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Starship Troopers
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,Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers

Whatever else it is, which is plenty, Paul Verhoeven's eye-popping 1997 epic Starship Troopers has to be the most misunderstood and underappreciated sci-fi blockbuster of all time. Based on a pulpy, dogmatic Robert A. Heinlein novel first published in 1959, and featuring enough gadzooks digital imagery to fill a mainframe, Troopers had all the earmarks of a typically boorish, straight-faced trip to action-movie hell, all boom, boom, splat and aargghh. That's definitely how it was marketed by a rather clueless studio (Sony/Columbia/Tri-Star), and that's how critics understood it – both Roger Ebert and the New York Times' Janet Maslin dismissed it as gory, stolid trash. Audiences went gingerly during its opening weekend, expecting to have their baser instincts blandly excited, and were dumbfounded. (In retrospective interviews, Verhoeven agrees that audiences "didn't get it.") Word got out, ticket-buyers steered clear, and the film quickly vanished.

What didn't dawn on everyone at the time of Starship Troopers's abbreviated theatrical run was that it was a comedy – a vicious, all-barrels-firing piece of social satire and by far the funniest Hollywood film of 1997. All satire runs the risk of evading an inattentive audience and being mistaken for the very thing it mocks, but few American movies have been as extreme in their methods and at the same time as miscomprehended as Verhoeven's. In this film's pointed but absurd idea of the future, the world has one fascist government, society is divided between the rabble "civilians" and the elite, vote-bearing "citizens," and the former can become the latter only by performing a term of service with the Mobile Infantry, an interstellar army devoted to battling "bugs," an alien race of house-sized arachnids who hurl their spore into space and thereby direct meteors toward Earth. If all that isn't ludicrous enough, our protagonists are idealistic high schoolers hot to do their part: the jock, his bodacious girlfriend, the nerd, the opportunistic schemer, the dumb goofball, the girl who loves the football star but who stands silently aside. They train, travel the galaxy, combat monster-bugs, mature, experience casualties, triumph.

There were loads of cheesy pulp novels intended for 12-year-olds like this written in the '50s, but Heinlein's book wasn't one of them. Rather, the novel is an outrageous tract that rather unambiguously expounds the virtues of militaristic might, fascist order, violence and "earned" (not our Constitution's "self-evident" and "unalienable") social rights. An ultra-conservative ex-Naval officer and vocal arms-race proponent, Heinlein had caught a lot of static for it over the years, but Verhoeven's movie, made over a decade after Heinlein's death, amounts to a flat-out rebuttal. The subversive wit on display is startling. (The screenplay is credited to Edward Neumeier; Verhoeven, for his part, says he tried to read the novel but got bored and tossed it aside.) In the film, a war-mutilated high school history teacher walks about the classroom dead-seriously extolling the virtues of naked violence, officers wear Nazi headgear, troopers freely paraphrase Hitler, drill sergeants regularly mutilate their troops to make a training point, and whole scenes and hunks of dialogue are robbed from the paradigmatic colonialist melodrama Zulu (1964).

It's packed with mock-earnest details, clichéd scenes so hoary that they should've sent flags flying for 1997 viewers: the homecoming football game, the sweethearts' graduation farewell, the lip-biting argument between the army-bound young hotshot and his parents, who don't want him to ruin his future. It's an ultra-violent, space-age version of the American comic strip Archie, complete with a Jughead (Jake Busey), a Reggie (Patrick Muldoon), and a competing Betty (Dina Meyer) and Veronica (Denise Richards). A large part of the movie's comical mileage is inherent in the casting: Verhoeven cast only young actors who are so obscenely, ridiculously good-looking they literally seem drawn with felt-tip pen. Casper Van Dien, as the Archie-like hero Rico, is so absurdly handsome his every close-up dares us to laugh, but Richards's voluptuous face is beyond believing – is she a special effect, too?

Verhoeven gave the film a purposefully flat, overlit look, which accentuates both the actors' almost creepy architectural perfection and their believable proximity with the computer-created bugs. (Which are simultaneously silly and fearsome, and the violence they wreak is so fast, hairy and gory that it, too, becomes a running gag.) But the most flagrantly satiric aspect of Troopers, the relentless presence of which makes it difficult to fathom how people didn't "get it," is its TV-online advertisements for itself, popping up in the film as recruitment commercials, Web info sites (you must love, after seeing an announcer get shredded in two by a bug, the ubiquitous prompt bar calmly reading "Do You Want to Know More?") and government-controlled live news, which is outrageously bald-faced propaganda. "DO YOUR PART" the ads scream at us, while school kids display solidarity by stomping on real roaches, and fight over laser rifles to the amusement of nearby soldiers. The schtick almost pokes you in the eye, especially today during a dishonest war fought by a glorified-but-reluctant-&-dwindling volunteer army.

Starship Troopers certainly faced the problem of any satire of political war-mongering – that the vivid depiction of militaristic chaos can be so exciting that the scolding intention of it is obscured by the mayhem. And make no mistake, the film is vivid and appalling in ways that few films have been before or since. America needed a little distance, it seems, and since Verhoeven's film went to video, it has been universally reappraised and hailed as a culty landmark. It certainly can lead you to reconsider the director's other films – the entirety of Starship Troopers is the satirical TV commercials from Robocop (1987) writ large, and by the way, didn't Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995) also cakewalk the edge of absurdity in ways we couldn't bring ourselves to believe were intentional? Doesn't the whole does-he-mean-it-or-is-he-a-muttonhead? aesthetic hearken back to Verhoeven's career-making font of nervous laughter, The Fourth Man (1983)? Verhoeven may be the bravest and most assured satirist in Hollywood, insofar as he succeeds in making big genre movies no one knows whether to take seriously or not. Maybe the interface with the humorless screenwriter Joe Eszterhas is what make Basic Instinct and particularly Showgirls seem crude and dumb, even as they quite obviously mock themselves with every laughable line of dialogue and leering innuendo. However you slice it, Verhoeven has gotten a bum rap as a directorial miscreant, because there's nothing misjudged or self-indulgent about Starship Troopers. It's pure laughing gas.

Producer: Jon Davison, Frances Doel, Stacy Lumbrezer, Alan Marshall, Edward Neumeier, Phil Tippett
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay: Edward Neumeier, Robert A. Heinlein (book)
Cinematography: Jost Vacano
Film Editing: Mark Goldblatt, Caroline Ross
Art Direction: Bruce Robert Hill, Steven Wolff
Music: Basil Poledouris
Cast: Casper Van Dien (Johnny Rico), Dina Meyer (Dizzy Flores), Denise Richards (Carmen Ibanez), Jake Busey (Private Ace Levy), Neil Patrick Harris (Colonel Carl Jenkins), Clancy Brown (Career Sergeant Zim).
C-129m. Letterboxed.

by Michael Atkinson