"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
'Starship Troopers' may be a Sony title in North America, but the picture is distributed by Touchstone Home Entertainment (a division of Buena Vista Home Entertainment -- in other words Disney) in many other countries. While we're still waiting for Sony to announce a domestic Blu-ray release, the film is available on the format now in the UK. The disc is coded for Regions A, B, and C, and will work in any American Blu-ray disc player.
The case art is marred by Disney's hideous swoosh banners. Once loaded, the disc prompts a choice of menu languages: English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, or Icelandic. After that selection, an obnoxious Blu-ray promo and several trailers must be individually skipped, a nuisance that becomes aggravating quickly. Unlike most Disney releases, the disc does actually have a main set-up menu, in a simplistic graphic design that ties-in with a computer screen seen in the movie.
'Starship Troopers' is presented in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio with a 1080p/VC-1 transfer that should please most fans. The 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 from inky blacks to bright whites, lending the image a nice sense of depth. Though some of the visual effects shots are mildly grainy, for the most part grain is minimal and unobtrusive.
During the first 90 minutes or so of the movie, a minor amount of edge ringing appears in small, sporadic occurrences (the boot camp scenes have a bit), but is generally insignificant. Unfortunately, the siege on Whiskey Outpost in Chapter 13 shows more obvious signs of artificial sharpening. That scene has a lot of ringing, noisy grain, and 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. Some explosions here and there also exhibit minor compression artifacting. Nonetheless, a few flaws aside, this is a fine-looking disc that should make a terrific home theater showcase.
The movie's English-language soundtrack is offered in a choice of standard Dolby Digital 5.1 or uncompressed PCM 5.1 options. 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.
Truth be told, I was never a big fan of the DD 5.1 tracks on any of the previous DVD releases of 'Starship Troopers'. I found them plenty bassy in the deep low-end, but lacking fidelity in the mid-range and particularly anemic when it came to machine gun fire. The 2-channel PCM audio on the old laserdisc was more satisfying. Thankfully, the Blu-ray's 5.1 PCM track rectifies those issues, restoring some nice thump to the machine guns and doing better justice to the sweeping Basil Poledouris score. However, fidelity as a whole is merely average for a high-res track, and the audio is a bit strident at higher listening volumes.
Also included are French and Spanish dub tracks, each in a choice of DD 5.1 or DTS 5.1. The back cover of the disc case shows (quite misleadingly) a DTS-HD Master Audio logo, but the spec chart and the disc menus only mention "DTS", and I was able to confirm on my disc player that the tracks are in fact standard DTS.
Disney hasn't exactly put a lot of effort into the disc's supplement package, recycling most (but not all) of the material from the old 1998 DVD.
Largely misunderstood during its theatrical run, 'Starship Troopers' is a much smarter movie than it first appears. Unlike most sci-fi action pictures, the movie has aged surprisingly well. This UK import may be a bit on the pricey side, but has excellent picture and good sound. Fans will find it worth the expense. Casual viewers can probably hold out to see what Sony does with it on these shores.