Sir, yes sir! Judge Clark Douglas is ready to take down some bugs! Ooh-rah!
The only good bug is a dead bug.
"Something given has no basis in value. When you vote, you are exercising political authority, you're using force. And force, my friends, is violence. The supreme authority from which all other authorities are derived."
Facts of the Case
In the world of the future, human beings will be locked in eternal battle with giant bugs. That's the vision presented by Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, based on the popular novel by Robert A. Heinlein. Casper Van Dien (Sleepy Hollow) stars as Johnny Rico, a young graduate who isn't sure what he wants to do with his life. Inspired by one of his particularly pro-government teachers (Michael Ironside, Free Willy), Johnny decides to join the military and see the universe. Unfortunately for him, he's mostly just going to see a lot of giant bugs. Can Johnny and his military pals save the world from destruction?
Starship Troopers is some kind of crazy, wonderful, wild science-fiction movie. When the film was released in 1997, critics greeted it with a mixture of confusion and irritation. Many seemed to misunderstand the film, and couldn't quite put their finger on what Verhoeven was up to. The Heinlein novel was an adamantly right-wing endorsement of a totalitarian society, and many wondered why Verhoeven would even want to adapt the book. Others loved the original book, and wondered why Verhoeven had seemingly removed the political guts of the story in favor of creating a noisy sci-fi B-movie.
The film was written by Ed Neumeier, who also penned Verhoeven's super-popular Robocop. This film is connected to that one in some ways; most notably it's use of satirical video segments. In Robocop, we had frighteningly funny commercials that gave us an amusing look at the world of that film. In Robocop these were fun side items. Starship Troopers uses similar "side items" (presented in the form of government messages) to form the tone of the film, slyly attempting to clue the audience in to what Verhoeven is doing. Essentially, Starship Troopers is a tongue-in-cheek government propaganda film with a huge budget and a ton of giant bugs. Is it a clever satire? Yes. Is it a completely campy and ridiculous piece of sci-fi cheese? Yes.
Rather than attempting to alter elements of Heinlen's book for modern audiences, Verhoeven plays up the dated elements as much as possible. There's a distinctly 1950s vibe to a lot of the film, making Starship Troopers a little bit like watching Alien by way of Leave it to Beaver. Incredibly cheesy dialogue is delivered with utter sincerity by the actors, who are evidently having a lot of fun. Verhoeven takes great pleasure in contrasting his "gee whiz" world with the super-violent battle sequences, which are about as wildly gory as an R-rated film was permitted to be at the time.
What's really weird is that the whole "propaganda" element of the film actually works! Yes, we see that the government is incredibly inept. We see that mindlessness of military life. We see the disturbing military images of our heroes that skirt far too close to Nazi Germany. We witness a wide variety of horrible and painful-looking deaths caused by giant bugs. We understand that this world would be a terrible and awful place to be in real life. Despite conveying all of this to us, Verhoeven still manages to make the life of a Starship Trooper look really cool. He subversively uses many of the same techniques as the old war movies of the '40s and '50s. Sure, a lot of people die, but it's heroic and glorious and you get to make a final speech. You half-expect The Duke to stomp onscreen any minute.
Let me talk about the actors for just a moment. Consider the cast here, which is mostly comprised of young, pretty folks like Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards (Wild Things), Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), Dina Meyer (Saw), Patrick Muldoon (Melrose Place), and Jake Busey (Wristcutters: A Love Story). It sounds like the cast of a late 1990s slasher movie. However, few of these folks have ever been more effective than they are here. They all get it, they all play it just right, and we're never wishing that better actors were playing these roles. That's some sort of small miracle. My favorite performance in the film comes from an old pro. Michael Ironside plays a high school teacher who has a secret life as a military leader. Ironside has the spark of Sterling Hayden's Gen. Jack D. Ripper in his eyes, and does the whole "guts n' glory" routine to brilliant effect.
Still, this is Verhoeven's film. Rarely has the director seemed so much like an auteur, the man pulling the puppet strings of everyone and everything. His action sequences are sensational, and manage to be both exciting and exasperating at the same time. The scenes are usually comprised of large groups of people firing machine guns at bugs, which is typically quite a futile exercise. It would obviously be far more effective to bomb the bugs, which is very rarely actually done. Despite all this, Verhoeven stages everything so effectively that this repetitious cycle of mindless chaos manages to be extremely entertaining. The CGI effects are pretty solid, though obviously things have improved a lot in that department since 1997.
Sound on Starship Troopers is simply sensational. This is a hard-hitting track that is immensely entertaining, and the balance is perfect. There's one scene about thirty-five minutes into the film that features some room-shaking bass on the low end, dialogue in the middle, and oh-so-delicate woodwinds on the high end. The terrific balance between these elements impressed me a great deal. The very entertaining Basil Poledouris score gets a solid boost here. Visuals are hit-and-miss, though. There are a small handful of scenes that look unforgivably crappy, as if they came from a VHS source. Another small handful has a little more grain than I would like. The rest of the film looks about as solid as you could expect a film a decade old to look in hi-def.
Thankfully, this disc is jam-packed with special features that really dig into the film in a thorough and fascinating way. A lot of this stuff was featured on previous DVD releases, but it's still good. There are two audio commentaries here. My favorite features Verhoeven, Harris, Meyer, and Dien, which is just plain hilarious at times. They have a great deal of fun watching and discussing the film, and it's a very pleasant track. The track with Verhoeven and Neumeier is a little meatier, but slightly less engaging. "Death From Above" is a half-hour documentary on the making of the film that is quite enjoyable and informative. The most interesting part of this deals with the cast and crew's frustration at the fact that virtually no critics understood what the film was attempting to do. Irony is a slippery thing. Three older making-of featurettes run about 12 minutes combined, and are pretty fluffy. "Know Your Foe" is a quick examination of several different bugs in the film. It's reasonably engaging, especially if you're a special effects junkie. As if this weren't enough, there's also SFX comparisons, storyboard comparisons, deleted scenes, screen tests…whew! Additionally, there is a pretty cool Blu-ray exclusive, "Fednet Mode." This is a picture-in-picture experience that offers video interview clips, trivia, and information about the film's world as you watch the film. It's a little less busy than I would prefer, but nice. There's also a "Recruitment Test," which is okay, if you like taking quizzes. The Blu-wizard feature permits you to re-arrange the special features and watch them as you watch the film, but I found this to be a little pointless.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even if you are cool with what Verhoeven is attempting to do, you have to have a certain affection for super-violent cornball space epics in order to fully enjoy Starship Troopers. The film works as satire, but the jokes here are often very long-lined. If you're just waiting for the witty punch lines, you'll be stuck waiting for quite a while at times. Additionally, it is a little concerning that so many people have misunderstood the intent of this film. If liberal critics aren't getting it and disliking the film's "political agenda," surely there are conservative audiences that aren't getting it and loving it for the same reasons? It's no wonder that the vast majority of the special features attempt to explain the film's meaning.
Starship Troopers is a clever and intelligent science-fiction flick disguised as a gloriously stupid science-fiction flick. No matter which way you look at it, Starship Troopers is a ton of fun. Recommended.
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