Starship Troopers (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Whenever a motion picture tackles a literary classic of any genre, fans of the written work hold their collective breaths, hoping for the best, but dreading the worst. On rare occasions, something like The Godfather emerges -- a movie that not only fulfills the promise of the book, but improves upon it. Unfortunately, most of the time, we're saddled with atrocities like Bram Stoker's Dracula or Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. And, while it's unfair to lump science fiction writer Robert Heinlein into the same category as Tolstoy, the author is a recognized great in his chosen genre, and 1959's Starship Troopers represents one of his best-known novels. So what about the film? Those anticipating a rigorous adaptation will be dismayed. On the other hand, anyone in the mood for a "popcorn movie" experience will find that Starship Troopers fills the role handsomely.

Probably the best way to approach Starship Troopers is to divorce it from its intelligent and gripping pedigree. Many of the most intellectually stimulating aspects of the book have been stripped away, and those that remain are only shadows of their former selves. (It's still a lot smarter than Independence Day, however.) Viewers offended by the "watering down" of themes in this summer's superlative motion picture version of Contact will be horrified by what has happened here. Nevertheless, taken on its own terms, the movie entity Starship Troopers offers an enjoyable two hours. At its best, the film recaptures the kind of taut, visceral thrills offered by James Cameron's Aliens. At its worst, it replicates the feel of a futuristic episode of TV's Beverly Hills 90210.

Starship Troopers represents director Paul Verhoeven's comeback attempt after the disastrously-received NC-17 cult favorite, Showgirls. This time around, Verhoeven returns to the genre that has been most kind to him. Starship Troopers is his third science fiction endeavor, following in the footsteps of Robocop and Total Recall. And, as was true for both of those films, Verhoeven applies his own unique style to the material. Much of Starship Troopers is presented tongue-in-cheek, and the level of violence and gore (bodies being ripped limb-from-limb and so forth) is so extreme that viewers will quickly become desensitized to it.

The story begins sometime in the future on Earth, where society has evolved into what producer Jon Davison calls a "fascist utopia." It's there, in the city of Buenos Aires, that we meet Starship Troopers' protagonist, Johnny Rico, played by relative newcomer Casper Van Dien. Rico, along with classmates Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris, TV's Doogie Howser), and Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer, from Dragonheart), is preparing for the future as high school graduation approaches. All four friends are considering joining the Federal Service -- the futuristic equivalent of today's military. Carmen wants to be a pilot, Carl wants to enter the intelligence ranks, and Rico and Dizzy are headed for the infantry. To add a little spice to their interaction, a romantic triangle has developed between Rico, Carmen, and Dizzy.

While the early sequences of Starship Troopers can seem like a prime time soap opera, complete with cheesy dialogue and unconvincing character development, it's clear that Verhoeven knows what he's doing. None of this is played completely straight; at times, Starship Troopers' first half-hour treads a line between overblown melodrama and parody. Plus, there are the Robocop-like propaganda "news breaks" that are used to provide expository material and advance the narrative. Although none of the characters are fleshed out much beyond the comic book level, we nevertheless find our sympathies aligning with them. The largely no-name cast is not heavy on dramatic acting ability, but everyone is appealing and enthusiastic. The stars of Starship Troopers, especially Van Dien and Dina Meyer, manage to maintain a certain level of human interest in a film that eventually becomes special effects-driven.

Following the high school portion of the film, the setting shifts to the infantry military school where Rico and Dizzy suffer through basic training under the tutelage of a hard-nosed instructor (Clancy Brown). We've seen this stuff many times before, most recently in G.I. Jane. The most memorable sequence of this segment is a co-ed shower scene designed to remind us that Verhoeven has no compunction about displaying the naked human body, even in a science fiction epic.

Eventually, we get to the action. Humanity is at war with a race of lethal bugs who hail from the planet Klandathu, located halfway across the galaxy. They nuke an Earth city and mankind retaliates by launching an invasion of their homeworld. Rico and Dizzy are members of the invading army, and Carmen pilots the ship taking them there, but the campaign turns into a debacle. The death toll is phenomenal and the enemy scores a clear victory. The war, however, is just beginning.

If viewers are going to gripe about any aspect of Starship Troopers, their complaints will be registered against the first half of the film, not the second. Once the war starts, there's hardly any time for relaxation. Verhoeven orchestrates the battles between CGI aliens and human actors with consummate skill, creating extended sequences that crackle with tension and excitement. Starship Troopers is essentially an old-fashioned war movie in a science fiction setting, and the film makers adhere to many of the conceits of that genre. The humans are good and the bugs are bad, and there's little room for sentimentality amidst all the machismo. John Wayne would have felt very much at home.

Technically, Starship Troopers is a mixed bag. Some of the scenes, such as an endless wave of spider-like aliens swarming across a rocky desertscape or a crippled spaceship breaking in half, involve impressive displays of motion picture magic. On other occasions, however, the effects work looks fake. Perhaps we've gotten to the point where we expect such precision and perfection from special effects that anything less is immediately noticeable.

In the final analysis, Starship Troopers is flawed but fun, and, if marketed correctly, will likely make a healthy profit (although it will be interesting to see how the "R" rating affects its ultimate box-office performance). And, while the outline of Heinlein's story and many of the characters remain intact, only echoes of the rich and controversial political subtext have survived. If you want content, read the book. If you want a skillfully-directed, fast-paced ride through space and into war, see the movie. In a year when so many blockbusters have disappointed, Starship Troopers ranks as one of the better examples of lightweight, big budget entertainment.

Starship Troopers (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 2:09
U.S. Release Date: 1997-11-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1