Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Film Review: STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997, Paul Verhoeven)

Stars: 4.2 of 5.
Running Time: 129 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Casper van Dien (SLEEPY HOLLOW, BEVERLY HILLS 90210), Denise Richards (TAMMY AND THE T-REX, MELROSE PLACE), Michael Ironside (TOTAL RECALL, EXTREME PREJUDICE), Neil Patrick Harris (PURPLE PEOPLE EATER, DOOGIE HOWSER M.D.), Dina Meyer (BATS, BEVERLY HILLS 90210), Clancy Brown (BLUE STEEL, HIGHLANDER), Jake Busey (THE FRIGHTENERS, IDENTITY), Rue McClanahan (THE GOLDEN GIRLS, MAUDE), Dean Norris (TOTAL RECALL, "Hank" from BREAKING BAD), Eric DaRe (CRITTERS 4, TWIN PEAKS). Music by Basil Poledouris (CONAN THE BARBARIAN, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER). Edited by Mark Goldblatt (ENTER THE NINJA, THE TERMINATOR, PREDATOR 2) and Caroline Ross (BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER). Second unit directed by Vic Armstrong (legendary stuntman, best known for his work on the INDIANA JONES series). Cinematography by Jost Vacano (TOTAL RECALL, DAS BOOT). Special and makeup effects by Phil Tippett's (ILM creature legend of STAR WARS, WILLOW, and JURASSIC PARK) and Kevin Yagher's (creator of the Cryptkeeper, Chucky, and several iterations of Freddy Krueger) respective studios. Screenplay by Edward Neumeier (ROBOCOP, STARSHIP TROOPERS 2), based on the novel by Robert Heinlein (THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND).
Tagline: "They Came to Our Planet, they destroyed our cities, but on November 7th... they'll learn they messed with the wrong species."
Best one-liner: "Would you like to know more?"

Paul Verhoeven. From 1985's FLESH + BLOOD to 2000's HOLLOW MAN, he devoted his craft on this side of the Atlantic to making "the movies that America deserves." Even his slightly-less-than-successful efforts (SHOWGIRLS, HOLLOW MAN) are gleefully misanthropic and extraordinarily audacious, and his finest hours (ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL) represent a kind of pure cinematic experience of the American id– filtered through television, ultra-violence, and historical memory– gone horrifyingly, entertainingly, and compellingly hog-wild. His American works are subversive, convention-shattering art films packaged as mainstream, brainless, beer can-crushin' barn-burners. And they function beautifully as both.

Anyway, this leads me to STARSHIP TROOPERS. I've read the Heinlein novel on which it's based, and it's a fine bit of military science-fiction, full of ideas– some sensible, some fascinating, and some repugnant. I say this as a Heinlein fan (THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS is one of my favorite science-fiction novels of all time), but STARSHIP TROOPERS occasionally veers into territory that's sanctimoniously reductive, almost past the point of Fascism. I prefer my science-fiction meditations on war to be a little more complex (try Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR or Vonnegut's SLAUGHTER-HOUSE FIVE or THE SIRENS OF TITAN), but I can certainly admit that there is a time and a place for dopey, no-frills, jingoistic thrills (Mickey Spillane, Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, et al.), and this is where Mr. Verhoeven comes in.

Now, a lot of people think that Verhoeven did a poor job because he A. Does not follow the novel to the letter, B. Didn't even finish reading the novel, C. Packed his film with hilarious quantities of 90210 and MELROSE PLACE alumni, and D. Actively mocks the material; but in a way it makes it even more perfect, like if Mike Judge were to do a 'serious' adaptation of Ayn Rand's ATLAS SHRUGGED starring Beavis and Butthead. Verhoeven tackles the material with élan, pretending this film was financed by a future hybrid of Fox News, Josef Goebbles, and the Internet (a roaming mouse cursor continually taunts us with the Information Age-refrain, 'Would you like to know more?'), and the end result is the sort of film that would win ALL the Oscars in its futuristic, imaginary Pan-Fascist Earth.

Modeled almost exactly after World War II propaganda films (Axis and Allied alike) that were intended to strong-arm audiences into joining up and seeking glory in death, STARSHIP TROOPERS added yet another dimension to its commentary when large swaths of contemporary audiences bought Verhoeven's feature-length practical joke, hook, line, and sinker. I've even read evidence that Space Marine movies like ALIENS and STARSHIP TROOPERS generate short-lived spikes in actual American enlistment statistics! I mean, there's a reason that the novel is on the reading list of three out of five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.

