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Starship Troopers (1997)

How Could You Not See It?

Somehow, I'd avoided seeing Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers until yesterday.  When the movie came out fourteen years ago, I assumed it was a big, dumb pile of sci-fi trash--Aliens for the WB crowd. Indeed, there's a lot of fluff here that I probably wouldn't have appreciated at the time; now that we're at war, however, the film takes on a chilling new context that I doubt I'll be able to shake.

In the distant future, Earth finds itself battling several races of gigantic bugs from deep space. Their spawn arrive buried in waves of giant asteroids that invade our solar system, and it's up to the ultra-fascist planetary entity known as The Federation to keep the planet safe.  Starship Troopers tells the story of three best friends who enlist after high school.  Carmen (Denise Richards) wants to pilot starships.  Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) is an amateur psychic who dreams of communicating with the bugs in order to squash them.  Johnny (Casper Van Dien) wants nothing to do with war, but follows Carmen into service because he's madly in love.

Turns out, Johnny's a natural-born leader; his sharpshooting, determination and strict adherence to orders propel him up the ranks--which is fortunate because A) Carmen breaks up with him to pursue her career and a relationship with her steamy commanding officer, Zander (Patrick Muldoon), and B) a rogue asteroid slips past the orbital perimeter and destroys Johnny's home city of Buenos Aires, prompting an invasion of the bugs' home world.

Like Full Metal Jacket, the film is divided into two distinct parts: The kids' rigorous training and adaptation to military life, and their disillusionment in combat.  What makes Starship Troopers unique is Verhoeven and screenwriter Edward Neumeier's satirical look at the military/industrial complex.  The movie is peppered with recruitment commercials and Internet pop-ups inviting the audience to learn salacious details about the bugs' abilities and carnage; as well as messages of empowerment enjoyed only by Federation enlistees. As the plot unravels, it becomes obvious that the reason service is so highly regarded is that the powers that be have no real plan to combat their enemy, and have resorted to literally throwing bodies at the problem.

The story's genius lies primarily in its lack of a mustache-twirling evil boss or committee.  For the most part, the highest-ranking people we meet are still middle-managers carrying out the bizarre orders of people several rungs up.  This allows us to discover the ineptitude and deviousness of the organization as the soldiers and pilots do--which often happens while being swarmed by creatures they're ill-equipped and under-trained to fight.

But what makes Starship Troopers special is the characters' lack of big-picture awareness.  Despite being ambushed, decimated and lied to, Johnny, Carmen, and their fellow combatants continue to buy the Federation's official line.  Even when Carl shows up towards the end dressed head-to-toe as a space Nazi, everyone is more than happy to follow along with his plan to wipe out what can barely be called a sentient species.  This is the first sci-fi movie I can recall whose climactic human victory and subsequent celebration sickened me.

There's no way Verhoeven and company could have known that they were making a prescient piece of new-century propaganda, but Starship Troopers presages the war on terror and its accompanying voluntary relinquishing of freedoms and military fetishism with brutal accuracy.  I haven't read the Robert A. Heinlein book on which Neumeier based his script, but I can see why the director of Robocop would latch onto it.  The two films could easily occupy different points on the same universe's timeline, with the OCP-dominated Detroit police force acting as the prototype for the Federation's worldwide model.  The key difference, of course, is that in the good old days of Officer Murphy, there were dissident elements inside the organization willing to stand up for decency.

I don't think Starship Troopers would have been as effective were it not for Van Dien and Richards' utterly blank, charisma-free performances.  I'm not that familiar with the actors' other work, so I can't say if the dead-behind-the-eyes delivery was an acting choice or just standard operating procedure--I do know that they fit the story's needs to a "T".  They're the same kind of young dupes we saw in Reefer Madness, relying on Big Brother to tell them what to think.  Even after they've had holes blown in them and lost several friends to awesome strategic blunders, there's still an aw-shucks, all-American kid quality to them that's more Saved by the Bell than Saving Private Ryan.

Even if the film wasn't a fascinating political allegory, it would still be a thrilling piece of science fiction.  Verhoeven knows how to stage a hell of a battle scene, and is so willing to sacrifice members of his main cast that each skirmish carries with it the potential for surprise.  The bugs eviscerate Federation soldiers with whipping claws and massive beaks; some of them are building-sized, fire-breathing sand beetles; some of them, we discover, have wings.  And the Federation soldiers prove little match for them, firing bulky machine guns and small nuclear warheads.  All of the home world skirmishes descend into chaos, no matter how much more prepared the invading armies consider themselves to be.

I just considered something that, if true, could put an even darker spin on the material.  Late in the film, Carl reveals that the reason the bugs are so unbeatable is because they're protecting a "brain bug", an intelligent beast that can not only strategise, but also psychically communicate with every other bug on the planet and surrounding systems.  Carl deploys hundreds of thousands of troops to capture the leader, resulting in more heroism, casualties, and advancement for the science division.

What I didn't realize is that the audience is given no proof of the aliens' mastermind capabilities.  Sure, a number of the bugs' victims have their brains sucked out, and the lower order treat the pulsating master slug with as much reverence as roach-like creatures can muster; but it's unclear whether Carl is right about their intelligence, or if he's simply using circumstantial evidence to bolster the Federation's case for prolonging the war and exterminating "anything with more than two legs".  Until the Buenos Aires attack, the Federation took more of a defensive posture, but the event is used as an excuse for the brass to pursue their cloudy agenda in the name of liberty and survival.

I can't recommend this film enough.  Starship Troopers works well as a distraction for people who just want to see hot actors blow up CGI monsters with cool weapons; but it's also an eerie look at unchecked power and unquestioned patriotism.

Note: For fans of Saved by the Bell, you may recognize Patrick Muldoon as the guy who played "Jeff" on the show.  He was the sleazy college guy who broke up Zack and Kelly; he's essentially the same character here, but with a few hundred more shades of gray.

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