STARSHIP TROOPERS: UHD 4K Blu-ray (TriStar, 1997) Sony Home Entertainment
It has been twenty years since director, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997) hit theater screens with all its blood and bug splatter. Those suffering from entomo- or acaro-phobia would do best to steer clear of this grotesque and salaciously dark-humored probe into the farthest reaches of navel-gazing outer space. Verhoeven’s métier appears to be of the ‘T’ and ‘A’ slasher ilk; tossing nearly all of his taut young stars and other supporting players into the scissor-legged gristmill of gigantic insects, possessing the wherewithal and venom to launch a full scale attack on mankind from their distant netherworld of Klendathu. Disembowelment and decapitation are the norm here – also, a little bit of zombie-esque brain suckage. Suffice it to say, Starship Troopers is not for the faint-hearted or easily grossed out. Would you like to know more? Verhoeven’s intergalactic saga gets distilled into a really simplistic blood feud between the Arachnids (bugs) and a bunch of war-mongering yahoos. The ending is as inarticulate as it is inane; the military debunking the bug’s central intelligence employing a primitive bit of mind-reading conducted by Col. Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris as a Doogie Howser-ish clairvoyant). Harris looks rather idiotically adolescent in faux fascistic garb. As one probee of the mobile infantry points out earlier, “Okay, so they grow ‘em big and dumb…” and not just on the farm! Would you like to know more?
Personally, I would not want to place my finger anywhere near the public’s integrity when rating great movie art these days for fear of contracting a communicable lack of discernment, surely to infect and cripple my intellect. Starship Troopers is a fairly moronic tale at best. That said, it is also colorful, glossy, slickly put together and thoroughly mindless: a sci-fi actioner designed to anesthetize the senses with its mind-numbing array of special effects. Verhoeven tosses every last bit of loose-stooled barbarism at the screen, mostly to see what will cling, then flush virtually all good taste and common sense out the porthole into deep space. Interrupting his action with rudimentary bits of dialogue and surreptitious, if wholly fictional ads promoting a totalitarian dictatorship, where military service guarantees citizenship, Starship Troopers plays like one big commercial for recruitment into the Armed Forces, herein populated by clean-cut youth, traded their Hitlerian brown shirts for a little finer weave of SS Nazi grey. Would you like to know more? It’s the terminally repeated query Verhoeven proposes, but never entirely answers; instead, content to force-feed the audience a steady diet of claustrophobia and carnage as the bug colony gains the upper hand, stabbing, severing and slicing into fresh and juicy human flesh with sadomasochistic aplomb.
If you haven’t already guessed it, my regard for Starship Troopers borders on flushing disgust. Well no one can deny the picture is skillful assembled, its total disregard for nudity and numb skulls is about on par with Verhoeven’s convoluted retread on the tired ole cliché, ‘War is Hell.’ The only good bug is a dead bug…so we are told. This message gets hammered home with zero subtlety as we witness a bunch of gleeful moppets stamping the guts of roaches into the hot summer cement while their ebullient mother looks on with giddy admiration: the omnipotent announcer suggesting, “Everyone is doing their part” to eradicate ‘bug culture’ from the earth and its neighboring galaxies. It would be so easy – too easy, in fact – to condemn Starship Troopers as an outright waste of time, despite its immediate popularity and enduring cult status, spawning a minor cottage industry in straight-to-video sequels with diminishing returns. But Verhoeven has endeavored to give us too much to think about here; reflections on a world gone nuts and a society teetering on the verge of another self-inflicting gag. Starship Troopers is not a movie you will want to revisit again and again, and yet it remains a picture that lingers in contemplation inside the memory long after the house lights have come up – mostly, for its deeply disturbing, rather than just plain ‘deep’ story elements. Verhoeven presents us with an embattled human civilization whose greatest threat from beyond ought to be dealt a gigantic nuclear bomb blast of Raid. Alas, it is mankind’s navel-gazing patriotism that is the real threat at large; our ability to buy into the state-sanctioned Kool-Aid with little to no regard for the ramifications later to taint and corrupt this ‘perfect world’.
