Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, May 27, 2017

NO ENCORES: Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004)

1. Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004)
Director: Phil Tippet

It doesn't seem unreasonable that “Starship Troopers” would launch a franchise. The first film told a complete story but its premise presented opportunities for more adventures. The movie was successful at the box office without becoming a massive hit. But I guess Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi satire proved popular on video. Seven years after “Starship Troopers” hit theaters, “Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation” hit video store shelves. A decent slate of talent was assembled for this direct-to-video sequel. Ed Neumeier returned as screenwriter. Phil Tippet, the man who created the Bugs in addition to other iconic movie monsters, would make his feature directorial debut with “Hero of the Federation.” Tippet has made stop-motion short films before and since – the excellent “Prehistoric Beasts,” the Kickstarted “Mad God” – but “Starship Troopers 2” remains his sole attempt at directing a full-length motion picture.

The Bug War rages on. A group of troopers, led by General Shepherd, are surrounded by Arachnid forces. Falling back, they retreat to an abandoned military outpost, a tower-like structure. After successfully setting up an electric barrier around the building, the group believes themselves to be safe. Within the tower, they discover Captain Dax. A war hero, Dax was sentenced to death for killing his commanding officer. Apparently, he was sick of seeing good men die senselessly on the battlefield. Yet the Troopers have to team up with Dax when a new, dangerous form of bug appears. These bugs are parasites, that crawl into people's mouths and take over their bodies.

It's very clear that the “Starship Troopers” franchise took a major budgetary step down for its sequel. The first film took place on the battlefield, showing soldiers fighting off thousands of giant bugs. “Hero of the Federation,” meanwhile, is primarily set within a single building. And not an especially futuristic looking building either. The film technically begins and ends with battle scenes involving the Arachnid army. These sequences, however, are shrouded in darkness, only providing us with fleeting glimpses of the insectoid menaces. It must be said that the few shots we get of the Arachnids actually look pretty good. Phil Tippet's history in creature effects insure that he knows how to shoot a computer generated creature in such a way that looks real.

Anybody who rented “Starship Troopers 2” expecting action-packed thrills on the level of the first film were probably disappointed. “Hero of the Federation” moves the franchise into a totally different genre. The script has all the hallmarks of a zombie movie. A group of individuals are holed up inside an isolated location, when an insidious infection begins to turn them against each other. At first, the infected look human but soon reveal their monstrous nature. Seemingly, the only thing that can kill the not-zombies is blowing their head off. “Hero of the Federation” even features a sequence where someone, after realizing a bug is inside them, commits suicide. Really, the only zombie movie cliché that's missing is the person who gets bitten but hides this information from the others.

Granted, the original “Starship Troopers” bordered horror already, what with its scenes of alien monsters gorily tearing people apart. The sequel explicitly moving in that direction isn't a problem. The problem is that “Hero of the Federation” isn't an especially good horror film. The sequel throws in a few jump scares and some unconvincing, squishy gore. Scenes of a naked Kelly Carlson, covered in blood, luring characters into her arms probably have no business being in a “Starship Troopers” movies. However, I will give the sequel some credit. The image of giant insects crawling out of and into people's mouths is mildly unnerving. For some reason, one of the infected soldiers slowly melts apart, eaten from the inside out by the bugs. This is some decent body horror. If the sequel had focused on that a little more, maybe it would've been better.

Horror movies are generally improved by having likable, memorable characters. That's another attribute “Starship Troopers 2” lacks. Firstly, the cast is far too large. There's about a dozen named characters. Of these cast members, most are interchangeable. I only recognize a few faces. Kelly Carlson appears as a purring, but evil, sex kitten. Ed Lauter shows up as the asshole sergeant who is, of course, already under Bug control. Brenda Strong stars as Deedee. Strong appeared in the first “Starship Troopers” but is playing a new character here. And not an interesting one either. Of the actors, really only Richard Burgi's Dax is memorable at all. That's mostly because Burgi doubles down on the macho tough guy act.

With Ed Neumeier contributing the screenplay again, you'd expect “Starship Troopers 2” to feature more of the original's satire. Not so much, it turns out. The sequel begins and ends with the satirical newsreels that defined the first film. The opening features some more flags waving majestically in the wind. The closing scene turns Dax's sacrifice into blatant propaganda. The joke, of course, being that Dax actively hated seeing soldiers died. He probably wouldn't have appreciated seeing his image used as a recruitment video. That's about it, as far as the sequel's attempt to emulates the first satirical elements.

So the cast is weak, the script kind of sucks, and the film doesn't successfully follow the original's tone. Which brings us to the direction. Phil Tippet's direction is obviously shackled by the tiny budget. There's only so much you can do inside a generic warehouse set. Even then, Tippet's visual sense is underwhelming. “Starship Troopers 2” is characterized by a cramped shooting style, resulting in hectic and shaky action scenes. The color palette for the film is mostly brown and soft blue, which is not an appealing combination. Tippet attempts some artier touches. A psychic dream is composed of close-ups of odd objects, like a chessboard or a blinking eye. Over all, though, “Hero of the Federation” looks cheap and hastily assembled.

I didn't like “Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation.” Neither does Phil Tippet. When he's spoken about the film, it's mostly been negative, saying the studio didn't give him much money or support. The project killed any interest he had in directing more live action films. Considering those circumstances, perhaps Tippet made the best movie he could've. There are elements about this direct-to-video sequel that are sort of clever. The parasitic bugs are skin-crawling and, when the original's insectoid threats appear, they look surprisingly good. That can't disguise “Hero of the Federation's” status as the cheapie cash-in it so clearly is. [4/10]

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