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Laramie Movie Scope:
Starship Troopers

A movie with nudity, sex and violence aimed at kids

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 8, 1997, updated April 3 2018 -- 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, a kind of exploitation film, using violence, humor and sex at a juvenile level. This is quite different than the juvenile fiction book of the same name it is based upon.

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.

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. Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven (“Robocop,” “Showgirls” “Basic Instinct”) here creates a war movie that bears quite a bit of similarity to his earlier film, “Robocop.” This includes satire about the media, cynicism and hints of corruption.

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 heavy-handed. The propaganda is painfully obvious. 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. I certainly would have like to have seen the satire and conspiracy aspects of the story developed more.

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.

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.

What hurts this film is what hurts 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 dialog and acting are so wooden. As a consequence, this film was targeted by the folks at RiffTrax.

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 is fun. Only youths (and some hard-core militarists) can be persuaded that war is glorious and noble. For teenagers, this R-rated film rates a B because it is a rousing, albeit shallow militaristic epic. For those of us who are fans of Robert Heinlein, or have lived through a war or two and have seen what it does to people, it rates a C.

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 cult following in the video market, so there are several sequels, mostly straight-to-video, and mostly these are animated videos, not live action. There was also a short-lived Starship Troopers cartoon series on TV in 1999, further evidence of the juvenile appeal of this series. There was also a Starship Troopers video game.

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)