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Laramie Movie Scope:
Starship Troopers

A movie with nudity, sex and violence
aimed right at kids

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 8, 1997, updated March 29, 2006 -- As some of you may be aware, "Starship Troopers," based on a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, one of the masters of science fiction, was filmed at Hell's Half Acre in Wyoming last summer. I visited the movie set when the film was in production, took some photos of the set and wrote a story about it for the The Laramie Daily Boomerang at that time.

Now that the film has finally come out, it is time to do the review. I have mixed feelings about this film. It is a rousing adventure story and in some ways it is squarely in the tradition of World War II films like "The Sands of Iwo Jima." It is also, however, the worst kind of exploitation film, using violence, slime and sex aimed not at adults, but at a grade school through high school audience.

The story is based on Robert Heinlein's book, which I read about 35 years ago, so I don't remember too much about it. Two people who read the book recently told me the movie is fairly true to the book, except for the absence of the armored power suits, which is probably just as well. I like to see the actors. And boy do we see the actors in this film. The other departure from the book is the nude, co-ed shower scenes. I think one of the prerequisites for joining the cast was the willingness to take your clothes off in front of the camera. The nude shower scenes of both sexes are not something you see in your typical war movie, or science fiction movie, either.

The movie, like the book, is aimed at the juvenile market. It shows a totalitarian type of government, where military service is a prerequisite of citizenship, combined with a casual attitude toward sex. Cheesecake filmmaker Paul Verhoeven (“Robocop,” “Showgirls” “Basic Instinct”) lets his worst insticts take over in this film, creating a war movie that is a cross between “Windtalkers” and “Showgirls.” His juvenile-level love for nudity, cynicism and carnage win out in the end. These are Verhoeven's “basic instincts.” Sometimes these insticts produce hit movies, but more often, as in “Starship Troopers,” not. Critics are divided over whether Verhoeven is some kind of genius or a pimp. Verhoeven takes full advantage of the glitzy formula of sex, violence and militarism.

Johnny Rico (played woodenly by Casper Van Dien) is the hero of the film, a none-too-bright jock who falls for the drop-dead-beautiful Carmen Ibanez (played by Denise Richards, who went on to star in a James Bond film). Ibanez, who is very bright, enlists in the military to become a pilot, while Rico, who lacks the math skills, joins the infantry because Ibanez is a sucker for men in uniform. Both are from Buenos Aires. Meanwhile, another woman from Buenos Aires, Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer of "Dragonheart" and "Johnny Mnemonic") has fallen hard for Rico, joins the infantry and requests a transfer to Rico's unit. Rico, however, is still stuck on Ibanez. None of these people look the least bit Hispanic (in the book, Rico was Filippino), or all that bright, for that matter. The first part of the film is tedious and clumsy as Verhoeven sets up a romantic quadrangle involving the three people mentioned above plus another hotshot pilot who is after Ibanez.

Verhoeven uses television spots that are also like internet web sites to inject some anti-government cynicism into the story. The satirical TV spots are similar to the ones he used in Robocop, but they are not as effective. Some of the military uniforms in the film look just like Nazi SS uniforms. The Federation insignia is similar to the German eagle of the Nazi era, etc. Again, the symbolism is both heavy-handed and ineffective, even by today's standards. Perhaps people in the future will be less intelligent, and so more apt to fall for such clumsy attempts at propaganda. Although Verhoeven teases the audience with cynicism and even hints that the entire war is some kind of government conspiracy. There is almost no substance beneath the glossy surface of this film. It makes me wonder if these undeveloped themes are merely a ruse to give the appearance of having socially redeeming value instead of the package of soft porn and violence aimed at teens it really is. I certainly would have like to have seen the satire and conspiracy aspects of the story developed more in order to be convinced they are really central to the movie's themes.

