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Friday, 7 October 2016

Retro Review: Starship Troopers (1997)

Starship Troopers
Cast: Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris, Michael Ironside, Rue McClanahan
Genre: Satirical Military Science Fiction 
Worldwide Lifetime Gross: $121,214,377

Plot: In the distant future, the earth is at war with a race of giant alien insects. Little is known about the bugs, except they are intent on the eradication of all human life. But there was a time before war.... a Mobile Infantry travels to distant alien planets to take the war to the bugs. They are a ruthless enemy with only one mission: survival of the species no matter what the cost  

'Doubling Up As a Dreary Teen Melodrama, Film Works Best As A Mindless Action Spectacle'

Hmm... let's see: Robocop - loved, Total Recall - loved, Basic Instinct - wasn't impressed, Showgirls - enjoyed, Hollow Man - I enjoyed also, somewhat. Now we're onto the other Paul Verhoeven movie, which came after the release of Showgirls and right before Hollow Man.  

Made on a budget of $100 million, it only managed to reclaim $121 million, worldwide, making it a flop. When the film was released in the UK in cinemas, it was given a 15 rating, but after consideration towards the graphical violence, it had evoked, when it was released on video this rating was pushed up towards an 18 by the British Board of Film Classification. 
Starship Troopers is your classic good versus bad showdown, but this movie itself is virtually bad in almost every single aspect by operating as a T&A slasher, that is marginally saved by the special effects and violent action sequences. It is the film that incites happiness and sheer delight, especially for fans of sci-fi action movies, - as well as derision and apathy from many other viewers, especially from fans of the original novel. So, where do I begin?

Well, the movie is based on a book from 1959 by Robert A. Heinlein and follows in the footsteps of Verhoeven's other sci-fi based offerings, Robocop and Total Recall, which also contained extreme and gratuitous amounts of ultra-violence, laced with plot and character-driven elements. It was reported that Verhoeven only read a few chapters of the book - which was accused of promoting fascism, military rule, saying the book made him bored and depressed. 

Both screenwriter Edward Neumeier and Paul Verhoeven had previously worked together on 1987's Robocop, and Starship Troopers has a similar style and tone to that film. The level of ultra-violence in Starship Troopers is also on par with those films. Surprisingly, the main characters have Hispanic names - Rico, Ibanez-, yet the actors playing those characters are not of Hispanic, South American or Latino origin, which makes this inconsistent, as well as baffling. 

Considering the main enemy are large insects, you'd think the troops would have an armoured vehicle such as a tank to fight the beasts, but no. In fact, the spaceships have the weaponry to wipe out the bugs, so why are they always made to confront them on foot and with each soldier in possession of just one assault rifle - only to find themselves exposed? No wonder almost all of them die. 

For all the millions of dollars spent on the special effects and CGI effects, this is offset by a dreadful script and boring & at times corny dialogue and some of the worst acting I have seen in a big- budget movie. The casting of Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards and co. (but for Michael Ironside) is uninspired & more down to their youthful looks and the performances are so cardboard cut-out, flat & utterly one dimensional. People criticise the script in Hollow Man, but at least the performances, -well from Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Shue at most,- are better than in Starship Troopers. By a long margin. That is what separates this movie to Hollow Man & Total Recall, which had Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox amongst others; it is the fact they had established actors, who all possessed the necessary screen presence in their roles to not only effectively carry the movie, but also gave impressive performances to back it up. Starship Troopers, on the other hand, does not have that but rather stock performances, delivered by stock actors as their characters.  

This is the epitome of a movie that is on par with a soap opera/Beverly Hills 90210- minus the all-important plot twists, coupled with futuristic and mind-numbing violence & nudity, which with regards to the latter, was unwarranted in this film. But of course, Verhoeven wanted that R-rating. Verhoeven added that Old World flair to already established formulas and themes in his previous Western efforts, Robocop, Total Recall. Here, with Starship Troopers he tried to do the same thing, but unfortunately the story and narrative were weaker, not as strong and very lacklustre. I was rolling my eyes at the thin and lacklustre and plain characters uttering such terrible dialogue, whilst the film's bug battle scenes were the only things that kept me interested. Though Verhoeven may have succeeded in utilising social commentary and satire, as a film, this is not as effective as it was in Robocop

The main stumbling block I have with Starship Troopers that although it sends itself up as a sci-fi action horror show, the tale itself is moronic with characters who look like they just stepped off of a teen drama or Days Of Our Lives Soap Opera. I was very much expecting an action film in the same ilk, with smart acerbic writing as Robocop. 