I personally remember having friends (I was in Middle School when this was released) who cheered the Space Nazis like mad apes and thirsted to turn 18 and spill theoretical bug-blood themselves, missing entirely the fact that

Verhoeven makes them look exactly like Nazis (note Gestapo-Doogie Howser above and Mengele-makeover ex-Golden Girl Rue McClanahan below),

he illustrates the distorting nature of propaganda to whip the weak-minded into a jingoistic frenzy,

Humans 1, Bugs 0!!! We did it! U.S.A! U.S.A.!

he makes a complete mockery of indoctrinating the impressionable,

and, (spoiler alert– but that's not really going to impact your appreciation of STARSHIP TROOPERS) he ends the whole goopy affair with the capture of a giant, quivering, vaginal insect brain,

whereupon Gestapo Doogie Howser delightedly announces that "it's afraid,"

which causes the surrounding legions of Astro-Fascist troops to erupt into a bloodthirsty roar of whooping and applause,

which leads directly to said quivering-afraid-giant-space-vagina being metaphorically and literally penetrated by enthusiastic, claw-wielding xenophobic maniacs.

Why yes, kiddies, you're right– the message to be taken away from all of this is... Where do I sign up? Sweet Lord in heaven, have we all lost our minds? Verhoeven's answer is, obviously: YES.
Decades from now, I believe that future film scholars will ask the question, "How in the hell was this allowed to be made?," and somewhere, Verhoeven will be smiling.

So now that I've tried to sort out some of the socio-political ramifications, let's move on to the important issues at hand. Issues like Michael Ironside.

Michael who?, you say. Sean, you haven't done a dad-blammed Ironside review for one entire year, to the day. And I am sorry about that. Truly. Only Ironside can forgive me. But somethin' tells me he might. For starters:








In short, Ironside is holding this movie together. Maybe I should take it all back– all this talk about Fascism and total war and the moral high ground and distortive propaganda... cause hell, I'd probably join this army if it meant being able to party with Michael Ironside. Also, the "Have fun– that's an order!" command combined with the "You don't do your job, I'll shoot you" line begs the question– would Ironside execute you for not having enough fun at his kegger? And what kind of beer is he serving? Could it be... LABATT MAXIMUM ICE?

Regardless, there's a reason Ironside gets typecast as "the ultimate hardass." See, Verhoeven perfectly casts his WB/CW/primetime soap opera beefcake/cheesecake all-stars as the newbies, but he needed to create an old guard of hardened men and women to make the universe believable. And, speaking of actors best known for testosterone-fests from the 80's, Ironside gets a little help from EXTREME PREJUDICE buddy and The Kurgan himself– Clancy Brown.

Brown plays Sergeant Zim, a steely, uncompromising drill instructor, who's perhaps the most colorful character from the original book. Brown does the role justice, with R. Lee Ermey-style panache.

Brown gets a little help from TOTAL RECALL alum Dean Norris as well, whom I've become quite the fan of since I began watching BREAKING BAD.

Also, I forgot to mention it earlier, but one of the new boot-cadets is played by Jake Busey, who's inherited not only his father's crazy streak and ginormous teeth

but also his propensity for impromptu fiddle-playing.

Also, he convinces everyone to get matching tattoos

while wearing Nazi Blackshirt-style suspenders, which is still only the 1,347th-most crazy thing a Busey has ever convinced a group of his peers to do.

In any event, STARSHIP TROOPERS has only improved with age. It's a platform for guys like Michael Ironside and Clancy Brown to do what they do best, while at the same time remaining jaw-droppingly and spit-takingly subversive. And even though it has a fair amount of shudder-worthy CGI (mostly in long-shot), it was still one of the last big-budget future epics to use loads of miniatures, matte-paintings, and plenty of gooey puppets– courtesy of the legendary studios of Kevin Yagher and Phil Tippett. I'll give it a little better than four stars.

-Sean Gill


Maurice Mitchell said...

Sean, this is a great review of Starship Troopers. Your caption are hilarious IRONSIDE IS YOUR TEACHER, AND HE IS MISSING A LIMB (AS ALWAYS). Keep up the great posting.
- Maurice Mitchell
The Geek Twins | Film Sketchr
@thegeektwins | @mauricem1972

Sean Gill said...


Good to see you, and thanks for the kind words. Ironside captions tend to write themselves!

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Maurice is right on. This was an entertaining, cleverly woven post and I really learned some new things surrounding the film and the book through your eyes here.

You really break the film down into concise, articulate reasons and made me appreciate aspect of the film I had not before.

