The Test of Time: Starship Troopers (1997)

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, and Neil Patrick Harris

You know big time, big budget sci-fi seems to have really tanked this summer. From RIPD to After Earth, sci-movies took a beating. And while even Star Trek Into Darkness did business, it didn’t do what many thought considering its nearly $200 million budget. With that said, sci-fi is one of the few genres that have legs. A movie that bombed might not make money upfront but it might find one of those elusive cult audiences and end up making coin. Ok, so I doubt people will lovingly look back at Oblivion 20 years from now, but you never know.

Back in 1997, Paul Verhoeven (the king of violently fun sci-fi), made a $100 million flick without a major star about a war with giant killer bugs. It never made big money, but it did enough to warrant multiple lesser sequels. Does the original still stand as a classic?

Under the examination: Starship Troopers.

At least they had this movie.

THE STORY: In the near future, Earth has a unique new enemy…big, spider-like bugs from outer space and war with them gonna happen. It’s just a matter of time. The story follows a bunch of military rookies as they mature into various types of killing machines. Johnny Rico (Van Dien) is the All-American, square-jawed fellow ready for battle. Carmen (Richards) is the beautiful and smart pilot who hadn’t met the love of her life Charlie Sheen yet. Then there’s the brainy dude Doogie Howser (Harris of course) and another jock Ace (Jake Busey). Oh, then there’s Dizzy (Dina Meyer), who happens to be in love with Rico. (There’s many, many more characters…let’s move on). Just as Rico is done with this whole military thing, the bugs attack earth killing his folks (and many, many others) in the process. So all out war! Who lives? Who dies? Who survives the war?!

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: Damn. What doesn’t? I’ll get to the bug killing below but I think more than anything writer Edward Neumeier’s (from Robocop fame with director Verhoeven) political and social commentary stands out. Sure, at times it’s a bit much but his exploration of various American values makes the movie. Part of the movie shows how we are born and breed by society while showing why we need to fight. The film makes a point of discussing differences between Citizen and Civilian, duty, honor, classism (among other shit).

Sorta looks like a set from old school Star Trek.

Like in Robocop, Verhoeven adds in cutaway commercials and news stories where viewers are prompted to click if they “would you like to know more?” I think this movie has one of the best openings ever. Instead of the clichéd rolling text or having Morgan Freeman tell us what’s wrong with this future, Verhoeven gives us a montage of government TV (Federal Network). The “I’m Doing my Part” propaganda ad to join the mobile infantry leads us in, followed by a simple news report about the bug situation and why they need to die. Then we’re given a live report where everyone quickly discovers this isn’t going to be an easy fight. It’s a quick two or so minutes, but damn what else did the viewer need to know?

Now, if you don’t give a shit about what a movie has to say, fear not because Starship Troopers isn’t a snobby sci-fi film with endless shots of ships floating in space or a spaceman pondering into the darkness of, well, space. No no, it’s an action movie and a badass one at that. The war sequences (with the great Michael Ironside leading the way with his “Army of Darkness” hand) are intense, violent, and explosive which is saying something when our good warriors battle really, really big computer generated bugs. Starship Troopers has beheadings, stabbings, explosions, sex, shootings, gore, gushing bug guts, and a whole lot more to satisfy even the sickest viewer.

Granted, a lot of what’s here is comic book violence, but that’s what’s great about Paul Verhoeven. He’s one of the few directors who could find humor in anything, never taking anything too seriously. Here, the humor never erodes the tension or what's at stake throughout the movie. It’s darkly fun and frightening, which alone makes it classic.

I'm sure he'll be fine...

WHAT BLOWS NOW: I could criticize the special effects in Starship Troopers, but as much as CGI has changed since 1997 I think everything here looks fantastic. Oh sure, moments come up here and there that don’t look as good as perhaps they could now but this isn’t modern tech. In fact, some moments (like the bunker battle) hold up perfectly.

If there’s really a bitch about the film I’d maybe complain about the casting. What could this have been if it had starred Arnold? Or Willis? Or Cruise? Or Smith? Or Chuck? It works great without a name because this is an ensemble flick, but having Arnold and Verhoeven back together would have been something to see. Actually, if Van Dien had had another major role (his next big movie was a bit part in Sleepy Hollow) maybe then he'd stand out more. Instead, there's plenty of character actors who pop up and you'll say, "I'd remember him in this!" (like Dean Norris). 

Oh, one moment that truly blows. That scene where Jake Busey plays a neon-yellow violin while trying to romance Rico and Dizzy. That’s just…odd. We’ll pretend it didn’t happen, which is probably we get the sex scene (and get to see Dizzy naked) seconds later. Gotta make up for it somehow.

THE VERDICT: Starship Troopers is more original, more entertaining than any sci-fi movie in recent memory. I don’t know exactly what Hollywood did to Verhoeven to drive him away, but I sure as hell miss his work and this is one of his finest. Here’s hoping he not only returns to the genre, but brings Arnold back to where he’s best (before they are all too damn old).



Now those are tats.



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