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August 2008

Starship Troopers

Bugs, bugs everywhere!

It’s unlikely that somebody like Paul Verhoeven will ever be welcomed in Hollywood again. He had an incredible hot streak in the late ’80s and early ’90s, firing off high-concept critical and commercial hits like Robocop and Total Recall. What really set his films apart, though, was a vicious sense of humor and unparalleled mastery of satire. It’s rare that mainstream American movies function on more than one level (if that), but Verhoeven’s years in Dutch avant garde cinema gave him a deep love of breaking genre conventions. Robocop simultaneously condemns and revels in the ultraviolence of action films, and his biggest hit, Basic Instinct, was tagged as misogynist and homophobic by humorless watchdog groups oblivious to its hilarious mockery of misogyny and homophobia.

The joke started wearing thin for audiences with 1995’s camp classic Showgirls (an oddly prescient skewering of celebrity devoid of talent in the age of Tila Tequila and Paris Hilton), and many completely misinterpreted his return to violent sci-fi action with Starship Troopers two years later. It’s hard to believe anyone took a movie that opens with a shot for shot reconstruction of the notorious propaganda film Triumph of the Will and features uniforms straight out of 1939 Berlin at face value, but most Americans like their cheese straight-faced, thank you very much, and Starship Troopers simply will not do! Luckily, the rest of us can enjoy it as intended, especially now that the new Blu-ray edition has the movie looking and sounding light years better than ever before.

Very loosely based on the novel by Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers is the story of Johnny Rico, a handsome young lad in a post-imperialist Buenos Aires where everyone has chiseled features and speaks English. His dream is to gain citizenship by serving in the military and fighting the current scourge of humanity: the evil Arachnids from the planet of Klendathu. Boot camp doesn’t go well, though, and he’s about to go home in disgrace when Buenos Aires is completely decimated by an Arachnid attack. His simple respect for his civic duty soon becomes a quest for bug blood, or as one character shouts before one of the nefarious creatures sucks out his brain (yeah, they do that), “One day someone like me is gonna kill you and your whole f***ing race!”

There are a lot of great unsubstantiated stories about the making of Starship Troopers, like how Neil Patrick Harris was the only cast member who was let in on the joke, or how the Heinlein novel was licensed well into the pre-production of the film and until then it was known by the Ed Wood-tastic working title Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine. But they’re just icing on the cake of a film that’s pretty much as fun and subversive as you’re likely to find. The action sequences are still spectacular years later, and are only improved by Verhoeven’s constant reminders of just how naughty and bloodthirsty we are for enjoying them.

Verhoeven wisely reevaluated his career after Starship Troopers, partly because of its mixed reception and partly because it took the particular brand of savage satire he’d been refining for the previous decade as far as it could possibly go. He dropped the humor with 2000’s Hollow Man and turned in an unpleasant and oddly pedestrian horror flick that proved just how special his previous work was, and recently went legit with the award-nominated noir thriller Black Book. But his rebellious stint in Hollywood hit-making stands as one of the bright spots of a largely dismal time in filmmaking, and Starship Troopers is its campy jewel.


  © copyright scott howard