Rated R for graphic sci-fi violence and gore, and for some language and nudity.
Running time: 129 min.
Release date: November 7, 1997
Box office: $54,814,377 (domestic); $121,214,377 (worldwide)
At first glance, Starship Troopers could easily be dismissed as a random sci-fi/action picture. Stuff blows up, dialogue is terse and sometimes corny and it all appears to be dumb on the surface. A fraction of its audience would enjoy the film just on these merits, but the majority would forget about it after the closing credits. However, there is more to Starship Troopers than just these elements. It is actually a rather clever and witty film with some not-so-subtle satire. Not surprising, considering the film's director.
In the 23rd century, humans have undergone colonization of the galaxy, but have met some resistance in the form of insect-like creatures known as Arachnids. Humans prefer to call them "bugs" and that is essentially what they are: giant bugs of varying species. From the distant world known as Klendathu, a barren wasteland of a world, the bugs wage war on the humans. There is an inkling of a suggestion that maybe...just maybe...the bugs are responding to the intrusion of invaders on their planet, but this is quickly dismissed. Meanwhile, on Earth, we learn that citizenship is earned through military service. We meet some very good-looking high school students from Buenos Aires, who opt for service in the military, even though it is opposed by at least one set of parents. These are all-American kids, even though they live in Buenos Aires and all appear to be very wealthy. We follow them through school, with their teenage love triangles and failing grades, through to their eventual enlisting and training, through times of doubt and finally watch them come of age through warfare, as they become excellent soldiers. Interspersed through all of this is newsreel footage that represents blunt efforts at xenophobia and propaganda, although these are humorous in tone.
Essentially, the basic plot of the film is "humans vs space bugs" which is something straight out of a 1950s science fiction plot. The film itself began as Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine but producers were able to license the title to Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel. The characters in the film are first shown as idealistic, good-looking teenagers living idyllic lives in beautiful Buenos Aires who believe that military service allows them luxuries that the common citizen is not privy to. They are football team captains and class brains with aspirations of becoming pilots and military intelligence. The main plot--the battle with the bugs--takes a while to unfold onscreen, giving the feeling that the movie is a lot longer than it actually is. The pacing could have been better, probably by trimming the high school scenes. The climax involved the humans attempting to capture the "brain bug", who appears to be behind the successful attacks by the bugs. It's an interesting idea, as the brain bug attempts to gather as much intel on the humans in order to fight them.
Director Paul Verhoeven has quite a filmography behind him. Such films as Showgirls, Basic Instinct, Total Recall and probably his best known film, RoboCop; the latter film chock-full of biting satirical commentary about corruption, privatization and capitalism. In Starship Troopers, Verhoeven provides visual allusions to the propaganda that wartime newsreel footage used to provide back in World War II, but provides them with a tongue-in-cheek tone. Aside from the satirical viewpoint, Verhoeven frames the action logically and it is easy to follow what is going on, even with all the chaos. Verhoeven does not shy away from gory violence, which is as tolerable as your sense of decency will allow you to enjoy. If you prefer not to see headless corpses and bodies cut in half, you may not enjoy this film. The setting of Klendathu is questionable in the sense that it is ponderous why humans would even want to place an outpost on such a planet, whose only resource appears to be rocks.
The visual effects in Starship Troopers are good, with CGI bugs filling the screen. The interaction between human and giant insect looks believable. The spacecraft are a solid combination of models and computer graphics. Everything from the guns, to the ships, to Buenos Aires is shiny and metallic and the uniforms appear to be modeled after Nazi fashion intentionally, one can assume.
The cast is made up of some of the younger stars of Hollywood back in 1997, with some grizzled veterans sprinkled along the way to embody leadership. Casper Van Dien is front and center as Johnny Rico, the main character. At best, Van Dien is okay in the role. The scenes of teenage high school Johnny come off as awkward, but by the end, he seems to be at home barking orders to his troops. Denise Richards plays his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez. Smiling throughout the film, she appears to be out of place once the action begins, and is more at home as the pretty high school prom queen. Dina Meyer, Jake Busey and Patrick Muldoon round out the core of the young cast, as they come off as empty, shallow caricatures. There is not much substance to any of them, really, but that is more of the screenplay's doing than anything else. Other than Johnny's conflict with his parents and with his role as a leader, there isn't much time for anyone else to develop any sort of character. Michael Ironside and Clancy Brown provide the veteran character actor experience required to pull off believable drill sergeants and lieutenants. Finally, the villains are the giant bugs. They like to kill. Other than the interesting brain bug, that is all they do. Of course, this may be what Verhoeven wants you to believe about them as justification for the militaristic machinations of the humans.
So on the surface, Starship Troopers appears to be about a bunch of gung-ho soldiers going into battle with giant insects, blowing things up, getting cut in half and saying some dumb things. If you watch more intently, the movie is saying so much more. Whether you agree with the message or not shouldn't take away from the fact that this is not just a brainless work. Granted, there are some silly moments in the movie, but they still make you chuckle both at the stupidity and the audacity of it. It's not a perfect film, but it is an entertaining one