Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, May 29, 2017

NO ENCORES: Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008)


Maybe the “Starship Troopers” franchise is cursed. Oh, sure, the first one was great, despite initially negative reviews and could've-been-better box office. But the sequels? Both were made for the direct-to-video market. Which is admirable but deeply unglamorous. Why do I say the series is cursed? Consider this. “Starship Troopers 2” was Phil Tippet's first feature film. It was also, thus far, his last. “Starship Troopers 3: Marauder” was screenwriter Ed Neumeier's first feature film. It is also, thus far, his last. The franchise's screenwriter stepping behind the camera might give you hope that “Starship Troopers 3” will be an improvement over the lackluster first sequel. If I was you, I wouldn't get your expectations up.

Earth's war with the Arachnid menace rages on. Johnny Rico has risen to the rank of Colonel and remains a decorated soldier. Yet there's conflict in the Federation. The residents of the outer colonies, displaced by the war, dislike the military. Protest happens at home. After a gruesome loss, Rico strikes a commanding officer. He is set to be executed for these crimes. This is a cover story and Rico is rescued at the last minute. He's recruited for a top secret mission, leading a mechanized army called the Marauders. Their first mission is to rescued a group of high-ranking officer stranded on a planet with a psychic “God Bug.”

Since “Marauder” is directed by a screenwriter, you might have certain expectations for its story. Neumeier's previous work suggests he knows what he's doing. So why is “Starship Troopers 3” so badly structured? Halfway through, the story is essentially cut in two. The beginning reintroduces Rico, as well as his love interest Lola Beck and Omar Anoke, an Air Marshall and celebrity singer. After Rico is sentenced to death, Beck and Anoke's classified ship gets shot down on a desert world. From this point on, we're following dual storylines: Rico's training to be a Marauder while Beck wanders the alien planet. Maybe this is less Neumeier's fault than another casualty of a direct-to-video budget. This plot construction limits the screen time of star Casper Van Dien and the killer robots. Instead, it gives us much cheaper scenes of people walking around a desert.

“Marauder” does attempt to expand on the film's universe in a somewhat interesting way. Religion wasn't mentioned much in the previous two “Starship Troopers” movies, if at all. However, it's a major theme in this one. The people leading the anti-war protest are explicitly Christians. The flight attendant stranded on the desert planet with Beck is also Christian. The others treat her, and Christianity in general, like a weird cult. Anoke is seemingly converted throughout the adventure but, in actuality, has been psychically brainwashed by Behemecoatyl, the God Bug that lives inside the planet. In the final scene, Christianity becomes the state religion of the Federation, who recognize how powerful a propaganda tool religion can be. These ideas are interesting but, sadly, do not fuse naturally with the story. It's just another weird thing floating inside “Marauder.”

By the way, don't expect that stuff about the peace protest to contribute to the story either. A few scenes are devoted to the anti-war movement – led by a wounded veteran, by the way – during the news broadcast scenes. Neumeier mostly uses the trademark “Would You Like to Know More?” sequences to make the original's subtext text. “Marauder” acknowledges that the Federation is a fascist government. People are discreetly killed to cover up mistakes. Anyone who challenges the military is executed. The leaders are conniving bullies, who knowingly lie and manipulate the public. Amanda Donohoe, from “Lair of the White Worm,” plays a Federation leader as a pompous villain. By winking at the first film's satire, actually making its implications part of the story, Neumeier creates a “Starship Troopers” movie that is way less interesting than Verhoeven's original.

There was a time where I consumed a lot of direct-to-video monster movies. The one aspect that united the entire genre was crappy CGI creature effects. “Starship Troopers 3: Marauder” has lots of that too. The Bugs are mostly brought to life with some extremely soft computer generated imagery. They look like cartoons, big plastic balloons that pop way too easily. The aliens do not look like real, believable threats. The main selling point for “Starship Troopers 3” were the Marauders. The powered armor played a big role in the book but was excised from the previous adaptations. Don't get excited though. The Marauders exist exclusively as sucky CGI machines. Even then, they play a very small role in the film. The giant robots swoop in at the end and save the day. That's about it.

For its countless flaws, I guess “Starship Troopers 3” is mildly better than “Starship Troopers 2.” The sequel includes one or two clever ideas. The Federation has started to heavily merchandise its own heroes. Omar Anoke is a best selling singer, his propaganda songs glorifying dying in combat. In addition to CDs, T-shirts and other collectibles are sold over television. The idea of a “God Bug,” a massive and powerfully telepathetic Arachnid leader, is intriguing. It's also, notably, one of the few practical monster effects in the film. There's also a neat moment that brings back the Brain Bug from the first film, who produces a high pitch shriek so powerful, heads explode. These interesting moments composed about five percent of “Marauder's” way-too-long 105 minute run time.

The diminishing star power of Casper Van Dien was not enough to elevate the “Starship Troopers” franchise again. After “Marauder,” the next entry in the series would be an animated reboot, which is supposedly slightly more faithful to Heinlein's original novel. I checked out “Starship Troopers 3” mostly because some people gave it faint praise, saying it's better than “Hero of the Federation.” Which is true but just barely. In execution, the conclusion of the trilogy is another low budget cash-in. There's no shame in going direct-to-video but shoddy productions like “Marauder” is why that release path has a bad name. [4/10]

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