Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1997)

12. Starship Troopers

Following the “Showgirls” fiasco, Paul Verhoeven returned to the comfier realm of sci-fi/action. Re-teaming with Ed Neumeier, his “RoboCop” screenwriter, the two took another satirical stab at the genre. “Starship Troopers,” an adaptation/evisceration of Robert E. Heinlin’s seminal novel, was a moderate box office success but widely misunderstood by critics. Far too many dismissed it as a brain-dead action flick. Some declared the picture to be fascist. Yet, in the intervening decade, “Starship Troopers” has been reevaluated as a subversive cult classic. It’s a movie that I’ve heard a lot about over the years. My sister’s husband is a die hard Heinlin fan and has often complained about the movie over the years, to the point where I’m well sick of hearing about it. Especially since he manages to miss the point every time.

The world is at war. The planet Earth and an insect-like race known as Arachnids have been locked in battle for quite some time. In sunny Buenos Aires, high school student Johnny Rico is eager to enlist, gaining citizenship in the process, despite the protests of his parents. While in basic training, an asteroid, apparently launched by the bugs, absolutely destroys Buenos Aires. The war intensifies. Carmen, Rico’s high school girlfriend, becomes a pilot. Dizzy, another female friend, joins the Mobile Infantry. Soon, all three are in the center of the conflict, facing the bugs on the battlefield and circling the Arachnids’ home world. Would you like to know more?

There’s a reason Heinline faithfuls have rejected Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers” so violently. Initially, the script wasn’t even based on Heinline’s book. It began life as an unrelated screenplay, entitled “Bug Hunt.” It was only after a few similarities were noticed that the studio bought the right to the book. Verhoeven attempted to read the book but quickly discarded it, declaring it “boring and depressing.” Instead, the director rejected the original author’s intent, choosing to parody and satirize his themes. “Starship Troopers” is, instead, an indictment of fascism. The film depicts a perfect fascist world, exposing the disturbing inclinations of such a society by presenting them as totally justified.

It’s fairly clear that Ed Neumeier wrote both this film and “RoboCop.” In many ways, “Starship Troopers” is a better thematic follow-up to “RoboCop” than any of that film’s actual sequels were. Both films make extensive use of news programs. “Starship Troopers” begins with an interactive news broadcast, informing viewers of the state of the war. These clips advance the story, showing the weakness of an Arachnid warrior or introducing a debate about a “Brain Bug.” Primarily, they develop the film’s world. They reveal that psychics are active in this military. They depict this society as one that censors the slaughter of a cow but airs executions in prime time. Mostly, the films-within-the-film are hilarious. Their chest-thumping patriotism is amusingly overblown. The way the programs switch between grim depictions of the war and cutesy scenes of kids stomping cockroaches provides intentional tonal whiplash. Moreover, the ads remind the viewer of the condescending self-importance of eighties PSAs.

In case the audience missed the point, Verhoeven also employs fascist imagery all throughout “Starship Troopers.” Several shots, of cheering citizens eager to enlist or rows of prepared soldiers, are directly lifted from “Triumph of the Will.” The insignia of this society heavily recalls the Imperial Eagle of Nazi Germany. By the end of the film, Neil Patrick Harris is marching around in an S.S.-style trench coat. Aside from the visual references, the movie’s absolute military dictatorship is vividly displayed. High schools are used as recruitment centers, teachers talking openly about how violence is the only thing that can change the world. In basic training, the drill instructors are unnecessarily brutal. Recruits have their arms broken, are strangled into unconscious, or impaled through the hand with knives. Punishments are violent and put on display for all to see, when Rico is publicly whipped ten times. This world may look shiny but it’s really, really fucked up.

Yet Verhoeven’s critique of fascism goes deeper. In many ways, “Starship Troopers” plays like a parody of American war movies. The brutalizing drill sergeants take the training sequences of “Full Metal Jacket” to their natural conclusion. We have soldiers talking tough in the battlefield. One shell-shocked veteran blasts a dead Arachnid for far too long. The climax concludes with an officer sacrificing himself to deliver a killing blow to the enemy. Any viewer familiar with war movies will recognize these clichés. This farcical portrayal of combat extends to the high school scenes. In high school, Rico plays a ridiculous combination of football and gymnastics called “Leapball.” The clichés of high school cinema, like a student getting sick during science lab or a dramatically fraught dance, are also on display. By making war and school look ridiculous, Verhoeven is making the very concept of war look ridiculous.

