Starship Troopers
directed by Paul Verhoeven
TriStar, 1997

It has been derisively referred to as Beverly Hills, 90210 in Space.

There is some merit to the comparison. But Starship Troopers, for all its flaws, can still stand proudly among the ranks of violent alien encounter films. Sure, the acting is somewhat wooden at times and some of the characters are never believable as hard-bitten and bitter war veterans, but the action is intense and the special effects -- and let's face it, special effects are often the only big draw in a lot of SF movies -- are top-notch.

The plot, based extremely loosely on a novel by Robert Heinlein, is simple. After teasing the audience with a bloody on-the-scene newscast from "bug planet," the film flashes back one year. Our soon-to-be heroes are about to graduate from high school, and they have a choice: become mere civilians or volunteer for military service and become citizens. Citizens have more privileges than civilians, including the rights to vote, enter politics and have children.

Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is a not-too-bright athlete who loves Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), an extremely bright pilot wannabe. Rico is in turned loved by Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), and his best friend is the burgeoning psychic Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris). His favorite teacher is Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside), who strongly encourages citizenship.

You see the 90210 connection, right?

Rico joins the military because Ibanez joins the military. But while she gets the hoped-for appointment to flight school, he gets sent to the mobile infantry -- the grunts of the universe. Jenkins, with his high psy rating, is shipped off to military intelligence. And Flores shows up in Rico's unit and, just maybe, is a better soldier than he is. And then Ibanez, flushed with her rapid rise at the fleet academy, breaks off her relationship with Rico.

Rico's military career gets off to a very good start, however, and he soon has command of his boot camp unit. But a training exercise goes wrong, a cadet is killed and Rico is ... disciplined. Wracked with guilt over his error, he resigns from the military but, before he leaves the installation, the Earth is attacked by some bug-like aliens. Their bucolic 90210 lifestyle (actually in a futuristic Buenos Aires) is destroyed, their friends and families are all dead ... and Rico vows to "kill 'em all" as he rejoins his unit.

As serious drama goes, this film is lacking. The first segment is more of a lighthearted romance than anything else. But once the war begins, things change.

Much of the ensuing screen time is filled with Rico's unit as they engage -- and are often slaughtered by -- various bug populations. They meet bugs who belch space-faring plasma, bugs who shoot flame, bugs who suck brains and even some apparent little bug courtiers. And, of course, there's the shock troops of the bug population, the mandible-crunching warriors.

It is here that the special effects team, led by Phil Tippett, really shines. The interaction between actor and bug is way too real to be a special effect, and yet we all know that it is. The gore level here is also extremely high -- so anyone who gets queasy at the sight of blood, decapitated limbs, headless corpses and icky insect goo should probably give this movie a miss.

As for the acting ... well, acting isn't the film's strongest point. Van Dien is wooden, Richards is plastic, Harris is smug. Meyer is probably the best of the lot -- she holds her own as an infantry trooper without being too tomboyish, and she holds her candle for Rico without seeming too sappy (well, except for one scene near the end). Kudos also to Ironside as both teacher and roughneck lieutenant, and Jake Busey as trooper Ace Levy.

The "narration," in the form of Internet-based news broadcasts, are clever to the max and, quite often, hilarious to boot.

Some people argue that Starship Troopers is the ultimate fascist recruitment film. Others say it's a satire on war and the gung-ho American propaganda films of the World War II era. I don't think the intention really matters; viewers will take away from it the message they want.

Of course, not every movie has to have a message. This one probably doesn't, except that a lot of cartoon violence and a little gratuitous nudity will usually increase box office receipts. Unfortunately for the makers of Starship Troopers, the violence and nudity didn't seem to help all that much ... and the obvious sequel will probably never be made.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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