Starship Troopers (1997)

D: Paul Verhoeven
S: Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards

Twenty years after the release of Star Wars, the empire has finally struck back and won. The new age peace and love techno-mystic left wingers of the flower power movie brats triumphant in the Star Wars trilogy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. are gone. Now its a neo-nazi Aryan utopia of state servitude where citizenship is only awarded to those whose loyalty to the state is proven, giving them voting privileges denied the commonplace civilians they serve and protect with the utmost seriousness and self-sacrifice. Square jawed All-Federation high schooler Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) longs to impress the beautiful girl next door with the bedroom eyes and the no-touch body (Denise Richards) by joining the army. Meanwhile long-neglected starry-eyed Dizzy (Dina Meyer) watches from the wings in the vain hope her handsome hunk dreamboat will pay her some attention, finally joining up too in desperation. But then the games become serious when the earth is bombarded by evil alien insects out to colonise the planet by hurling asteroids from the other side of the galaxy, and the buddies get drawn into a conflict where 'death from above' is their motto and their gruesome reality. Only the total annihilation of the enemy will end the war and protect the federation. This may involve the sacrifice of the lives of some of our heroes, but dammit, someone has to take a stand and show this alien slime that we mean business: and anyway, the State survives.

Is this a parody? If it is, it is incredibly subtle. Is it ironic? If so, how do we know? Are we supposed to laugh at it or with it? It's such a straight-faced old-fashioned super hyphenated Hollywood blockbuster that it is difficult to see where the gaps are for a sigh of relief. Or maybe we should be nodding in firm agreement, buying in to its philosophy? Scary thought; either way.

The more I think about Starship Troopers, the more I dislike it. This is probably why, when it's on, director Paul Verhoeven has not given much opportunity for thought. It's a fast-paced slam-bang sci-fi actioner in the vein of some of the great gung-ho WWII movies made fifty years ago without a glimmer of self-consciousness or a moment of apologetic pacifism. Not that there's anything wrong with that as such. There is great pleasure to be had from the likes of The Sands of Iwo Jima, and everyone likes to have their buttons pushed on the most basic level now and then.

Films whose moral philosophy runs contrary to popular opinion have as much right to exist as those which don't; and we are equally free to despise them. The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind were outrageously racist films, but each was a masterpiece in its own right and within its own terms. Triumph of the Will is one of the greatest documentaries ever made, but it's an advertisement for the Nazi party. But it must give pause for thought that hardline intransigence remains the most pervasive answer to the challenges of millennial angst, both on the screen, and disturbingly, in life.

Hollywood films have, on the whole, not been very good when dealing with ambiguity. They have always fared best given defined parameters within which to operate, and, in the tradition of the stage melodrama or pantomime, have often given us their greatest pleasures by doling out American justice to evil, leering villains bearing the cinematic equivalent of black wax moustaches.

Starship Troopers, like Independence Day , Star Trek: First Contact and Mars Attacks! (the latter, albeit granted a clumsy parody) forms a significant subsection of end of millennium science fiction parables which reassert the genre's original fear of the unknown and encourage a swift, decisive counterattack as the solution. Unreasoning, irredeemable forces from beyond can only be defeated by harnessing the greatest strength humanity possesses: force (as high school teacher Michael Ironside explains to his class of dopey teenagers at the opening of the movie). To hell with reason. It is time for action. Let's blow something up and watch it burn..."I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

The curious thing about this is, on one hand, that Paul Verhoeven's previous science-fiction outings Robocop and Total Recall both displayed a more explicit irreverence and a more genuine humanity in the dilemmas of their central characters, and on the other that Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel upon which this film is nominally based was a Korean War allegory whose pre-Vietnam concern with the effects of military conflict on human society has led to it being regarded as a flagship for the genre's profundity.

Starship Troopers is anything but profound. It is resolutely vapid in a way that leads the viewer back again on the circuitous route to parody. Its characters are cartoonish cyphers, icons of culture and history which evoke the kind of simplistic identification which allows good Hollywood hokum to do its job. Its villains are truly heinous, computer generated beasties whose very species reminds us that if we decide to push the nuclear button on ourselves, that other creatures will inherit the earth and never care that we even existed (the scene of young children stomping on cockroaches in a television commercial reminds us of this fact half way through). It proceeds to document the life, loves and multiple lacerations of all and sundry, climaxing with the joyful discovery that after all the carnage and human sacrifice, the aliens are afraid of us. Damn, we're good!

The surface pleasures are undeniable. The film moves well and keeps the guts flying in a way which keeps you watching all the way, albeit lost in a semi-daze of uncertainty where you don't know quite whether or not you should be laughing when you are. Verhoeven is, if nothing else, able to mount an action scene, and even manages to deal well with the usual problem that computer-generated monsters look transparent and insubstantial no matter how good your optical effects are. It never gets boring, and even when the dialogue is at its most outrageously dumb, you accept it within the frames of reference given for this one-dimensional characters (indeed, only Dizzy's eventual profession of love for her Johnny raises a derisive howl).

But all the time it teeters on the edge of becoming downright silly, and for many people it probably will topple over long before the final credits roll. But if you are willing to allow it to go about its business and take it as it comes, you may well find yourself enjoying it.

Of course it's all a matter of taste, and it is difficult to know just to whose taste the film truly is. But I feel uncomfortable with the idea that so rigidly self-contained a spectacle is somehow a parody of itself, and equally so with the idea that it's some kind of neo-nazi propaganda. Perhaps, like other politically controversial films like The Devil's Own and From Dusk Till Dawn, Starship Troopers highlights the necessity for an active, questioning mind on the part of the film viewer. It's never wise to completely unplug your critical faculties, though you can set them on sleep mode every once in a while.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.