Archive for November 7, 1997

Starship Troopers

November 7, 1997

Starship Troopers is about Earth vs. big bugs, so of course I loved every absurd minute of it. I make no apology for that. Breathlessly stupid and endearingly cheesy, this is the best guilty pleasure in years — if you’re in the right mood and in the right company. Put yourself in a state of amused anticipation, and go with at least one witty friend with whom you can play Mystery Science Theater 3000, and you will have a great trashy time.

A film that aims high and misses can still be worthwhile but also frustrating — you think, It wants to be great, but it just isn’t getting there. Starship Troopers doesn’t want to be great; all it wants to do is have some fun. It aims low and hits, again and again, with hammering relentlessness and a steady stream of rude satire — not to mention a horde of stunning CGI critters that fold, spindle and mutilate a good percent of the hapless cast. These guys are hands-on (or legs-on) killers, and they wipe the floor with the ETs in the tedious Independence Day. The movie is everything ID4 should have been — a big, shiny, straight-faced parody so outrageously violent, so outlandishly corny, that it has a kind of moronic purity.

Starship Troopers (the title evokes SS troopers) is based on a 1959 novel by Robert A. Heinlein — a meat-and-potatoes war story that happens to involve starships and giant bugs. Heinlein, a retired Navy officer, filled his book with military anecdotes, strategies, and ethics. The novel is nuke-’em-till-they-glow militaristic pulp, but it’s compulsively readable and fairly provocative: Like the best sci-fi, it touches on thorny issues. The society is divided into two groups: citizens — those who serve the government, preferably in combat — and civilians. If you want a peaceful civilian life, nobody begrudges your choice; you just lose the right to vote. Heinlein’s point may be that as our enemies get more ruthless and totalitarian, so will we. As Nietszche warned: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become one.”

Director Paul Verhoeven and scripter Ed Neumeier, who worked together on Verheoven’s breakthrough hit RoboCop, distill Heinlein’s story into a heavy-metal shoot-’em-up with barbs of satire. Remember RoboCop‘s grotesquely insensitive TV clips and commercials? Starship Troopers is punctuated with sunshiny ads recruiting fresh cannon fodder — JOIN UP NOW! — and wonderfully sick commercials in which smiling soldiers distribute guns to eager children. The rest of the movie is equally cartoonish, with swipes from Star Wars and Aliens so audaciously blatant you laugh — just as you laugh at everything else, especially when a stupid civilian muses “Looks like rain” before the Bugs wipe out Buenos Aires.

Starship Troopers follows young soldier Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) through basic training in the hardcore Mobile Infantry, whose motto is “Everyone fights, no one quits.” Yes, everyone: Women fight (and shower) alongside men without conflict, harassment, or even much sexual tension. In the book, women weren’t troopers; they were trained as starship pilots due to their superior math skills and coordination. In the movie, women fly ships and fry bugs, but Verhoeven doesn’t make a big political deal out of it, as G.I. Jane did so ineptly.

The setting may be futuristic, but the characters are out of a ’50s big-bug movie. The cast is full of young hunks and babes, mouthing dialogue so corny it’s retro-hip. Verhoeven could have directed them with a lyric from Tom Lehrer’s “The Hunting Song”: “You just stand there looking cute/And when something moves, you shoot.” The best line in Starship Troopers is delivered by one-armed lieutenant Michael Ironside with grim intensity: “They sucked his brains out!” When all is said and done, you may feel as if Verhoeven had sucked your brains out, too. But brain-sucking has rarely been so fun.