8/24/11

Starship Troopers (1997): To Fight the Bugg, You Have to Understand the Bugg. (Would You Like To Know More?)

Not too long back I was discussing with Emily (she of The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense,) the merits of Paul Verhoeven. It was quickly and easily decided that the devastating Dutch director may not just be a great director, he may well be the greatest director of all time. Just look at the tale of the tape. Not counting his entire Norwegian output, he directed Flesh+Blood, Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers, and Black Book in a string of entertaining films  spanning from 1985 to 2006. In the past I've talked about Robocop, and over at The Bloodsprayer you can see my love letter to Showgirls. Today however, I want to turn my eye to a film that always makes me a bit uncomfortable. It's hard to sit there for two hours listening to people planning on how to eradicate bugs. It would be like Zoe Saldana watching Killing Zoe or Peter Dinklage watching Get Shorty. Unsettling. However, despite all that Verhoeven still manages to get me on the on his side, and by the time the credits roll even I'm ready to nuke some bugs.

Verhoeven and Robocop scribe Edward Neumeier based Starship Troopers on a book of the same name penned by author Robert Heinlein. Where Heinlein was known for his sensitive and innovative novels Stranger in a Strange Land, The Puppet Masters, and Job: A Comedy of Justice, Troopers has often been criticized for glorifying the military, fascism, and creating an irresponsible utopia built on straw-man arguments. Now, while I said based, what I actually meant is threw the book out the window, kept a list of characters, and carried on with business. Verhoeven was even quoted in American Cinematographer magazine as saying that he never finished the book as it was leaving him, "bored and depressed". Verhoeven's film does neither, but interestingly, many of the same arguments that have haunted Heinlein's book could be leveled at the film version as well... along with quite a few more I'm sure.


Starship Troopers stars Casper Van Dien as Johnny Rico. A rich kid graduates Buenos Aries high school drawn into service for the Federation when his girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards) and Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) decide to sign on as well. After all, it's peacetime and the Federation is a path to school, business, success in life, and most importantly citizenship. While the scholarly Carl gets signed on the the intelligence service and Carmen starts on a path to become a starship pilot, Johnny gets placed in the Mobile Infantry a.k.a The Roughnecks. Johnny excels at basic training, but when his actions result in the death of one of his squad, he's on the verge of washing out. The day he's about to leave, war breaks out when the bugs attack earth wiping several cities, including Buenos Aries off the map. After a disastrous first strike by the Federation which hugely underestimated the military might of the bugs, the forces regroup. Ricco, having received a battlefield commendation, becomes a leader on the field, and soon old friends Johnny, Carmen, and Carl are brought back together to fight the alien bug menace.

On the surface, Starship Troopers can easily be seen as a mindless action movie featuring questionable acting (Casper and Denise), incoherent themes (the military is bad and scary... well, except in the action scenes where it's cool and exciting), and sensational gross out moments (Brain Bug, I'm looking at you. Or on second thought, I'm not.) However, somewhere in the gobbledygook, there actually lies a slick, sharp, satirical edge fighting it's way to be heard over the gunfire. Many of them occur in the interstitial vignettes inspired by war propaganda films such as Why We Fight or Triumph of the Will. Their constant refrain after a "factoid" pertaining to the war effort, "Would You Like to Know More?", delivers a prescient echo in a time where politics, entertainment, and online information have become inexorably intertwined. In many ways, Troopers, this late nineties film, predicted the rabid jingoism and nationalism that directly followed 9/11 and the questionable conflicts stemming from it. The problem is, as I mentioned earlier, that the film can too easily be taken for face value or worse yet have its message entirely misconstrued. A person like the character played by Jake Busey in the film (I don't have to tell you what kind of character it is, I said Jake Busey.), could easily mistake Starship Troopers as a film that film that could fit on a Tea Party Member's approved watch list.

On a final personal note, let me talk a moment about how dumb some of the characters in Verhoeven's film are. Oh, those giant blue things coming up from the bug's planet are surely just lights. There's no way that they could be highly destructive weapons. (Apparently NPH was having a Harold and Kumar moment when it came to that intelligence.) Then there's Johnny. Your love triangle is between the future former Mrs. Charlie Sheen and a future member of Charlie's Angels? That, sir, is no choice at all. These are but a couple of the bad decisions that continue throughout the film, and if you're anything like me it will leave you yelling at the screen wondering who is giving the orders in this army and what kind of basic decision making skills are people in the future capable of making? In other words, an entirely enjoyable viewing experience.