Written by Edward Neumeier, the premise for Starship Troopers originally derived from a totally unrelated script, ‘Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine’. At some point the executive decision was made to license the name Starship Troopers from the novel by Robert A. Heinlein; Verhoeven tossing out the book’s entire premise as being ‘boring’ and ‘too right-wing’. As the resultant movie has nothing to do with Heinlein’s book, the story taking shape under Neumeier’s creative nincompoopery follows a comely soldier named Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his assorted misadventures in the Mobile Infantry. Rico’s soldierly vocation is not without its stumbling blocks. For starters, his affluent mum (Lenore Kasdorf) and dad (Christopher Curry) do not support him in this endeavor. But what do they know? Their son is in love with the waspish, Lt./Capt. Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards). She, alas quickly recognizes the studly Rico is neither of her class nor intellectual equal (snobby bitch!), having made pilot and already set her cap for the dashing and cocky Lt. Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon). So Rico has joined the army for nothing. Disheartened, he takes comfort in progressing from new recruit to non-commissioned officer; his rank momentarily stripped after his direct command during a routine training exercise results in an unexpected fatality. Whoops! Don’t forget to wear your helmet. Would you like to know more? Rico’s classmate, Col. Carl Jenkins is too self-involved in his telepathic muddles to care. But his superior, Lt. Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside) is forced to bust Rico’s rank and then his balls in order to get the disheartened lad back on track and into shape for the latest interstellar assault on the insectoid species.
The rest of Starship Troopers is mostly an equilibrium-offsetting/stomach churning exercise in crude black humor and projectile vomit inducing special effects (yes, we even get to witness one of our protagonists barf into the camera – yummy!). It all leaves very little to the imagination. I mean, human heads, arms and legs are cleaved from their torsos with anesthetizing repetition; brains syphoned through furry and slime-covered feeding tubes pierced through the skull. I do not know how much #9 Red Dye there is in Hollywood. But Verhoeven must have depleted a good deal of its reserves in 1997 to make this picture; the butchery and bloodshed throughout Starship Troopers reaching levels to make even the most homicidal among us strive for clemency. It all goes well beyond proving a point – if, indeed, there is any point beyond the obvious to be made. In hindsight, it’s not surprising Starship Troopers received generally negative reviews from the critics twenty years ago; most, since having lost their minds with retracted praise for the picture.
Shot mostly against a green screen and the badlands of Hell's Half Acre in Natrona County, Wyoming Starship Troopers is, at times, visually arresting; its rather pristine and completely in-focus battle sequences colorfully purposed (blood red against tan pulverized rock formations photographs so well) and expertly executed by Verhoeven with a former U.S. Marine, Dale Dye acting as technical military advisor. After both Mark Wahlberg and James Marsden turned down the part of Johnny Rico, Verhoeven cast Casper Van Dien as his star. Van Dien’s career, already prolific in minor supporting roles scattered throughout television, movies and video games, has never achieved the notoriety afforded other ‘stars’ of his generation, despite possessing an unbearably rugged handsomeness married to an impossibly chiseled square jaw: the hallmarks of a true action star in the post-Arnold Schwarzenegger era. Now age 48, it seems highly unlikely Van Dien will ever rise like cream to the top of his profession. Starship Troopers is not his finest effort anyway. In fact, Van Dien herein toggles between blunt adolescence and fairly pedestrian reaction shots; his cringe-worthy declaration to his parents, “Don’t talk about Carmen that way!” when they clearly recognize the girl is a tease, wholly responsible for blind-siding their boy into joining the army, is supposed to be Van Dien’s “nobody puts Baby in a corner” moment. It might have played out better with a Patrick Swayze at the helm. Yet, Van Dien lends this moment neither the ballast of true conviction in the words he speaks nor on any level of authoritative male machismo he disquietingly lacks.
Verhoeven’s passion for the project stems from his basic desire to debunk the novel’s more zealous support of a militarist state. Starship Troopers is, in fact, Verhoeven’s satire of this notion; the director relishing in over-the-top nationalism, and grandiloquence for ‘the perfect’ fascist state – clean, shiny and full of blindly obeying sheep, intensely xenophobic and motivated by state-sanctioned propaganda. Indeed, Starship Trooper’s opening - a ‘commercial’ for the Mobile Infantry – is practically a shot-for-shot recreation of a scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). References to Nazism are everywhere, from the German-esque liveries and crests worn by field marshals to the Albert Speer-styled architecture that permeates Allan Cameron’s production design and Bruce Robert Hill/Steven Wolff’s art direction. Verhoeven has also deleted all references to the powered armor technology described in Heinlein’s novel. Instead, the protective equipment worn by the mobile infantry in Starship Troopers is slavishly devoted to those time-honored precepts of hand-to-hand combat; modified Uzis in place of intergalactic cruisers; the latter, large, lumbering and rather unceremoniously annihilated from afar by the bugs without actually firing a single shot in retaliation as their ships split apart and take their nosedives into outer space.
