Starship Troopers

(1997) **** R
130 min. TriStar Pictures. Directors: Paul Verhoeven, Vic Armstrong. Cast: Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris.

/content/films/3154/1.jpgPeople throw around the word "love" when they talk about certain favorite films, but true movie love, like true people love, goes beyond reason (though there's that too) to a heady giddiness. There are the greatest films ever made, and then there are those films that just make you happy every time you see them. Well, I admit it. I love Starship Troopers. Paul Verhoeven's insanely subversive science-fiction action extravaganza (and not so stealthy satire) still gives me butterflies after all these years.

Adapting Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 novel, Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier (who previously teamed on Robocop), pull off a miracle. They portray the essential science-fiction premise of mankind at war with "the Bugs," an alien species otherwise known as the Arachnids from Klendathu. The filmmakers also give voice to Heinlein's social and political views, strewn throughout the novel mostly in the form of classroom lectures. Then the filmmakers, having done the jobs of pop entertainment and fidelity to their source, add their own viewpoint in the form of a deep sarcasm about the relationships between the government, the military, and the civilian population. Starship Troopers functions as a visually dazzling science-fiction action picture, a philosophical challenge, and a hilarious, incisive comedy. It does almost everything that current stunner The Dark Knight does (exception: powerful acting), while never skimping on the broad entertainment value expected of its genre.

In fact, the entertainment value of Starship Troopers is itself satirical. Succeeding where others have often failed, Verhoeven indicts his audience even as he arouses them with ultra-violence and well-toned sexuality (unlike Michael Haneke with his Funny Games, Verhoeven counts himself with the audience). Verhoeven's film is one of the best tricks ever played on a moviegoing audience: he recycles the patriotic domestic self-portraiture (or rather caricature) of the 1950s to endear us to a naive, vacant, plastic-perfect Ken and Barbie: Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and sort-of girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards). They're joined by Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris), a friend of uncommon intelligence who's almost as scary for what he knows as his friends are for what they don't. All three, taking to heart the civics lessons of teacher Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside), join the military service. As one of the film's many propaganda slogans explains, "Service guarantees citizenship."

/content/films/3154/3.jpgIn this way, Starship Troopers explores the military construct in its functions, its tensions, and its organization: the grunt (Rico, who becomes one of the "Roughnecks" of the Mobile Infantry), the flyboy (or, in this case, flygirl Carmen in the Fleet) and military intelligence (Carl, whose psychic gift and intellect elevate him to Games & Theory). There's no flies on this movie, which even at 130 minutes moves briskly and with eye candy in every frame. Despite the pleasant distractions of bare bodies and still-amazing special effects, it's difficult to understand how any one could miss Verhoeven's satire, poker-faced though it is. Neumeier gets a lot of mileage from Federal Network news-feed broadcasts that brilliantly inject exposition, energy, and humor. They are unmistakably propaganda, with each segment transitioning to the next with the deeply ironic turn of phrase "Would you like to know more?"

The populace's blinders lead to easy manipulation by the fascist government, leading to a disasterous wholesale divestiture of rights on the path to politicized warfare (seen roughly on the ground and also symbolized by "the button"). So as not to be mistaken, Verhoeven includes echoes of WWII horrors (the Normandy landing, for one) and outfits the military elite in futuristic neo-neo-Nazi wear, aping Leni Reifenstahl in the FedNet imagery. And still, Verhoeven was accused of making a pro-fascism picture, an idea that's laughable on its face. Verhoeven laughs at his world's conformity and shudders at the consequences.

In this world, a Sky Marshal proclaims (in Geneva, no less), "We must meet the threat with our valor, our blood, even our very lives to ensure that human civilization, not insect, dominates this galaxy now and always." International dominance is the primary value, achieved through violence, which Rasczak calls "the supreme authority." The film's style purposefully belies these disturbing themes: the majestic sweep of Basil Poledouris' score (taking after James Horner) and the film's defiantly bright and shiny look evoke the dark side of Star Trek (check out the scenes of Carmen piloting for the first time--they're vintage Trek).

Van Dien and Richards may not be great actors, but they're perfect as blank-slate hardbodies. Harris, wiseguy infantryman Jake Busey, and Dina Meyer as a plucky soldier after Rico's heart acquit themselves well, while the hilariously straight Ironside, drill instructor Clancy Brown, and science teacher Rue McClanahan (!) provide a mixture of gravitas, authority, and comic energy alongside the callow youth. (Military consultant Dale Dye also gets an unavoidably funny cameo.) As for the Bugs, they're damn convincing with their claws and razor-sharp pincer-like legs (thank creature effects supervisor Phil Tippett).

/content/films/3154/2.jpgThe battles are epic, each action sequence effectively topping the one before. Verhoeven exorcises his own psychological scars of warfare by depicting the gleefully gory violence of an E.C. comic; he has a fetish for cutting people in half and lopping off extremities (including the head) as the soldiers literally give life and limb. When the most gung-ho Roughneck gets a spectacularly bloody death, he may not be alone, but the irony is noted: these young men and women are lambs to the slaughter, sold on a nonsense war by a powerful elite with clean hands still attached to their arms.

