It's been a few years now since Paul Verhoeven's adaptation of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers faded from the public spotlight. That's a good thing, because this is not one of the high points of science fiction movies. But in spite of the critical drubbing this movie received (especially from the legions of dedicated fans of Robert Heinlein, most of whom consider the novel "Starship Troopers" one of his best books), it's far from the worst science fiction movie around either. It may not be worth paying full price for, but I found the movie on sale for six bucks, and it's worth it at that price. For sheer, exciting, gory, brain-dead (if not mindless) entertainment, Starship Troopers certainly gives you two hours of everything you expect in a Paul Verhoeven movie: action, excitement, blood, gore, action, nude scenes, and more action. If only the plot was brave enough to put some real brains in; if it had, we might have had a true science fiction classic here.
Verhoeven shows his familiarity with Heinlein's story by taking the plot and exaggerating it by several factors. He includes most of the famous scenes of the book, especially the boot camp sequences and a corporal punishment scene, where the hero is sentenced to ten lashes with a whip. Verhoeven removes the "powered armor" made famous in Heinlein's book, and that's a mistake; evidently, his intent was to make the action scenes look like moments from James Cameron's Aliens. The uniforms, weapons, and monsters are closely copied from Cameron's film; which is ironic in its own way, because Cameron obviously borrowed from Heinlein's own "Starship Troopers" when he made Aliens.
But there's a fake, cartoony, comic-book quality to the entire movie that keeps us from taking it at all seriously. Every scene is brightly lit in both the foreground and background, with the lighting suggesting every scene takes place on a sound stage (even the battle scenes during the invasion of Klendathu, the Bugs' home world). This is a disappointment when compared with the grittiness of Verhoeven's Robocop or even Total Recall, because if Verhoeven tried to give us a grim, lifelike, ultra-realistic look at "war" like Platoon did (or Aliens again), then this exceptionally gory, massively violent movie would have kept some of its audiences in their seats. (It had trouble bringing them in, as it was; the movie was a box-office flop.) Add the fact that everyone in the movie is clean-shaven, has a perfect hairdo, and doesn't even sweat, and it gives an air of fakery. For instance, the boot camp scenes are entertaining, and we accept them even though they're blatantly fake. Watch the scene where Sargeant Zim greets the troops for the first time, and compare it to the opening of Full Metal Jacket; the tension and the horror of Stanley Kubrick's film is completely absent here. But it's entertaining, nonetheless. If there's one thing that can certainly be said about Starship Troopers, it's this: the movie is not boring.
If this fake, cartoony "look" for the movie is intentional, it might be that the filmmakers intended the entire movie to be taken as intentionally fake. It may be that in the world of Starship Troopers, the Federation (the military government ruling Earth in this movie) actually produced the entire movie as a propaganda recruitment film to get its citizens to sign up for military service…and the reason why everything looks fake and produced on sound stages is that they actually were filmed on sound stages (in the world of the 23rd century, not in 1997 A.D.). Combine this with the cheesy propaganda messages that occur every so often ("Would you like to know more?" and "They'll keep on fighting – and they'll win!"), and we can actually pretend we're watching a propaganda video that fell through a time warp from 300 years in the future.
Quite a few movies have taken on a new level of irony or "meaning" since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and this movie is one of them. It's interesting to compare the similarity of the plot device – sudden surprise attack leaves thousands dead; the world mourns; we go to war; the hero stays with the army because he lost his family in the destroyed city of Buenos Aires. The loss we all suffered in real life does give make this seem somewhat more believable, though not much so; it's still cartoony, but not quite as far-fetched now as it was when the movie was released. This movie has gained some small benefit in the "new" American culture.
But even so, it would still benefit more of the screenwriter had dared to include a brain in the story – and I don't mean a brain bug, either. I certainly can't deny that Verhoeven is a talented director, and nearly every scene in the movie is full of movement and energy, and the special effects are very good…but the sheer idiocy of a number of the plot devices makes the movie hard to swallow, and it kills whatever emotions we've built up.
I've heard the arguments that the point of the entire story is to take a satirical look at military propaganda, and Verhoeven's success with Robocop certainly shows that he knows satire. And when we compare the actions of the "Federation" as it goes to war to the real-life American campaign against Afghanistan and "terrorism," we can certainly be glad that our military commanders were smarter than the ones in this movie. Strictly in terms of plot, Starship Troopers deserves some kind of an award for sending an army to invade enemy territory using some of the dumbest, most idiotic tactics I've ever seen in a "war movie," be it serious or satirical. You could make a list of the stupid mistakes made by the "military commanders" here – keeping their starships huddled together so that it's easy to crash into each other; sending their troops into unknown enemy territory at night, armed only with machine guns, not having any air support or heavy armored vehicles, and not even using their portable nukes when they need them; and so on, and so on. I can only assume that this stupidity was deliberately put in by the screenwriter. I've read Heinlein's novel, and the movie does follow the book (mostly); so it seems likely that the stupidity of the military was exaggerated even more, as a deliberate move on Verhoeven's part. When seen in the perspective of the military actions in Afghanistan, the battles in this movie (despite their excitement) can be seen as satire: they're a perfect example of how NOT to wage a war.
Of course, the brain-dead military commanders only match the stupidity of the movie's ostensible hero, Johnny Rico. He's caught in a love triangle, though we know how it's all going to end. It's just enough to make him a two-dimensional Movie Hero, complete with a perfect hairdo that never gets mussed. He pines for his lady-love Carmen Ibanez; but she only has eyes on becoming a starship pilot. And he completely misses the unrequited love of his teammate, high school companion, and total babe "Dizzy" Flores. The idiocy of this running "romantic" theme matches the idiocy of the military tactics of the film, suggesting that the whole thing is meant to be one big cartoon.
Verhoeven's misogynistic streak also reveals itself here, but it's kept under control more than in his other movies; the most offensive bit here is probably Dizzy Flores, whose entire life is dedicated to landing Johnny Rico in bed. Of course, Rico is too stupid to realize this until it's too late; but at least we get to see some gratuitous topless scenes. (Dina Myers peels off her shirt in this movie not once, but twice!). Verhoeven is one of those rare directors who doesn't flinch when it comes to either violence or sex. When we see a Verhoeven action scene, we know there's going to be over-the-top violence (and quite often too much of it, as in Total Recall); and we can certainly expect over-the-top sex as well from the man who gave us Showgirls.
And yet, the movie is still bursting with energy. There's not one moment in the entire movie when the pace flags. The action scenes are well-done (and there are many); the camera moves constantly, but never in a way that calls attention to itself (I hate those MTV video-style directors who swoop the camera all over the place with no rhyme or reason, as in The Crow); and the film's reported $100 million budget is certainly well-displayed on the screen. The bug attacks in particular are outstanding, and they are far and away the best parts of the entire movie. Add on the cartoonish propaganda segments, and the result is a big, splashy, dumb way to waste two hours.
It's impossible to take this movie seriously, and that's why I enjoyed it when I watched it with friends. We whooped and hollered and exclaimed our astonishment as we watched the characters make one dumb move after another – "You've got NUKES, you idiots! Use 'em!" "Dizzy wants you so bad, you moron! Fuck 'er already!" As far as bad movies go, I'd rather experience one like Starship Troopers, with its exciting action scenes and its sheer lack of seriousness, than a slow-moving slug of a film reeking with self-importance like Battlefield Earth or Armageddon or Mission: Impossible or even Godzilla (the 1998 version). This movie is made for adults – and it could have been a true classic if it dared to treat its audience like adults.