Your images were great and the quivering space vagna is dead on. Obviously, that's exactly what they were going for. THere's a lot of perverse and really audacious stuff here that would be a dificult sell today.

It makes me really want to explore Heinlein a bit more.

All of the Ironside stuff was a hoot. Absolutely classic.

And, I wouldn't have remembered Dean Norris unless you noted it. I want to go back to see him in this film, because like you, I LOVE BREAKING BAD and his character is great in that series too.

Finally, I'm a big fan of Hideaki Anno who created Evangelion and he was influenced quite heavily by the military starship trooper suits ect from the book. So again, I really need to go back an look at that source material one day.

Anyway well done. You cover a lot of groun here in a fun and entertaining way. Enjoyed this a lot. sff

J.D. said...

How can you NOT love a film that features both Clancy Brown AND Michael Ironside?! As you say, it's a mini-EXTREME PREJUDICE reunion! It still boggles my mind that most people missed the oh-so obvious satirical jabs this film took back in the day. I remember seeing this in the theater a laughing my ass off as Verhoeven took a bunch of 90210/WB actors and dropped them in a CGI meat-grinder. Great stuff.

Alto, I have to question Verhoeven's sincerity on the audio commentary track when he talks about how shocked he was that test audiences absolutely HATED Denise Richards' character and were bummed that she wasn't killed off at some point. Well, duh?! And yet, he kills of Diz who was a much better love interested for Johnny Rico. Oh well... Oh, and what was with Verhoeven playing "Fade Into You" by Mazzy Star while Rico and that hot-shot pilot dude went at it? Talk about your wildly inappropriate musical cues. Very odd.

PrimitiveScrewhead said...

STARSHIP TROOPERS was the first R-rated film I ever saw in my life. I saw it maybe 1.5 to 2 years after its release. Yes, I'm pretty young. I grew up in a sort of strict family household. The only films I'd really digested up to that point in my life were things like Disney and light-hearted comedies like HOME ALONE.

But there I was, aged nine, soon to be ten. That summer I was vacationing in South Korea and was staying for a week or two with my cousin. He's even younger than I am. We'd done pretty much everything that two boys could, short of setting buildings on fire and torturing small animals, so we went to rent a movie.

I honestly don't even remember why we chose it. We didn’t know anything about it. Maybe we thought it looked cool. Maybe the guy who ran the video store lied to us and told us it was a family comedy. I mean, clearly he didn't give a shit, since we ended up walking out of there with STARSHIP TROOPERS on VHS. We were two young children who had no fucking clue what we were in for.

I’m not sure at what point in the movie I realized it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen (til that point). Michael Ironside showing up in the first scene with an arm missing? Denise Richards, who I still think is pretty hot? Dina Meyers and her boobs? Alien bugs? It's like the perfect movie to impress a young male; explosions, space marines, spaceships, alien bugs, boobs and a whole host of badasses that I didn't even know of at that point (Ironside, Clancy Brown, etc.).

In fact, we thought it was so awesome that after we watched it, we promptly rewound it and watched it the fuck over again. I think we saw it three times that weekend. Nowadays I can't even get myself to watch a movie more than once a year, max. I think the only film I've seen more than ST is UNDER SIEGE but that's probably only because it's always on TV, and I have this sick disorder that every time it's on I have to see it.

As a kid I never even noticed that political undertones or the satire that Verhoeven was trying to get across. I just saw a story with bugs and marines with explosions and boobs. I think that's what makes films like ST so great. The great films usually seem simple but have multiple layers. THE FLY, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, even DIE HARD, and Verhoeven's own ROBOCOP and TOTAL RECALL are examples of films that seem like a simple story when in fact you have so many ways to interpret them.

As a kid I never noticed it. But when I saw it years later it just hit me. It's funny that people lashed out at this film being some kind of fascist propaganda. I can sort of understand why, since it’s mostly played straight. Were they too close to the material or something? Because I saw something lampooning everything.

ST is a film that works on many different levels. And I think that's something that people don't credit it enough with. Is it as strong as Verhoeven's earlier sci-fi efforts? Fuck no. What is? It's still a lot of fun and holds a lot of nostalgic value.

It's also still eerily relevant to today's society (much like ROBOCOP and TOTAL RECALL). It should be classified as a comedy because it's cheesy and fucking hilarious. The scene where the marines first land on the planet, all gung-ho and shit, clearly without a plan, and then get their asses handed to them always gets me. Iraq and Afghanistan, anyone?

