|Written by Bill Warren|
|Wednesday, 20 May 1998|
"Starship Troopers" is one of the most misunderstood and, therefore, underrated movies of the 1990s. It came under attack by a few fans of Robert A. Heinlein, author of the 1959 book on which the film was based, for not being enough like the novel. The Archie-and-Veronica-in-space plotline was criticized for being shallow and juvenile. Some people, incredibly, even accused the movie of being pro-fascist, when it's precisely the opposite. And it didn't do very well at the boxoffice, mostly because of its R rating.
Director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier made a more important error, though: they overestimated the intelligence of their audience, assuming that it would be clear that the film was successfully walking the same knife edge that their "RoboCop" had. "Starship Troopers" is both the adventure movie it seems to be and a parody of youth-oriented adventure movies. They modeled the film on the gung-ho propagandistic war movies made during the early years of World War II; instead of a movie about the culture we see, it's a movie that would have been made by that culture -- a recruiting film for the war against the Bugs. This is very explicit in the film itself: it opens and closes with big screaming words proclaiming the heroism of warriors and the certainty of victory -- but this was missed by too many in the audience.
One "problem" is that Verhoeven's movie is intensely exciting and kinetic, with brilliantly-done special effects (mostly Scott Anderson and Phil Tippett), dynamic battle scenes and thrilling scenes of heroism. Recruiting films have to be this exciting, of course, and it's true that the initial impulse to make the movie was when producer Jon Davison and Neumeier discussed the possibility of making a movie about young soldiers fighting giant insects. Both having read and loved Heinlein's novel as teenagers, they realized it provided the perfect setting for their idea.
After a brief initial scene of battle against the alien insect enemy, as seen by a news reporter (who's dismembered in front of the camera), the story flashes back to the previous year, and follows a group of friends, Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) and Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris), who graduate from high school and immediately enter the service, in Johnny's case, for the wrong reason. He's trying to impress his girlfriend Carmen, ignoring the equally attractive Dizzy, who's in love with him.
War breaks out when the insects (mysteriously) send a small asteroid across the galaxy; it wipes out Buenos Aires, where all the kids are from, and they soon find themselves preparing for real battle.
Heinlein's novel was one of his most polemic, and really consisted mostly of scenes set in a high school classroom as Heinlein, who'd originally planned to make the military his life, expounds on the value of serving the state. In "Starship Troopers," one cannot become a full citizen unless one has spent two years in service to the state; the novel vaguely mentions that this can be done in non-military capacities, but all we see are soldiers and the like.
The movie uses this idea, but it does not endorse it. The commentary track features Verhoeven and Neumeier, who frequently point out particular scenes that they intended to be critical of the society they depict. One of the points they hoped to make was that war tends to push a society towards fascism; their error was in not making this point more obvious -- but their comments now do make their intent clear, and that the movie was always critical. You'd think that when Carl shows up at the end dressed like an SS Storm Trooper even the densest members of the audience would have caught on, but they didn't.
The commentary track is lively and interesting -- Verhoeven is as dynamic a speaker as a director -- but the definition of "fascism" that he and Neuemeier are working with is unclear and too broad. Nonetheless, they make their points well enough that some who misunderstood the film before may realize just how good it is.
The other supplemental material is relatively standard for an expensive movie released on DVD, though it is interesting. There are a couple of cut scenes, a couple of screen tests, a trailer and a making-of documentary. The most interesting additional material, most of which is on the second side, are several sequences showing how a few effects-and-action laden scenes were gradually created.
Since this was a big-scale Hollywood movie, the sound is outstanding; since it was a Verhoeven movie, it's also extravagant and subtle at the same time, and a good showcase for any home audio system.
Verhoeven is a poet of the excessive: when he's given a movie that allows him to crank up the pace and go for broke, he can turn out sensationally good pop entertainment. His movies move so swiftly that few in the audience ever realize just how much, and how radically, he moves the camera -- the sleek, speedy changes of position are simply a part of the fabric of the movie.
Despite the understated political commentary, this is really an adventure film for the adolescent in all of us, not a political satire. It's a bang-bang shoot-'em-up thriller, with action aplenty, a rocket-like pace, and more visual wonders than any ten rival action pictures, without any of the machine-made quality of most studio big-action movies. Despite the fact that the movie is really rather light and airy, despite all the carnage and action, even though at first glance it seems kind of dispensable, "Starship Troopers," in terms of sheer energy and filmmaking technique, was one of the best movies of 1997.