- Street Date:
- August 5th, 2008
- Reviewed by:
- Joshua Zyber
- Review Date: 1
- July 28th, 2008
- Movie Release Year:
- Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
- 129 Minutes
- MPAA Rating:
- Rated R
- Release Country
- United States
Portions of this article first appeared in our review of the UK import Blu-ray release of 'Starship Troopers'.
The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
"The only good bug is a dead bug."
'Starship Troopers' is one of the great misunderstood works of science fiction cinema. On its face, the movie is a $100 million action picture about teenagers with machine guns shooting at giant insects. It has bland, cardboard characters and a hokey plot with what seem to be one or two serious lapses in basic logic. Back when it premiered in 1997, the film left audiences largely perplexed, and as a result it fizzled at the box office. Many critics accused it of being just another dumb visual effects spectacle -- loud, violent, and without a brain in its head. But looking just a bit beneath the surface, it's clear that the movie is very much of a piece with director Paul Verhoeven's previous sci-fi classics 'RoboCop' and 'Total Recall', blending over-the-top action machismo with wickedly subversive social satire. Unfortunately, the movie's underlying themes were apparently so subversive that few viewers understood them at the time.
Ostensibly based on the much-beloved 1959 novel by Robert Heinlein, the film version of 'Starship Troopers' bears little resemblance to its source. In fact, the project was initiated as an unrelated script titled 'Bug Hunt' that was later adjusted to incorporate parts of the novel when the producers acquired the rights, mainly for its name recognition value. Verhoeven admits to never having finished the book, and the script outright ridicules many of Heinlein's militaristic, Right-leaning political views. The author's fans tend to consider the movie a travesty, and that's certainly their right. It in no way attempts to do justice to the original prose. This is Paul Verhoeven's 'Starship Troopers', not Robert Heinlein's.
Set in an unspecified future year, the movie presents us with a strangely Fascistic world in which WASP-y North American culture has overtaken the planet. The story begins in Buenos Aires, where a host of characters with Hispanic names such as Rico, Flores, and Ibanez are played by a cast of utterly whitebread young actors that look to have stepped out of an episode of 'Beverly Hills 90210'. We quickly learn that in this society, military service is a requirement for citizenship, and high school classrooms are used as recruiting grounds to ingrain political dogma into the minds of the youth. Stiff-as-a-board Casper Van Dien stars as Johnny, a thick-headed jock who joins the army right after graduation to follow his girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards), a buxom hottie en route to flight officer's school. Sadly for him, Johnny doesn't have the grades to merit anything better than a grunt in the infantry. Tagging along is the equally-sexy Dizzy (Dina Meyer), a classmate who has a thing for Johnny. This little love triangle barely has a chance to heat up before a supposedly-unprovoked attack by an alien insect species from planet Klendathu leads to war, and the entire group is shipped off for bloody combat in the harsh desert terrain.
At the time of its production, Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier developed the film as a criticism against American foreign policy during the first Gulf War of 1991, which saw the Western military invading a strange foreign country they knew little about to participate in a conflict they barely understood. The parallels felt thinly-sketched even then and didn't bear much fruit (the brutal battles in the movie have little in common with the "shock and awe" campaign that began and ended that particular blink-and-you'll-miss-it conflict). Amazingly, looking at it now, the picture is a much more effective commentary on the current world situation. The story eerily foreshadows events that wouldn't happen until years after the film had come and gone: the major terrorist attack on a metropolitan city, the rush to war against a vaguely-defined enemy, the arrogant assumptions of quick and decisive victory, and the seemingly never-ending quagmire to follow. Undoubtedly, this may be reading too much into similarities that obviously could not have been intentional, but perhaps one of the movie's greatest strengths is its prescient understanding of the complex political entanglements that drive societies to war.
Arriving at planet Klendathu, Johnny and the Mobile Infantry sweep in with guns a-blazin', certain that their technological military might will crush the primitive foe. Little do they realize just how unprepared they've come, equipped only with small arms weaponry against a species that can instantly overwhelm them in strength and numbers. The initial invasion is an unmitigated disaster, proving just how badly they'd underestimated the enemy. Though the humans will regroup and attempt less-risky strategies to isolate and attack smaller pockets of resistance, hope for strategic victory quickly evaporates.
