Sony // 1999 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Neil Dorsett (Retired) // August 20th, 2004
The plaintiff maintains that this is a bug hunt, man.
With the completion of the run of "campaigns," Columbia issues a sweeper disc of leavings from the Starship Troopers television series, retitled Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles on its packaging. The series, a blend of elements from the Robert A. Heinlein novel and the 1997 Paul Verhoeven movie of the same name, a hybrid movie hybridized further. The series, playing in a typical Saturday morning slot, was a juvenile-oriented version (not a direct sequel) of the story of Johnny Rico (voiced by Rino Romano) and his high school buddies, including Dizzy Flores (Elizabeth Daily) and Carmen Ibanez (Tish Hicks), joined by their cast of superiors and teammates, as they follow their military careers through an endless war against the typical demonized, voiceless aggressor: the "bugs." The situation is complicated somewhat by the time we get to this point, but the basic situation is static: the crew goes out and fights bugs and/or gets into spaceship battles, comes back, argues for a while, and then goes out and does it all over again. This is war; this is television. It all sounds stock, and it is, because the innovation is elsewhere -- Roughnecks was among the first attempts to bring exclusively CGI 3-D animated narrative to the small screen. The Roughnecks wend their way through multi-episode military campaigns in high style in a number of DVD releases from Columbia; this time we're taking a shot at some single-episode stories, and even taking a few moments of reflection on the whole war and the soldier's lot.
Being that this is a Saturday morning cartoon, the copious violence is largely toothless -- the bugs disintegrate into simple fireball explosions and the team seems ill-equipped with extras to take the brunt of the violence from the enemy team, so the bugs never seem to make any kills themselves. This is in fairly sharp contrast to the movie, of course, which showed a high aptitude for gore. Paul Verhoeven as a director is often accused of violence for its own sake, but Starship Troopers actually contains what I find to be one of the most pointed uses of violence as world-building: the drill sergeants' cavalier attitude toward injuring the recruits, knowing that they have the medicine to patch them back up with little lasting harm. But that has no real relevance here in the sanitized Roughnecks, where the team is set up in a more classical formula -- that of Rat Patrol. This formula rigidly restricts itself to the soldiering team on the battlefield itself, avoiding entirely the more political satirical implications of the film in favor of an attitude closer to that of the novel: the team is what's important to the other members of the team and it's not a soldier's place to question. This formula has been used repeatedly on television war shows, and it is no different here. What is different is that you're seeing these stories in an exciting new setting and with a high degree of visual flair (to say nothing of a fair slice of novelty value). So, like any other war story, Roughnecks is a period piece; it just happens to be in the other direction than the usual, chronologically. Hey, there are worse ways for a kid to get his war story mythology in place.
Other elements of the novel brought to the screen here include the bounce-suits and their launching method and the "skinny" alien race, while simultaneously ignoring elements such as the female starship captains and most of the underlying social structure. The show also has characters say things like "when the bugs started this war," which can either be viewed as poor continuity or an example of the soldiers' propaganda-informed point of view. I choose the latter!
Columbia has made an odd choice this time which makes the package look somewhat less than it actually is. "Trackers" is but a single 22-minute episode of the show -- making the package seem absurdly short on the face of things, but don't worry, the package is filled out to a relatively normal-sized Roughnecks offering with four other episodes, with the questionable decision being their inclusion as bonus material (accessible only through the special features menu) and their labeling as "short films" rather than simply presenting the disc as what it is, a collection of single-episode stories which had no real place in any particular "campaign" disc. This is a fake extra! They should just label the disc as a collection. Of these episodes, the one I found most admirable was "Propaganda Machine," which deals not with some megalithic political threat, but merely Corporal Higgins's inability to come up with anything nice to say about his situation as an infantryman when assigned to do a puff piece for the news. A formulaic story to be sure, but well-presented on the whole, "Propaganda Machine" is the only one among these episodes that really breaks through that wall of technicality between the script and the CGI presentation (an advantage is the focus on Higgins, whose youthful features make for the most convincing facial animation among the troopers). Which is not to say that the others are not worthwhile on their own terms. All of the spacefighting scenes in Roughnecks are admirably kinetic and highly stylized. Some may be put off by the painterly renderings of the starships, but anyone who wants a look at all-CGI work with an expressionistic flair (particularly reminiscent of science fiction art of the Metal Hurlant era) will want a look.
Unfortunately, the look you get from this DVD isn't that good. Roughnecks suffers from the standard issues of a show prepared for TV and not remastered in the least for its DVD incarnation: soft image, poor contrast, embedded 3:2 pulldown, topped off with questionable motion compression, in addition to Columbia's annoying auto-play stuff if played a PC. As with any fully 3-D animated presentation, if appropriate records were kept, it would be possible not only to remaster Roughnecks but to re-render it entirely at a higher resolution. That wouldn't help much with the audio though, which is adequate in the realm of sound effects (much in the way of explosions and raygun fire), questionable in the realm of music (fairly basic electronic stuff with beats driving all the fight scenes as is required in all action cartoons these days), and downright stolid when it comes to the voice acting. This is in large part due to the actors, who sound more like the voices from a video game where they did the voices in-house with available employees. They're just impossibly calm. On the other hand, they may be done a disservice by their situation, which presents troopers under dire stress and combines that with the comfort of a voice recording studio -- not to mention the ultra-clean recording itself, which could have been "dirtied up" a bit to contrast with the super-clean visual look. The stiffness of the dubbing studio is a problem with cartoons generally and Roughnecks in particular. The titular episode has been remixed (to little effect, really) in Dolby Digital 5.1, but the rest of the episodes, being mere "bonus material," bear their original two-channel mixes.
Roughnecks is recommended to anyone interested in fully rendered CGI narrative, and is a fun action show for its age audience as well. Though somewhat stolid, it has a lot more to offer than many a Saturday morning cartoon. Relatively speaking, that doesn't translate as a recommendation for this disc; if you're interested in the show, this is only a half-recommendation to check this disc out first; given that one of the episodes is a "clip show" and others are deep into the events, one might not become involved. On the other hand, if you're only vaguely interested and want a look at the CGI, it might make a good sampler. If you're a fan, of course, you'll be interested regardless of the disc's quality per se, as there's not likely to be another version of Roughnecks on consumer video anytime soon. But it really deserves better treatment from Columbia.
Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles: Trackers is free to hobble off on its tail-completing legs and join the rest of its segments to complement the collective creature that it is, which is free to live wild in the fields of Klendathu.
Review content copyright © 2004 Neil Dorsett; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, "Trackers" only)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Either four "short film" bonus episodes, or no extras. You decide.