Starship Troopers

Year: 1997
Studio: Columbia Tri-star
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Producer: Jon Davison
Writer: Ed Neumeier/Robert Heinlein
Cast: Caspar Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Neil Patrick Harris, Michael Ironside, Jake Busey, Marshall Bell, Clancy Brown
Whether you know Verhoeven as the sci-fi action director ( Robocop ) or the faux-porn aficionado (Basic Instinct, Showgirls), there's one thing about him that's consistently lost on most of his audience – he's a consummate satirist.

I saw the movie when it first came out and had no idea it was based on Heinlein's book, or that there was any political philosophy behind it. In actual fact it wasn't until I saw it on video years later that I realised it was so political (regardless of the director and writers' intentions). And watching it again recently after realising what an unwitting fan of Verhoeven's I'd become because of the blistering subtlety of satire in films like Robocop I first realised how brilliant it was.

If it had been directed by Michael Bay or Tony Scott, it would have been nothing more than a well-financed Hollywood slugfest with great effects, and here's the kicker; Verhoeven does just that purely as a basis for his film.

The effects were astonishing, even for the time. CGI had never been used to such realistic effect, and the swarms of arachnid warriors scuttling over the rocks of Klendathu come the closest to actually being there as CGI has achieved – even today almost ten years later as I write this. In fact it held the record for special effects shots of any movie at the time (500, from memory), mostly thanks to effects maestro Phil Tippett.

And being Verhoeven, he isn't afraid to go hard. Scenes of heads and limbs being lopped off are depicted with shocking abandon. In fact, it's the propensity for so many horrific and unsexy injuries that make it ironically one of the most authentic war films of all time (all part of the satire, whether Verhoeven intended it or not).

So the action and adventure are as solid as any straight Hollywood studio film (ie one without a political voice of any kind) has ever produced, in fact surpassing most of them, suffusing battle scenes with real movie-excitement horror – even for the audience (the girl I saw it with continually dug her nails into my hand whenever the arachnid warriors appeared).

And together with writer Neumeier, Verhoeven pulls off the brilliant trick of disguising a political comment as an action movie – the politics coming out in tiny snatches (like the Federal Network announcements, similar to Robocop's Media Break segments) that do nothing to upset the flow or pacing of the action but cut deep in their subtlety.

In the future, everything is perfect. A ubiquitous federation government controls the world, resources are plentiful, and employment is widespread. Complete with Nazi-like symbology and the issuing of all-pervading propaganda, the federation is divided up into citizens (those who've served the federation in military service) and civilians, who have no right to vote or reproduce.

When war ensues against the insect race of a faraway system (Klenthadu) recruits Johnny (Van Dien), Dizzy (Meyer), Carl (Harris) and Carmen (Richards), join up to infantry, intelligence and starship flight straight out of school and are shipped to the furthest reaches of the galaxy for the war effort.

We follow their respective plights, feelings and relationships, the leaders who inspire them and the battles they take part in as they develop and the kids turn into soldiers, all delivered in classic escapist movie style with stunning effects realism.

But it's in the tiny snippets of information about the world they live in where the social meat of the story lies. For example, for the idyllic lives people enjoy under the watchful eye of an unchallenged government power, we understand that the idyll is maintained through the threat of brutality – typical punishment for criminals is the lash, in stark contrast to the ultra-modern and enlightened age depicted.

It's also in Rico's teacher (who will become his military commander) Rasczek (Ironside), who maintains that peace and stability – both civic and global – can only be maintained through brute force, mankind no more than a smart ape exacting a constant struggle for survival against enemies.

It all exists in a quasi-porn media age much like we can all imagine the world will end up on its current course; the execution of a convicted criminal is advertised as being televised live.

There's also something patently ridiculous about a bunch of beautiful teenagers showering together in a military barracks making fun of Rico because he's joined the infantry because of a girl. Whether Verhoeven was commenting on a sort of Huxley-like society where sex and nudity are so passé and harmless and good natured romantic ribbing still has weight or not is hard to say.

Then there's the even tinier sequences that give so much away – the mother in the Federation broadcast and her manic joy encouraging the little kids to stamp on cockroaches to 'do their part' in the war effort (in fact, I've heard it said that the reason Heinlein chose bugs as the enemy was to use the typical demonising of political enemies by declaring them to be subhuman or insect-like in their behaviour).

And there's the single line on which the entire film hangs for many reasons – the fact that it was humans who entered bug territory first, thus triggering their retaliation. There isn't a generation alive that can't relate to the sort of 'pre-emptive strike' that is as much in name in today's world.

All in all, the film is almost a joke played on Hollywood by Verhoeven and Neumeier; using their own language and making them all money by poking fun at the values it helps perpetuate.

Made of a largely unknown cast at the time apart from Ironside and some other cast-offs from Total Recall such as the hysterical General Owen (Marshall Bell), Richards has obviously gone on to bigger and better things and Harris crops up every now and again in brilliantly comic roles such as in Undercover Brother (together with Richards) and a priceless self-parody in Harold and Kumar Go to the White Castle.

But the beautiful and talented Dina Meyer (Flores) has languished in TV and small roles ever since. And the biggest casualty was Caspar Van Dien, who went from this to another Tarzan remake (co-starring Jane March, the female lead in the much-reviled Bruce Willis psycho-thriller Color of Night but had been in the much better The Lover). Since then he's been in nothing but schlocky straight to video efforts like Python and The Tracker.

It's also the film that went a long way however to restoring Paul Verhoeven's credibility after the peak (or should it be deep trough) of his notorious notoriety because of Showgirls.

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