The satire is obvious but many critics totally missed the point. One detail that was often misconstrued was the casting. Verhoeven filled the film with fresh-faced young actors, most of them from teenie-bopper TV shows. Casper Van Dien and Dina Meyer were best known for parts on “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Denise Richards was already established as a sex symbol, in addition to appearing on several episodes of “Melrose Place.” Patrick Muldoon, as the perfectly insufferable Zander, was also a graduate from “Melrose Place.” And none other than Neil Patrick Harris, Doogie Howser himself, shows up as the primary psychic. This casting serves two purpose. First off, the director wanted younger actors to reflect the actual age of most newly recruited soldiers. Secondly, it's part of the movie's big joke, of celebrating a shiny, but fascist, future. Thus, the hunky but blank Van Dien and the lovely but vacant-eyed Richards are perfectly cast as more meat for the meat grinder, Aryan ideals but hollow humans. That Van Dien and Richards don't seem entirely aware of what kind of movie they're making only adds to this affect.

For the record, Meyer and Harris are obviously aware of the movie's intent, as their performances are intentionally funny. Harris' introductory scene does begin with him talking to a ferret. Jake Busey was already following in his father's footsteps, with memorably unhinged performances in “The Frighteners” and “Contact.”  He brings a certain good ol' boy charm to the part of Ace Levy. When not casting fresh-faced up-and-comers, the film employs grizzled character actors. Michael Ironside, reappearing from “Total Recall,” has a memorable part as General Owen. First, a teacher extolling the virtues of taking freedom by force, he later becomes the leader of Rico's unit. Ironside makes being a massive hardass look so entertaining, you hardly notice that he's also playing the part for exaggerated humor. The second “Highlander” villain appearing in the film is Clancy Brown, as the absurdly named Sgt. Zim. Brown is also playing a huge asshole but is more obviously charming.

As tongue-in-cheek as much of the movie is, “Starship Troopers” still treats its alien threats totally seriously. The various Bugs race are impressive. The Warrior Arachnid has an eye-catching yellow and dark green coloring. They are mostly composed of a set of giant jaws, snapping through the air like enormous scissors. This massive head takes up most of their body, leaving little room for the spindly legs. This emphasizes the alien's status as a creature designed to kill. There's also a winged “hopper” variation of the classic warrior. Nearly as impressive a creation is the massive Tanker Bugs. Looking like an especially pissed-off dung beetle, the Tanker is as big as a house. From its lower abdomen, it shoots huge plasma blast. From its head, it sprays skin-rending napalm. Every thing about the insectoid creatures – from the scurrying sand beetles to the grotesque Brain Bug - is finely designed.

“Starship Troopers” was made long after the era of awesome creature effects – the eighties – end. Yet the movie's special effects are still impressive. Phil Tippet, the daddy of ED-209 and “Jurassic Park's” dinosaur, oversaw the Bug designs and effects. The film makes heavy use of CGI. Despite this, the effects hold up extremely well. Maybe it's because non-humanoid creatures are more believably animated in CGI. I believe it's because the film often crosses between mechanical props and CGI creatures. The space ship effects, which are also excellent, are brought to life with a similar technique.

When I first saw the film, I was fairly young. At the time, I actually found the film's violence to be too intense. Watching now, I find this initial reaction funny. “Starship Troopers” is, of course, packed full of grisly violence. Troopers are torn apart by bugs, limbs and guts tossed into the air. More than once, soldiers have their arms or legs chomped off. Massive jaws and stabbing legs slash through chest and tear through bodies. The Brain Bug sucks a head hollow. As graphic as the gore in “Starship Troopers” is, I actually found the film less explicit than Verhoeven's other action films. The veneer of satire, of comedy, pushes the gory action to cartoonish levels. That most of the characters are such one-dimensional caricatures also renders the gore less startling. It's actually a perfect opportunity for Verhoeven, as it allows him to pack the movie with as much gratuitous bloodshed without alienating or disturbing audiences.

After the back-to-back sexploitation of “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls,” Verhoeven rears back on the sex and nudity. But only a little bit. “Starship Troopers” still features the infamous communal shower scenes. Carefully placed shower stations prevent the full frontal nudity, of both genders, that was so common in his Dutch films. Rico and Dizzy's interrupted love scene even features the lightest of light bondage. Yet that's not the exploitation elements that really amuse me. When the fearsome Brain Bug is revealed, there's something obviously gynecological about its facial features. After being captured, the military shoves a massive probe into this opening. (In a sick joke, the news broadcast censors this forced entry.) This moment continues to paint the humans as the aggressors while also satisfying Verhoeven's rape obsession without horribly offending the viewer. I guess human-on-bug-monster assault is okay.

Further selling “Starship Troopers” is another magnificently powerful score from Basil Poledouris, a pounding and sweeping piece of music. The brilliance of “Starship Troopers” has survived its initial naysayers. Now the film is rightly regarded as a classic, a beautifully assembled piss-take on fascist sci-fi troupes and a fantastically entertaining action picture. The film's success would spawn several spin-offs. Two sequels, an anime follow-up, and – following “RoboCop's” lead as a hard-R flick sold to kids – a cartoon show and a series of toys. Yet the original stands alone. Verhoeven considers it his favorite of his own films. And it's a favorite of mine too. [Grade: A]

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