STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997)  Director – Paul Verhoeven.  Screenwriter – Edward Neumeier.  Starring – Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Neil Patrick Harris, Michael IronsideST 1

It’s kind of shocking they didn’t get it. I guess we blew it“. Jon Davidson, Producer, Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers is perhaps one of the most misunderstood films of it’s time. It can also be argued that it’s the pinnacle achievement of director Paul Verhoeven, a £100m special effects heavy sci-fi blockbuster that was adapted from one of the most famous books in the genre. And, with a $120m box office, it was also a huge flop. Producer Jon Davidson was and is still right; how could people not get it? How can they still not?

Verhoeven was the highly intelligent liberal European filmmaker from the Netherlands who had made a huge success in America with the likes of Flesh & Blood, Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct, films that revelled in high levels of nudity, violence and gore. Cinema audiences loved them. But there was also an intelligence at work on the celluloid; his successful skewing of both corporate America and the industrial military complex in Robocop, for example, was greeted with glee by the critics and those viewers who wanted more than just ultraviolence.

A successful, fascistic American future. It's irony see?
A successful, fascistic American future. It’s irony, see?

Two years previous to Starship Troopers Verhoeven had made Showgirls, a film that was met with critical disdain, a distinct lack of audience and a then unprecedented seven Razzie Awards (Verhoeven’s response to this was to not only go to the awards ceremony but collect each and every ‘win’ in person, something no one had done before or since). He claimed that Showgirls was meant to be over the top, that it was made that way on purpose and that no one really got it. Then he went and did the exact same thing again.

Well, sort of. Set in a near future where Americana is the world entire, planet Earth is now a fully functioning, successful fascist state and an interplanetary force to boot. Everyone is genetically pure, very good looking and buff and naturally these are ideals that are best for everywhere else and at the expense of everyone and everything else. Especially any nasty looking aliens. With a $100m budget – a huge amount for a movie in 1997 – Verhoeven was left alone to craft what he wanted. After all, with script from Robocop scribe Edward Neumeier and Verhoeven still on a huge roll, what was the problem?

90210 Trek. Melrose Space. Johnny (Casper Van Dien), Carmen (Denise Richards) and Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) buddy-up
90210 Trek / Melrose Space. Johnny (Casper Van Dien), Carmen (Denise Richards) and Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) buddy-up

What Verhoeven wanted was a satire on where he saw America heading despite it being a virtual maxim that irony doesn’t work in cinema. Setting out his stall from the off with a direct take on Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will – would you like to know more? – he populated the film with appropriately young actors from adverts and daytime soaps, all the better to convey the conscription of youth in war. That a lot of these fresh-faced ingénues and innocents couldn’t act very well only added to the underlying tone Verhoeven was setting, a nudge, nudge, wink, wink, letting you in on the joke. Or so he thought.

It’s very difficult to change the perception of a movie when it has already been put on the front page of all the major newspapers saying, ‘Paul Verhoeven – Fascist Movie“. Paul Verhoeven, Director, Starship Troopers

The critics mauled it with none other than The Washington Post saying, “It’s exactly like “Star Wars” — if you subtract a good story, sympathetic characters, intelligence, wit and moral purpose.” before remarking, incredulously, “it’s impossible to decide whether (Verhoeven is) sending up the Third Reich or in love with it.” The ‘Post led from the front and most reviews, especially in America, followed this line. After all, Verhoeven was an interloper, how dare he mock America?

To be fair, and seeing the film in it’s time and context, it’s understandable why some were confused. Creepy mind-reading Carl, who’s quickly drafted into the higher echelons of military intelligence, was played by Neil Patrick Harris, then still best known as famous, annoying genius child surgeon Doogie Howser M.D.; it was hard for audiences to adjust to seeing him in full black leather trenchcoat nazi garb. And absolutely no one had forgiven Verhoeven for Showgirls a mere two years after it’s release. Had Starship Troopers come straight after, say, Total Recall or Basic Instinct, it would likely have been far better received.

Co-ed showers - a Verhoeven staple - at boot camp
Co-ed showers – a Verhoeven staple – at boot camp

But perhaps the main reason so many penned so much vitriol at Starship Troopers was that it was just so much fun. Regardless if you’re fully clued-in to what Verhoeven is up to or not you can’t help but be swept up in the sheer energy that permeates virtually every frame. The camera is kinetic in a way that we don’t really see any more, ships rock violently, blood and gore splatter at regular intervals and the score, by the vastly underrated Basil Poledouris, rouses and pulses and sweeps you along. Yes, it’s future Nazis laying waste to planets and species but, good God, it’s fun to watch. They all look great! It’s exhilarating! Maybe the guilt at being so entertained whilst watching your future fascist countrymen ‘Kill ‘Em All!’ just didn’t sit right with a lot of people.

This 'Trooper will need a hand
This ‘Trooper could do with a hand

Twenty years on and Starship Troopers has all but been confined to the annals of 90’s excess and history. Verhoeven made just one more Hollywood film, Hollow Man, a misogynistic, lazy and not much fun take on the invisible man. Then he left, retreated back to his native Holland and resumed making films, good films, in his own language once more. There was a large enough group of viewers who loved the film and wanted more to make sequels not only attractive but inevitable. Just as inevitable, it seems, would be how bad they would turn out to be. 2004’s Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation was a dire, limp follow-up that trapped a group of troopers in a transport and left them there for almost the whole movie and Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008), which brought back both Casper Van Dien’s Johnny Rico and screenwriter Ed Neumeier, suffered a low budget and worse direction (Neumeier broke his helming cherry on this; he hasn’t directed since and nor should he.).

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Bugs! Kill ’em all!

There was nothing quite like Starship Troopers before or since and there are still plenty of people who can’t see past it’s sheen and polish – and it’s in-built cheesiness – to the depths below. That’s a shame but also a small blessing, for here is a true lost classic that many will still discount out of hand. As a political commentary on American militaristic ambitions and a polemic on the human species at large it’s never been more prescient; it could easily now be retitled Starship Troopers: Donald Trump’s Wet Dream. But as a six-pack-of-beer-and-pizza-delivery-Saturday-night-thrillfest, there is none better either. Go on, demand to know more. Because these troopers? They’ll keep fighting…..

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