The rich legacy of cinema has left us with certain indelible images. The
tinkling Christmas tree bell in "It's A Wonderful Life." Bogie's speech
at the airport in "Casablanca." Little Elliott's flying bicycle,
silhouetted by the moon in "E.T." And now, "Starship Troopers" director
Paul Verhoeven adds one more image that will live in our memories
forever: Doogie Houser doing a Vulcan mind meld with a giant slug.
"Starship Troopers," loosely based on the Robert Heinlein novel, is the
story of an interstellar war between humans and giant insects. In the
hands of Verhoeven, the mammoth sci-fi battle flick is one of the most
astonishingly bad films ever made, a monument to inept filmmaking on a
colossal scale. To put it simply, it's a bug bomb.
In "Robocop" and "Total Recall," Verhoeven displayed a gift for creating
an entertaining mix of violence, special effects and social satire, and
"Starship Troopers" starts off in similar fashion, with a tongue-in-cheek
futuristic military recruitment ad that shows promise. Things go downhill
fast, though, as we meet our heroes, a group of Buenos Aires teens
preparing to graduate from high school. Inexplicably, Johnny Rico, Carmen
Ibenez, Dizzy Flores and Xander Barcalow are played by square-jawed
Anglo kids who look like they just stepped out of a Mountain Dew
It's a veritable "Alpha Centuri 90210" as we watch the love-smitten teens
squabble in the name of love. Michael Ironside plays their teacher, who
waves around a cheesy fake severed arm while lecturing about civic
responsibilities. Eventually, the kids join the military, with dreams of
glory in their addled little minds. One of their classmates, Carl Jenkins
("Doogie Houser's" Neil Patrick Harris,) snags a job in military
intelligence because of his strong psychic abilities. He displays his
gift by psychically ordering a pet ferret to crawl up his Mother's leg.
A long, dull boot camp sequence follows, enlivened only by an extended
coed shower scene where the recruits swap snappy banter as the
"Showgirls" director's camera roams over their buff bodies. Finally, a
full hour into the film, the war finally starts and we meet the enemy.
The bugs hail from Klendathu and colonize planets by hurling their spores
into space. They attack starships by spinning around and firing deadly
plasma blasts from their rears. Yes, incredible as it seems, the bugs
actually kill with cosmic farts.
A phenomenally large amount of money was spent creating the computer
animated insects and the results are mixed at best. Sweeping distant
shots depicting hordes of giant bugs racing to attack are both impressive
and scary, but the close-ups are a different matter. The insects have an
odd, artificial look, like origami creations with a mottled plastic
coating. The attack scenes are intensely violent, as one would expect
from Verhoeven, but the overall look is too phony to generate any real
tension. While the action is frantic, the military strategy, wildly
illogical even by Hollywood standards, grows tiresome quickly. Verhoeven
tries to spice things up by throwing in more satiric news coverage, but
the faux-jingoistic scenes of children "doing their part for the war
effort" by squishing roaches on a sidewalk aren't enough to make up for
the long stretches of sheer dreck.
One can only guess what Paul Verhoeven was trying to do here. His
customary one part satire, two parts ultra-violence formula is way out of
whack, and most of the film just flounders. In "Showgirls" fashion, some
scenes are almost bad enough to be good. An intergalactic kegger party,
with Jake Busey playing "Dixie" on a green Plexiglas fiddle, has a
certain bizarre appeal. A sex scene between two of the teens achieves a
smarmy charm, enhanced a few minutes later when the female receives a
fatal jab from a bug, but tells her hero that she doesn't mind dying.
"It's okay," she gasps, "I got to have you!" And then, of course, there's
Doogie's mind meld with a bug.
It's possible that Verhoeven was attempting to create an homage to the
era of the original novel. Heinlein's pre-"Stranger In A Strange Land"
books were aimed at adolescent males, and "Starship Troopers" has the
antiseptic retro-future look of late 50s/early 60s sci-fi. The one
cityscape shown is a Jetsons-like gleaming metropolis, with flying cars
whizzing past an obvious matte painting. The hairstyles are retro too,
straight from the Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello school of fashion.
Ultimately, Verhoeven's motives are irrelevant. He has produce a
gargantuan film that fails as an action film or as a social satire. It
even fails to be an entertaining bad movie. Avoid "Starship Troopers" at
Copyright © 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott