Human culture and insect culture duel to the death in “Starship Troopers,” a spectacularly gung-ho sci-fi epic that delivers two hours of good, nasty fun. The scope and abundance of the special effects — from the countless and incredibly vivid marauding bugs to the plethora of agile aircraft of the Earth’s space fleet — may well surpass anything seen before, while the “just war” against an implacably hostile foe supplies plenty of rooting interest. The frequent violence has a grisliness that will put off some older viewers and may create a backlash against the picture in certain quarters, but sci-fi fans and younger general audiences always looking for the latest edge to be pushed will eat it up, creating strong B.O. worldwide for the first holiday blockbuster out of the box.
Putting “Showgirls” safely behind him, director Paul Verhoeven returns to the futuristic vein in which he excelled in “Total Recall” and especially “Robocop,” while adding a measure of teen romance into the bargain. Lavishly produced effort has the momentum, heavy action and all-for-one camaraderie of prototypical World War II battle films, but with an arrestingly high-tech, outer-space setting.
It is, in the end, a picture about teenagers and giant bugs, but one with enough visual exhilaration and narrative wit to keep one thoroughly on board.
Working from a long-celebrated (and very right-wing) novel by Robert A. Heinlein, “Robocop” co-scripter Ed Neumeier and Verhoeven start off with a teaser TV transmission from the distant planet of Klendathu, where a military emergency has developed in the worldwide Federal government army’s battle with the resident arthropods. Just enough gruesome fighting is revealed to cement the promise of much more to come.
Flashing back a year, attention alights upon several good-looking high school seniors in the process of deciding what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives. Expected to go to college, rich boy Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is disowned by his father when he abruptly enlists in the Mobile Infantry, a decision prompted by the fact that his girlfriend, Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), is heading for the Fleet Academy to become a pilot.
While Carmen is off in training school becoming chummy with instructor Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon), Johnny finds himself in basic training with the sultry, ultra-fit Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), a former schoolmate who has the permanent hots for him.
Opening reels have the flavor of a pleasantly corny old-fashioned adolescent melodrama, full of hopping hormones, unrequited lust and sexual rivalry, shot through with a tangy taste reminiscent of Verhoeven’s “Spetters” and toughened up with some boot camp brutality.
Even in the early going, some interesting political layering is introduced. At this unspecified date in the future, any and all military differentiation based on gender has passed into ancient history, which allows the women in the story to take an active battle role and, incidentally, permits Verhoeven to include an amusing and sexy coed group shower scene. At the same time, the Federal government, while never described in detail, is clearly of a fascistic nature, a fact most prominently underlined by the Nazi-style uniforms sported by the young soldiers.
When Johnny’s native city of Buenos Aires is destroyed by an arachnid asteroid launched by the distant bug culture, the young man quickly has to get over the Dear John video mail he just received from Carmen and prepare to lead his unit into battle. At the one-hour point, the invasion of Klendathu begins, and pic shifts into fifth gear without ever looking back.
Once they get a close look at their opponents, the humans realize they have significantly underestimated them. The warrior bugs, far bigger than people, are veritable killing machines, with stiletto legs, razor-sharp armored bodies and pincer mouths. Multiple blasts from futuristic machine guns will ultimately put them down, but, like self-respecting insects everywhere, they don’t expire easily. And there are so many of them.
The first encounter is a disaster for the army, with some 100,000 dead. Nonetheless, Johnny’s unit allows itself to be lured to a distant fort that recently witnessed a massacre, and soon learns why the enemy is smarter than originally thought: The bugs have sucked the brains out of the defeated humans, thereby acquiring all their knowledge.
Cornered at this remote outpost, the soldiers are shortly confronted with a blood-chilling spectacle, the sight of thousands of warrior bugs descending from the surrounding mountains with another brain-drain in mind. In terms of cinema, the sheer spectacle of the sequence recalls the beginning of the climactic battle in “Zulu”; in terms of the story, it forces the humans to the limit of their resourcefulness, which is what gives them a fighting chance.
Mixed in with the hand-to-hand combat on an otherwise lifeless planetary surface is some spectacular space action in which giant battleships are set afire by huge effusions of arthropodal spittle, requiring quick escapes by Carmen and Zander, among others.
The Us-vs.-Them aspect of the story could not have been more clearly stated, creating a context in which the fascistic underpinnings become rather interesting. On the one hand, the Big Government society depicted is one that has achieved the dream so widely idealized today, a sexual, racial and ethnic parity so thorough so as not to be worthy of comment. Another given is the necessity of harnessing all resources to battle a truly imposing “foreign” foe. On the other hand, there is a way in which human beings become something resembling insects themselves in a militaristic totalitarian state, and the irony of humans being as cavalierly treated in this story as bugs are by people is not ignored by the filmmakers.
All this is subtext, however, in relation to the action and special effects, both of which just keep on coming. Aside from some early matte work, the effects in all departments are seamless and so omnipresent as to convincingly create an independent universe.
Main credit for the scary and incisive insect creations goes to Phil Tippett, a crucial collaborator on “Robocop” and an Oscar winner for “Jurassic Park.” Many other hands contributed key elements of the film’s many components, and the reputed $100 million budget decidedly shows onscreen.
The vigor and enthusiasm of Verhoeven’s direction easily sweep the viewer into, and along with, the broad strokes of the story. Bringing back numerous cohorts from previous pictures, helmer has been aided by the bold lensing of Jost Vacano, high-octane editing by Mark Goldblatt and Caroline Ross, imaginative work from production designer Allan Cameron and costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, and a muscular score by Basil Poledouris.
Young and virtually unknown cast is serviceable, with Van Dien a stalwart lead and Meyer standing out as the professionally fearless but emotionally vulnerable Dizzy. Given the multi-ethnic backdrop, pic might have benefited from something other than white-bread thesps in all the most important roles.
Much of the action is certainly gruesomely violent, to the extent that, the R rating aside, the film would be a bit much for most viewers under 15 or so. On the other hand, the hard-charging pace means that nothing is dwelled upon, and there are no heart-stopping shocks or excruciatingly protracted scenes of physical torture. Just a lot of very mean bugs.
Buena Vista Intl. is distributing in overseas territories.