Starship Troopers (1997)

Loosely based on the controversial book of the same name Starship Troopers remains a divisive film to this day, some viewers were drawn in by the action packed narrative and (still) impressive digital effects, whilst others found the thinly veiled Satire prevalent throughout the film a turn off, it’s certainly entertaining to an extent, though just how ‘clever’ it is remains open to debate.

In any case it’s a strange mix, wooden performances and unimaginative dialogue vie with clever (or at least brave) satire and impressive direction and effects. At first glance just a big dumb action film, its ends up being rather surprising for a Hollywood production, violent and subversive throughout, even now it’s still surprising that the studio green lit the $105 million budget (Which in ’97 was pretty damn expensive). Based on a controversial 40 year old book, it was directed by Paul Verhoeven-the man previously responsible for Showgirl’s, and utilised a largely unknown cast.

The Novel Starship Troopers was first published in 1959, written by retired US Naval Officer Robert A Heinlein, it immediately drew a polarised reception, its violent content and blatantly right wing credentials balanced by the engrossing plot, and believable, detailed description of a militaristic future. In any case it later won the Hugo Award ( A prize honouring notable works of Science Fiction) and remains required reading for US Marine recruits.

Verhoeven once claimed he couldn’t get pass the first few chapters ‘becoming both bored and depressed’ with every page he turned, but knowledge of the book isn’t really relevant when watching the film, vast swathes of the plot are missing or reworked, whilst its jingoistic tone is just as often lambasted as celebrated in the course of the film, with annoyingly uneven results.

The story is relatively simple, and often predictable. Earth 2319, The Human Race, now under the control of a spacefaring organisation named The Federation is drawn into a conflict with the hostile arachnoid race known only as ‘The Bugs’. Following a catastrophic attack on Buenos Aires a military task force is assembled and journeys to the ‘Bugs’ Home World Kledathu, engaging in the bloody battle which opens the film.

After a deliberately chaotic opening, the film flashes backwards a year to introduce the main characters. In the future depicted the military have a massive sway, adverts extolling the virtues of Army life are prevalent on every TV station, whilst service personal regularly hand out ammunition to small children. Furthermore, only service personal have to right to citizenship, something the rich-kid protagonist Johnny Rico wants (Casper Van Dien-remember him? No?), more to please his girlfriend-Carmen (Denise Richards), than for personal reasons of self-satisfaction.

Following graduation and an argument with his parents the two sign up with close friend Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) and head off for separate training camps, Carmen to Starship Academy, Carl-who is mildly psychic (a plot element never satisfactorily explained), to Military Intelligence, and Johnny to the elite Mobile infantry- ‘Good for you Son!.. The mobile infantry made me the man I am today!’ the clerk announces as Johnny hands over his papers …the camera lingering on the clerk’s missing legs in the process.

A brutal training regime follows; all the clichés are present, evil drill sergeant? Check, relationship problems? Check, Getting limbs broken, and lashed for mistakes…what? Yes, limbs broken. The mixed race, and mixed sex (A notable change from the novel-in which the M.I were all male) Mobile Infantry recruits are certainly put through the wringer before passing training, victim to enjoyably overblown military justice.

It is here that the film’s overly satirical script is first properly apparent, shot and structured like an old fashioned WW2 film, but deliberately over the top: the recruits play the guitar, engage in wild drinking sessions, and even have a conversation about their life plans…butt naked in the showers (a scene the actors only agreed to do once Verhoeven stripped off as well). It’s completely contrived stuff, but very entertaining all the same, the actors remain universally poker faced throughout, delivering intentionally (at least that’s what it appears to be) banal dialogue.

Reminiscent of films from The Dirty Dozen to Full Metal Jacket, It’s a relatively slow, predictable section of the film, and the satire may be lost on some viewers (it gets increasingly obvious as the narrative moves along). In any case the pace soon picks up, Johnny and his cohorts ship out for the bloodbath of Klendathu, soon followed by a series of further battles, Johnny rising in rank as he is joined by progressively younger replacements, his hair and teeth remaining surprisingly untouched throughout.

And what battles they are, vast hordes of ‘bugs’ trample across barren landscape’s tearing flimsy human bodies into visceral chunks of meat, heavily armed grunts fire back with a series of impressive pieces of weaponry, whilst far above Starships weave between asteroids and deadly streams of Arachnoid sperm-fire (its doesn’t look quite as bizarre as its sounds). Verhoeven’s decisions as a storyteller don’t always work, but he stages the battles with enough excitement to ward away feelings of repetitiveness.

