Film Reviews

Big Bad Bugs

In Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, based on the late Robert Heinlein's 1959 sci-fi opus, the killer arachnids upstage the humans. Not that it's much of a contest, since the humans are all raging dullards. We've seen these young men and women with their square jaws and pert noses emoting their way through scores of Z-movie claptrap. What makes the claptrap in Starship Troopers so flabbergasting is that it's monumentally scaled. It takes a special kind of mania for a filmmaker to get so high on something so low.

In Verhoeven's films, it's not always easy to tell the facetious from the straight. As Showgirls demonstrated, he may not always know, either. The flat, comic-strip graphics and Dudley Do-Right acting in his new movie appear to be Pop, but Verhoeven doesn't push it. Too much sophistication would only rattle the multiplex mall rats.

This thinking is similar to what George Lucas must have had in mind when he made Star Wars. That film also had its Pop elements, but Lucas, like Verhoeven, understood that his young audience didn't want to feel "superior" to the mediocrity. Instead, they want their affection for mediocrity enshrined. It's a weird syndrome -- play down to your audience by playing up to them.

But at least Star Wars cooked up enough mythological hoo-ha to stuff a slew of sequels and prequels. Starship Troopers retains Heinlein's do-or-die, hyperauthoritarian "philosophy," but it's no "Force." We are presented with a futuristic world where "civilians" only become "citizens" by volunteering for Federal Service -- that is, war defense. It's a regimented world without dissidents, and it works. When Earth is attacked from space by the arachnids, the only wimpy half-protest comes from a journalist -- natch -- who thinks the bugs were provoked by our incursions into their territory.

In a way, there's something refreshing about Heinlein's military drill. A lot of sci-fi opts for a fuzzy-wuzzy humanitarianism, while Starship Troopers, both as book and movie, is almost comically martial. And the movie extends the war-making far beyond the book. Verhoeven stages a series of bug attacks that are so voluminously icky you can hardly believe your eyes. Spiky Tanker Bugs spew magma into the cosmos and slime the enemy. Warrior Bugs jab their pincers into earthling brains and suck them dry. The visual-effects whiz Phil Tippett (Robocop, Jurassic Park) is a highly skilled sadist; his concoctions aren't exactly pleasurable, but they sure are throat-grabbers. For pulp such as this, movies are an incomparable medium. Where else can you get to be so disgusting?

Verhoeven has cast his young troopers to be as un-buglike as possible. Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), high school sweethearts, have matching Dentyne smiles. Against the wishes of his "civilian" parents, Rico volunteers for Federal Service and becomes squad leader; Carmen joins up with the Fleet Academy and pilots interstellar attack ships.

Of course, not everything is hunky-dory, even before the bugs start hurling asteroids earthward: Rico screws up a war-games exercise and obligingly receives a public lashing; Carmen cozies up to her co-pilot (Patrick Muldoon) and sends Rico a Dear John video-letter. Dizzy (Dina Meyer), who volunteers for Rico's squadron in order to be close to her unrequited high-school heart-throb, ends up punched out by her sergeant (Clancy Brown). The warrior force is co-ed, you see, which means the reactionaries who made this film are at least egalitarian. Plus we get to see some co-ed showering. Leave it to Verhoeven to figure out a way to work some skin into even a big bug picture.

No doubt there are those who will point to thematic similarities between Starship Troopers and such Dutch Verhoeven films as Spetters and Soldier of Orange, which also deal with young bloods and the crackup of innocence. And no doubt some will take to heart the filmmaker's cautionary query: What price are you willing to pay for a well-ordered society?

But Verhoeven popped his cherry a long time ago -- the loss of innocence isn't what juices him anymore. And high-toned cautionary queries don't do it for him, either. That's just as well. The director of Total Recall and Robocop is an expert exterminator, and Starship Troopers gives him a wonderful opportunity to rack up the roaches. As somebody says in this film, "To fight the bug we must know the bug." He may not know much else at this point, but Verhoeven knows bugs.

Starship Troopers.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven. With Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards and Jake Busey.

Rated R.
129 minutes.

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Peter Rainer