Loosely adapted from the wildly creative 1959 novel by Robert A. Heinlein, director Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (1997) is a visual effects feast that relies heavily on the rudimentary sex appeal of its youthful cast, some tasteless humour, and, a super race of digitally composited bugs (think giant mosquitoes and praying mantises) to first shock, then gross out, and finally anesthetise its audience.
From a purely visual standpoint, the film is a curious futuristic revision of Nazi Germany; where government enforced military service equates to becoming a citizen of the republic. Intellectually, the film is light years off of Heinlein's anti-communist manifesto and social themes that critique and deconstruct democracy.
On the whole, Edward Neumeier's screenplay is a success - given that he completely jettisons the finer points of the novel in favour of all out carnage that renders most of the performers a Ginsu-ed mess by the final fade out. Made for $105 million, the film grossed a rather lugubrious $121 worldwide. Nevertheless, two lesser known sequels were subsequently released in the franchise to varying degrees of success.
The story begins in earnest, centered largely on the exploits of one Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien); a young military cadet who doesn't have the grades like his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) to escape the fate of mobile infantry. Carmen and Rico's best friend, psychic Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) have enlisted in the armed forces to become citizens - a bizarre political subtext; part Roman/part Nazi themed in its intent. But Rico's reason for joining is only to be near Carmen. Big mistake! For Carmen and Rico are parted soon after being drafted.
It seems an interstellar war has broken out between humans and the Arachnoid species - affectionately hereafter referred to as 'the bugs'. Rico and the rest of the mobile infantry are ruthlessly put through drills by Career Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown) - a heartless and unforgiving task master. The one ray of light in this otherwise gloomy venture for Rico is being unexpectedly reunited with former classmate, Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), who harbours a huge crush on Rico that is far more sustaining and loyal than Carmen's fleeting attachment, currently focused on her rival pilot Zander (Patrick Muldoon).
After Rico is flogged for a training accident he calls his parents in Buenos Aires to say that he is quitting the army. Unhappy chance for all that at that exact moment Buenos Aires is crushed beneath a cataclysmic asteroid the bugs have sent to earth as part of their plan to eradicate humanity from the universe. Rico stays put and under the Federation's command invades the bug occupied planet of Klendathu - a surface to space assault that ends in total disaster. Believing that Rico has died in the latest bug attack, Carmen proceeds full throttle with her relationship with Zander.
Meanwhile, under Lieutenant Jean Rasczak's (Michael Ironside) command, Rico, Diz' and fellow squad member, Ace (Jake Busey) proceed on a mission to Planet P where they discover the entire human garrison wiped out by yet another infestation of bug warriors - these, with razor sharp pincers that take great pleasure in decapitating their human prey. Amidst the struggle to stay alive, Diz' confesses her true feelings to Rico and the two become lovers. Shortly thereafter, Diz' is killed during another bug attack.
Meanwhile Carmen learns that Rico is still very much alive. Carl, who has become a central commander in military intelligence, proposes that the mobile infantry attempt to locate 'the brain bug' responsible for orchestrating the bug attacks. Carmen and Zander's air ship is hit by Arachnoid fire and the two are taken hostage into the brain bug's lair where Zander's brain is sucked from his skull. Rico and Carl arrive in the nick of time to save Carmen from a similar fate and the brain bug is taken captive - presumably ending the war between bugs and humans.
Starship Troopers is hardly perfect entertainment. The story moves like gangbusters, but the emotional interplay between characters is barren at best. Director Verhoeven significantly ramps up acceptable levels of screen violence with this movie - arguably creating some of the most tasteless carnage glimpsed on the big screen. Dismembering and disembowelling aside, the film treats such blood lust as rather par for the course as the narrative progresses with pithy one liners thrown in, presumably to diffuse the graveness of the scene with ill timed comedy. Regrettably, much of the film plays more as a big budget homage to B-slashers than an A-list sci-fi action/adventure.
And then, of course, there is the whole Nazi-influenced pageantry of military spectacle to behold, curiously goose-stepping in perfect time with the U.S. ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In Heinlein's novel the military faction is anti-communist. There is no mention of fascism per say or direct appraisal of the former Reich. Yet, Verhoeven's visuals are all about resurrecting that Hitlerian spectre.
The comparisons go far beyond simple costuming (Neil Patrick Harris' storm-trooper-esque trench and cap as he rises through the ranks to become a commanding officer) or the way military parades shown in recruitment videos are hauntingly reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl's documented film chronicles of the Nuremburg rallies in Triumph of The Will. In fact, the whole subtext of the film seems to draw more than a friendly parallel between U.S. military might and Hitler's armed blitzkreig to carry this bizarre morality parable into some strange and alternative dimension that may or may not be flattering.
In the final analysis, Starship Troopers is remedial entertainment at best. It's gaudy sci-fi patina is more glossy perhaps, but its narrative pitfalls too great a chasm to be effectively bridged by mere special effects.
Sony Home Entertainment's Blu-Ray disc bests its DVD offerings but not by as much as one might expect. The image is bright and razor sharp with eye popping, brilliant colors. Not much more to say, except that from a visual standpoint the movie is even more astonishing than this reviewer recalls. Sonically too, the 7.1 lossless mix is aggressive. Extras include a veritable archive of new extra features married to virtually all of the extensive content that was already available on Sony's standard DVD collector's set release.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)