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Starship Troopers (1997)

by on 2011/01/26

I own — but have never read — Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novel, Starship Troopers.  I came across it in a used book store at a good price, found it intriguing, and bought it to read . . . someday.

While that day has yet to come, in the interim I’ve seen Paul Verhoeven’s theatrical adaptation at least three or four times.  As immediately as my first viewing, and as recently as a day ago, its impact has never been lost on me.

Even on a less than visceral level, I fail to understand this effort’s polarized reception.  As with Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, could it have been better?  Possibly, though I can’t immediately think how.  Could it be misinterpreted?  Absolutely but, in a world where Tim Robbins fears to release a Bob Roberts soundtrack, anything is possible.

Starship Troopers tells the future-set story of Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), in his progress from student to officer.  An underachieving athlete, he enlists in the Federation’s Mobile Infantry.  He trains in boot camp and is sent on various missions in a war of vengeance against an alien race called the Bugs.

Throughout a loose framework, friends and enemies come and go, few of them static, always evolving.  Johnny’s friends include psychic Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), pilot Carmen (Denise Richards), and fellow “Roughneck” Diz (Dina Meyer).  Significant mentors are played by Clancy Brown (Highlander) and Michael Ironside (Smallville).  The shifting relations of various pairs and triangles succeed less for complexity than a palpable chemistry.

Edward Neumeier’s script serves the cast well, with provocative ideas, a sharp self-awareness, and irony.  On the surface, its sci-fi bug hunt appears dressed in conventional issues:  familial expectations, the struggle of heart and head, and the complications of long-distance love.

Dig deeper, however, and the war between duty and desire extends beyond the self into sociopolitical realms.  In Rico’s world, a two-tier system distinguishes honoured Citizens from ordinary civilians.  Whereas our veterans are commonly rewarded with mixed emotions, the military servants of this future enjoy privileges denied others:  children, financial grants, and voting.  Only “service guarantees citizenship”, military service, garbed in making “the safety of the human race their personal responsibility.”

The Fascist bearing of that military is so clear as to be nearly clumsy.  If the motivation, propaganda, and iconography haven’t given you pause by the time Gestapo “intelligence” appears, you may be watching the wrong movie.  Federation supporters espouse a violent approach to problem solving, and the idea of “live and let live” is spoken only once, and never seriously considered.

I disagree with charges that Starship Troopers glorifies combat, or that it endorses the very extremism it subverts.  The war is genuinely scary, crippling most of its participants in one way or another.  Discipline is maintained through fear and pain.  Soldiers panic, freeze or flee.  Promotions come readily, but only in the wake of near-constant deaths, 100,000 per hour by one account.  Casualties are heavy, and those pawns who fall suffer awfully.  The wounded beg for death, and the living acquiesce.

The film’s effectiveness is due in no small part to its visceral visual effects, as stunning today than they were upon original release.  Rarely did anything jump out as unconvincing to me.  In darkness and daylight alike, effects showed little artifice, despite my deliberate search for it.

On the ground, firefights strike a perfect balance between “ray guns” and traditional firearms, simultaneously fantastic and impactful.  Overhead, a climactic space battle crosses the tension of naval manoeuvres with the adrenal thrill of rogue darts.  The proficient blend of such contrasts helps the piece as much overall as in its parts:  the familiar and futuristic, as intimidating as impressive.

For my money, Starship Troopers delivered long ago what Star Trek (2009) just recently promised:  an “academy” experience in a science fiction future.  If the two properties seem to occupy vastly different wings of the political spectrum, Troopers only does so in service to satire.  As much as I love Trek, this work is deeper.  With its interesting character dynamics and exemplary production values, the casual viewer could be forgiven for enjoying it too much.

And if the greatest complaint to be made is of its inferiority to the book, then I need to get on with my reading, because I think this film is brilliant.

* * * * *

Rated R/18A for gore, language, nudity, and violence

129 minutes

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