Above all else, Paul Verhoeven knows how to make science fiction fun. Total Recall (the original version), Robocop and Starship Troopers are films that deliver on the technology and action front, but the enduring popularity of those films is perhaps just as much due to the occasionally-playful tone that exists in all three. Verhoeven has made films that are as funny as they are thrillingly violent, and it’s a surprise that he has only been in the director’s chair a couple of times in the last 15 years (though that may be a question of numbers: Starship Troopers – the last time he worked on a major blockbuster – did well at the box office, but it didn’t perform greatly when its initial cost of $100 million is factored in).
Verhoeven’s films feel like a guilty pleasure, of sorts: it’s difficult to champion anyone’s career when it includes misogynistic dreck like Basic Instinct or Showgirls, but with regard to sci-fi his movies are far more interesting; they are commercial films that often play on two levels, and while their messages are heavily delivered, they are far more subversive than much of the competing blockbuster fayre of the late 1980s and 1990s. On the surface they appear to be big, brash, bold, noisy and violent action films, and can be enjoyed as such, but behind the veneer they are also harshly critical of our own societies. Robocop may well be seen by many as just a guy in a futuristic robot suit taking on a bunch of drug dealers and rapists, but it’s also a scathing attack on the media in the 1980s, rampant consumerism and the dangers of letting greedy mega-corporations get their hands on institutions that have been traditionally funded by the state. It’s an incredibly savvy film.
Similarly, Starship Troopers works just fine as a tale of rookie soldiers taking on a bunch of aliens in some far-flung corner of the galaxy. But if you want more? (And the fact is you should always, always want more, because right now the studios are as lazy as their audiences, and if you disagree with that I recommend you check your local multiplex this weekend and consider why a barely-amusing and financially successful comedy called The Hangover has now been made into a fucking Hangover trilogy and is playing at several thousand screens worldwide.) Well, Verhoeven is equally interested in lampooning the media as before, but his themes of military propaganda, mis-information, intolerance and the rise of fascism attempt to get the viewer to question why wars start and the dangers of viewing complex situations from only one perspective. Originally released in 1997, it was even more prescient than Robocop with regard to forthcoming real-life events; you will get lots of food for thought watching Starship Troopers again today, after 9/11, the second Iraq war, the UK/US-led invasion of Afghanistan and numerous related terrorist attacks around the globe. It could just as easily be about the US-Vietnam war, despite all the visual clues that suggest its intended concern was with fascism and the Second World War.
And yet it’s hardly an understatement to say that Citizen Kane it ain’t! What I love about Verhoeven’s films is that they are packaged as trash, and Starship Troopers is a perfect example. And I don’t mean to be derogatory with the word ‘trash’. This is great trash. As-enjoyable-as-Tarantino-trash. He’s aiming to put as many bums on seats as he possibly can, and he’s going to make everyone think they’re just watching some grunts fight giant bugs, but that’s categorically not what you’re really watching.
Casper Van Dien’s Square Jaw stars as Johnny Rico, a young student about to finish school in a future Buenos Aires with his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), friend Doogie Howser MD (Neil Patrick Harris) and fellow classmate Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), who fails to hide her own admiration for Johnny. Their teachers – brilliantly – are Michael Ironside and Rue McLanahan (ex of the Golden Girls, sporting a giant prosthetic forehead), who indoctrinate their pupils with fascistic and militaristic viewpoints not dissimilar to those espoused by the Nazi party. This Buenos Aires is under the rule of a global ‘Federation’, of which citizenship is a privilege earned by military service (citizens are then granted many more opportunities prohibited to everyone else). Citizenship is every brainwashed kid’s dream in this uber-clean, bland and sanitised version of the future, and the four segue into the military as soon as their exams are finished. Ibanez wants to be a pilot, Doogie Howser MD has loftier intelligence aims, and Rico and Flores join the mobile infantry.
Interestingly, Verhoeven stated in 1997 that the first internet news sting included in the film (an advertisement for the mobile infantry) was adapted shot-for-shot from a scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. We are told, through superb propaganda footage (delivered in the film via a version of the internet that looked futuristic in 1997 but is now very, very dated), that Earth is at war with arachnids on the planet Klendathu. These gruesome bugs are attacking Earth by shooting huge plasma bolts at an asteroid field, which in turn sends the giant rocks hurtling through space towards our fair, green planet. A minor detail, but an important one, is the revelation that the human race invaded the bug territory first. Hilariously, the alien species are merely reacting to an attempt by Mormons to set up a colony on Klendathu, and Verhoeven delights in showing footage later on of the decimated colony, bloodied and dismembered corpses strewn all over the floor.
The film progresses through a series of high school and boot camp scenes (hour one of the film) before the bugs send one meteor too many, narrowly missing Ibanez and new love interest Zander (Patrick Muldoon) as they perform training manoeuvres in a large and instantly forgettable spaceship. It smacks straight into – and decimates – Buenos Aires, and kicks off a brutal interplanetary war as a result (and that’s hour two of the film).
When choosing the parts of Rico, his friends and the other soldiers, Verhoeven picked actors that can primarily (and perhaps unfairly) be described as walking sets of gums and enamel. The square-jawed, blue-eyed, blond-haired Van Dien had mainly appeared on TV and in video games, and Starship Troopers was his big break. Richards, throughout the film, has an irritating perma-smile plastered across her mush; while her lights are most certainly on, it’s questionable as to whether anyone is home. They’re joined by Ace (Jake Busey, son of Gary), a character so irritating I was still hoping he’d get eaten by bugs several hours after the film had ended. It’s Beverley Hills 90210 in space.
