Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Starship Troopers Film Review

Bloody Hell! This is the last frigging’ day in June… already?!? January was only yesterday, wasn’t it? I distinctly remember it raining and the power went out in the house for four hours somewhere during that cool month. We actually got out the candles (something my wife collects in droves). I think I read a portion of a book by candlelight then, in point of fact. Who knew those candles could be so handy. Now, a heat wave is pending for the Fourth of July weekend — along with the monsoonal flow we get this time of year. If I think about it too much, I might surmise I’m getting older by minute. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants.

So once again, it’s time for the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I to add another of our duo posts in the series we started in 2010. For this one, we took on a novel/film pairing that for many packs a strong reaction, no matter the media one partakes. As usual, the wordy one will look at the text of a famed novel later adapted to film, which I will review. In this case, she’ll be looking at the 1959 source sci-fi novel from the “dean of science fiction writers”, Robert Heinlein, that served the 1997 film adaptation of the same name, Starship Troopers. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

A brief synopsis of the film: In the future, the planet Earth has ended its long-suffering inter-nation/state squabbles and human beings live under one common federacy. Everything just works. That is not to say hominid life has given up entirely on warfare. Far from it. In this day, the human race is competing to rid themselves of their interstellar rivals, the Arachnids of Klendathu. Into this reality, Johnny Rico and his graduating high school compadres feel the cultural and gravitational pull to join the armed forces of the Terran Federation. In plain fact, they seek glory like any youth would, along with the desire to attain citizenship. Oh, did I forget to mention that to vote and have full opportunities in this society one must be an armed services veteran? The world operates in this age as a military meritocracy. What follows will cover Rico’s indoctrination, maturation, and achievements as a member in the Mobile Infantry.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

“Come on you apes. You want to live forever?”

There’s no way someone seeing this film adaptation for the first time doesn’t experience a strong reaction to the piece. Love it or hate it, few have “Eh” in their arsenal of observations and remarks toward this feature flick. Given an R rating by our autocratic friends at the Motion Picture of America when it debuted for the gore, sex, and nudity on widescreen display, it was going to attract a vast discussion no matter what. Director Paul Verhoeven (no stranger to pushing limits in such areas with his films) and screenwriter Edward Neumeier effectively saw to that. Though, it should be said, Robert Heinlein’s seminal book would have drawn attention even with a more straight-up adaptation regardless. Subtle the novel is not.

starship troopers

Starship Troopers plays simultaneously as a war film, a hard-edged sci-fi conjecture, and special effects summer movie (though, it was released in the Fall of 1997). It is also one of the more subversive cinematic takes of a source novel (one that was controversial then and as well as now). Its reworking to film offered a sly, yet insightful, criticism toward those (certainly the author of said work) who see a military styled government as a cure-all for its denizens. The quality and nobility of purpose for the warrior class in such a state in both the film and book is exalted, however… well, except maybe for one general in a scene Verhoeven made sure to add.

“These are the rules. Everybody fights, nobody quits. If you don’t do your job I’ll kill you myself. Welcome to the Roughnecks.”

Like the book, the film follows Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien, whose jaw-line has to be a recruiter’s poster-child dream) as he follows his schoolmates (Denise Richards as Carmen Ibanez and Neil Patrick Harris as Carl Jenkins) into the service to help the ongoing campaign against the bugs. At first, it’s more for the girl than him, believe me. Please don’t get the wrong idea, the filmmakers play the tale straight-faced, and in a manner similar to what was presented in the novel (though changes to characters and storyline were made).

It’s not camp nor does it wink its intentions to the audience. Still, the satire is there nonetheless in its depiction of what commonly would have been seen as propaganda film, circa-World War II (U.S., German… take your pick). Quentin Tarantino’s film-within-a-film, Nation’s Pride, for his 2009 film Inglourious Basterds would be an excellent primer for such.

In that same keeping, the late-90s film made a conscious decision of casting the ‘young and beautiful’ for the new recruits in the story’s depiction. Harkening back to the director’s groundbreaking film in 1987, Robocop, the filmmakers included a heathy dose of online commercials to introduce the greenhorns, and us, to this new world order and the enemy. The methods of derogatory information dissemination are on full display throughout the film.

Another underlying point of the script is to show that biased and misleading information can and does sway a population, if given the correct amount of gloss and menacing threat. When the online reporter (one obviously doomed for his honesty) in the first Klendathu landing mission offers up the possibility that it could have been us that started the war on-air, he’s quickly shut down by our boy Johnny (with moral conviction, I might add, since his parents’ deaths was the direct result of a meteor attack) with a discourse ending statement:

“I’m from Buenos Aires, and I say kill ’em all!”

