Paul Verhoeven tackles war with Starship Troopers, a blazing and goofy science fiction epic. The 1997 film is somewhat based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel of the same name, but the Edward Neumeier screenplay takes a satirical bent and sends up the militarism of the source material.
Verhoeven has never been shy about his use of irony to explore bulky concepts and Starship Troopers is an extension of the groundwork laid in RoboCop and Total Recall. Violence is the thing and the filmmaker sledgehammers the point home, commencing his picture with a mocking ad and having an instructor exalt the virtues of violence as the ultimate solution.
It’s the future and humans are fighting bugs. Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is dating Carmen (Denise Richards), while Dizzy (Dina Meyer) is in love with Johnny. Everyone enlists in the Federal Service, where Carmen hopes to become a pilot and Johnny and Dizzy end up in infantry.
After the bugs launch a particularly terrible attack on Earth, war breaks out. Johnny works his way through the ranks after some complications and joins the Roughnecks, a group of infantry that takes on the toughest assignments.
The first half of Starship Troopers concerns itself with the setup. It establishes a core group of doe-eyed youngsters, including Neil Patrick Harris as Carl Jenkins, and puts them through the typical paces. There’s even a version of football, which sets up the collision of Alpha Males as Rico goes one-on-one with Patrick Muldoon’s chiselled Zander.
The relationship between Johnny and Carmen is initially faultless, like the quarterback and the cheerleader ordained for gluey late-night romps in a cherry convertible. But the spectre of war looms, as a gazillion bugs jitter their way across the galaxy to wreck all that is holy.
Verhoeven’s use of fascist imagery is plain. The director admits to taking his opening shot straight from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, an infamous 1935 piece of Nazi propaganda, and his Starship Troopers is jammed with a carved throng of hot young things going to war and loving it.
Richards, Van Dien, Muldoon, Meyer, and Harris line up their cheery best, delivering a range of well-meant characters ready to hurl their souls into the muck. And the adults, played by a chewy band of character actors, are only to happy to pave the way to war and glory. Michael Ironside, for instance, gets to lead the enriching charge of the Roughnecks.
As with Showgirls, Verhoeven entertains without mercy. And as with Showgirls, Starship Troopers guns itself into near ruin. The appeal of sheer excess is mesmerizing, with the blood and guts mirroring the tits and glitter of the NC-17 Vegas trip. There’s even a touch of nudity in Starship Troopers, as if Verhoeven’s letting Joe Eszterhas know he’s still on the ball.
Starship Troopers is shot like an action picture and the bug battles are frantic and awesome. Cinematographer Jost Vacano captures the run-and-gun exploits with constant motion and sweeping energy, with a battlefield of bugs teeming. And the crawlies explode in slime and a sort of oily fire, like everything’s always melting.
With enough fresh-faced sci-fi action to please those who miss the point and enough of a point to satisfy those looking for an angle, Starship Troopers is a loud and proud science fiction saga. It may be a little stuffed and may run a little long, but it is damn well one of the most entertaining motion pictures of the 1990s.