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The Boston Phoenix Jaws & Claws

"Starship Troopers" has a few bugs in it

By Peter Keough

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  Paul Verhoeven may not be a fascist, but he sure has fun pretending to be one. Like his first big hit, RoboCop, his adaptation of Starship Troopers -- the 1960s paean to interstellar imperialism from the Ayn Rand of sci-fi, Robert Heinlein -- celebrates its futuristic totalitarian society as much as it parodies it. He delights in his Leni Riefenstahl-like ranks of armored myrmidons bonded in a crusade against an inhuman enemy. The delight is contagious, the black humor often hilarious, except when the cartoonish characters (Verhoeven's legacy from Showgirls, perhaps), the preposterous plot, and the relentlessly graphic carnage get in the way.

This last comes to us thanks to the advances in computer imagery, which, as seen in The Lost World, can treat viewers to the detailed spectacle of a human body ripped in two. Which event arrives early in Troopers as the Earth Federation's Mobile Infantry stages a night raid on Klandathu, home planet of the Bugs, the insect alien race jostling us Earthlings for galactic empire. An officer being interviewed for a latter-day version of CNN is rudely interrupted by a Warrior bug -- an elk-sized arachnid whose scythe-like forelegs put the creatures in Mimic to shame.

It's just a taste of the mayhem to come, as the film flashes back a year to an idyllic pre-war period in pleasant Buenos Aires and introduces its callow and colorless cast of characters. In a scene reminiscent of All Quiet on the Western Front, high-school student Johnny (Casper Van Dien), his pal Carl (former Doogie Hauser Neil Patrick Harris), Johnny's girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards), and tomboyish Dizzy (Dina Meyer, the only character with any flesh and blood) listen in boredom to a lecture on citizenship from their instructor, one-armed veteran Jean (Michael Ironside).

The meaning of the word is a little different in this steely utopia -- to enjoy any rights one has to serve the government, preferably in the armed services. It seems a good career move to these sunny-eyed youngsters, so Carmen signs up to become a Star Fleet pilot, and Johnny joins the Mobile Infantry to impress her -- especially since she has eyes for his rival, Zander (Patrick Muldoon), who looks really nice in his Star Fleet uniform.

Some mishaps in boot camp (an ordeal less rigorous and imaginative than that in G.I. Jane) give Johnny second thoughts, but he decides to stick it out when the Bugs somehow manage to hurl an asteroid onto his hometown, wiping out his family and eight million other inhabitants. An invasion fleet is mounted, and Johnny and company are sent off into the jaws of their mysterious, chitinous adversaries.

Then the slaughter begins, as the humans at first underestimate the enemy, with disastrous results. (Their weaponry is surprisingly low-tech: couldn't a civilization capable of faster-than-light space travel come up with more effective weaponry than gussied-up M-16s and hand-held nuclear warheads? A good-sized can of Raid would be more to the point.) Gradually they adapt new tactics developed by Carl, now a military-intelligence colonel who's a dead ringer for a young Himmler in his peaked cap and field coat. The ups and downs of interspecies warfare, however, serve merely as a gory device to sort out the tangled romances of Johnny, Carmen, Zander and Dizzy -- whose unrequited crush on Johnny has compelled her to enlist. On one level, then, Starship Troopers is the ultimate teen-slasher movie.

Verhoeven, though, has more of an agenda in mind. As much as he enjoys the trappings of this tony, brave new world, he has more fun subverting it. One of his tactics is familiar from RoboCop -- inserted news broadcasts that hilariously lampoon the excesses of today's media. This time, however, the mind-control aspect is grotesquely enhanced, as tabloid-like factoids of enemy atrocities, the best ways to kill a bug, and children playing with the heavy ordinance of smiling infantrymen take a none-too-subtle poke at the encroachment of Big Brother. Furthermore, the media reports are so seamlessly interwoven with "actual" events that the distinction between "reality" and propaganda is lost.

True, some of the aspects of this future Verhoeven seems to favor. Sexual egalitarianism, for example -- the military is coed down to the shower rooms and the killing fields. Sexual equality, though, seems to be at the expense of sexuality, or any feelings other than fear and fanaticism. The Bugs, Verhoeven suggests, are not so much our opposites as our ideal. One of the last images eloquently states the case. In a reversal of an early, hallucinatory battle scene where thousands of insects swarmed over a handful of humans, a horde of humans wrestle Lilliputian-like with a giant "Brain" Bug. It's the first time the insects feel fear, and the viewer as well.


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