In the beginning of this article, I named Verhoeven as the greatest director due to his large body of work, and I'm being a bit felicitous, though only a bit. Verhoeven has consistently made films that that have challenged the middle American idea of what a mainstream box office release could be, has been unafraid to take chances on theme and style, and follows an artistic vision no matter where it may take him. To me, those are three major qualities that a great director must have. To diminish Verhoeven because he works in genre films or with the classic cinema conventions of sex, violence, and sensationalism, is to disregard the most important quality that Verhoeven brings to his film, entertainment.  To push play on one of Paul's film results in spending your next two hours in a world where only the rules that the director allows need apply. People don't talk or act like people in Verhoeven's films? Who said they had to. I just wish they would be a little less vocal with all the bug hating.

Bugg Rating

9 comments:

  1. Hi Bug;

    First, I agree totally. The film is a satire. How do people miss this? It's pretty obvious. I mean, NPH is dressed like a Nazi, come on!

    Another interesting and clearly intended bit of satire is that the young characters are, essentially, the Riverdale gang from Archie Comics, right down to Dilton (Harris). Funny, funny stuff (though the John Saxon=Mr. Weatherbee analogy doesn't work that well).

    DLR

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  2. Whoops! I said John Saxon. I meant Michael Ironside. It's a Paxton-Pullman thing.

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  3. Verhoeven is the kind of director I think of when I think of people making daring films. It's easy, in my opinion, to shun the mainstream and make a film that's uber violent and shocking. Harder, though, is to get a film like Troopers or Robocop in front of a mainstream audience, planting all kinds of subversive ideas in their heads and have them eat it up like Wheaties.

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  4. Aaaah, a whonderful way to start my morning! Starship Troopers is easily one of my favorite movies of all time--I think it may officially land in 4th place, now that I think of it. I also can't believe people 'missed' the satire back in '97. I guess if you want to see a big dumb action movie, you can walk away thinking that's what you've seen. I still think casting those bland pretty people was intentional in itself, but I just feel like so many people didn't get the joke.

    I heartily recommend watching this one with the commentary track, which is both funny and highly informative. Verhoeven and the screenwriter do an awful lot of discussing how the film was received and it's fascinating, especially when they talk about Denise Richards' character and how they thought she would be a graet feminist touch and yet audiences just thought she was a slut.

    Also, check out the third one! It's directed by the original screenwriter and maintains a lot of the satire, this time pointing it towards religion.

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  5. I think everyone hates Ibanez because it's Denise Richards. Last time I watched it, it occurred to me that she did absolutely nothing wrong besides coming to the conclusion that there was no future for her and Rico. It's actually a pretty stand-up move on her part. The heart wants and all that shit.

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  6. Exactly! They discuss that in the commentary. In a lot of ways, Carmen is a way stronger woman than the obsessive Dizzy, but Dina Meyer is just SO much more likable than Denise Richards so you end up just DESPISING the character you're supposed to respect. I really do wonder how it would have played if the actresses were reversed.

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  7. It's a long standing rule; strong women are bitches. Dizzy was a stalker. As much as I fell in love with Dina Meyer in Troopers, that character was about as unhealthy as it gets.

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  8. First off, I want to say I am thrilled that Troopers got people talking!

    @DLR, In my mind that means you are David Lee Roth. That is stellar. Welcome Diamond Dave. I never thought about the Archie connection, but that's really interesting. I don't think people knew what to think really. This was a post Showgirls Verhoeven but a pre-rebirth NPH. Many people were like WTF, Doogie Houser is a Nazi??!?

    @James, you took the words right out of my brain when it comes to Paul.

    @Emily- I knew this would bring you joy.

    Now onto the Carmen vs. Dizzy debate. I don't really have a bad reaction to Carmen as a character, especially because I see Ricco as hollow and doofy, I can see her ditching him for the handsome flyboy. Denise is no great talent, but as Emily said, the actors were surely chosen to fulfill looks and attitudes more than ability.

    Is Dizzy a stalker? Maybe, perhaps that explains why I like her so much, that appeals to me. Hah. Anyhow, to me Carmen vs. Dizzy is like (in a truly hyperbolic fashion) Amelia Earhart vs. Ellen Ripley. No contest, the strong woman for me is the one on the ground with a rifle in her hands.

    Thanks everyone for the great comments!

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  9. Robbed!! Troopers deserves its rightful 5 bugs! Clearly you need to come to Austin for edumacation over a few cold Shiner Bocks.

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