Forget the Terminator, it’s the Exterminator you’ll be looking for after experiencing “Starship Troopers.” A film whose self-proclaimed motto is “Kill anything that has more than two legs,” this picture has what it takes to premiere at a Roach Motel and be reviewed by the makers of Raid.
Based on Robert A. Heinlein’s classic 1959 science-fiction novel, “Starship Troopers” presents the evildoers almost no one can abide, the one kind of villain not likely to hold press conferences protesting small-minded stereotyping. It’s us vs. the bugs, big time, and as one character resolutely puts it, “we’re in this for the species, boys and girls.”
Put together by Paul Verhoeven (“RoboCop,” “Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls”), a director for whom excess is never enough, “Troopers” does not fit any reasonable definition of a quality motion picture. But it certainly is a jaw-dropping experience, so rigorously one-dimensional and free from even the pretense of intelligence it’s hard not to be astonished and even mesmerized by what is on the screen.
Part of the reason is those darn bugs. Besides the hordes of gigantic Warriors, who attack in unstoppable waves like the Japanese in xenophobic World War II movies, there are flying bugs, crawling bugs, gargantuan fire-breathing Tanker bugs and even, Lord protect us, a deep-thinking Brain bug that knows lots more than we’d like it to.
Constructed out of a complex combination of model and miniature work and computer-generated imagery, “Starship Troopers’ ” impressive futuristic world of bugs, spaceships and total war makes you wonder about the sanity of the technicians who spent lonely hours making innumerable insects look good on camera. There must be less taxing ways to make a living.
But where “Starship Troopers” has it all over similar effects-laden efforts like “Independence Day” and “Twister” is its complete lack of pretense. There’s no mock emotion here, none of the nauseating pseudo-sensitivity that, for instance, marked Judd Hirsch’s character in “Independence Day.”
What Ed Neumeier’s script provides instead is a cheerfully lobotomized, always watchable experience that has the simple-mindedness of a live-action comic book, with no words spoken that wouldn’t be right at home in a funny paper dialogue balloon. Not just one comic book either, but an improbable and delirious combination of “Weird Science,” “Betty and Veronica” and “Sgt. Rock and His Howling Commandos.”
Also thrown into this high-energy mix, in case anyone was thinking of getting bored, is the fascist utopianism of the original Heinlein novel. Introduced via infomercials and news broadcasts playing on a computer screen, “Troopers” takes us to a militaristic future where video bulletins encourage young people to “Join the Mobile Infantry and save the world” and schools teach that “violence is the supreme authority” and nothing solves problems with the efficacy of “naked force.”
“Troopers” opens with its own teaser trailer, a TV broadcast of Earth’s attack on bug stronghold Klendathu, in the heart of the Arachnid Quarantine Zone, the dread AQZ. “This is an ugly planet, a bug planet,” an on-screen reporter huffily reports before getting eviscerated on the spot by an understandably outraged local resident.
Now that it’s got our attention, “Trooper” flashes back a year and goes into its Betty and Veronica mode, introducing its key characters as students at a high school located for unknown reasons in Buenos Aires. These youthful performers are by and large not familiar faces but they all have the shiny photogenic glow of a shampoo commercial, not to mention a sleek superficiality that makes Luke Skywalker seem like Hamlet by comparison.
Square-jawed hero Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is captain of the football team and in love with the beautiful Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards). But while Carmen is flirting with handsome Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon), Johnny is oblivious to the fact that vixenish Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), his attractive quarterback (the game has changed some over the years), is carrying a major torch for him. And brainy Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris, TV’s Doogie Howser) is too busy perfecting his mind-reading techniques to even have a girlfriend.
All this romantic plotting comes to a boil at graduation. Both Carmen and Zander head off to Fleet Academy to become hotshot pilots, and Johnny, under the influence of hard-nosed teacher Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside), dismays his parents by joining the rugged Mobile Infantry in the hopes of impressing Carmen. And who should turn up in the same platoon but old pal Diz. Talk about complications.
Of course, everyone’s personal life takes a back seat when those pesky bugs, who have been trouble before, launch a devastating sneak attack on Earth. Fearless, egoless and hard to kill, the bugs are a heck of an opponent and they seem to know that after years of skirmishing this will be a battle to the death.
A very messy death it turns out to be, for “Starship Troopers” offers no shortage of all manner of carnage. The bugs are both nuked and blown away by what’s been reported as the most ammunition ever used in a major motion picture, while the hapless humans are repulsively chomped up, dismembered, impaled, beheaded and completely slimed on by the enemy. “Bugs don’t take prisoners,” our troops are warned and, for better and worse, neither does “Starship Troopers.”
* MPAA rating: R, for graphic sci-fi violence and gore, and for some language and nudity. Times guidelines: people beheaded, torn limb from limb, covered with buckets of insect gore.
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Casper Van Dien: Johnny Rico
Dina Meyer: Dizzy Flores
Denise Richards: Carmen Ibanez
Jake Busey: Ace Levy
Neil Patrick Harris: Carl Jenkins
Clancy Brown: Sgt. Zim
A Jon Davison production, released by TriStar Pictures. Director Paul Verhoeven. Producers Davison, Alan Marshall. Screenplay by Ed Neumeier, based on the book by Robert A. Heinlein. Cinematographer Jost Vacano. Editors Mark Goldblatt and Caroline Ross. Costumes Ellen Mirojnick. Creature visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett. Music Basil Poledouris. Production design Allan Cameron. Art directors Steve Wolff, Bruce Robert Hill. Running time: 2 hour, 9 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.