Starship Troopers (1997)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

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Starship Troopers only borrowed the name from the science-fiction book written by Edward Neumeier after similarities between that book and the screenplay, originally titled Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine.  Director Paul Verhoeven couldn’t read more than a few chapters of the Neumeier book, saying it made him “bored and depressed.”

Verhoeven later explained that he wanted to make a movie about fascists who didn’t know they were fascists.  This would explain the opening scene inspired by Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will in which soldiers look squarely, cheerfully into the camera and say…

Starship Troopers is a strange blend of movie tropes, characters and tone.  It’s set somewhere in the future, in an anglicized Buenos Aires where three friends are about to graduate from high school.  They are Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) and Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris).  There’s also a fourth character who has a particularly depressing character arc, Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer).  They look like this…

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…and their casting can be explained by Verhoeven’s idea to call back to images of certain fascist– it’s the Nazis, they look like Nazis.  From Verhoeven himself, “It’s an idiotic story: young people go to fight bugs. So I felt the human characters should have a comic-book look. Mark Wahlberg and Matt Damon auditioned, but I was looking for the prototype of blond, white and arrogant, and Casper Van Dien was so close to the images I remembered from Leni Riefenstahl’s films. I borrowed from Triumph of the Will in the parody propaganda reel that opens the film, too. I was using Riefenstahl to point out, or so I thought, that these heroes and heroines were straight out of Nazi propaganda. No one saw it at the time. I don’t know whether or not the actors realised – we never discussed it. I thought Neil Patrick Harris arriving on the set in an SS uniform might clear it up.”

The three main characters (with Flores popping up here and there) are best friends, and Johnny and Carmen are in a relationship that won’t last long.  They all gleefully join the army (though Johnny’s parents initially object) in order to earn citizenship, which you can only get through military service.  Even so they are all so gung-ho about it you’d think they’d do it anyway.

Carmen is on the fast track to becoming a pilot, and Carl is a bit psychic, so he’s going into intelligence.  Johnny, the person we follow through the entire story, is assigned to infantry, and before his story even begins we watch the infantry get obliterated by giant space bugs, aka the enemy of the human race.  In other words, he doesn’t seem long for this world.

The first act is like the end of some teen comedy.  There’s a football game, a couple intersecting love triangles, prom and graduation, all apparently in the span of a day or two.  Then the characters go their respective ways, with Flores later joining Johnny’s troop.

The consistency with which these characters’ stories intersect is absurd considering how many millions of soldiers there seem to be and how far apart in the galaxy they are.  The militaristic conflict is something like a painfully simple version of Star Wars.  There are battles on different planets, in space, etc.  The only difference here is that the enemy is faceless and emotionless but apparently motivated by something as human and malicious as the ‘heroes.’

Such a dynamic attempts to make the enemy nothing more than The Enemy, evil and unknowable.  Their mission, however, is no different than that of the humans.  They seek to gather soldiers from the opposing side, intelligence officials, and suck their brains dry (literally) in order to gather intel.  It’s the same thing the humans will do in the end.

I’m skipping a lot, but this movie is incredibly bloated with several unimportant storylines, heartbreak and unrequited love.  Johnny and Carmen each have their new love interest only to watch that person die (in brutal fashion), setting up their inevitable reunion in the end.  Side characters are obliterated, shredded and mutilated in surprisingly violent ways considering just how cheesy much of the film is.  They are there to be killed while out heroes are preserved.

So much of this movie is so stupid, but I guess Verhoeven is kind of brilliant since such stupidity, he would say, is the point of it all.  The characters are somewhat vapid but courageous, though their courage is driven by pure hatred for the bugs they’re trying to kill, as exemplified by Johnny declaring, “the only good bug is a dead bug.”

As performers, many of the line deliveries are awkward and strangely blunt.  One of the best such moments is when Seth Gilliam walks up to Johnny and says something along the lines of, ‘you’re good at killing bugs,’ and that’s the extent of the conversation.

The satire becomes most telling when, in the end, a giant “brain bug” is captured, and Carl reads its mind (again he’s psychic).  The general asks what he’s thinking, and Carl replies, “he’s scared” to which everyone goes apes*t in celebration.  It’s the first time there is any suggestion that the main characters’ enemy has human emotion, and it’s a moment of supposed joy, but it undercuts what we’re supposed to believe initially about the faceless space bugs.

Starship Troopers is loud, violent, occasionally funny, a little long and incredibly audacious.  It’s somewhat enjoyable in a silly way, but it’s also just not a very good movie.  It’s only reading about the movie that makes it more compelling, and you probably have to give credit to Verhoeven for sticking with such a monotonous, long undertaking.  Still, to sit and watch this for two hours is a bit of a challenge, even if the satire is present.

Up Next: Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (2018), Woman Walks Ahead (2018), Starman (1984)

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