But as much as the audience wants to pull for the beautiful people onscreen, the filmmakers really build more of an emotional connection through its secondary players. Principally with its supporting cast of Verhoeven favorite Michael Iro… excuse me… I meant to say Michael ‘F&*^king’ Ironside (as my good friend Will has taught me) portraying the notable Lt. Jean Rasczak and Clancy Brown as Sgt. (and eventual Private) Zim. While the concept of honor is upheld with these two, for sure its heart is with Dina Meyer as the lovelorn Dizzy Flores (who was a guy in the book). Her bloody combat demise (perhaps linked to the old standby slasher movie cliché of a post-coital death) is likely the most moving (but, that might be just me).

Keenly, it is the film’s female characters which distinguishes it from the novel (to say women were minor personas in the book is an understatement). Their injection into the screenplay brought a needed attribute (ahem… and I’m not saying this because of that famous shower scene). I believe weaving them in boosted the late-50s material and made it more relevant to an 1997 audience, and even more so today (post-9/11).

I have to say at this juncture, like Jurassic Park, this was another computer special effects film that genuinely broke new ground for its time. In fact, newly engineered computer programming delivered the first en masse digital bug effects to astonished moviegoers. Similarly, there were two different SFX teams tasked with bringing this off for Starship Troopers in equal measure (unlike today’s slate of movies that are more heavily dependent upon CGI).

Model and computer teams melded their analog and digital work pretty seamlessly and accomplished some truly spectacular space and combat scenes — the latter of these helped immensely to pull off the integral homages to one of the great British war films, 1964’s Zulu, for the mass ambush sequences on Klendathu.

paul-verhoeven-starship-troopers

Paul Verhoeven’s filmography is dotted with standout films (this among them). However, he does not operate at the middle of the distribution curve where safe (read corporate studio) filmmakers tread. He can be shocking in the violence his films display, as well as titillating with the amount of sex and nudity he fearlessly exhibits in them, but almost always pertinent or stimulating [check out two differing perspectives regarding his Total Recall film by Will and Mr. Peel as evidence].

Given his Dutch childhood was spent under the German occupation of the Netherlands during WW II, it should be no surprise he interposed the veil of Nazism in Starship Troopers. If you compare the uniforms in the film with the natty ones worn by the Wehrmacht and Gestapo, you’ll get his drift. However, sometimes his insinuations in what he produces either go over people’s heads (that other end of the spectrum he works) or are stung by them. This film’s critics likely encountered both.

“Figuring things out for yourself is practically the only freedom anyone really has nowadays. Use that freedom.”

Starship Troopers was controversial the moment it hit theaters in a way that was very much tied to the filmmaker and the decade that sprung it. So much so, it usurped Heinlein’s unique hot potato of a story with its own storm. Although, the book remains eminent decades after its début — it was prerequisite reading by James Cameron for the ‘grunts’ in his Aliens cast and for the U.S. Marines today. Somehow the movie was successful enough (nonetheless, it did lose money at the box office) to reap two later direct-to-video sequels, all the while garnering its share of disapproval and polarized audiences in the bargain.

I’ll mention the DTVs came after 2001 and all were inferior in tone and the cleverness of the ’97 film. Still, since its release to DVD, the original’s standing has steadily surged (insert your Iraq or Afghanistan reference here). You can tell its critique of political and military thought was made pre-9/11. Given its dissident undertone, it’s doubtful it would be made in today’s environment. Yet, it remains a unique motion picture in that it is at once a film of its time, but one that remains relevant and to the point. Like it or not, only a few films can say that.

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29 Responses to “Starship Troopers Film Review”

  1. J.D.

    Excellent review! I couldn’t agree more. Love this film and was stunned when it was so grossly misread upon its initial release? Didn’t people get it? I love that Verhoeven basically took a bunch of BEVERLY HILLS 90210-type pretty boy/girls and dropped them into a CGI meat grinder. Listening to Verhoeven’s commentary on the DVD is very interesting. He said he was surprised that test audienes reacted so strongly to Denise Richards’ character – basically wanting her to die by the end of the film. Why would he be so surprised? She jilts and confounds Johnny Rico throughout the film whereas Dizzy is always there for him.

    At any rate, this film is one that I enjoyed among a bunch of friends of mine, esp. the image of Neil Patrick Harris at the end dressed up in very Nazi-esque gear, which led to us calling him Gestapo Doogie. Ah, good times.