It’s rarely boring and extremely violent, keeping a body count would be next to impossible, action fans should be entertained, though other viewers may be uncomfortable with such content.

Giving the satirical nature of the film Verhoeven doesn’t make much effort with his actors, the leads, as well as looking too old for the roles give wooden performances, tied down with weak dialogue and the knowledge that they are meant to be faceless. A succession of bit parters and minor characters feature, though most are given even less to work with-some of the CGI ‘bugs’ have more personality. Only character actors Clancy Brown as the disturbing Sgt Zim, and Michael Ironside as Johnny’s teacher turned commanding officer make an impression, though both make rather limited appearances in the film, their good performances actually feel out of place, this is a film that shouldn’t really be taken seriously.

The film utilises its large budget well, the ‘bugs’ looking suitably nasty, were created almost entirely by CGI, which by and large stands up today, whilst the production design paints a quite believable near future environment, the detailed weaponry and uniforms proving an invaluable part of the film. The environments chosen on the other hand fail to convince, repetitive desert landscape’s strangely reminiscent of Earth, appear to be the Arachnoids favoured homes.

Despite the anti-war message of the film, the violence feels surprisingly flat; Verhoeven directs with tongue firmly in cheek, death scenes are often protracted, accompanied by dialogue so broad that it sounds like a bad joke-‘They sucked his brains out!’ notes one trooper, cleverly finding said corpse, with brains missing, consequently there is very little tension in the film, even when several notable characters are killed.  Bad dialogue isn’t the only flaw with the script.

The few main characters have ill-defined home lives and back stories, character depth or logic aren’t things the filmmakers are remotely interested in, whilst by no means necessary to a satire, their absence could make the film harder to access for some viewers, and makes worse problems with the script apparent.

Carmen largely follows her own narrative throughout the film, coming across as a pointless addition to the story, whilst a cheesy love triangle at the heart of the film often feels totally random, perhaps one of Verhoeven’s concessions’ to the studio to allow him to make the film, its built around sex and very chauvinistic in its appearance. It’s not exactly a sexist film, but not really that female friendly either. Plot holes are numerous, it’s often hard to tell whether the script is being intentionally stupid or not, the few characterisation scenes are hurried and predictable, it’s almost as if Verhoeven doesn’t want the audience to care about his characters.

Gradually Johnny’s and Carmen’s stories intertwine, building up to an action packed, but brilliantly ironic ending which renders the whole film largely pointless.

The film’s jingoistic plot and satirical script are balanced rather contradictorily. Whilst the deliberately two-dimensional performances and over the top dialogue make Verhoeven’s views clear, by the same token the leering shots of weaponry, the obsessive recreation of military detail, and Numerous reference’s to Nazism (Carl’s uniform for instance) and America’s foreign policy (the ‘bugs’ are portrayed similarly to the, excuse the term ‘Gooks’ America fought in Vietnam and Korea), make very uneasy viewing, often looking like they are celebrating the things they had set out to insult. It makes an uneven and annoying watching as it’s never completely clear whether you are watching a satire, or a commercial film, Verhoeven’s vision of the story, seemingly fighting with the Studio’s.

The gory, sexual and coarse content really don’t make this suitable for anyone under the age of 18, even if it may seem somewhat tepid compared to other more recent blockbusters.

An commendable attempt by Verhoeven to adapt a difficult book, Starship Troopers is a well-paced film, featuring enough action, and convincing special effects to make it an enjoyable watch (with the brain firmly disengaged) on an purely entertainment level. On the other hand as a satire it falls somewhat shorter; Verhoeven often aims for easy targets, with varying effect, Hampered by a hit and miss script and the need to make it commercial, the film as a whole never succeeds in doing what some parts promise.

Uneven, overblown and self-indulgent it may be, this film is still relatively enjoyable, and worth watching, if only as evidence, that on rare occasions Hollywood does take risks.

It was followed by a Cable TV sequel, a DVD sequel and several videogame’s, with varying degrees of relevance to this film’s plot.



About paulashwellreviews

A Blog dedicated to Film, TV and Book reviews of all ages and genres
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