Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?
Starship Troopers is director Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of the 1959 sci-fi novel of the same name by Robert A. Heinlein. I must confess, I’ve always disliked this movie, but I was never really sure why. I suppose I should start by comparing it to Verhoeven’s previous excursions into science fiction: the masterworks RoboCop and Total Recall. Both of these films, like Starship Troopers, had great production values, not to mention moments of extreme violence. But neither of them would have worked were it not for the performances of their lead actors, Peter Weller and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In RoboCop, Weller plays an instantly likable policeman who’s savagely gunned down in the line of duty. He’s then resurrected as the title character, now with superhuman strength and cool powers such as the ability to look through walls. But this resurrection story has its downside, as RoboCop begins to remember the family life he lost. The most moving scene in the movie is when he flashes back to his loved ones as he walks through the home they once shared.
Likewise, in Total Recall, Schwarzenegger plays an average working man who suddenly realizes that the life he’s been living is not his life at all. For me, this is the movie that proved for all time that Arnold truly can act, because while there are action scenes aplenty, Arnold mostly wins us over with his determined and frantic performance as he maddeningly searches for answers.
It’s these performances that help make both RoboCop and Total Recall unique among the great science fiction movies, and therein lies the main flaw of Starship Troopers. It’s got lots of action and lots of beautiful women, but its cast is mostly made up of wooden actors, with the most wooden of the bunch (Casper Van Dien) as our lead, despite possessing no actual screen presence whatsoever.
Starship Troopers was likely meant to be a dark satire in the same vein as Verhoeven’s other sci-fi action pictures, but our central actor is just so blank and lacking in interior monologue that you can’t help but take the whole story at face value. And if the movie was truly meant to be satire, as many of its fans insist, it’s poorly done satire, because there’s very little in the way of actual wit or insight that might distinguish this film from other entries in the genre.
The film opens with a military recruitment film explaining how humanity has colonized other worlds in the future, but alas, this has led to contact with malevolent, gigantic bugs from the planet Klendathu. There’s a war going on between bugs and humans, with the bugs’ weapon of choice being meteors that they pull from their local asteroid belt and send hurtling to Earth.
One person who wants to make a difference in this war is Johnny Rico (Van Dien), who’s finishing up high school in Buenos Aires. He and his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), along with their friends Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) and Dizzy Flores (Dina Mayer) plan to enlist in the military after graduating. Heinlein’s original novel featured many characters of various ethnicities, but despite the Argentinian locale and last names like “Rico”, “Ibanez”, and “Flores”, the movie’s central cast looks like your typical whitewashed all-American homecoming court.
We get the gist of Rico and Carmen’s relationship from the beginning, as they clandestinely flirt in class, much to the annoyance of their one-armed history teacher and soon-to-be comrade-in-arms, Lieutenant Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside). Rasczak is truly a barrel of laughs here, as he praises the bombing of Hiroshima and makes blanket proclamations like, “Naked force has resolved more conflicts throughout history than any other factor!”
Later, Carl shows us that he’s even more annoying than Doogie Howser when he broadcasts Rico’s low test scores to the entire campus. And if this school isn’t fun enough for you, we next get a scene in (what I assume is) biology class where students are gleefully dissecting—what else?—bugs! Specifically, “Arkellian sand beetles”. The instructor is going on about how intelligent they are, as Carmen becomes more disgusted with the entrails she’s holding, until she finally throws up and bolts.
Rico later leads his high school team in a game of Jump Ball, which appears to be a hyper-violent version of arena football that occasionally involves somersaults. He then gets pissed off when he sees rival player Xander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon) trying to chat up Carmen. This leads to a brief scuffle between the two before Rico’s team wins the game. The two men get into another tiff over Carmen during the subsequent dance. Just what we didn’t need: science fiction with a dash of Melrose Place (ironically, both Richards and Muldoon made appearances on that show). Also at the dance, we find out Dizzy has been pining away for Rico for years, but he coldly rebuffs her.
After graduation, our four main characters follow through on signing up for the military: Rico joins up with the Mobile Infantry, Carmen goes to Flight School, Carl goes into Military Intelligence (where he’ll be able to put his psychic abilities to good use), and Dizzy decides to join up with the Mobile Infantry too, just to be closer to Rico. There, they make friends with a recruit named Ace Levy (Jake Busey), who can really play a mean neon green electric violin, but the less said about that, the better.
In the middle of Rico’s training, Carmen sends him a Dear John video letter (which arrives in the form of an ultra-futuristic mini-CD). She intends to pursue a career as a pilot, which means they can’t be together. And as an added bonus, she’ll be serving under Xander (ouch!).
Next, we find Rico leading the recruits in a training exercise using live ammo. This tragically leads to the death of one of the recruits, and somehow, Rico is blamed for it. As a result, he’s flogged publicly and resigns his commission.
But then the bugs send a meteor that destroys Buenos Aires, including Rico’s entire family. Naturally, he wants to be let back into the Mobile Infantry so he can personally fight the bugs. The ensuing battles mostly involve Rico and his fellow soldiers running around in a huge pack and shooting at anything that moves, which seems like a less than ideal strategy. Eventually, Rico is wounded and presumed dead, which I think means we’re supposed to feel bad for Carmen. But whether it’s due to the kinetic tone of the movie or just lame characterization, we don’t care at all what she, or any of the others, feel about Rico’s alleged “death”.
