I’m making it official — I’ve given up on Paul Verhoeven. (2010 update: I didn’t actually give up on Paul Verhoeven. But I was really frustrated by Starship Troopers at the time. Looking back, the film just seems like a wonderful joke. I should probably revisit.)
Yeah, he showed some stuff in his early Dutch features, which dealt with sex and psychology and violence. Sure, he had the chutzpah to coax Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rutger Hauer into Flesh + Blood, a trashy medieval potboiler with a rape fetish. And he topped all of them with his big budget debut, a nifty, very violent little satire called RoboCop that emerged as one of the better science fiction films of the 1980s — a bombastic, perversely humanist response to Dirty Harry.
His follow-up was the amiable Total Recall, which I could have done without. Basic Instinct was a bit of a guilty pleasure, although I’ve never mistaken it for a good film. (And who’s been managing Sharon Stone’s career, anyway?)
But then how were we to deal with the blithe disaster called Showgirls? Easy to blame screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who probably talked his Basic Instinct comrade into it. Even so, Verhoeven should have known enough to demand a rewrite. But since he’s Dutch, maybe there was a language barrier that kept him from noticing that the script wasn’t, as they say, Oscar material. Or maybe it was his impulse, as a European expatriate, to caricature Las Vegas as a microcosm for the greater kitsch that is American culture, thus justifying the bad dialogue, the garish caricatures, the overwrought symbolism, and the gang rape as, um, social criticism.
You can tell that I was perfectly willing to accept excuses. After all, Hollywood was pouring the bucks into Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Once again, his screenwriter was RoboCop scribe Ed Neumeier. Word was that he had turned Robert Heinlein’s original novel on its ear, reimagining it in all its jingoistic glory with notably fascist undertones (dig those SS uniforms). Early reviews were relatively kind, and the trailers depicted an enthusiastically gross war-against-the-bug-critters, replete with all manner of nastiness. Once advance audiences started clucking about all the violence and the mantra became how-did-that-get-an-R-rating?, my hopes for at least an agreeably vicious SF war movie were stoked. Best-case scenario would be an inspired satire with suitably cruel moments, a la RoboCop. In short, I wanted this movie to succeed.
And in reel one, I gotta admit, it looked like Verhoeven might have been able to pull it off. No doubt as a sop to impatient audiences, Verhoeven dropped us into the fray right away, with a newsreel-style report on the earthlings’ Normandy-style invasion of the planet Klendathu and fragments of a well-developed campaign of wartime propaganda. From the immediate maiming of the TV newsman through Michael Ironside’s entrance as a one-armed high school teacher, Starship Troopers looked to be sharp and cynical. Even the Aaron Spelling Productions-style business about a romantic quadrangle and a pledge among painfully cute teenagers (Hey! Isn’t that Doogie Howser!?) to remain friends forever seemed like an interesting idea, given the violence to come.
According to Starship Troopers, earth in the 23rd century is a sunny, happy, and very, very white place. Buenos Aires, of all cities, looks a lot like a well-to-do southern California suburb — all the better to populate Verhoeven’s cynical vision of a monochromatic society. Life is good, but in order to be a “citizen,” to participate in the one-world government, civilians must first demonstrate their willingness to defend the greater society, the “body politic,” with their lives. (Actually, there may be other ways to do this, but the film considers none of them.)
And so it is that protagonist Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) balks at his parents’ wishes (they want him to go to Harvard) and decides to enlist. Actually, he’s enlisting because he hopes to stay close to his sweetheart, the toothy Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards). But Carmen has the math scores to be a pilot, while Rico is doomed to serve as a grunt in mobile infantry. Making matters worse, a smirking hotshot named Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon) has eyes for Carmen, and also has the stuff to fly alongside her. Pal Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) is assigned to intelligence and tactics, and will show up later in a sleek black trenchcoat. The likable Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) makes no secret of her longing for Johnny, and winds up alongside him in combat.
The early scenes parody the concentrated earnestness of a “Why we fight” propaganda movie. Verhoeven’s gone so far as to hire a bunch of adorable television actors to act on their collective hatred for the enemy. The major shortcoming, I think, is that Verhoeven never makes us really understand how it feels to be a member of this society, or of this army. We’re third-hand witnesses to the alien-engineered destruction of Buenos Aires, which is ostensibly the Pearl Harbor that drives the soldiers’ fighting spirit, but it’s played as dark comedy. (Mom: “Oh, my, what’s that?” Dad: “Looks like rain.” Mom: “This time of year?” KerPLUNK!) Elsewhere, dedication to the military is portrayed as more than a little looney. “Mobile infantry made me the man I am today,” declares a typically enthusiastic vet, who’s missing an arm and both legs. In the opening scenes, when a student suggests that “violence never solves anything,” Raczak responds with a reference to bomb-blasted Hiroshima. “Naked force,” he declares, “has settled more issues in history than any other factor.” And who can prove him wrong? Verhoeven’s clearly both appalled and amused by such philsophizing.
These early scenes reveal Verhoeven’s satirical agenda as well as his abiding weakness for camp and/or kitsch — including, of all things, a football game! His thing for these nubile kids spills over into boot camp, where a co-ed shower scene adeptly demonstrates society’s progress in terms of gender equality. Later, I love it when Carmen crushes Johnny by announcing, thoughtlessly, that she and Zander have become a “flight team,” neatly advancing the soap opera and illustrating the subordination of personal lives to the function of the military unit. And I had to admire his unblinking efficiency in showing us about these kids’ perfect lives, their squeaky clean hopes and dreams, only to let $100 million worth of flesh-ripping, bone-crunching, brain-sucking special effects have their way with them in the final reels.
Problem is, there’s no flesh-ripping, bone-crunching, brain-sucking payoff. Yes, there’s plenty of all of that stuff — including some pretty colorful shots of post-bug carnage — but, with the exception of an accidental shooting in boot camp, none of it is shocking or surprising or even much fun to watch. (You want carnage? Try Braindead.) The battle scenes are so reliant on computer graphics that they take on a two-dimensional appearance — it actually made my eyes cross. Worse, they just go on and on.
In one sequence, a group of a couple dozen humans is defending a compound against an advancing ocean of bugs as they wait for a transport ship to arrive. The visuals are actually pretty awe-inspiring, and you might start to squirm a little as the bugs — literally hundreds of thousands of them — start to climb over piles of each other’s bodies, to clamber up onto the platform. Why, then, do they only scramble over the railing one or two at a time, all the better for our teenage heroes to pump them full of bullets? Bug attacks; humans pull out machine guns; rat-a-tat-tat; bug disintegrates and collapses; surprise, another bug attacks. It’s a Sisyphean task, and it reminded me of playing a video game into the wee hours of the morning, an electronic entertainment that requires nothing of you except that you keep hitting that “fire” button over and over again, just as fast as you can. Starship Troopers doesn’t even ask you to press the button.
Verhoeven’s satirical vision kicks in again at the very end of the movie, when the soldiers’ bloodlust finally becomes a little bit chilling. (For that matter, so might the audience’s.) But his satire gets in the way of his storytelling. Starship Troopers has its moments, and it’s certainly not stupid. But there are only so many places the movie can go without tipping its hand, and Verhoeven seems dead set against allowing his film to consciously acknowledge its own subtext. Ironic that in order to stay true to its blandly militaristic premise, it’s guilty of underwriting its action, figuring, erroneously, that the full-tilt special effects will deliver on their own terms. They don’t. A couple of slam-bang action sequences in exactly the right places, revealing tension and desperation among the aggressors instead of the same old rat-a-tat-tat, might have made all the difference.