“Starship Troopers” is extremely difficult to judge and depending on your social and political views, or your ability to tolerate gratuitous violence and kitsch dialogue, it may well be judged as a masterpiece or alternatively as one of the greatest jokes Hollywood has ever afforded itself. Polarising audiences and critics upon release, it remains divisive and for director Paul Verhoeven (who was already on his way down his career ladder throughout the 90s) it effectively marked the demise of a career. Those expecting a space opera in a grand, Lucasian style will be alienated by the jarring socio-satyrical elements and while Verhoeven fans will find his flowing narration correct and present, even they cannot eschew the film’s very rough edges. Consider yourself warned.
Loosely adapted from Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novel of the same name, “Starship Troopers” takes place in a futuristic world where human civilisation continually ventures into space, colonising solar system after solar system. Threatened by arachnid-type aliens from the planet of Klendathu, the humans declare war on the primitive bugs, intent on wiping them out in a final-solution style operation. Entire action sequences as well as punctuations of recruitment videos play like fast-food military propaganda to appeal to the masses of youths who can sign up to become “citizens,” a more privileged class of people than the ordinary civilians. Joining up for entirely different reasons is Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), namely to follow his girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards). Also joining up are Dizzy (Dina Meyer) and Zander (Patrick Muldoon) who have the hots for one member of the couple, as well as Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) who joins an intelligence division. After an intense training boot-camp the troupe are dropped on Klendathu, in the middle of the inter-galactic conflict. Naturally, E.T. turns out to be far more intelligent and far less friendly than originally thought and the military mission quickly turns into a desperate struggle for survival. Jake Busey, Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside also star.
There is no one moment in the entirety of the film’s running time that escapes controversy. We are made acutely aware of the parallels humanity’s expansion into space as a superpower and similar enterprises on our home soil. On the one hand, such a vision of the future may be terrifyingly realistic (cynics in particular will have a field day here) and takes on a rather frightening form when applied to the American dream of liberty, on the other hand Verhoeven’s depiction of humans as Third Reich emissaries is painful and irritatingly crude. What will ultimately sink the film for many viewers is the duality created out of these satyrical undercurrents. Verhoeven can’t decide if he’s making a straight action picture or something with more far-reaching implications is clumsy, leaving the end product tangled and confusing. This latter point is certainly strengthened by the extremely clunky dialogue and wooden acting by the entire ensemble that all point to cheap, B-movie rather than something with a serious message, regardless of any satyrical statement. Often, the film veers dangerously close to farcical and laughable, understandably going over the edge for some viewers.
It’s quite possible that your relationship with “Starship Troopers” bears resemblance to that of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. Be that as it may, looking past the plot or its message and focusing purely on the technical side of things, viewers will find much more to universally enjoy. Verhoeven’s sense for flowing narration within individual scenes remains second to none, even if the dialogue is tosh, harking back to the days of “Basic Instinct” and “Robocop.” All the action is clearly and consistently choreographed, avoiding the confused “shake” that permeates so many post-Private-Ryan action. And finally, the visual effects are absolutely top-drawer, quite rightly nominated for an Academy Award though its loss to “Titanic” is hard to dispute. Nevertheless the bugs, including the climatic “brain-bug” are excellently rendered by Phil Tippett (ironically nominated against his “Jurassic Park” collaborator Dennis Muren) and Co. at ILM. The actual planet is rooted in reality, shot in Wyoming, but the bugs fit in almost flawlessly. As far as alien world’s go, the look is not unlike the original “Star Wars” and equally realistic.
Paul Verhoeven regularly collaborated with both masters Basil Poledouris and Jerry Goldsmith but for “Starship Troopers,” the former was first choice. Poldouris’ score plays mainly to the über-patriotic elements of the story with muscular brass and percussion, explored primarily in the heroic “Klendathu Drop” for the troop deployment and “Fed Net March” which plays to the propaganda video sequences. Amidst the frenetic action, there is little room for respite but Poledouris finds a beautiful lament in “Dizzy’s Funeral.” The rest of a disappointingly short album presentation is ballsy and militaristic but in the end, Poledouris can’t quite return to the brutal form of his “Conan the Barbarian” masterpiece. In retrospect, Poledouris probably fulfilled Verhoeven’s brief but it would nevertheless have been interesting to see what Goldsmith might have conjured for the project.
As was originally the concept behind “Star Trek,” sci-fi can be a great platform for socio-political comment. Undoubtedly, Verhoeven both succeeds and fails at this task. “Starship Troopers” will make a mark on you but if that be scarring or insightful will depend largely on the individual viewer. A middle-of-the-road rating tries to take account both sides of the story but realistically, any rating from one through five could be successfully be argued for.
Do you consider Paul Verhoeven’s film a masterpiece or trash? Why not leave a comment with your opinion – all feedback is appreciated! Also please follow me on Twitter. Shanx!