"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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.