After giving deleriously bullet drenched, 80’s face lifts to cyberpunk (Robocop, Total Recall), Paul Verhoeven’s third highly satirical, stunningly violent science fiction epic may just be his most relentlessly fun of all. Some might have found basing a big Hollywood movie on notoriously conservative Robert A. Heinlein’s controversial novel about a fascist future America going to war with giant murderous space bugs somewhat problematic but Verhoven, beautiful lunatic that he is, decided to grasp it with both hands and put it under the same satirical spotlight he honed for Robocop.
Thus the world was gifted with a gloriously insane, sci-fi, satirical joke that apparently no one on set but Verhoven was in on – how else can you possibly explain the sheer amount of Hollywood money spent on a movie where Neil Patrick Harris turns up in a Nazi uniform and prattles on about mounting a mission to catch a brain bug?
To quote the Fednet propaganda broadcasts: Would you like to know more?
It’s… THE FUTURE!, and earth is at war with the Arachnids, an assorted species of spikey giant insects who each sport a set of human splattering special skills and we join a televised invasion of as the humans wade into battle on a distant planet to righteously kick some buggy butt. However, things seriously don’t go as planned and thousands of jagged, stabby Warrior Bugs descend on the screaming troops to slice, chop and render them into bloody piles of leftover body parts. One such victim is Johnny Rico, a lantern-jawed idealist who is horrifically wounded and is left screaming into an abandoned camera as his exoskeletoned foe skitters toward him.
Rewind time back one year and we meet Johnny living a charmed life in Buenos Aires that feels suspiciously like a futuristic episode of Beverley Hills 90210. You see Johnny loves Carmen who isn’t sure she wants to settle down due to the fact that she wants to join the airforce (in this future, service guarantees citizenship: which means certain “luxuries” like being allowed to have babies and having the right to vote are yours), however pneumatic tomboy Dizzy loves Johnny who insists they can only be friends. Along with their friend Carl they all go to sign up (primarily so Johnny can impress Carmen) and all get different placing meaning that Johnny (hardly God’s gift to smarts) and his perfect bone structure gets sent to boot camp for the mobile infantry. Joined by Dizzy he makes new friends – who all regularly are hideously injured by their take-no-shit drill instructor Sergeant Zim – but after getting dumped by Carmen via video message and a tragic accident during a live fire exercise, Rico is set to wash out. Stopping him is the fact that Buenos Aires and everyone he knows has been squashed flat by a meteor that had been blasted out of orbit towards earth by bugs looking to start a war. And so off to war they go, taking us right back to the opening scene but Johnny manages to survive and he and his remaining buddies join the Roughnecks, an elite bug stomping platoon who are immediately sent out on more missions but can he possibly survive many more encounters with ever more dangerous breeds of killer insects literally crawling out of the ground and amongst the carnage, will he ever manage to choose between Dizzy and Carmen?
On the surface Starship Troopers is gloriously fucking stupid. Of course it is – didn’t you just read the synopsis? Read it again! It’s ludicrous! And Paul Verhoven’s genius is this fantastic example of misdirection which allows the shifty director to plant vast unsubtle digs at fascist culture, the military complex and the American way of life in general. All the young cast are stunning examples of humanity, beautiful and nubile and virtually begging to have their perfect visages and toned bodies eviscerated by giant lava spitting beatles and skull hollowing smart bugs. To further add to the feeling that these kids lives are essentially worthless in the meat grinder that is the military machine, Verhoven has the kids give atrocious, 90’s TV, teen drama performances while the adults (a procession of burly, white male character actors like Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown and Marshall Bell) harshly bark their lines as if their lives depended on it. It’s tremendously camp and enormously entertaining but when the immaculately rendered CGI bugs turn up in force (with visual effects that still hold up as good now as they did in 1997) things blast into the stratosphere with a third act, Zulu-esque siege standing as good as any battle scene ever made.
Verhoven takes so many digs at our world with this fascist future he’s put on film you actually lose count, mocking the one sided news coverage you get during wartime (it’s actually us who are the invaders) and even sexism (EVERYONE is far more equal in this strictly regimented regime as evidenced by the banter filled mixed showers at boot camp).
Even Johnny’s arc isn’t as straight cut as it seems with him getting promoted seemingly because he’s standing in the vicinity of the previous superior officer before they’re evisterated/melted/eaten and he keeps surviving. He doesn’t even have anything new to add when he’s moved up the ranks, satisfied to repeat the same rousing lines to his troops word for word that his previous commanders did proving to be the perfect soldier in this future. One with an utter lack of imagination.
As I mentioned before, everything is played impressively straight (even such preposterous lines such as “the godamn bugs whacked us, Johnny.” and the Oscar worthy “They sucked his brains out!”) which again leads me to believe that Verhoven deliberately didn’t tell his youthful leads he was making a loopy, special effects laden satire.
Overwhelmingly ahead of it’s time (could you imagine it being released NOW!?) and finally embraced for it’s bold faced cheek it may not be as finely honed and deceptively intelligent as Robocop but it’s cut from the same cloth with the film being able to function simultaneously as a kickass space opera AND a spirited critique on warfare.
Top notch action, flawless special effects, deviously funny and spectacularly gory Starship Troopers is an underrated slab of sci-fi masterpiece. Don’t believe me? Go watch it again. Come you ape, you want to live forever?