Verhoeven directed the nude co-ed shower scene ‘au naturel’ at the quid pro quo behest of his cast. He also took to heart reactions from a test audience, tweaking scenes implying Carmen was genuinely torn in her love for Rico and Zander. But Verhoeven dug in his heels regarding Carmen’s betrayal of Rico. Commercially, this may have hurt the movie, as female audiences in particular then, and many more today still believe Carmen ought to have died instead of Pvt. Isabelle ‘Dizzy’ Flores (Dina Meyer’s faithful as a bird dog love interest for Rico, unceremoniously cut down in her prime during a penultimate bug assault). Upon its release, Starship Troopers was readily panned by the sacred cows of film review; Janet Maslin, Jeff Vice and Roger Ebert among the pundits justifiably adverse to its ‘wooden acting’ and ‘excessive’ and seemingly mindless ‘gore’. And yet, despite its deficiencies, and taken with more than a few granules of the proverbial ‘salt’, Starship Troopers is an above average ‘entertainment’; despite Verhoeven’s warped sense of humor and smite against the military/industrial complex, American foreign policy jingoism, and blunt force arrogance to cast the decidedly Caucasian ‘Casper’ as his Rico (in Heinlein’s novel, a Filipino).
Starship Troopers is set in the 23rd century; humanity, a space-faring civilization embattled in its farthest regions by an insectoid species owing far more to those radioactive creatures from the fifties ilk in sci-fi classics than, say, Ridley Scott’s Alien. The ‘bug’ threat derives from a distant world, Klendathu. Meanwhile, on earth Johnny Rico is reluctantly preparing to enlist in the army. He’s hardly a model student, with under-performing math skills that pretty much guarantee he will enter service as nothing more established than a foot soldier. Rico’s gal/pal, Carmen Ibanez is not about to let a little thing like grade point average interfere in their platonic romance; that is, until her smarts land her a lucrative post as flight commander, opposite cocky hotshot pilot, Zander Barcalow. Blinded by his naïve love for Carmen, Rico cannot see his fellow student, Isabelle ‘Diz’ Flores carrying the proverbial torch for him. Indeed, she wants Rico – bad. Meanwhile, fellow classmate, Carl Jenkins is seconded to military intelligence for his psychic abilities. Pretty boy Rico ought to have enrolled in Harvard. Instead, he walks out on his affluent lifestyle to become a grunt in the army where he befriends fellow enlistees, Ace Levy (Jake Busey), Sugar Watkins (Seth Gilliam) and Breckinridge (Eric Bruskotter). Forthright and tough as nails, Diz pursues Rico on her terms, eventually wearing him down – and possibly out – for a little badinage in the barracks.
The training camp’s officer, Career Sgt. Zim (Clancy Brown) admires Rico’s initiative. Appointed squad leader after showing guts above and beyond the average recruit, Rico fumbles this promotion when, during a live-fire training exercise his inspection of Breckinridge’s helmet causes the new recruit his life. Redeemed from a court martial by Zim, Rico is nevertheless stripped of his rank and publicly flogged as punishment. Alas, fate steps in; Rico’s resignation and desire to return home is thwarted by an asteroid attack on Buenos Aires; his parents – along with millions more – obliterated in a moment’s notice. With nothing left to him but honor, Rico redoubles his efforts to prove his merit as a good soldier as the mobile infantry is deployed to Klendathu for all-out war. Due to a lack of reconnaissance, the mission proves a total disaster. Rico is severely wounded but mistakenly classified KIA. Upon his recovery, Rico, along with Ace and Diz, is reassigned to the Roughnecks, an elite unit commanded by Lt. Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside). As Rasczak, Rico’s former high-school teacher, always had an affinity for the boy’s amazing skills as a footballer, Rico is eventually promoted to Corporal after destroying one of the tanker bugs during a subsequent assault mission.