Humanity is the predatory species in Starship Troopers, and the Bugs have just as much right to occupy the universe as we do. A general blathers, "They're just like us. They wanna know what makes us tick. They wanna know us so they can kill us!"--this from a militaristic government that broadcasts the slogan "Know Your Foe." As with Robocop, Verhoeven understands that melodrama and extreme, tongue-in-cheek comedy are the correct brands of storytelling to complement this story's outsized science-fiction elements (Rico even gets to bark the classic "Don't die on me!"). Starship Troopers is beautifully realized in every way. This love's going to last.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 8/5/2008

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Okay, folks, I have a new favorite disc: Starship Troopers, which gets its Blu-Ray debut in concert with the home-video premiere of Starship Troopers 3: Marauder. This is truly an exceptional special edition, with every kind of bonus feature fans could imagine. For starters, the film has an amazing audio-visual impact on Blu-Ray. The expertly rendered image perfectly balances the essential naturalism of film grain with vibrant colors and sharp detail (down to the very pores); I likewise have no complaints about the charged Dolby True-HD 5.1 surround soundtrack. An isolated score track with commentary by composer Basil Poledouris and conceptual artwork galleries have been dropped from a previous DVD edition, but the compensations are considerable, including a terrific new video commentary.

Tops among the Blu-Ray exclusives is the FedNet Mode, a picture-in-picture feature that frames the film in a FedNet-style frame, a pop-up window periodically appearing at the bottom right-hand corner with well-synced cast and crew interviews and slides on each of the film's settings, including the spacecraft, and weaponry. I loved this feature, which includes great anecdotes from the filmmakers and cast (particularly a droll Neil Patrick Harris), thoughts on the film's satirical elements, comparisons to the novel, and background on the film's universe and the special effects used to depict it. The 1080p feature Recruitment Test is a trivia challenge posing questions culled from the Starship Troopers storyline, sometimes illustrated with clips from the film. At the end, you are assigned a score and a military rank.

Also exclusive to Blu-Ray is the Blu-Wizard feature. It's an impressive way for viewers to select the special features they want to see. During playback, only those special features that have been selected (from a complete menu of video-based bonuses) interrupt the film and play at pre-designated timeframes. Naturally this isn't the only way to view the special features; they're all accessible from the Special Features menu. Also, this strikes me as an onerous way to view the bonuses, which seem more easily viewed outside of the feature. But to each his or her own: it's a nice option. Since this is a Sony disc, you also get the BD-Live hookup to more content on the internet. Specifically, Put Yourself in the Movie allows viewers to upload a picture to the Sony site and see oneself inserted into the film. This one's hard to imagine (and I haven't tried it), but have at it!

On to the audio bonuses: the 1998 commentary by director Paul Verhoeven and writer Ed Neumeier is a must-listen. Verhoeven may be the most entertaining purveyor of director's commentaries, and along with sharp cookie Neumeier, we get a dense and thorough exploration of the film and Verhoeven's intentions, with some behind-the-scenes revelations to boot. The 2002 commentary by Verhoeven and actors Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, and Neil Patrick Harris is also worth a spin, but the FedNet Mode visual commentary renders this one less essential.

The 2002 doc "Death From Above: The Making of Starship Troopers" (31:57) covers Heinlein and the film's adaptation of his novel, casting, Verhoeven as a director, military consultant Dale Dye, the score, the nature of propaganda, and the reaction to the film. Participants include Verhoeven, producer Jon Davison, science-fiction historian Paul Sammon, screenwriter Ed Neumeier, creature visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett, DP Jost Vacano, producer Alan Marshall, Van Dien, Denise Richards, Meyer, composer Basil Poledouris, editor Mark Goldblatt, creature effects man Tom Woodruff, human visual effects man Kevin Yagher, Jake Busey, Michael Ironside, and Harris.

Though welcome, vintage EPK "The Making of Starship Troopers" (7:58) adds little. There are a few nice behind-the-scenes clips, as well as interviews with Verhoeven, Dien, Richards, Meyer, Clancy Brown, Patrick Muldoon, Tippett, Ironside, Busey, and Harris. Also from the 2002 release, we get "The Spaceships of Starship Troopers" (3:26), a look at the ship designs and their use in the film with Verhoeven, spaceship visual effects supervisor for Sony Imageworks Scott E. Anderson, and Vacano. A Starship Troopers special edition would not be complete without "Bug Test Film: Don't Look Now" (1:13), which proved the film could be made.

The Know Your Foe section is a bug encyclopedia with five entries: "Warrior" (5:13), "Tanker" (2:17), "Hopper" (2:30), "Plasma" (1:03), and "Brain" (6:01), while FX Comparisons juxtaposes the raw set footage to the final shots (embedded in a picture-in-picture window) for nine scenes, with a "Play All" option: "Fednet Klendathu" (1:04), "Censored!" (0:13), "Carmen Pilots Fleet Trainer" (1:18), "Asteroid Grazing" (1:30), "Klendathu" (8:36), "Rico Rides Tanker Bug" (1:09), "Whiskey Outpost" (7:04), "Wreck of the Rodger Young" (2:55), and "The Brain Bug" (5:14). Storyboard Comparisons (also with "Play All" option) does much the same, but with storyboards versus the finished scene for "Asteroid Grazing" (1:51), "Klendathu Landing" (6:51), and "Hopper Canyon" (2:31).

Scene Deconstruction With Paul Verhoeven (with "Play All" option) allows the director to narrate the creation of "Tanker Bug Ride" (4:06) and "Rodger Young Destroyed" (3:29), with looks at the animatics and storyboards. Deleted Scenes (with "Play All" option) include "High School Lawn" (1:05), "Transporter" (:46), "Zander Consoles Carmen" (1:05), "Carmen's Cabin" (1:10) and "Last Kiss" (3:54). Rounding out the disc are the Screen Tests "Johnny & Carmen #1" (1:49) and "Johnny & Carmen #2" (1:53), as well as trailers for Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, Men in Black, CJ7, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. By golly, now that's a special edition!

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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