At this point, many viewers will ask why the humans don't just nuke Klendathu into oblivion from orbit and be done with it, rather than sending in wave after wave of ill-equipped soldiers. I suppose this is where Donald Rumsfeld's infamous "You go to war with the army you have" quote becomes relevant. Actually, it is probably a failing of the movie that it doesn't more clearly explain this plot point. Buried in the subtext is an understanding that this war was started by humans themselves, not by the alien bugs, and that the government of Earth has no intention of destroying Klendathu, but rather occupying and settling it to exploit for their own purposes. The troopers sent to clear the planet for that goal are expendable.
Taken strictly at face value, the movie has some amazingly visceral and thrilling action scenes, as well as terrific visual effects that haven't dated a bit in the past decade. The CGI bugs are still convincingly realistic, and the integration of computer graphics with miniatures is at times startlingly beautiful, especially during the invasion of Klendathu. The picture should have won the visual effects Oscar that year, but was robbed by the quite inferior work done for 'Titanic'.
Honestly, there's more going on here than is apparent at first glance. As he did in 'RoboCop', Verhoeven laces the film with satirical jabs at the government (depicted awash in Fascist symbolism, from Nazi-like flags to military officers wearing what appear to be SS uniforms) and the media. Spread throughout are a series of 'Why We Fight'-style propaganda newsreel updates about how great the war is going and the importance of every civilian doing their part: "Join up now! Service guarantees citizenship!" The director makes repeated references to old WWII movies, both in the combat sequences and the deliberately corny earnestness of the characters. He gleefully trots out every war movie cliché ingrained in the pop culture consciousness: the mean boot camp drill instructor, the accidental death during a training exercise, the soldier's first Dear John letter, etc. 'Starship Troopers' functions as both macho action movie and parody of macho action movies. Once you tune into Verhoeven's wavelength, it's a film that truly does work on multiple levels.
It may not have clicked with audiences initially, but 'Starship Troopers' has built a following over the years, and proved very popular on DVD. It will surely continue to grow its fan base as more viewers discover it on new media formats into the future.
"Would you like to know more?"
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment finally brings 'Starship Troopers' to Blu-ray in North America, in conjunction with its two direct-to-video sequels. The disc can be purchased either on its own or as part of a 'Starship Troopers Trilogy' box set. The movie was previously released on the format in the UK by Buena Vista.
The Sony disc is Java-enabled and very slow to load in a standalone Blu-ray player. An annoying trailer for 'Starship Troopers 3: Marauder' automatically plays before the main menu. The animated menu itself is kind of funny the first time you watch it, but also very loud, obnoxious, and quickly repetitive, with a design that's difficult to tell which selection you're highlighting.
While Java discs do not allow a Resume-Play option if you should stop playback, a bookmarking feature is available to compensate.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
Sony's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer for 'Starship Troopers' is very similar to the UK disc (which used VC-1). The 1.85:1 picture is satisfyingly sharp throughout, with very good detail and strong colors that show off Jost Vocano's sleek photography nicely. The contrast range is also well balanced, lending the image a nice sense of depth. Though some scenes are mildly grainy, for the most part grain is minimal and unobtrusive.
At first glance, my instinct was to say that the Sony disc is a touch sharper and has more saturated colors than the import. However, after repeated back-to-back comparisons, I honestly couldn't tell the difference between them. Although encoded with different compression codecs, they appear to be sourced from masters of essentially the same quality. Both discs have a minor amount of edge ringing during the boot camp scenes, and the siege on Whiskey Outpost shows obvious signs of artificial sharpening. That later scene has an overall harsh electronic appearance that clashes with the smooth, film-like textures available until that point. After the scene ends, the problem mostly clears up but never entirely goes away for the rest of the movie. Nonetheless, a few flaws aside, this is a fine-looking disc that should make a terrific home theater showcase.
Update: A bizarre editing problem has been discovered on the Sony Blu-ray. Thanks to reader Tim for sending in the following description of the issue, which I can verify is also present on my copy:
At 1:31.43 - 1:31.49, a bug climbs into the base and gets shot to pieces by the troopers, followed by a shot of Michael Ironside and Jake Busey shooting rounds into some (off-screen) bugs. After that, Casper Van Dien screams to Michael Ironside that help is on the way. Then at 1:32.00 - 1:32.06, exactly the same footage with the bug getting blown to pieces and the shot with Ironside and Busey is repeated! This time Ironside can be heard (not seen) saying, "Fall back into the compound. Fall back!" Also missing this second time is the sound of the guns tearing up the bug. I remember that on the DVD version, after the shot with Casper Van Dien and Dina Meyer, Michael Ironside says (and was seen on screen too) the "Fall back" line and then jumps off the barricade. All of this is missing on the Blu-Ray version.