Responding to a distress call from a remote outpost, the Roughnecks are intercepted by the Arachnids. Rasczak is killed and Rico, now Acting Sergeant, orders the evacuation of all surviving personnel. Regrettably, Diz is mortally wounded in this exodus and dies in Rico’s arms a short while later. Carl, now a high-ranking intelligence officer, reveals to the surviving members of the battalion he believes a ‘brain bug’ is responsible for the Arachnid’s gaining insight into their battle strategies. The Roughnecks embark upon their final mission, to capture this elusive ‘bug’ nobody has ever seen. Hovering over the planetoid, Carmen and Zander’s star cruiser is decimated, forcing the pair to use one of the ship’s escape pods and crash land to relative safety on the ground far below. The couple are intercepted by the Arachnids and detained until the brain bug’s arrival. The massive slug uses its proboscis to pierce Zander's skull and eat his brain. Attempting to do as much to Carmen, she instead uses a serrated knife to slice off its antenna. Rico and his men arrive, threatening the bugs with a nuclear device. In the ensuing escape fellow roughneck, Watkins sacrifices his life, detonating the bomb and sealing off the tunnel, thus allowing Rico and Carmen their escape. A short while later, the brain bug is captured and Carl, placing his hand on its face, deduces the Arachnid threat has been neutralized for the time being because the brain bug is ‘scared’. Starship Troopers concludes with a commercial, Carmen, Ace, and Rico all promoting the Federation’s Armed Forces to the next generation of new recruits. Would you like to know more?
Frankly, no! I have had enough of Starship Troopers to last me a lifetime. But for those who wish to know more, as with everything Sony does, this new UHD 4K Blu-ray release looks and sounds colossal. Virtually every aspect of this visual/aural presentation benefits: eye-popping colors, superb image stability and minute definition exposed to the nth degree. Wow and thank you, Mr. Grover Crisp. I had worried at least some of these visual effects might have either dated or revealed their ‘green screen’ origins under the scrutiny of a vastly higher image resolution. Not so. This is a wonderful effort with impressive grain looking indigenous to its source. A few shots appear slightly more softly focused. Otherwise, fine detail is astonishing: right down to fine hairs follicles and a noticeable scar on Casper Van Dien’s chin. The HDR graded color is exceptional. Flesh tones are realistic and outer space sequences benefit from inky black levels. The new Dolby Atmos 7.1 audio features directionalized SFX ricocheting all over the sound field, capturing the chaos of battle and riveting rifle fire in all its resplendent cacophony of nuanced noise. Starship Troopers audio is, in fact, one of the more impressive renderings of a ‘vintage’ catalog release.
Two bonuses are included on the 4K disc – a pair of audio commentaries: the first with Paul Verhoeven and the cast; the second featuring Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier. The package also includes the movie on standard 1080p Blu-ray. As such, we also get the plethora of goodies previously released from Sony’s 2-disc deluxe DVD presentation. A couple of noted absences: no isolated score and no galleries devoted to concept art. As recompense, we get an interactive Recruitment Test trivia challenge, a picture-in-picture viewing mode, a Blu-Wizard and custom play option; plus, behind the scenes featurettes covering virtually every aspect of the movie’s production from top to bottom. Bottom line: Starship Troopers is fairly silly and made with a rank disregard for either the niceties or subtleties in film-making. What was dumb, idiotic, repulsive, and, occasionally, frightening is still dumb, idiotic, repulsive and occasionally frightening. Verhoeven’s gross out efforts are fairly crude. But he makes his point about the futility of living in a society where the moral good is judged on a yahoo’s ability to throw caution to the wind with nihilism propped up to fear life more than death. Bottom line: this is a highly recommended 4K reference quality disc from Sony of a movie otherwise unworthy of such luxury. Now, can we please get Sony to give us 4K releases of movies like The Mirror Has Two Faces, The Prince of Tides, Tootsie, Places in the Heart, Steel Magnolias, The Guns of Navarone, The Caine Mutiny, Lawrence of Arabia, A Man for All Seasons, St. Elmo’s Fire, Peggy Sue Got Married, Against All Odds, Narrow Margin, Bugsy, Legends of the Fall, A League of Their Own, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Seven Years in Tibet, The Age of Innocence, The Remains of the Day, Sense and Sensibility. There is certainly no shortage of takers here.
MOVIE RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)