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The Starship Troopers franchise returns for a fourth go-around. This time we eschew low-rent direct to video sci-fi in favor of anime-flavored computer animation from director Shinji Aramaki (Appleseed). Can a pedigree anime director and the return of some classic characters (albeit in less than recognizable form) right the wrongs of the previous sequels? Can it stand shoulder to shoulder with Paul Verhoven's brilliant original film? Would you like to know more?
Facts of the Case
The troopers of the starship Alesia are in pursuit of the starship John A. Warden. It seems the ship has been commandeered by Minister of Paranormal Warfare Carl Jenkins (played by Neil Patrick Harris in the original 1997 film), and it has gone dark. Captain Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards in the original flick, here voiced by Luci Christian) wants her ship back. Along for the ride is an army of young troopers, in their way are an ungodly number of bugs. It's up to our heroes to kill 'em all!
Woe to fans of Starship Troopers, director Paul Verhoven's over the top sci-fi epic from 1997. In the years since its middling theatrical run, it's gone on to become one of the unsung heroes of the maligned sci-fi genre, it's raw carnage and winking satire endearing itself to enough fans to warrant a few direct to video sequels and a CG television series. The first sequel was an unmitigated wreck, and not even the return of the original writer and lead actor could elevate the second sequel to "cult" status. Starship Troopers: Invasion attempts something a little different this time out of the gate: The timeline has been pumped quite a few years, with considerably more advanced Troopers on the ground, and a few decades of age on the returning characters, and moreover, rather than struggling to recreate Verhoven's colossal undertaking on a shoestring budget, the producers have opted for the considerably more versatile approach of CG animation.
This animation, while not cutting edge, forms a solid foundation for the script by Flint Dille (G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero) which is a surprisingly slow-burning effort in spite of an action packed opening. Dille's script takes a few beats to introduce us to the soldiers we'll be spending our time with. It takes a decidedly Black Hawk Down approach, giving us sparse but strong characterizations that allow us to relate a little better to them when the carnage hits. New faces are given just enough identity and quirk to stand out when the lead starts flying and the srachnids start chopping off limbs. Sure, they're all archetypes, but at least they're more than faceless drones.
I also really appreciate how the script handles the three returning characters from the original film. Captain Ibanez probably gets the most attention, and is entirely unrecognizable outside of her name, but Casper Van Dien's Johnny Rico (here voiced by David Matranga) is instantly recognizable, and gets a few great scenes. Having telepath Carl Jenkins portrayed as a sort of pseudo villain definitely links up nicely with where we left NPH in the 1997 film, and he's portrayed pretty well here.
Lastly there's Shinji Aramaki's direction. I'm a huge fan of both of his CG Appleseed outings; he really shows a knack for high energy action, and a great understanding of the medium. Starship Troopers: Invasion falls a little shy of those flicks, but he emulates the action of the live action films rather well, and keeps things moving without losing focus. The plot may be sci-fi 101, but Aramaki handles it all with aplomb, backed up by some great production design that combines the films with the mecha trappings of anime to great effect.
Sony's disc is a solid effort. The picture is a little on the soft side, and there are a few pixels visible when colors meet, but this is probably more indicative of the digital source, which I highly doubt was rendered at the same fidelity of your average theatrical release. Sound is also a little more subdued than I expected, but it's nevertheless clear and well separated, even if it doesn't rattle fillings. There's a substantial selection of extras as well, including a solid commentary track and a "making of" documentary that actually runs longer than the film! Stay the heck away from the gag reel though, it's terrible.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sadly, while Starship Troopers: Invasion does a pretty rousing job of recreating the carnage of the original, all of the none-to-subtle social commentary and neo-facisim of the source material has been chopped. Fans of Heinlein's novel get their mech suits, but what arguably gave Starship Troopers its unique feel in both paper and film form simply ceases to be. What's left is another generic sci-fi script where characters shout one liners and underscoring consists of snare drums and rapid fire. It's far from horrible, in fact the characters are established pretty well for this sort of romp, and the action is well filmed. However, it definitely hurts the experience, making it something much more generic, owing more to Halo or Aliens than to the franchise it belongs to. This is Starship Troopers for Generation X-box.
Sure, Starship Troopers: Invasion doesn't really do a whole lot to differentiate itself from your average Aliens clone, and it is missing Paul Verhoven's uniquely twisted neo-facist mentality, but Aramaki-san's direction is as good here as it was in any of his other anime films, and there's just enough plot and character in there for me to make it a worthwhile recommendation for fans of the Starship Troopers series. Sony's Blu-Ray treatment is a solid effort as well, with substantial extras rounding out a decent audio/video package.
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