Thursday, March 01, 2007


Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers is a film that had people tearing their hair out back in 1997. Either it was the lovers of Robert Heinlein's book that loathed the creative liberties taken by the screenwriter and director or it was the fans of pulpy science fiction films who expected big action and could not look past the soapy Melrose Place elements of the film and the inferior acting. The movie was a big expensive blockbuster which barely made half of its near-100 million dollar budget back; and this was years before you could cut your losses with DVD sales.

But there were a few of us that saw the movie as one of the great genre mash-ups of the 1990s. The film is part war film (complete with requisite training camp, a la Full Metal Jacket), part shoot 'em up science fiction (taking cues from James Cameron's Aliens), part teen melodrama (in the vein of several Aaron Spelling TV shows popular at the time) thrown into a cinematic gumbo with a healthy dose of social and political satire as the key spice.

The story is set in a future fascist state of a single world government where humanity is at perpetual war with a race of gigantic bugs. It follows three high-school friends as they join the army as fresh faced cadets. Johnny Rico (cinemas walking Ken Doll, Casper Van Dien), whose path the film follows more than anyone else, is an athletic but not too bright rich kid who enlists into the marines to spite his parents. His girlfriend, Carmen (fittingly, cinemas walking Barbie Doll, Denise Richards) gets a position with the space fleet and his best friend and telepathic genius, Carl (somehow even more fittingly, TV's Doogie Howser) signs up for the Schutzstaffel-esque secret ops branch of the military. With these three threads on the go, Starship Troopers functions as war-time cultural potpourri from the slaughter house of the front lines to the ludicrously stuffy and incompetent military command to the woefully misinformed home front.

Taking cues from heavy handed World War II brainwashing of both the axis and the allies, Verhoeven has re-imagined those war-time newsreels as a sort of television-internet hybrid. He uses the same deft satirical touch as he did with the local-news broadcasts scattered throughout his previous (and similar) sci-fi satire RoboCop . Here we have a movie that revels in showing extreme violence and dismemberment of the soldiers in the media footage contained within, but puts a large black censorship box over the killing of a cow. The kids at home are encouraged to step on the local bugs to "Fight Back" against the enemy space-bugs. In a very eerie premonition of 9/11, the reaction of humanity to the bugs destroying Buenos Aires in Starship Troopers was not unlike the New York attack. A distinct call for immediate retribution ('I'm from Buenos Aires, and I say kill 'em all! ') and loads of concessions to military might at the cost of personal freedoms resonates in the obvious ways. In the future of the film, democracy has failed and the only way to vote (and be a 'citizen') is to do military service.

The film also spends a fair bit of time in Rico's basic training which focus on turning the fresh-faced recruits into the very mindless, conforming bugs that humanity fights. It throws out the jingo-ism with a catchy glee that makes the film a heck of a lot more fun that one might think though. The brilliance in casting Clancy Brown (Yes, the Kurgan from Highlander) as a wacko drill instructor and Canadian creepy guy, Michael Ironside, as the one-armed high-school teacher turned grizzled lieutenant allow for great line readings like "Something given has no basis in value. When you vote, you are exercising political authority, you're using force. And force my friends is violence. The supreme authority from which all other authorities are derived."

I am quite convinced that Verhoeven wanted the cherry blossom performances out of the lead actors. He takes an unusual path of turning fresh innocent faces into over confident drones, ripe for the slaughter of a government that just doesn't know when to pull out and cut its losses. Humanity here has bought into the bunk it has been force feeding its own innocent youth for so long that it is to the point where there is no choice but to go on recruiting younger and younger kids as the supply of grunt fodder is steadily diminished. Starship Troopers is not as depressing as that last sentence, it means to mock that last sentence with its every frame, often at the expense of character, but certainly to the delight of those who love a good satire. The eye-candy special effects and ridiculous levels of gore and violence make for a movie that is not for everyone, but the number of folks that praise this movie these days has been steadily growing over the past decade.

Come out Thursday Night and enjoy this epic satire that is not afraid to lay on the old ultra-violence in between Beverly Hills 90210 antics and Tour of Duty cliches. Drinks at 8:00pm. Trailers and Showtime at 8:30pm.

Would You Like to Know More?
The Provocateur Auteur
ESSAY #2: Heinlein, Verhoeven, and the problem of the Real


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