This is a sheer example of a film where the filmmakers were so entrenched in the visuals through the special effects, CGI, models - which, that being said, looked impressive & seamless, as well as the gore, the violence and adding in a few scenes of naked bodies, that they completely forgot about the film's implications. 

The so-called heroes are apparently fascists in disguise - yet this particular point is overridden by this film playing out like an episode of a teen drama. As much as Verhoeven points this out and as much as repeatedly makes this distinction clear, Starship Troopers provided more questions than answers. With those questions and ideas from the movie being questionable in themselves. 

None of the characters are remotely interesting and thus, lack personality and emotional connection, despite their outfits which look as if Verhoeven has ripped a page right out of the colonial marines from James Cameron's Aliens, and there are no attempts made whatsoever with regards to character development that is shown throughout, but rather have them shoot and blow up evil creatures. It's either that, utter dreary lines or engage in some silly teen dilemma. Had Verhoeven crafted characters with depth, personality, range, as well as likeability that made us want to sympathise and care about them (an argument I would also use in reference to Hollow Man), then it would have made a difference to the scenes where they are brutally killed off. 

Just like with Verhoeven's other efforts, Basic Instinct, Showgirls (well okay not Showgirls) and to some extent Hollow Man, Starship Troopers is a film with lots of visual style but very little substance. Lots of flashy and cool looking CGI, but forgettable lead characters and not a great story to go with it.  

Oh and speaking of conflict and overcoming hurdles, whilst enduring his own skirmishes and suffering along the way, that doesn't happen with the main character, Johnny Rico (a very rock star or wrestler sounding name); whilst his comrades are brutally killed, he miraculously survives every horrific and bloody ordeal by the skin of his teeth. For an action movie to flourish, the hero/protagonist has to endure his fair share of difficulties and conflicts. As big as they come in the huge insectoids. 

If Star Wars is humanist, then Starship Troopers is totalitarian; it tries to be edgy, it tries to be cool. it is bloody, gory, sadistic, people's limbs are torn off. It seems that Verhoeven was trying to revisit some of Robocop's and Total Recall's past glories as futuristic movies and incorporate them into this movie: the bugs echoing ED-209, the satire and propaganda clips of Robocop, the setting taking place in space (like with Total Recall in Mars). After the travesty of Showgirls, he created something that has very little substance and is heavily reliant on gory- make that extremely gory scenes that would have made it pass the R-rating and garnered an NC-17 rating.

The satire aspect was another big fail in this film: if this movie was trying to be a parody by having scenes that passed itself off as being satirical, it failed because there is very little wit & humour that worked. And the film could have done without the soap-opera-ish elements, which was unnecessary and not needed for a film like this. The high school sequences were so dull - yet they ate up so much of the movie's duration. 

Having said all that, this is a somewhat inexplicably bad movie that action movie fans, in particular, will enjoy and lap up, & also it is more effective as a typical mindless action yarn. 

A misunderstood satirical masterpiece considered by many nowadays, for me anyhow, Starship Troopers is a Saved By The Bell teen drama with added gore and violence.

Robocop and Total Recall were both entertaining - this film, however, wasn't and when it tries to be smarter for its own good, that's when its own intentions fail. 

Final Verdict:

It is a satirical look at war and the military and shouldn't be taken seriously, even if it is based on the original book and encompasses everything that is good and bad about science fiction. 

But for the action scenes, Starship Troopers literately bored me, quickly. I didn't care for the Saved By The Bell romance antics and the story was predictable, no-frills -yet somewhat solid. Despite lacking the major plot twists and turns, & moments of the insects killing the soldiers. 

Starship Troopers could have been an excellent sci-fi film with a much better cast, better performances and more thought and attention had gone into the screenplay and characterisation, along with Verhoeven's visual inventiveness. Sadly, Verhoeven and company failed in all three, besides the onslaught of violent action scenes. Starship Troopers satire aspect also fell flat: if there were moments that were supposed to elicit laughs, well, it didn't work for me. 

And for goodness sake, just give them a tank or car or some kind of armoured vehicle for the soldiers to fight the bugs with. A person who has played Call of Duty or some other first-person shooter video game would be aware of this, more than Neumeier who penned the script.

If you're looking for an action-packed, no-brainer of a B-film that isn't too deep but for the mindless violence, then this is for you. In all, this is one of those movies that perhaps should be remade with all the violence, R-rated content left intact, but also with a much deeper, thrilling narrative & improved characterisation as well. 

The sardonic mocking and parodying of violence and good versus bad theme was done exceedingly better..... and it was in a little-known movie titled Robocop, which got everything right. 

But for the special effects, Starship Troopers is Robocop's second-rate - or be it third rate, sci-fi cousin. 


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