    But obviously, someone likes this film and thinks its profitable judging by the subsequent sequels that have been churned out. Hell, didn’t Casper Van Dien appear in the last one?

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    • le0pard13

      “I love that Verhoeven basically took a bunch of BEVERLY HILLS 90210-type pretty boy/girls and dropped them into a CGI meat grinder.”

      Great observation, J.D.! And yeah, it’s surprising Verhoeven didn’t foreseen that audiences wanted Carmen to die instead of Dizzy (and every time I re-watch this, I fall for Dina Meyer’s character even more).

      Ha! Gestapo Doogie! Love that! And Casper Van Dien did show up on the last DTV Star Troopers sequel, as a Colonel, no less. Thanks so much for the comment, my friend.

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  2. Christine McCann

    The first time we sat down to watch this, I didn’t have high hopes. Enjoyed it so much, that we’ve watched this flick many times over the years. As much as I don’t care for her as an actress, never thought that Denise Richards’ character should die; Dizzy deserved the heroic departure. Always like Michael “F&*#king” Ironside and Clancy Brown.

    Thanks for this Michael!

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    • le0pard13

      I see your point, Christine. Dizzy definitely comes off as the more heroic. Her demise, along with Michael “F&*#king” Ironside’s, perhaps means the most, in an iconic way, to the audience. If you get a chance, check out the features on the most recent disk release. Ironside and Brown give some very insightful thoughts about this film. Thanks so much, Christine.

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  3. Darren

    Great review. I’m actually really fond of this film, which seems to be something of a cult favourite (of course, it is a Verhoeven). And, as you observe, it’s social commentary is more potent now than it was when it was first released.

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    • le0pard13

      Glad to hear you’re a fan of this, Darren. Verhoeven is some kind of filmmaker. I did enjoy Black Book in 2006 in an odd way, but he’s been away from movies too long. IMDB reports he’s prepping a new film (for 2013 release). Thanks for the comment, my friend.

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  4. John Kenneth Muir

    Excellent review of an underrated film. I agree that Starship Troopers really divides people. I remember that I saw it in the theater with my Dad (a boomer) and he was almost offended by it. He felt that the movie was mocking patriotism, the World War II era, and such. Whereas I felt it was subversive, yes, but cleverly noting that — in this case — we (meaning Earth people) were the fascists.

    The film is crude, wicked, crass, funny as hell and satirical all at the same time. I love the commercials and “propaganda” films in the piece. The special effects still look staggering good (or at least the last time I checked a year or so ago).

    I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you for posting a review of a film that I love, but which — as you point out, really divides audiences.

    Warmest wishes,
    John Kenneth Muir

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    • le0pard13

      “The film is crude, wicked, crass, funny as hell and satirical all at the same time.”

      That’s one great summary, John. Verhoeven’s direction and Edward Neumeier script brought a really great edge to the piece. I know of folk who love the film for the action and titillating parts, and gloss over its satire and political point of view. It shows, like Total Recall, Starship Troopers can play on different levels and still payoff. The director really was on roll during this U.S. stint of films. For me, he got off track somewhat with the next film, Hollow Man. Of course, I’m basing that opinion on the theatrical cut of HM. I need to check out the director’s cut, though. Thanks for the very kind words and wonderful comment, John.

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  5. The Sci-Fi Fanatic

    L13. You really have to place Starship Troopers up there with some of the finest slices of science fiction that draws a reaction just as you so eloquently stated.

    It packs a punch!

    I finally discovered the film on DVD and I was blown away. In fact, the sequences when they hold down that outpost against the onslaught of bugs is simply stunning. It was so exciting to watch that lengthy sequence I would often put it on as demo material. My weaker stomached older friends were none too impressed, but I displayed it with great wonder.

    I loved it. Though I must say I don’t check it out often. It’s hardcore [still]!

    A terrific retro my friend and I thought your commentary was really spot on. All the best, sff

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    • le0pard13

      Definitely, this one packs a punch. And yes, the onslaught on the outpost is one stunning sequence in Starship Troopers. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but I recommend checking out Zulu which that spectacular ST action sequence references. IIRC, that ’64 film was Michael Caine’s film debut, too. It’s also one of the great war films and is based on the real battle that occurred at Rorke’s Drift in 1879.

      It is an intense film. Have you seen it in Blu-ray Disc? Picked it up in BD last year and it looks astonishing in HD. Many thanks for the compliment and the comment, SFF. Thanks.

