Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Edward Neumeier, based on the novel by Robert A. Heinlein
Starring Caspar van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Mayer, Jake Busey and Neil Patrick Harris.
It's easy to approach a film as if it were a psychiatric case study, with secrets and revelations (the signs of the auteur, the traces of reactionary or progressive ideology) to be dredged up from the unconscious, especially if one has a background in academic film studies. Approached this way, genre movies can be particularly fascinating. From the days of Feuillade to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, they've contained a wealth of subtext, without wearing their artistry on their sleeve. But over the last 25 years, something has changed. When $100 million+ Hollywood movies usually resemble bloated B-movies and a film like SCREAM shows the influence of Carol Clover's book MEN, WOMEN & CHAINSAWS, it's not so easy to play the psychoanalyst. The texts aren't so naive anymore.
Watching STRANGE DAYS two years ago, I had an odd epiphany. The real home of the movie wasn't a theater. It was on laserdisc, being picked apart scene by scene in a classroom. One could label the disc with chapter headings like "the PEEPING TOM scene" and "the Rodney King video redux"; one could also give it headings like "reflexivity," "virtual reality," "violence in the media," "race and gender," "spectatorship" and "subcultural resistance." Even if STRANGE DAYS didn't have much original to say about the above laundry list, its half-hearted desire to critique its audience didn't do wonders at the box office. STARSHIP TROOPERS is much more careful about hedging its bets. It's an allegory about the Gulf War or the struggle between mind and body; it's a kick-ass sci-fi movie full of gore, monsters and action; it wants to appeal to militia members, pacifists and everyone on the political spectrum in between. I'm being cynical, but it also appeals to me.
Verhoeven and Neumeier have based STARSHIP TROOPERS on one (inspired) high-concept notion: a war film in the style of a particularly insipid teen TV show. (Hence the casting of actors from Aaron Spelling productions.) In the future that it proposes, the whole world appears to be under the rule of a fascist government. The early scenes are set in a Buenos Aires high school, but Buenos Aires looks remarkably like a TV version of the Southern California suburbs. No matter where they're from, everyone in this world speaks English with an American accent. Is Verhoeven pandering to American ignorance about the rest of the world? Is he suggestong that this kind of homogenization goes hand in hand with fascism?
For the first third of STARSHIP TROOPERS, the answer seems pretty obvious. All the main characters are uniformly clean-cut and good-looking. All of them have the same personality and gung-ho (lack of) affect, although our "hero" Johnny Rico (Caspar van Dien) seems a little less bright than average. Neumeier also wrote ROBOCOP, and as in that film, he includes some hilarious hilarious parodies of the media of the future. The Internet, TV and phone lines have merged into one state-controlled entity, which broadcasts executions live (although it censors footage of a cow being killed by an alien), shows ads recruiting psychics for the armed forces as well as (once the war with the alien bugs gets underway) PSA's in which children demonstrate how to crush insects underfoot. Rico joins the infantry out of heartbreak, although Robocop had a more convincing emotional life than he does. After accidentally causing the death of a recruit during a live-ammunition war game, he decides to head home. But as they say, you can't go home again, especially when your hometown has been destroyed by an asteroid possibly launched by alien bugs. So the soldiers head into battle with all the mindless enthusiasm of fratboys lining up in front of the keg. None of this is Swiftian satire, but there's a clear point of view behind it all. Compared with the vapid "thoughtfulness" of GATTACA and CONTACT, Verhoeven's comic-book sensibility is a refreshing blast of foul air.
But the longer STARSHIP TROOPERS goes on, the irony feels progressively thinner. Anyone making an anti-war film has to confront an old problem: how can you depict combat without making it look exciting? The answer is unlikely to be found in a big-budget Hollywood sci-fi film. The battle scenes are genuinely thrilling, and the CGI "bugs" are exceptionally well-animated. This war may be an stupid act of aggression that wastes thousands of lives, but it's a lot of fun to watch. Even the gruesome violence (and there's more of it than I've seen in an R-rated film in years) is too hyperbolically cartoonish to be disturbing, with the exception of a few panoramic scenes of mutilated corpses. The last third of the film comes close to functioning as "a guiltless celebration of unlimited warfare," as Jonathan Rosenbaum described STAR WARS. The war even concludes with a happy ending.
It may be worth adding that I saw STARSHIP TROOPERS with an exceptionally bloodthirsty audience. In the past 5 years of filmgoing in New York, I've never before been threatened by someone for asking him to stop talking. But this shouldn't have been a surprise. Verhoeven's game involves both pandering to and parodying the audience's baser (I'm tempted to say "basic") instincts. Judging from the guy who yelled "Fuckin' A!" immediately after the final scene, which suggests that we've spent the past two hours watching recruitment propaganda, not everyone gets the joke. or even understands there's a joke being told. I find that far scarier than a pack of murderous, overgrown spiders and cockroaches. Is the joke on me?