Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
According to its creators, hardly anybody really understood Starship Troopers. Most viewers saw it as a big, dumb shoot-em-up; if anyone thought more of it than that, they generally interpreted as it as an endorsement of fascism.
During their audio commentary, director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier go to great pains in an attempt to combat these notions. According to them, the film was intended to be an anti fascist statement; they feel they depicted the future-Earth as a fairly mindless, knee-jerk "kill anything different" kind of place. Verhoeven especially makes his points with great fervor; he shouts, "That's bad! Bad!" and sounds like a man on the verge of a massive coronary throughout much of the track.
I've now seen Starship Troopers five times, two of which occurred before I listened to the audio commentary. While I certainly understand and appreciate the comments made by Verhoeven and Neumeier, I think their creation turned out differently than they had intended. Sorry guys, but whatever you may have intended, your film really does look like a love-letter to fascism.
Troopers looks at a futuristic Earth that operates under a fascist system. The film primarily follows a crop of kids who graduate from high school early in the film. Our three protagonists enter the military. Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) possesses psychic abilities and strong technical savvy, and he gets a top secret assignment in intelligence. Carmen (Denise Richards) wants to be a pilot, and she enters the academy for that training. Johnny (Casper Van Dien) signs up mainly to make himself more appealing to Carmen. They’re a couple, but it’s clear that she has a wandering eye and Johnny doesn’t stand a chance if he doesn’t become a “citizen”. Military services offers the quickest route to that status, so Johnny enters the mobile infantry.
The film focuses mostly on Johnny’s progression. Occasionally it flips over to Carmen’s training, and we see her relationship with Johnny’s competitor on the high school football field and for Carmen’s heart, Zander (Patrick Muldoon). We only encounter Carl when he meets up with the other two; otherwise the movie displays virtually none of his work.
This leaves Johnny as our main protagonist. We watch as he goes through training and rises through the ranks. A complication appears in the form of Dizzy (Dina Meyer), another high school classmate who pines for Johnny. He shoots down her interest due to his obsession with Carmen.
Johnny makes squad leader in camp but loses this status after a tragic training mishap. Even though he accepts physical punishment for his role, he decides to walk down “Washout Lane” and go back to his wealthy family in Buenos Aires. However, this option vanishes in the blink of an eye. The Earth society battles against a bug planet called Klendathu, and those critters attacked South America with an asteroid bomb. This vaporizes Buenos Aires and gives Johnny the will to return to the military.
Soon he and his fellow cadets enter the war, and the second half of Troopers mainly revolves around those battles. Very little action occurs in the film’s first hour or so, but the movie makes up for this. A few interludes occur, but most of the second hour shows the vicious fights between humans and bugs.
It's hard to fight history and conditioning, and if the filmmakers intended to send an anti-fascist messaeg through their flick, they needed to work harder to do so. Audiences are greatly conditioned to see films such as Starship Troopers in very black and white, good guys/bad guys terms, and the film rarely does anything to escape those boundaries. There are hints that perhaps the filmmakers disagree with just how - shall we say - conservative the planet has become, but many of these clues do not come through as clearly as Verhoeven and Neumeier believe. For example, we see some shots of jingoistic humans stomping insects and doing other mindless efforts to indicate their support for the war, but these are presented in such a comical way that their impact as true reflections of the society is lost. Also, a few vague notations that the war began through human, not insect, aggression pop up, but they are not explained or explored to any great extent. While I certainly applaud subtlety in films, the problem here stems from inconsistency; since so many of the film's concepts completely lack any subtlety, there's little chance that the more gently-inserted notions will be able to come through with any clarity.
Starship Troopers is supposed to be fascist; the sight of Doogie Howser in full SS-regalia makes that point rather hard to ignore. Where I take exception is the assertion that these fascist tendencies are consistently portrayed in a negative way. Again, I have to agree with the critics who believe that the film glorifies the ultra-military and conservative society. The filmmakers' biggest argument against this train of thought seems to revolve around the fact that so many of the characters die. While this is accurate, it is not any more true here than it is in the vast majority of other films within the genre, so Troopers lacks the impact of a more fatalistic film. Also, the three characters we've followed since the beginning - the trio that makes a pact to always stick together - survive to the ending, all of them virtually unscathed and ready to fight some more.
While I don't agree with the filmmakers that their anti-fascist message really rings true, I certainly applaud them for attempting to send a message from a film within a genre that usually lacks subtext. Unfortunately, I wish they'd spent less time worrying about fascism and used their time to work with their actors. Starship Troopers is a generally entertaining and exciting film, but it lacks an emotional depth that more effective movies possess. The almost total responsibility for this falls upon the wooden performances by the actors.
While almost the entire cast leaves the audience uninvolved with the characters, the leads commit the worst sins. Richards may be the one person on the planet with the greatest contrast between physical beauty and acting skills; she's unbelievably gorgeous, but she couldn't act her way out of the proverbial paper sack. Essentially, no matter what the circumstance, she can muster two moods: playful or pouty. I've seen sock puppets with greater range. Van Dien shows somewhat greater skill, but he's still no Lambchop. Of the entire cast, the only actor who entertained me was Jake Busey, mainly because I get a kick from him and his big old rectangular head.
I don't fault the actors for the poor work in this film; I don't think the lame performances happened because they did not put forth the effort. I hold Verhoeven mostly responsible, since one assumes he picked the actors, and since he was the one who was supposed to work with them on the set. Listening to the audio commentary reveals that he definitely doesn't appear to be an actor's director. He rarely mentions actors by their names; instead, he prefers to simply mention the character. To me, I saw this as a message that he regarded the actors as so many interchangeable faces who were there mostly to advance the plot. His heart seems to lie with the action and effects of the film, so the acting suffers.
Many critics argue that acting and characters are virtually meaningless in a film such as Starship Troopers. I argue the opposite, that competent acting becomes essential within this sort of movie because otherwise the audience has no real stake in the action and everything becomes so much less exciting. In contrast, consider Aliens, a film that shares many similarities with Starship Troopers. Both films feature characters who mostly cannot be considered more than stereotypes. However, the execution of these roles differs radically. Aliens contained nary a less-than-terrific performance. You think people'd still be saying, "Game over, man!" nearly thirteen years later if Bill Paxton hadn't brought Hudson to such vivid life? Who do you think is the more effective and interesting "tough chick": Dina Meyer's Dizzy Flores or Jenette Goldstein's Vasquez? Case closed, man, case closed!
While I think much of the success of Aliens came about simply because James Cameron's a better director than Verhoeven, I truly believe that the characters also had a lot to do with it. Simply, the characters in Aliens were fun and fascinating. The people in Starship Troopers look better naked, but that's about it. When the Marines in Aliens went down, you felt something, you cared, you missed them. When some died in Starship Troopers, I really couldn't have cared less.
Despite all its faults, Starship Troopers remains fairly watchable and entertaining. It certainly packs a lot of action into its 130 minutes, and Verhoeven does know how to make those scenes work. Many dislike the very graphic violence and gore in this film (and many of his others), but that doesn't bother me. The main problem with all the blood and guts is that they again diminish his message. While he may want to communicate some idea of the nasty nature of warfare, it's all so over the top that it becomes more comic than upsetting.
Nonetheless, the battle sequences are fairly vivid and exciting. I certainly can't find any fault with the visual effects; the computer-animated bugs are top-notch, and the level of realism brought to them helps the audience find their world to be very realistic and believable. Really, the battle scenes are the only parts of the movie that make the experience worthwhile. Starship Troopers has its moments, but overall it fails to offer a thrilling and compelling experience.