The casting is vitally important. It gives the movie the air of a badly-acted soap opera, and this bunch of clean-cut, blemish free teens fit perfectly with Verhoeven’s sanitised future, where there’s no litter, no creases in clothing, no week-old stubble and no hint of rock n’ roll or rebellion. Costume Designer Ellen Mirojnick did a terrific job with the plain, well pressed outfits, so that even those who aren’t in uniform are in uniform. To get on in this supposed Utopia you clearly can’t be overweight, underweight, anti-establishment, or fond of a piercing or two (though interestingly Verhoeven’s film is keen to show that both sexes and all races are on an equal footing). Almost all adults in this militaristic society, however, have physical defects of some form or other, presumably from being involved in previous battles.
By the time this gang of Hollywood beauties face the legions of vile, ugly, orange-and-green-goo-spewing bugs, you find that it’s not all that easy to root for the humans, as you would normally expect to. Rico is so serious and humourless it’s a surprise his buttocks don’t squeak as he walks. Ibanez, the film’s other lead, is disloyal to him (something that sent the test audiences into squawks of displeasure). And yet Starship Troopers‘ masterstroke is that it doesn’t matter whether you care about these characters or not by the time they meet the bugs: Verhoeven deliberately tries to make his audience bloodthirsty by using several dismal actors who had the misfortune to be way better looking than you and I (especially I). He takes ’em light years away from home just so he can terrorize them and maybe, just maybe, treat us to their horrible, painful deaths. And if there’s any justice we’ll cheer at the demise of this human army of creaseless automatons. How’s that for a mirror being held up to society?
The boot camp and school scenes are packed with one cliche after another, to the point where it must surely be a deliberate ploy by the director: Starship Troopers is a satire of teen romance films and a satire of war films. There’s a kind of indoor American Football game against a rival high school, a typical prom night, a classic maniac drill instructor who breaks cadet’s arms and throws knives into their hands before shouting “MEDIC!”, and clumsy scenes inside the boot camp mess halls. (Really, the acting is so bad here it’s untrue. Jake Busey is particularly bad, but to be fair to him he learned to play violin for his role. That’s method.) In Flores there’s even the great girl who is in love with the leading guy, but is ignored while the leading guy focuses his attention on the other girl … the one that will break his heart. The cliches keep coming throughout the film – the cowardly general who meets a violent death, the injured soldier that stays behind with a grenade (a nuke in this case) to take out the advancing enemy, the Zulu-style siege … the list is long. Hilariously long.
While Van Dien’s name might be at the top of the bill, the real stars of Starship Troopers are the bugs, designed by Phil Tippett*, who eventually went on to direct the dismal straight-to-DVD sequel. (The CGI for Starship Troopers was state-of-the-art upon release, but understandably looks dated now. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the arachnids, which still look terrific today, but the space sequences look a little tired and have not aged well. And while I’m on the subject, the set design is pretty terrible in a lot of the scenes that take place in space. The spaceship walls look cheap and plastic, and monitors unimaginatively flash up phrases like “ABORT!”) Verhoeven teases the audience by showing one of the arachnids in the opening sequence, and then withholds them for the best part of an hour. When Rico and co finally land on Klendathu they come face to face with a lot of bugs; a fantastic range of fire-breathing, plasma-shooting, body-dismembering and brain-sucking alien creatures. The film’s battle scenes are deliriously enjoyable; as stated above there is something hugely entertaining about seeing these tanned beauties as they get violently slaughtered by the bug army, and it’s all the more amusing to read that the director himself stood in front of the actors and screamed in their faces so that they would look scared enough.
Only Michael Ironside appears to know just exactly what kind of movie he’s appearing in. A veteran of well-loved 80s trashy sci-fi, he gets to deliver the film’s best line – “They sucked his brains out!” – with his tongue firmly in cheek. It feels like the majority of the the younger cast members – aside from the likeable Dina Meyer – are the unwitting victims in some kind of cruel, elaborate stitch up. The way the characters’ paths improbably keep crossing is completely ludicrous. The comic lampooning of news items, adverts and talk show clips had been done before, by Verhoeven himself. There’s so much wrong with Starship Troopers that the most surprising thing is that it all works and feels so damned right.
The re-imagined Nazi stylings work well, whether it’s the constant and often-witty propaganda segments that pop up throughout (the best being the gang of children stomping manically on some unrelated Earth insects to show solidarity) or the use of imagery (giant eagles, Gestapo trenchcoats). Yes, the action is violent, but it’s also frenetic and exciting, and whichever way you watch the film – as a satire and commentary on war and society or as an out-and-out sci-fi action flick – it is great, great fun. Verhoeven famously stated in the DVD director’s commentary that he began reading Robert A. Heinlein’s original book, which is apparently vastly different in tone and message, but got bored and gave up. Heinlein wrote for kids, and more importantly he wrote seriously. Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier adapted the material to make a biting satire disguised as camp, gory trash that was misunderstood by a lot of critics upon its initial release. Their loss; this is every bit the equal of Robocop.
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Written by: Ed Neumeier, original book by Robert A. Heinlein
Starring: Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Neil Patrick Harris, Michael Ironside, Jake Busey
Running Time: 129 Minutes