I have only two rules: everybody fights, and nobody quits!
Oddly enough, "Starship Troopers" began with screenwriter Ed Neumeier writing a screenplay about space marines up against big bugs that was called "Outpost 7", which 'borrowed' many elements from Robert Heinlein's classic sci-fi novel with heavy sociopolitical overtones, "Starship Troopers" (in other words, a rip-off). The screenplay ended up being so close to the original source material that producer Jon Davison was spurred to investigate the rights for Heinlein's novel. Surprisingly, he found that the movie rights had never been picked up, and very quickly the rip-off became the real thing.
This latest Paul Verhoeven creation, director of past favorites such as "Robocop" and clunkers like "Showgirls", is in many ways similar to the classic but canceled Fox Television series "Space: Above and Beyond". Like S:AAB, which recontextualized the conflict of the Second World War into a futuristic setting, ST is essentially a World War II movie-- replete with the jingoistic chest-thumping all too common to the films of that era.
The story follows a rag-tag bunch of new recruits (all played by second-banana actors from the prime-time soaps "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Melrose Place") being put through the paces of basic training in the Mobile Infantry of the Federal Service, a tour of duty that ensures citizenship and a right to vote in the quasi-fascist society. Fresh out of high school in Buenos Aires, Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) sign up for military service (see what years of underfunding and the free-reign of market forces does to post-secondary education?), only to be split up. He gets sent to Mobile Infantry, and she goes to be a pilot in the Fleet Academy. It is in the Mobile Infantry where Johnny hooks up with a cast of prototypical war-movie characters: there's Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) the old friend from high school that's secretly in love with Johnny, the kid with psychic powers Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris of "Doogie Howser, M.D."), and the rough-around-the-edges Ace Levy (Jake Busey, the malevolent spirit in "The Frighteners"). There they are treated no better than bugs by their harsh drill instructor (Clancy Brown), with cruel and unusual punishment waiting for them if they fall out of line. Meanwhile, in flight school, Carmen falls under the charms of a flirtatious flight instructor Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon).
What's going on?
War! We're going to war!
The first half of the movie deals with many of the themes found in those live-action high school series seen on Saturday morning television: teen rebellion, parties, unrequited love, lost love, etc. However, when Buenos Aires is bombarded by a large meteor sent by the malevolent insect race on the planet of Klendathu at the other side of the galaxy, the war effort kicks into high gear and the new recruits are sent to the front lines for payback.
Kill anything with more than two legs!
It is planetside where we first get a close look at the various species of the Klendathu aliens, also called Arachnids, created and brought to life by animator Phil Tippett (who also did the ED-209 effects on "Robocop" and won an Oscar for his work on "Jurassic Park"). The warriors are the most common, armed with razor sharp teeth and appendages used for the express purpose of slicing and dicing anything that stands in their way. The hoppers are warriors with wings, able to attack from the sky with the same lethal efficiency. Tankers are large, slow-moving, and beetle-like, that spew flames to burn anything in their path. The plasma bugs are the largest of the Arachnids, able to generate fluorescent flatulence that can take out spaceships in orbit and launch spores towards other planets. And finally, the brain bugs are the brains of the operation, with a straw-like appendage used to literally suck the brains out of their victims and gain their knowledge. Together, these various species attack in packs, swarming over their enemies with the sheer force of numbers.
Obviously, ST is not a kids movie-- it is classic Verhoeven. True to the style seen in "Robocop" and "Total Recall", he pulls no punches in visualizing the various means by which the hundreds of extras are finished off. With the subtlety of a snuff film, this is probably the most violent movie I've ever watched, with scene-after-scene of decapitation, dismemberment, disembowelment, and incineration. And just when you thought you've seen it all... Verhoeven antes up the gore score with an even more graphic execution. Another aspect of Verhoeven's previous sci-fi efforts was the tongue-in-cheek satire of popular culture. In a similar vein to the bogus news reports and television advertisements in "Robocop", ST is punctuated by entertaining news reports about the war effort, from cheesy recruitment ads to flag-waving updates from the front-lines.
Though the special effects are top-notch and the battle sequences have an epic quality to them (despite the nauseating carnage), the movie falls apart in the scenes when the focus shifts to the characters and the actual story. The characters have no depth, the acting is flat, and thus fail to rise above anything you'd find in your typical daytime soap opera. Even the emotional highs of the movie feel artificial, inadvertantly bringing groans and chuckles-- such as the death of one of the soldiers in Rico's squad and Carl Jenkins doing a Vulcan mind meld with a brain bug (!). Furthermore, the strategy employed by the Earth forces is illogical, and not surprisingly, almost 400,000 get killed in the first battle. Despite the threat of being overrun by thousands of Arachnids, the strategy concentrates on meeting the enemy face-to-face on the ground, even though it takes dozens of rounds just to put down one warrior (to reinforce an outpost, the soldiers land SEVERAL MILES AWAY and must walk through a valley to reach the outpost, making them sitting ducks for an attack). Why not just bombard them from orbit? Of course, that would lead to SMS-- short movie syndrome.
"Starship Troopers" is not a great movie, but it is an entertaining ride. If you can tolerate the violence and gore, the uninspired acting, the violence and gore, the illogical military strategy, and most of all, the violence and gore, then you'll get your eight bucks worth for this movie.