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Paul Verhoeven
Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris
Edward Neumeier, based on the book by Robert A. Heinlein

Prepare for Battle
Box Office:
Budget $95 million.
Opening weekend $22.058 million on 2971 screens.
Domestic gross $54.7 million.
Rated R for graphic sci-fi violence and gore, and for some language and nudity.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Digital Stereo
French Digital Stereo
English, French, Spanish

Runtime: 130 min.
Price: $29.95
Release Date: 5/19/1998

• 5 Additional Scenes
• Audio commentary by the director and screenwriter Ed Neumeier
• Behind-the-Scenes Documentary
• 3 screen Test (2 of actors, 1 of bugs)
• 2 Special Effects Sequences narrated by the director
• Outtakes
• Theatrical Trailer

Score soundtrack

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Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Starship Troopers (1997)

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.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+ / Audio A- / Bonus B+

Starship Troopers appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Much of the picture looked fantastic, but some niggling concerns kept it from becoming reference level.

Sharpness looked immaculate. The image consistently appeared crisp and detailed. I saw virtually no examples of softness or fuzziness during this distinct and accurate presentation. Jagged edges and moiré effects also raised no issues, and I discerned no signs of edge enhancement.

Colors appeared excellent. Actually, a few scenes during Troopers displayed some of the strongest tones I’ve ever witnessed. The football game and the dance sequence early in the film offered simply astonishing hues that were intense and flawless. The rest of the movie didn’t seem quite as amazing, but it always presented clear and distinct colors. Black levels also came across as deep and dense, while shadow detail was clear and appropriately opaque.

The only area in which Troopers lost points related to print flaws. While these never appeared heavy, they did seem too prevalent for such a recent movie. Light grain cropped up at times, and I also noticed occasional examples of specks, grit, nicks, and spots. Without these issues, the DVD would have earned a solid “A”, but the defects forced me to drop my grade to a still-strong “B+”.

I also found the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Starship Troopers to present a positive experience. As one might expect from this sort of film, it offered a very active soundfield. The track featured a lively and engaging presence throughout the flick. Music showed good stereo imaging, while effects popped up from all around the spectrum. Those elements moved cleanly from channel to channel, and they blended together very well. The surrounds contributed a high level of material, especially throughout the many action sequences. The rear speakers added a lot of unique audio and helped to create a vivid and engaging experience.

Audio quality also seemed good. Although much of it was looped, dialogue appeared crisp and natural, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music was bright and distinct, and the score showed solid fidelity and range. Effects were the stars of the show, of course, and they worked well. I thought gunfire came across as a little flat, but the rest of the mix seemed clear and clean, with virtually no distortion. Low-end response appeared excellent, as the movie pumped out lots of loud and tight bass. Overall, the audio of Starship Troopers offered a vibrant and exciting presentation.

This DVD release of Starship Troopers provides a decent roster of supplements. Best of the bunch is the wild audio commentary that I've already mentioned. It presents director Paul Verhoeven and writer Ed Neumeier, both of whom were recorded together for this running, screen-specific affair. It works better than most commentaries because Verhoeven and Neumeier so strongly discuss what they tried to do. Since they feel so many people misunderstood the movie, they take great pains to articulate their true intentions. Verhoeven spends too much of the track pointing out what visual effects were "real" and what were computer - which also contributed to my opinion that he's a very mechanical director - but even with that fault, the commentary is an excellent look at the film.

The other extras seem less compelling but fairly useful. A Behind the Scenes Documentary offers little more than a superficial seven minute and 55 second promo reel, the kind you'd see between movies on HBO. Along with some shots from the set, it includes quick sound bites from Verhoeven and creature visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett plus actors Richards, Van Dien, Meyer, Harris, Patrick Muldoon, Clancy Brown, Jake Busey and Michael Ironside. The behind the scenes footage provides a modicum of interesting material, but overall, this piece seems fairly useless, especially given the inclusion of the new documentary.

Within the Extra Scenes/Behind the Scenes area, we find a few different segments. First we encounter five deleted scenes. All of these essentially present character bits that involve Denise Richards as Carmen. As character pieces in a film that lacks compelling characters, they add little to the experience, though they do flesh out some concepts, such as why Johnny’s parents aren’t citizens. However, you’ll likely find them more interesting if you watch the after listening to the Verhoeven/Neumeier audio commentary; I won't reveal why, but the reasons that these clips failed to make the cut becomes much more apparent when you hear from those two. The segments last between 45 seconds and three minutes, 50 seconds for a total of seven minutes, 49 seconds of footage.

This domain also contains two fairly interesting reels that show the progress of some effects shots and how they were integrated with real action. Narrated by Verhoeven, this area offers a fun look at the material. “Scene Development: Tanker Bug Ride” lasts four minutes and seven seconds, while “Scene Development: Rodger Young Destroyed” goes for three minutes and 27 seconds. We get a brief effects test sequence, too, one that apparently was shown to crowds at sci-fi conventions in an attempt to stir up some pre-release hype. It runs 69 seconds and it’s fun to see.

“Extra Scenes/Behind the Scenes” also shows us two screen tests between Van Dien and Richards. Nothing surprising here, although they actually seem a little more real and genuine during this test than at any point in the film. The first lasts 105 seconds, while the second runs 110 seconds. Most interesting to me was the fact that the combination of their acting and the camera angles - mostly close-ups - make their scenes look just like excerpts from any soap opera. Pretty faces and poorly emoted feelings - sounds like daytime TV to me!

Finally, the package concludes with some basics. We get the film’s theatrical trailer as well as text within the DVD’s booklet. That area presents fairly good production notes.

No one will mistake Starship Troopers for a great film, and it suffers from quite a few flaws. However, it provides enough interesting moments to become something moderately entertaining at times. The DVD offers good picture with excellent sound and a reasonably good roster of extras. Fans of the genre should give Troopers a look.

To rate this film go to the review of the Special Edition.