Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"Starship Troopers" (1997)

Starring Casper van Dien, Dina Meyer and Denise Richards
Written by Ed Neumeier
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Rated R- Violence, nudity, language
Running Time: 129 minutes

Starship Troopers (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray]Based (loosely) on the novel by Robert A. Heinlein, "Starship Troopers" is a pretty difficult movie to digest.  This is not because it features a fair amount of foul language, nudity and graphic violence, but because its themes are difficult to pin down. 

Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is your typical high school quarterback.  He's not too bright, but he comes from an affluent family and he has his friends Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) and Dizzy (Dina Meyer), and his girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards).  After high school, all four of them decide to join up with the military.  In this futuristic society, only those who serve the government can become full citizens, with the right to vote and so on.  While Carl and Carmen are intelligent enough to get posted to the navy or military intelligence, Johnny and Dizzy are sent to the Mobile Infantry. 

Humanity is currently involved in a war with a race of bugs from a planet known as Klendathu.  While people don't generally think the bugs are intelligent, higher ups in the military are beginning to think that there must be some kind of "brain bug" calling the shots.  While Johnny and Dizzy make their way through training, Carmen rises quickly through the ranks to become an ace pilot and finds herself attracted to her co-pilot, Zander (Patrick Muldoon).  When the bugs' latest attack leaves Johnny's home city of Buenos Aires devastated, the recruits are sent off to war, perhaps before they're truly ready.

"Starship Troopers" doesn't really have a "plot", per se.  Much like other war films such as "Full Metal Jacket," "Starship Troopers" follows several recruits through various stages of their early military careers, punctuated by several large action sequences.  Interspersed with this story are a series of short propaganda pieces which sort of humorously dissect things that are going on and move the story forward a bit. 

So what makes this movie so difficult to review?  Well, much like Verhoeven's "Robocop," there are several levels to look at.  On the surface, "Starship Troopers" is populated by pretty, annoying characters who fight giant bugs from outer space.  On another level, it's about pretty, annoying characters who live in a fascist society where people have given up freedom for security.  And on yet another level, it's full of pretty, annoying characters who are essentially just props to be moved around in a ridiculous spoof of propoganda films and militarism.  Depending on your mood or how deeply you decide to dissect "Starship Troopers," you could come away thinking that it's a dumb summer action flick, an offensive fascist manifesto or a messy satire.

The dialogue is simplistic.  There's are a lot of rah-rah military dialogue that's kinda fun to listen to, but the rest of it is much like the characters - vapid and fake.  These characters are supposed to be kind of stupid, and we're never really supposed to believe that they are capable of doing the things we end up seeing them do.  Instead, we're supposed to think that this is completely ridiculous - and it is.  But that's the point of the propoganda film, isn't it?  "Starship Troopers" wants to take that to the next level, to make you see just how ridiculous it all is by playing it up.  It doesn't quite get there, which is unfortunate, but the basics are there for those who choose to dig into it.

The acting is, by design, either basic or bad.  The cast have enough chemistry to work well together; Johnny's unit all seem to have a good rapport with each other and their antics during training are pretty funny.  But the individual characters are mostly vapid, uninteresting people with plastic, pretty faces.  Denise Richards is... not a good actress.  Neil Patrick Harris, usually a lot of fun, simply can't handle his character later in the film when Carl is supposed to be a hardened military strategist.  Casper Van Dien's voice is too soft to really take him seriously as a rough and ready leader.  Jake Busey, on the other hand, plays the arrogant "Ace" perfectly. 

The film's visual effects definitely still hold up today, displaying some of the most impressive miniature model work before CGI became the norm.  There's also extensive CGI work for the bugs, which is over a decade old now and still looks great.  There are a number of great action sequences, such as when the Roughnecks investigate a distress signal from a small outpost on Planet P or when Johnny takes on a 'tanker' by himself.  Paul Verhoeven knows how to direct all the crazed action, pulling off lots of cool shots full of impressive effects and gnarly carnage.

"Starship Troopers" isn't quite as sharply pointed a satire as "Robocop," which makes its themes sort of muddled.  But the two films share a lot of stylistic similarities, and would make a fine double feature. 

See Also
Starship Troopers 3: Maurader