REVIEW: Starship Troopers (1997)
1997 brought us so many entertaining films across a variety of genres, it’s really hard to pick a handful of films to focus on. As a fan of director Paul Verhoven, especially his previous sci-fi blockbusters Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990), one film that stands out for me is Starship Troopers.
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The Dutch director has a brave, devil may care attitude, and he injects these films with such energy and playfulness, many people forget the films also provide a subtle social commentary and intelligence missing from other films in the genre.
These films form an unofficial trilogy of sorts and their DNA is unmissable – the heady mix of futuristic tech, cartoonish gore and black humour. In today’s formulaic movie landscape, these films would no doubt be shoehorned into the one thing that makes a studio executive drool – a shared universe! Like Marvel but the Crazy Dutchman Cinematic Universe (CDCU) if you will.
“Would you like to know more?”
Starship Troopers reunites Verhoven with Robocop writer Ed Neumier and it shows – the satirical news snippets are a hilarious highlight and make it a spiritual sequel to Robocop. Writer and director rekindle their magic and take the po-faced 1950s novel by Robert A. Heinlein, strip it of its high tech Iron Man esque mech warrior warfare whilst keeping the basic tale of teens becoming adults in a fascist future, that in today’s political climate seems scarily prescient.
Its a simple tale of a handsome boy, Johnny who’s in love with a girl, Carmen, so he signs up for military service to impress her/seal the deal. Johnny’s friend, girl next door Diz, is clearly also in love Johnny, so she follows him into military service. Then space bugs destroy the white-washed future Buenos Aires by hurling their spores through space (don’t worry about that too much) – forcing them into an intergalactic (planetary! – sorry, force of habit being a 90’s teen) war with some terrifying bugs, that come in all shapes and sizes. As I said, a simple tale.
“its a film about unrequited love, growing up, accepting responsibility, and perseverance. It’s just told across a backdrop of stylised sci-fi action with impressive special effects that still look passable today“
On the surface, it’s like many a teen romance – its a film about unrequited love, growing up, accepting responsibility, and perseverance. It’s just told across a backdrop of stylised sci-fi action with some impressive special effects that still look passable today (courtesy of Jurassic Park’s Dino Supervisor – Phil “You only had one job” Tippett).
The film’s narrative plays out of order to provide a thrilling opening of a failed invasion on the planet before probably introducing us to the film’s Beverly Hills 90210-eque leads. We are quickly transported to the Mobile Infantry’s training camps to provide a futuristic spin on the story staple often found in Vietnam films. We’re introduced to all the bug fodder, a literal game of lazer tag and some communal showing – because…shut up, it’s a Verhoven film, that’s why!
We get to see some great battle scenes, revealing a plethora of grotesque bugs that offer a variety of gory deaths – flying bugs that decapitate or giant tanker bugs that melt you alive (a nod back to Robocop, perhaps?) The film also manages to honour/homage Aliens and Zulu – our heroes with all their military hardware – the giant machine guns and hand sized nukes, find themselves completely out of their depth when faced with hordes of foreign savages who just keep coming.
The film has a decent cast – mostly. Leads Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards bring beauty and soap opera quality acting that works amongst the ridiculousness of it all. Neil Patrick Harris displays some of that witty charm we’re now so familiar with, before going all serious psychic space Gestapo towards the end.
Clancy Brown and Dean Norris provide the gruff military authority in the training camp scenes that they’re both so good at (and have been typecast in).
Then there’s Michael Ironside – what a legend! Ironside, the sneering sidekick and party pooper from Total Recall is perfectly cast in the grizzled war veteran come mentor role.
“Ironside brings a gravitas to the film that others cannot, I think very few people could deliver a line like “They’ve sucked his brains out!” with such conviction”
He’s the perfect citizen, a man who’s sacrificed his arm protecting the body politic and will gladly die for it, as long as it’s an honorable death. Ironside brings a gravitas to the film that others cannot, I think very few people could deliver a line like “They’ve sucked his brains out!” with such conviction. Like Air Force One (1997) and Gary Oldman, as soon as Ironside exits, the film seems to lose momentum – perhaps it’s because Rasczak is the only character we’re genuinely invested in.
Ironside and Verhoven are such a good match, part of me thinks he should be digital inserted into Robocop as Clarence Boddicker – though that would mean losing the equally awesome Kurtwood Smith. One thing I love about these Verhoven films is the memorable character actors like Smith, Ronny Cox and Dean Norris in the supporting roles.
Troopers didn’t make a huge dent in the box office and I think a key reason is that some multiplex audiences took the film for it’s surface detail and completely missed the right wing political satire.
Most will probably consider this the weakest of the trilogy, lacking Robocop’s intelligence or the pace and thrills of Total Recall but there’s still a lot to enjoy, come for extreme violence, stay for the satire! Unsurprisingly there’s been recent news of a remake, despite the poor reception to both Robocop (2014) and Total Fuckall (2014). Verhoven, when questioned about it made a valid point “the studios always wanted not to have a layer of lightness, a layer of irony, sarcasm, satire.”
Adapting a straight faced adaptation of right wing sci fi allegory is hard work – watch Ender’s Game (2013) for further evidence. When viewing a fascist future through Verhoeven’s lens, it may be brutal, gory and sometimes scary, but hey, at least it’s fun.
MVP: There’s only one Michael Ironside!
Alternate Title: Sexy Space Nazis
Fun Fact: More ammunition was used in this film than in any previous movie.
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What are your thoughts on Verhoven’s sci-fi films?
Do you love Michael Ironside as much as we do?
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