Once the story finally lurches to the ridiculously sadistic boot camp, however, it picks up steam as the old World War II movie formula takes over. Members of the squad including Ace Levy (Jake Busey of "Contact," Gary's son) get their tattoos and do other male and female bonding stuff. The special effects come into play when Rico and his buddies go to war against a bunch of giant bugs. The battle scenes are interesting because of the great special effects, but we never learn much about the enemy. More could have been made about the battle between a technological species on one hand, and the bugs, who use what appears to be biologically-engineered weapons against the humans.

Michael Ironside, who appears early in the film as Jean Rasczak, a teacher, returns as the military leader of Rico's unit. Rasczak is the equivalent of Sergeant Striker, John Wayne's character in "The Sands of Iwo Jima." He serves as a role model for his men and as a father figure for the younger men, but unlike Striker, we don't get to know much about him. Neil Patrick Harris ("Doogie Howser") is also in the film, but his part is quite limited. Except for Ironside, the acting is dull and uninspiring. There is no one with any real charisma to carry the story. Casper Van Diem, for instance, has gone from a blip on cinematic radar to the depths of acting. He's in the straight-to-video movies now. Neil Patrick Harris suffered a similar fate before resurfacing on television.

There is no real character development in the film. The characters remain essentially unchanged, despite the horrible things they see and do. Aside from some bravery and self-sacrifice and lust, there is little humanity revealed here. Despite all dismembered bodies, blood and gore, and its underlying disdain of soldiers and the military, the bulk of the film is still about the glory of war. When you throw great-looking soldier babes and handsome young men into the mix, it makes military service even more attractive. It would make an excellent military recruitment film. Except for the sex, Hitler would have loved it with its neo-Nazi overtones.

What ruined this film is what ruins most science fiction films. Most of the money in the production went into special effects, leaving little money for acting talent or script development. That is probably why the dialogue and acting are so terrible. Those who like this film claim that the bad acting and wooden dialogue are actually clever artistic choices by the film's director, Paul Verhoeven (who made the equally cheesy “Showgirls”). That's not reasoning, that's rationalizing. If Verhoeven was really trying to make an art film, he would have gotten better actors and a better script. Instead, he blew his budget on special effects. It happens all the time. Apologists for this film can argue that it is really a satire, a comedy or whatever. The truth is Verhoeven tried to salvage this dog of a film with a dose of satire, but failed. It is still a dog, just a very cynical one. Some of this film's more honest fans admit that the only reason they like this movie is for its nudity, gore and action. This film couldn't have been any cheesier had it been made in Wisconsin.

There's a reason the military has always recruited and trained teenagers so successfully. There's an old saying that you can train a 30-year-old to fight, but you can't make him believe it will be fun. Only youths (and some hard-core Republicans who believe in the second Iraq war) can be persuaded that war is glorious and noble. For teenagers, this R-rated film kids are not really supposed to be seeing on their own (this film probably made a lot more money in DVD sales and rentals than ticket sales) rates a B because it is a rousing, albeit shallow militaristic epic. For those of us have lived through a war or two and have seen what it does to people, the film is not as compelling. There are lots of better quality war movies out there. It rates a C for us old-timers.

Some fans asked me if there was going to be a sequel to this film. Financially, the film lost money in its theatrical release, so it would normally not be sequel material, but it has picked up a kind of cult following in the video market, so there were three sequels, all straight-to-video (as of mid-2013). That's what the first one should have been, too. There was also a short-lived Starship Troopers cartoon series on TV starting in 1999. Now what does that tell you about the juvenile appeal of this film? Do you still think this is a serious adult-level satire? It is merely cynicism maquerading as satire. For some, cynicism is enough, I guess.

I have an updated, completely new review of this movie which can be read by clicking on this link. The new review is based on reader feedback and some new research on Robert A. Heinlein's original book. Click here for some neat photos and storyboard drawings from the Starship Troopers production. Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. I have links to American as well as European vendors. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 1997 Robert Roten. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)