Indeed, I checked the Superbit DVD and the UK Blu-ray edition and both are edited differently, with Ironside voicing his line on camera and then jumping off the barricade. The repeated footage on the new disc is a strange anomaly and must be the result of an error in the source materials that Sony used for their transfer. For what it's worth, the problem lasts only six seconds, and the scene is edited so quickly that I didn't even notice until it was specifically pointed out to me.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
The movie's soundtrack is presented in lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 format. As befitting a $100 million sci-fi action picture, the mix is loud, aggressive, and bombastic. Surround usage may not be as immersive as some more recent movies, but the rear channels get a good workout during the combat scenes, which also feature some monstrous bass.
In comparison to the uncompressed PCM 5.1 track on the import, Sony's TrueHD option is set for a lower default volume due to Dialogue Normalization. After volume-matching the two with a sound level meter, they sound more similar than not. And yet, surprisingly, there are differences. While each audio format should be bit-for-bit identical to its master source, they seem to come from different masters (perhaps one encoded with theatrical levels and the other remixed for home video). The volume of the surround channels is very obviously jacked up a few decibels on the TrueHD track. This makes surround activity more noticeable, but also distractingly loud and harsh at times. The low-end also seems subjectively boomier, but when I tried to take measurements, the variance wasn't significant.
When I originally reviewed the UK disc, I gave it a strong 4-out-of-5 score for audio quality. Revisiting it now, I'm less impressed with the overall fidelity, which sounds a bit thin and becomes strident at high volumes. It just doesn't exhibit the depth and clarity of the best high-res soundtracks. As such, I've adjusted that review to knock half a star off the score. The domestic disc's TrueHD option has the same issue, and despite the minor differences noted above will rate the same score.
Also of note: the TrueHD track seems to be a few frames out of sync with the picture. It's close enough to be unnoticeable for most of the movie, and isn't ever severe enough to be concerned about, but every so often the inaccurate sync may be momentarily distracting, especially on dialogue close-ups.
The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff
In a clear improvement over the UK disc, Sony's Blu-ray carries over almost all of the bonus features from the out-of-print 2-disc Special Edition DVD released in 2002.
- Audio Commentary with Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier – Recorded for the original laserdisc and DVD releases of the movie back in 1998, this track finds the director and screenwriter spending a lot of time defending the film from criticism. Verhoeven's commentaries are often hit-or-miss in quality. He needs a strong moderator to keep the discussion on track, or else he tends to lose focus and let the conversation drift into dull tangents. Neumeier does a pretty good job in that regard, though there is an infamous stretch where Verhoeven gets stuck in a "Digital Johnny, real Johnny, digital Johnny, real Johnny, digital Johnny…" loop for a few minutes when explaining how a big visual effects sequence was created.
- Director and Cast Commentary – Verhoeven returned for this later track recorded in 2002. Here he's joined by stars Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, and Neil Patrick Harris. The group has a good rapport, but nobody came prepared with anything in particular they wanted to say about the movie, and they all wind up straining to remember anecdotes about the production. NPH (before he came out!) makes a few wisecracks about the hot chicks in the cast.
- Death from Above (SD, 32 min.) – This excellent documentary from Automat Pictures covers the movie's WWII influences, its use of irony, the changes made from the Robert Heinlein book (which is referred to respectfully, even though the movie ruthlessly satirizes everything Heinlein wrote about and believed in), and the negative critical reaction. Screenwriter Neumeier explains his concept for the picture: "I just had in mind that Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue go to outer space and fight giant bugs and become Nazis." That pretty much sums it up.
- The Making of Starship Troopers (SD, 8 min.) – Recycled from the first DVD, this is typical EPK fluff with the expected cast and crew interviews. The piece provides a cursory look at the models and visual effects, as well as a glimpse of Verhoeven acting like a maniac on set.
- The Spaceships of Starship Troopers (SD, 4 min.) – Coverage of the concept and design for the starships, the use of miniatures, the CGI, lighting, and early animatic renderings.
- Bug Test Film: Don't Look Now (SD, 1 min.) – A pretty cool proof-of-concept test sequence featuring a random actor interacting with CGI bugs.
- Know Your Foe (SD, 17 min.) – Broken into five segments that can be watched individually or with a "Play All" option, here we're given information about the design and execution of each of the bug species. The brain bug is referred to as "a cross between Orson Welles and a grub."
- FX Comparisons (SD, 29 min.) – Raw production footage and animatics are shown contrasted against the final visual effects. It gets kind of boring after a couple minutes.
