Monday, 11 April 2011

Review: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers; Paul Verhoeven’s semi-satirical take on Robert A. Heinlein’s novel about a future militaristic Earth engaged in a ruthless war with a race of giant homicidal bugs that come under the heading of “icky.”

I remember disliking this film when it came out in 1997. What I didn’t realise was just how much I disliked it and how since 9/11, when real soldiers are fighting real battles, it leaves an even worse taste after revisiting it. I certainly didn’t expect a faithful treatment from Hollywood for Heinlein's book. Hollywood was not going to make a straight pro-war film in the 1990s (or today), so Verhoeven tried to lighten things with some fairly heavy-handed satire and by pointlessly, and unfairly, conflating Heinlein’s militarism with Fascism. He also followed his first instincts as a director and made it an incredibly violent piece. There are times in watching Troopers that you say to yourself “I’ve seen every way a giant bug can kill a man… Oh, there’s another.”

This is one of those sci-fi films that don’t pass the reverse engineering test. That is, if you take out the sci-fi elements, does it still work as a story? The answer is a resounding “no” as the mixture of what passes for a plot feels like a very poor quality ‘50s B-grade war film with every cliché thrown in, the military tactics make Paschendale look like a stroke of genius, and there is a romantic subplot too painful to follow as a cast of too-pretty actors from the depths of the 90210 era go through their paces. You have the feeling that recruits in this army of the future had to submit their head shots along with their medical records and that the first qualification of being a pilot was to look good in riding pants. Worse, for such a stunningly beautiful woman, Denise Richards comes off looking like she’s made out of plasticine every time she smiles. Whenever she flashes that wall of ivory, it’s as if her brain has suddenly disengaged.

"I like potatoes!"
I can’t decide what irritates me most about the film. Sometimes I opted for the satire in the “propaganda” breaks, which are supposed to be funny, but, since it’s a retread of a gimmick already used by Verhoeven in Robocop falls flatter than a day-old waffle. Other times I reserved my ire for a military whose only apparent tactic is to run about in disorganised hordes while trying to hold off swarms of giant killer insects with assault rifles. Then there is the cameo of a general brought on for a moment of cowardly snivelling and plot exposition before being greased by a crashing bug. But then I recall the scene where a character says after a battle, "There aren't any casualties," despite the fact that he's standing in a room jammed to the rafters with bloody men and women missing assorted limbs and overacting for all they're worth. And of course, I have a special place for the action movie logic that demands that sex must be followed quickly by the death of at least one person involved.

Embarrassing precedes disgusting
But I’ve determined that what leaves the worst taste in my mouth is Verhoeven’s attitude toward women in this film, which I find nothing short of sickening. Bowing to modern prejudices, Verhoeven takes women in combat for granted, but given the complications they cause in the story, he makes a good, albeit unintentional, case against the practice. In Verhoeven’s world, future women will be men with breasts who still take time off to be hot-sex machines. Yup, that’s a really likely combination. And watch the eyes roll heavenward as Verhoeven explains with a straight face that the co-ed shower scene wasn’t exploitative. Worse the violence—the casual violence, mind— meted out to women in this film is nothing short of sadistic. When raw recruit Dina Meyers decides that the way to impress her drill sergeant Clancy Brown (a man twice her size!) is to challenge him to single combat, the scene is both butt-clenchingly embarrassing and more than a little disgusting. What sort of Neanderthal would even accept such a challenge; much less jam his knee into the girl’s throat until she passes out? What sort of a director would film such a scene?  That's right: Verhoeven.

Perhaps this is excusable on the grounds that women of the future are made of sterner stuff. Miss Richards certainly demonstrates this, as in the last ten minutes of the film when she has a bug drive a claw the size of a kitchen chair through her shoulder, yet she not only can stay conscious, she can also stand, walk, run, fire an assault rifle, and saunter to a waiting transport while having a casual conversation with her friends. Things like shock and blood loss are apparently a male prerogative.

Is he in this film?
Oh, and our hero's name is Johnny Rico, but he's pretty much an afterthought, so let's get back to the sex and death.

And to think that Verhoeven left out the Power Suits, the only really cool thing in the book, for all that.

1 comment:

  1. Ugh. I also hated this movie when I first saw it, and it hasn't improved with age.

    To me, it was basically "Robocop In Space". Except that Peter Weller in his robotic-knight-in-shining-armor getup showed more actual emotion (to say nothing of coherent thought) than everyone in this movie combined. The nadirs; Michael Ironside, whom I've never liked in anything, as a bad conflation of two major characters, and Neil "Doogie Hauser" Harris as a sort of Babylon 5 Psi Corps wannabee I don't remember from the novel.

    As for tactics, never mind the infantry's complete failure to understand the concepts of walking point, rear guard, flank guard, bounds, etc.- I'm still pissed at the navy's total inability to formate properly when going in under fire.

    I have a copy on DVD, picked up for a buck at a library sale. Just to have as a reminder of how not to make an SF movie, even a "space opera". I also have the 1979 Canadian version of "The Shape Of Things To Come", a pseudo- Star Wars with Jack Palance and Barry Morse. It has nothing to do with the 1936 Wells/Korda version other than the title, and genuinely stinks- and is still better than this piece of dreck.(Probably cost a lot less to make, too.)