Rico is brought back to health without much fanfare, and he and Ace and Dizzy are reassigned to the Roughnecks, commanded by Rico’s former teacher Rasczak, who’s now been fitted with a mechanical arm. Here, the three recruits bond with another soldier named Sugar Watkins (Seth Gilliam). The group travels to “Planet P” in response to a distress call, and another tired cliché is trotted out as Dizzy confesses her love for Rico and they have sex just before the next big battle, which surely means somebody’s about to die.
Alas, said distress call turns out to be a trap set by the bugs themselves. The soldiers find corpses with their brains sucked out, and slowly realize the bugs are acquiring human intelligence. Just then, the team is swarmed by bugs, and both Rasczak and Dizzy die before Rico and the others are rescued by (what are the odds?) Carmen and Xander.
At Dizzy’s funeral, Rico, Carmen, and Carl reunite. The latter, who’s now a high-ranking intelligence officer (geez, way to be a prodigy at everything, Doogie) informs them that there’s a super-smart “brain bug” which has been the one sucking out brains and directing the other bugs. Carl tells Rico that he has to go back to Planet P and capture it. Despite seeing both his mentor and his one night stand become bug fodder, Rico is more than willing to get onboard with this plan.
During the next battle, Carmen’s ship goes down, and she and Xander get into an escape pod. They crash land on Planet P near some tunnels and end up getting captured by the bugs. Carl uses his psychic powers to divert Rico, Ace, and Watkins to their location.
Carmen and Xander are brought before the huge, disgusting brain bug (which was clearly designed to look like a giant vagina). It promptly makes short work of Xander by sticking one of its tendrils into his skull and sucking out his brain (not that he was using it, anyway). Carmen proves luckier as she cuts off the tendril with a knife before she too can get her brain sucked out.
Just then, Rico arrives, and with a small nuclear bomb as leverage, the humans are given free passage out of the tunnel. The bugs then give chase, and Watkins heroically blows himself up with the bomb to allow the others to escape.
After they make it to the surface, there’s an anticlimactic moment where we learn the brain bug has already been captured. This somehow means that the bugs are no longer a threat, so I guess there’s only one brain bug, then? Carl then makes physical contact with the thing (eww!) to read its thoughts, and he triumphantly announces, “It’s afraid!” Duh, and that makes two of us, but not for the same reasons.
The movie ends with clips showcasing the brain bug getting experimented on, and Rico, Ace, and Carmen showing off their military prowess in order to encourage others to recruit. What makes this outfit unique is that the grunts are so damn shiny.
This leads right back to what is, for me, the film’s Achilles’ heel: the characters. The main characters in RoboCop and Total Recall were instantly likable, so the viewer was immediately drawn into their plights. But all the characters here do is either blow shit up or engage in silly teenage theatrics.
Starship Troopers has it fair share of defenders who claim the whole film was meant as a satire of war films. The recruitment ads shown throughout the film (each concluding with the tagline, “Would you like to know more?”) seem to bear this out, but there’s one problem: The “satire” in these ads is painfully unsubtle and just plain silly. For example, one ad shows kids “doing their part” as they stomp bugs into the sidewalk. And these are small bugs here on Earth, not the giant ones that humanity is at war with. Another ad has a captured alien slashing up a cow, a lá Jurassic Park. If this is supposed to be satire, it’s not terribly clever satire.
And outside of the recruitment ads, this movie gives us almost nothing in the way of humor. It’s been argued that Verhoeven deliberately added stupid war-movie clichés and intentionally elicited terrible performances from his actors as a way to play up the satire. But if that’s true (and I certainly have my doubts), in the end we’re still watching a dumb, badly-acted, cliché-ridden film that’s mostly indistinguishable from the movies it’s supposedly satirizing.
In the plus column, Michael Ironside, who was a great villain in Total Recall, is terrific as a tough-as-nails sergeant. The film also understandably turned both Denise Richards and Dina Meyer into sex symbols, and the Carmen-Rico-Dizzy triangle (which wasn’t in the book, where Carmen is just a friend and Dizzy is male) may have been more interesting had these characters possessed more personality.
Another positive is the movie inspired the less-gory, but more-enjoyable animated series Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles, which aired from 1999-2000. But then again, the movie also inspired, at last count, three direct-to-video sequels of diminishing quality, so perhaps we should call it a wash.
As is customary with Verhoeven’s movies, the violence here is extreme, to say the least. Now, I’m not the sort who gets turned off by a movie just because it has gore. For instance, I can happily enjoy a meatball hoagie while watching The Fly. But the gore here is simply off-putting, mostly because it doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose and just feels gratuitous.
But the movie is never boring and, one could say, more exciting than the 1959 book of the same name, even though Verhoeven freely admits he didn’t finish reading it before making the movie. Both the movie and the book have vastly different takes on fascism. Whereas Heinlein has been accused of glorifying war and fascism, one can pretty easily see where Verhoeven stands on the issue, with obvious Nazi allusions throughout (Doogie Hitler MD dressed up like the Gestapo, Riefenstahl-esque propaganda in the recruitment films), but allusions on their own do not make a movie great. Starship Troopers is still a mostly silly film with a weak cast, and while it does entertain, I can’t quite list it as a favorite.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]