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Starship Troopers is a deliriously stupid movie, but it's also a lot of fun--maybe because it's so stupid. At times, Starship Troopers becomes a veritable camp fest with wooden dialogue, ridiculously bland performances, and gloriously-bloody action that probably features more severed body parts than any movie on record. But director Paul Verhoeven's high-octane visuals constantly propel the movie forward. Even while we're watching the deadly dull high-school students and we're seeing the very ordinary problems that they face in their personal lives (the kinds of problems that typically plague the residents of Beverly Hills 90210), Verhoeven gives the movie a slick, comic-book-like veneer that suggests we're only seconds away from explosive sci-fi action.
Verhoeven is no stranger to blockbuster Hollywood productions (such as Robocop and Basic Instinct) as well as mega-busts (such as Showgirls). He's shown himself marvelously adept at glossy, explosive action--but he's almost equally lost at giving us full-blooded human characters. So in Starship Troopers, he simply eschews anything remotely human and gives us a cast of characters that resemble Barbie and Ken dolls. All the characters and their motivations are strictly generic so as to not get in the way of the military-style bug hunt scenes. You might have to wade through some dreadful high-school drama before the bug juices and human blood start splattering the movie screen, but once the mayhem starts, the movie provides a non-stop stream of machine-gun fire and marauding alien bugs.
Whereas the makers of Independence Day never acknowledged the utter nonsense of their movie, Starship Troopers is filled with knowing nudges and winks. And just in case we fail to recognize how campy and ridiculous the characters and dialogue are, Verhoeven occasionally inserts some clearly satirical recruiting commercials and newsreel footage. In one instance, we see two stormtroopers asking a group of grade school students who wants to handle their "full-loaded" weapons. The kids squeal in glee, raising their hands and shouting "Me! Me! Me!"--followed by the kids grabbing handfuls of ammo as if the bullets are gummy bears. Meanwhile, when the dramatics bog down, Verhoeven manages to keep the movie interesting by inserting some blissfully silly visions of the future--such as uni-sex showers, where the soldiers, male and female alike, calmly lather up their bodies. Yep, that's Verhoeven's idea of thrills--giving us peeks at naked breasts while pretending that everyone is equal.
The plot itself (based on a novel by Robert Heinlein) gives us a trio of teenagers just itchin' for some military action. After listening to their high-school teacher expound upon the virtues of being a "citizen" vs. being a "civilian," they eagerly look forward to fighting alien bugs--which are currently threatening earth with their deadly, bug-carrying asteroids. Well . . . Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) doesn't really look forward to becoming a solider. He only joins the military because his girlfriend, Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), has already signed up, along with their friend Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris). But none of this really matters much. All that's important is that you'll see the teenagers dressed in stormtrooper garb, blasting away (with ridiculously small-gage weapons) at hordes of elephant-sized bugs that slash and hack with razor-sharp talons.
Whereas Aliens also gave us a military scenario, it fought all of its battles in a world of shadows and ink-black darkness. Starship Troopers fights its battles in bright sunlight. The soldiers don't even require space suits, just good shoulder pads, helmets, and machine guns. Starship Troopers looks remarkably like an old-style war movie, where the morals are simple and clear-cut. The bugs are bad and the people are good. Nothing gets much more complicated than that. While Verhoeven never gives us much reason to care about the paper-thin characters, he gives plenty of reasons to care about the action. It's hard to sit still and watch as the bugs mount their massive attacks as seemingly never-ending scores of bugs claw into view. The movie never really carries through on the promise of the situation: the bugs apparently are controlled by a super-intelligence. They're even capable of outwitting the military. I wish the moviemakers had explored this angle more and given us a situation where the morality of exterminating the bugs might be brought into question, but Starship Troopers remains painfully simple-minded.
With cardboard characters and militaristic situations more at home in the '40s and '50s, Starship Troopers might seem like an anachronism, but the ample doses of comic-book-style corn and camp make Starship Troopers fun and, heck, even quite compelling. It might not be a very complex journey, but it's one heckuva ride--as long as you don't mind the arguably fascist overtones.
[rating: 3 of 4 stars]