Anyway, list of firsts:
1) First R-rated film. The world of cinema just opened up its doors to me after I saw ST.
2) First exposure to Verhoeven's insanity.
3) First exposure to Michael Ironside. As a kid I remember being half-scared out of my mind and half-awed by him. He's the kind of teacher all kids want to have. And should have.
4) First time turned on by boobs (Dina Meyer's).
5) First full-on death scene witnessed.

And I'm sure there are a ton of others.

Oh, by the way, where can I get that poster? Never seen it. It's got a real comic-book, Judge Dredd sort of vibe to it.

Mike B. said...

Yes! Thrilled to see this one here, and I agree with others above that you absolutely nailed it, especially the point about the film functioning so well as both brain-dead actioner and wild, gleeful satire (in fact, it may pull off this feat better than any of Verhoeven's classics, or anyone else's, for that matter). It's hard to add anything, really, because my tendency when discussing Starship Troopers is to just repeatedly stress how AWESOME it is! But I will say a couple of things that stand out in my mind. One, I fully enjoy the casting, particularly Van Dien and Richards (as much as I like N.P. Harris, he inches ever so slightly here into self-aware, in-on-the-joke territory that might have tipped the film's hand if he was on screen more). A time like 1997 is so darn difficult to be nostalgic for due to its general lack of any cohesion from a pop culture standpoint, but Verhoeven's populating of the film with these actors can actually make one a bit nostalgic for that time (not to mention how perfect they are for their roles with their impossible fresh-faced-ness and naivete). And one last note, while I grant that CGI is always jarring, I do feel like this is one of the two films that I'll most let it slide for because of how necessary it is for the story (the other being Darabont's wholly underrated The Mist). And also, the scene of the armada landing on the bug planet, with those big bugs launching energy orbs, achieves a strange beauty. And it probably also helps that the film has such a candy-colored palette to begin with, so the effects aren't too out of place. Again, awesome movie!

Sean Gill said...


Thank you, my friend! If you do delve into Heinlein, I can't recommend MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS enough– it wears its politics on its sleeve, but it maintains perfect grounding, and is never less than sensible. Also, Dean Norris appears as one of the malformed mutant leaders in TOTAL RECALL! I've never actually seen EVANGELION (my anime knowledge is extremely limited), but it has been recommended to me by others, as well.


There need to be more EXTREME PREJUDICE mini-reunions, as far as I'm concerned. Would love to see Powers and Nolte and William Forsythe in the mix, too, but I suppose it's not a perfect world.
I didn't listen to all of Verhoeven's commentary, but I took in some selections. Hard to say if he's playing with us still at some points. And that is indeed a bizarro musical cue choice. Also- kinda strange to hear the Bowie/Eno "I have not been to Oxford Town" covered by Basil Poledouris' daughter during the prom scene. Ah, the mysteries of Verhoeven.

Primitive Screwhead,

I appreciate the personal anecdote! Boobs, bugs, and Ironside are a lot for a youngster to digest, all at once.

As for the poster, I took the image from this site

but I'm unsure if it's for sale anywhere. I appreciate that it makes the film almost look like a sequel to ROBOCOP, which with its constant "TV" interludes, it sort of is!

Mike B.,

Thanks, man! Your observation on NP Harris is a good one, though part of it falls probably on the sheer ludicrousness of seeing Doogie goddamn Howser strolling around in what is clearly a Gestapo uniform. I agree about the CGI in this and THE MIST. As you probably know, I generally have nothing but vehement disdain for CGI, but this flick is so over the top, and it chooses to use actual goopy SFX for the closeups and the occasional spaceship miniature, that I have to respect it. I mean, the buckets of actual, candy-colored bug blood that get play in this film are just fantastic. (And THE MIST masks its occasionally less than stellar CGI very well, with the combination of Darabont's preferred B&W cut, and the actual "mist" itself. Fog and expressionistic shadow go a long, long way in my book.)

GuyR said...

Ah, one of the last true classics!
I remember seeing it for the first time and loving it. I'd discuss how awesome and subversive it is with a friend of mine who is also a Verhoeven fan.
Then came another friend, who also loved the film while missing the subtext! I suppose he was some kind of fascist, or just a little dumb.
But it does show that Verhoeven's films like Starship Troopers and Robocop do work on both levels, which is pretty rare achievement, and is probably why we love him so much.

Sean Gill said...


Always good to hear from you. Verhoeven's truly one of the greats, and while he's got another Dutch film in the works that looks absolutely fantastic, I would love to see him have one last Hollywood hurrah in the vein of ROBOCOP and STARSHIP TROOPERS.

GuyR said...

Yes, he HAS to!