Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Bug Juice

By Jim Ridley

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  In 1987, a director named Paul Verhoeven made his first American movie, a relatively low-budget sci-fi adventure about a wounded Detroit policeman transformed into a cyborg. Robocop, which marked the screenwriting debut of Ed Neumeier, featured the dark cinematography of Jost Vacano, the swirling, triumphal music of Basil Poledouris, and the robot design of Phil Tippett. Its crossover appeal drew the Starlog set, action fans, and devotees of Verhoeven's Dutch work--and producer Jon Davison had a surprise hit.

Ten years later, the entire team has reunited for Starship Troopers, ostensibly an adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein's first-person novel about a cadet in the war against alien invaders. What they make of it should be no surprise to Robocop fans: Wicked satire gets equal time with stupendous special effects, both on a much bigger scale. Where Robocop skewered television with talking heads and meaningless jiggle sitcoms, Starship Troopers strafes patriotism itself with parodies of World War II propaganda--Nazi and Allied. Where the former had Robocop and ED-209, the latter has a solar system overrun with 10-foot-high arachnids chittering and oozing slime.

But the spirit of subversion is the very same. Starship Troopers manages a magnificent balancing act, satirizing the war movie and the space opera while producing a lean and exciting example of both genres. Its sole failure lies in its manipulative use of human beings as cannon fodder for its gory action and military send-ups. Compared with Robocop, which insists on the cyborg's essential humanity, Troopers seems cold and unfeeling. Compared with Verhoeven's astounding misanthropy in Basic Instinct and Showgirls, however, it's positively cuddly.

The stars are straight out of a teenage soap opera like California Dreams: chiseled, coiffed, and flawless, with simplified emotions to match their lives. Johnny (Casper Van Dien), his girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards), and psychic geek Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) are graduating from high school in Buenos Aires and preparing to sign up for military service, duly impressed by a one-armed teacher (Michael Ironside). (There's also the small matter of citizenship in the global Federation, conferred only upon veterans.) Love triangles develop quickly as boot camp gets under way: Carmen dumps Johnny for glamorous pilot Zander (Patrick Muldoon), while local jockette Dizzy (Dina Meyer) joins Johnny's Mobile Infantry unit.

Relationship troubles notwithstanding, the first hour of Starship Troopers is as much Army indoctrination film as 90210. Johnny and his fellow soldiers bond into comrades while running obstacle courses, competing for leadership positions, and complaining about the chow. Any lingering homesickness vanishes when Buenos Aires is destroyed by an alien attack, and the recruits ship out to the Klendathu system to exterminate the bugs where they live. The second half of the movie is dominated by human and arachnid body parts splattered all over the screen, as the Terran representatives fight a series of skirmishes and try to figure out what makes the bugs tick.

The bugs are the most outstanding special effect, and they are nothing short of awesome--fully integrated with the human actors in complex shots, and terrifyingly consistent in their movements and attack patterns. Tippett utilized insect-like motion in his previous designs for Return of the Jedi's walkers and Robocop's ED-209; here computer animation multiplies his imagination into a planetary hive of crawlers, all coming straight at the audience. By contrast, the spaceships and human habitations have a clean Star Trek look that matches the movie's tongue-in-cheek idealism and egalitarianism.

Most reviews have pointed out the prominent influence of a fascist aesthetic in the art design. The Federation Network logo is a Mussolini-styled eagle, and Carl's military-intelligence uniform is a black SS trench coat. But to think that Verhoeven is celebrating might over right is to miss at least half his point. The Fed Net video segments, which echo Robocop's groundbreaking news breaks and serve the same humorous point, feature segments like "Know Your Foe" and "Why We Fight"--direct parodies of American propaganda newsreels during the Good War. Each section of the film has a catchy title, complete with CNN-style graphics. The fight on Planet P, pitting technology and an heroic infantry against hordes of faceless, fanatic enemy troops, recalls nothing so much as the media's spin on the Gulf War. Verhoeven and Neumeier are satirizing all types of propaganda machines, along with the types of stories they produce.

Herein lies Starship Troopers' great flaw. Since the story and characters are meant to recall and parody movies that glorify combat and ignore its complications, there's little true human interest. Verhoeven's method in movies such as Basic Instinct and Showgirls has been to conceal from his actors that their performances are in the service of an ironic goal. In Troopers the actors emote with great sincerity; for the most part, they're not in on the joke. At least they're not being cynically exploited, as they were in Showgirls. But the fact that the soap-opera shenanigans and die-with-your-boots-on speeches wind up as humor undercuts the simpler pleasures of adventure and emotion found in pure space opera--as in, say, Star Wars.

If all Starship Troopers had left were its scary giant bugs, it would be a mere technical curiosity. Thanks to Verhoeven and Neumeier, however, it succeeds beyond all expectations as a send-up of weapons-worship. Just in time too. We may have thought that revisionist Vietnam movies had killed off that super-patriotic innocence, but flag-waving has been back in style at least since "Nuke the Ayatollah" bumper stickers. After all, the U.S. government refused to rule out the use of tactical nuclear weapons during the grotesque mismatch against Iraq. Verhoeven, who directed a sensitive portrayal of the Dutch resistance during World War II (Soldier of Orange), knows that because unthinking devotion to the state never goes out of style, neither will his sly criticism.


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