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  6. Rachel

    Great review as always, my friend! Sadly, I still have not seen this. I know, I know, it’s terrible of me. The last time I checked, this was available on Netflix Instant but when I sat down to queue it up it was no longer available!! Now I have to wait for the mail so I have to leave my comments for next week. 😦 However, Jeff is a huge fan and has seen it four or five times so maybe he’ll stop by and leave some thoughts.

    I do have one movie question for you: Did you find the casting weird since several of the main characters are persons of color? (btw, saw your comment and I had thought Rico was from South America not the Philippines. I guess I made an interpretive mistake.) Or did this just strike you as typical Hollywood white-washing?

    I don’t think we did this on purpose but it is pretty funny that we posted on this book/film leading up to July 4. Hope you have a great holiday weekend!

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    • le0pard13

      Hopefully, Jeff can chime in while you teed this one up. When we met up in April, I got the feeling he was very familiar with Starship Troopers.

      The casting was a conscious decision by Verhoeven to set a rebellious tone. I think J.D.’s comment is spot-on in regard to this: “… a bunch of BEVERLY HILLS 90210-type pretty boy/girls and dropped them into a CGI meat grinder.

      In the novel, the Rico’s lived in Buenos Aires but were Filipinos as there were passing references to their heritage and speaking Tagalog at home, I believe. Though in the film, the Spanish surnames of a couple of characters and the Argentine capital location gave a different impression.

      I look forward to your thoughts for your first viewing. Thanks, Rachel.

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      • Rachel

        Ah yes, so true! I forgot about the Tagalog though I suppose it never says whether the language was kept in the family after immigration or if the current generation immigrated. (I fully admit I have the pesky habit of insisting that someone’s citizenship/nationality is determined by their birth country or by the country in which they applied for citizenship, this is not always a super popular opinion but I do stick by it.:) )

        I have more questions about this rebellious tone theme but will leave them until I’ve seen the movie. (Snail mail is sooooooo slow) so I’ll be back later to continue.

        Happy 4th!

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        • le0pard13

          I think in the book it was after immigration. I can’t wait for your impressions on this film, Rachel. Come on snail mail! 😉 Thanks.

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  7. Rachel

    So it turns out that our household has now hosted many a ST conversation (book and film now that I’ve seen it) and so my additional comments are going to warrant their own post. 🙂 Jeff had lots of interesting questions about both and we were chattering away during the film (good thing it was just us) so I have all kinds of stuff to say. I’ll try to get something hammered out in the next couple days and then we can hopefully take up the discussion again. I will give you a little preview: Jeff and I are firmly in the opposite of your Carmen/Dizzy camp and we have quite a list of reasons why. Interestingly, before I watched the film, Jeff said, “I can’t wait to see what you think of Carmen/Dizzy because my opinion of them has never been popular and I’ll be interested to see what you think.” I had no idea there was this contention (well, Jeff says no contention since everyone he’s ever talked to has felt as you do).

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    • le0pard13

      Awesome. I’m looking forward to your post on this. Great, too, that Jeff will be offering up his thoughts. Thanks, Rachel.

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  8. Ronan

    That’s funny, I was thinking about Starship Troopers on the way home on the bus today. It is certainly a film all of its own. I think what Verhoeven did well was to create a comic book feel with live action, so even though there are some scenes of strong violence it felt more like a video game at times. It was like a hyper-reality, I couldn’t quite take it seriously but I suppose it wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously. Although the nudity scenes were a unnecessary for me I think it did give the film the roughness it was going for.

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    • le0pard13

      Yeah, Starship Troopers definitely is a Paul Verhoeven film. Did you ever read the novel, Ronan? It makes for quite a contrast on many levels: style, politics, and tone. Interesting aspect you bring up, the video game/comic book feel. I would think the film perhaps could of had an influence on the stylings of later games (something developers would shoot for in graphics and content… sorry about the pun). Thanks very much for thoughts and comment, Ronan.

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  9. Steven Hart

    When it comes to film versions of novels, there are good adaptations and there are bad adaptations but Starship Troopers is the only film I can think of that deliberately and with grinning malice cocks a leg over everything its source novel stands for. Even the casting of (mostly) Aryan types is a mockery of Heinlein’s use of Hispanic names for such ethnically neutral characters.

    Liked by 1 person

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    • le0pard13

      Can’t disagree, Steven. Love that “…with grinning malice cocks a leg over everything its source novel stands for.” description of yours. Thanks for the comment and observation, my friend. 🙂

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