up with Dizzy. Good job, Rico.
I can’t even put into words why I find this subplot, like so much of the rest of the movie, so endearing, but you’ll notice I’ve said practically nothing about the action and the science fiction. Starship Troopers is a lot deeper than that and yet I totally get why so many people don’t like it. Different strokes, folks.
The score by Basil Poledouris is as rousing as anything he’s ever done (and he’s done some of the best) while the special effects hold up even though they relied on a lot of early CGI. In fact, I’m a lot more convinced by the effects now then I was back then, when I was still looking for any reason to hate the movie. As for the action, it’s exciting and well-paced, and playfully violent as per Verhoeven’s style.
Yes, the movie’s message is about as obvious as it can get. I scratch my head whenever people suggest that’s a bad thing. I think the bluntness seems quite in line with its comedic aspirations, almost in a Mad Magazine kind of way. Besides, when was the last time you saw a hundred-million dollar movie which had the balls to be about anything of significance? This is not lowest-common denominator kind of entertainment here, it’s just masquerading as such.
Those of you who suggest it goes against everything Heinlein stood for seem to be underestimating how complex, politically and socially, Heinlein actually was in his long career. This is the guy who also wrote Stranger in a Strange Land. Meanwhile, the argument the film doesn’t do the novel justice is an understandable complaint. I kind of agree (Like, where’s the power armor, dude?), it’s just not a very good argument for me, personally. Minority Report is another adaptation which shares little in common with its source material, but I loved that movie, too, so how can I complain?
I think it’s every bit as good as Robocop and Total Recall. I’d be hard pressed to choose my favorite out of the three. We just don’t get movies like this anymore.