- Scene Deconstructions with Paul Verhoeven (SD, 8 min.) – Preliminary scene animatics, storyboards, and behind-the-scenes material. In his commentary, Verhoeven likes to point out the difference between live action and digital footage over and over again.
- Deleted Scenes (SD, 8 min.) – All five of these scenes that were deemed unworthy of the final cut feature Denise Richards. Are we expected to believe that's a coincidence? Casper Van Dien gets to feel her up in one of them. I bet he needed a lot of takes to get that one right.
- Screen Tests: Johnny and Carmen (SD, 4 min.) – They really hired these actors based on this?
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
In addition to all of the above, Sony has added a few new interactive features to the Blu-ray. In order to access all of them, your Blu-ray player must be Profile 2.0 compatible.
- Blu-Wizard – A common feature on previous Sony Blu-rays, Blu-Wizard allows you to select a series of the supplement featurettes from a checklist to watch in uninterrupted sequence rather than one at a time. You can also choose to view them during the movie playback. However, this is not a picture-in-picture function. The movie will pause and then branch out to each video segment, ultimately dragging out the length of the movie.
- Recruitment Test – This silly set-top game asks a number of questions to determine your rank in the future military. The better your knowledge of the movie, the more likely you are to make pilot or Military Intelligence. The game is rather pointless and dumb.
Will Work in Any Blu-ray Player
- FedNet Mode – This Picture-in-Picture feature places a border around the screen cleverly designed to mimic the FedNet broadcasts seen in the movie. Interviews and trivia facts will pop-up in small windows while the film plays. Some of the interviews are recent and others are extensions of those seen in the older featurettes, but all are new to the disc, with no outright repetition of content from the other supplements. Verhoeven states right up front that he thinks the Heinlein novel is Fascist propaganda. Pretty much everyone interviewed has a funny story to tell about working with the director (especially when it came to the famous shower scene). There are a few frustrating gaps here and there, but overall this is one of the better PiP features available on Blu-ray to date.
Bonus View: Requires Profile 1.1
- Put Yourself in the Movie: Join the Fight! – Kudos to Sony for incorporating genuine BD-Live content on the disc. Unfortunately, the "Put Yourself in the Movie" feature is just about the cheesiest thing I've ever seen in my life. Here's how it works: Via the disc's BD-Live option, access the Sony web portal. Using an agonizingly slow keypad simulator, you can register and have instructions for uploading a personal photo emailed to you. Follow the sizing recommendations as carefully as you can. Then go back into BD-Live and align your face onto an animated trooper's body (male or female). When you return to the disc's main menu, you will find a new option in the Bonus Features menu to view a half dozen clips from the movie (about 20 seconds each) where your cartoon avatar will pop into the frame, pasted on top of the live action footage, usually out of scale with the surroundings, and standing there stiff as a board. In some scenes it shoots a gun… while pointing towards the camera, even though the bugs it's supposed to be shooting at are behind it. It looks utterly stupid and ridiculous. To accomplish all this takes about an hour, and the affected clips run for a grand total of two minutes.
- Download Exclusive Ringtones – Seriously, who cares?
BD-Live: Requires Profile 2.0
Also included are some previews for unrelated Sony titles.
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
A few items from the Special Edition DVD didn't make the transition to Blu-ray. Missing are some filmographies, storyboard comparisons, a theatrical trailer, the isolated score with commentary by composer Basil Poledouris, and a rather extensive gallery of conceptual art drawings. The Poledouris commentary is a big loss, considering that he has passed away since recording it. The conceptual art galleries were also quite interesting, and featured a number of preliminary designs (including power armor!) that were radically changed by the time the movie went into production.
Largely misunderstood during its theatrical run, 'Starship Troopers' is a much smarter movie than it first appears. Unlike most sci-fi action pictures, the film has aged surprisingly well. Sony's domestic Blu-ray is a match for the earlier UK import disc in terms of excellent picture (with one brief exception) and good sound, and betters it with a much richer selection of bonus material both old and new. Highly recommended.
- BD-50 Dual-Layer Disc
- Bonus View (Profile 1.1)
- BD-Live (Profile 2.0)
- Regions A, B, C
- 1080p/AVC MPEG-4
- 480p/i/MPEG-2 (Supplements Only)
- English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround
- French Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround
- English Subtitles
- English SDH
- French Subtitles
- Spanish Subtitles
- 2 Audio Commentaries
- Screen Tests
- Deleted Scenes
- FX Comparisons
Exclusive HD Content
- FedNet Mode Picture-in-Picture Commentary (Profile 1.1)
- BD-Live Content (Profile 2.0)
- Recruitment Test
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