I’m not going to mince words. Robert Heinlein is the reason I got interested in writing fiction. Granted, it was his novel The Cat Who Walks Through Walls that started the wheels turning in my head, but Starship Troopers was also evocative and fascinating to the nascent mind of this young writer twenty years ago or so. While the book was released and is still enjoyed today by youth, Paul Verhoven’s film adaptation is decidedly not for kids, what with the ludicrous amounts of gore and the gratuitous nudity. But is it good? The short answer is… “mostly.”
“Um… sir? Did we remember to pack that bigass can of Raid?”
In the future, veteran soldiers have revamped global society so that citizenship is determined by civil service in the armed forces, meaning that rights such as voting, procreation and higher education are earned, not given. Growing up in this society are Johnny Rico (Casper Van Diem), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) and Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris). The three friends graduate high school and enter the service just before the malevolent aliens known as “arachnids” or “bugs” wipe out their home town of Buenos Aires with a meteor strike. Carmen enters the fleet as a skilled but unorthodox pilot, Carl disappears into the dark cloister of military intelligence, and Rico, unskilled at math but a determined athlete with a decent head on his shoulders, signs on for the Mobile Infantry, the Federation’s hard-nosed badass rapid-deployment “do or die” answer to the United States Marine Corps.
Best reason to join the Mobile Infantry? Right there.
What begins as a near-future high school romantic drama turns quickly into a near-future war story. Unfortunately, this transition isn’t a one-way street. Instead of focusing entirely on the horrors of war, the shadow cast by the society in which these characters live or even the nature of the arachnids, the film keeps looking back over its shoulder at the romance plots and the beautiful people caught up in them. The transitions between themes aren’t terribly smooth, and it makes the pace of the film a little disjointed. The writing is fine, based as it is on tried and true science fiction tropes, and the characters are, for the most part, reasonably fleshed out with a few exceptions. It feels a bit like this movie is trying too hard to be too many things at once, which leads to what I feel is its biggest flaw.
Everything that is good in this movie is counter-balanced by something that could have been better. Good performances by the likes of Dina Meyer, Neil Patrick Harris and Michael Ironside are almost cancelled out by the wooden efforts of Denise Richards and Patrick Muldoon. The boot camp sequences that hearken to films like Full Metal Jacket and Jarhead are undermined by plodding, procedural CG sequences of space travel. Any rousing feelings evoked as the Mobile Infantry unit called the Roughnecks pay back the bugs for assaulting our race are watered down with audience-generated questions like “Why are they still using bullets in the future?” and “Why are their weapons so huge and cumbersome if the Mobile Infantry is meant for rapid deployment?” If the film had focused solely on the Roughnecks instead of constantly cutting back to Carmen’s fleet antics, the whole thing would have been a bit more coherent and the overall product would have improved. Yes, we would have had less opportunities to check out Denise Richards, but she’s little more than eye candy in this, and Dina Meyer completely outdoes her in just about every regard.
Dr. Horrible visits Himmler’s tailor and kills bugs good. Would you like to know more?
The best part about Starship Troopers, in my opinion, is its undercurrent of fascism. Heinlein wrote this as a cautionary tale against militarism overshadowing democratic process while still being supportive of military action, but screenwriter Ed Neumeier and director Verhoven take a more satirical approach to this aspect of the story. The framing device of “Federation Network” broadcasts that play like old wartime newsreels display a deceptive wholesomeness which conceals an underlying message that one class of society is valued more than another by the government. Even the supposedly helpful prompts of “Would you like to know more?” seem just as much an opportunity to misinform and propagandize as they are an aspect of interactivity. There are all sorts of political and societal ramifications of this sort of structure and the particulars of those ramifications could spark some great debate. But the best part of the film is also something of a disappointment, in that there isn’t more said about it or done with it. A FedNet bit here, a few lines of dialogue there and it’s right back to the violence and tits.
Still, I’ve seen worse adaptations than Starship Troopers, and when it works, it works rather well. When I saw it as a younger man, I thought it was thrilling and exciting despite the fact that Heinlein’s power suits had proven too problematic for the special effects of the day. Then again, maybe that was due to seeing Dina Meyer shirtless (not once, guys, but twice). Having watched it again with a more critical eye, I still enjoyed the majority of it, but some of its flaws are rather glaring, Denise Richards’ performance and the constant cuts back to her side of the story being the biggest two. But if you can get over that and forgive Verhoven his love of excessive gore – this is the man who brought us RoboCop, after all – Starship Troopers does manage to entertain. It does for movie watchers what Halo does for game players for better and for worse. It’s decently produced and nice to look at, but there’s aspects of it that keep it on the level of “average” and hold it back from being excellent. Being available on Netflix’s Instant service, you can watch it just about anywhere, but at over two hours and containing bare breasts and bloodshed aplenty, it’s not recommended for lunch break viewing at work.
Starship Troopers isn’t bad, in fact it’s pretty damn good in places, but overall it’s not that great either. Unless, of course, you’re a political conservative. If you are – and I have no idea why you’re reading this stuff if that’s the case – you are going to love this film. A future where political and military power are practically one and the same, and doctrine both at home and on the battlefield are determined by a select few who survive warfare and have mostly the interests of the military at heart? After watching this, I think quite a few conservative pundits in my country would have to consult their physicians because they’d suddenly be unable to get rid of their erections.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.
February 12, 2010 at 1:55 pm
I’d have to agree with you on this, it’s certainly not as deep or substantial as the novel. However, as a fan of Verhoven’s work (not Basic Instinct, dear god no.) I certainly couldn’t call it a bad, or even average film. It’s certainly not smart, or subtle, or consistent, but as ‘Shut off brain’ films go, it’s one of the best.
It’s very entertaining, even in the most dire of its scenes, it remains interesting enough to carry you on to the next great scene.
Which is waaaaaay more than can be said for its sequels, sadly.
February 12, 2010 at 1:58 pm
Like I said, it works well when it works, and to be honest it does work more often than not. It’s by no means what I’d consider a ‘bad’ movie, but it’s no District 9 or Aliens or Serenity either.
And it’s about time you got here, if you don’t mind me saying. 😉 Welcome!
February 12, 2010 at 6:59 pm
I like the film, even though it’s nothing like the novel. The movie reminds me a lot of Space: Above and Beyond, which was a very underrated show in my opinion.