Futuristic Movie Month: "Starship Troopers" Review

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing

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Rating: R
Length: 129 minutes
Release Date: November 7, 1997
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Genre: Military / Science Fiction / Action

Based on a popular science fiction novel by author Robert A. Heinlein, "Starship Troopers" explores the adventures of a futuristic military unit sent to an alien world. It uses satire to examine the morality of war. Many differences exist between the novel and film, however. The former seemingly promotes militarism while the latter slyly condemns the concept, using over-the-top news reports throughout the film to point out the dangers of extreme militarism.

"Starship Troopers" takes place in a world where a military takeover of Earth's governments led to the formation of The Global Federation of Earth, a strict militaristic regime. Bent on colonizing alien planets, the Federation attempts diplomatic relations with the natives on the planet Klendathu, which is inhabited by a race called Arachnids, or simply "Bugs."

The film follows three young high school graduates from Buenos Aries who enlist into the military together to become citizens as military service. Military service is the only way to become a full member of society. John "Johnny" D. Rico (Casper Van Dien) joins the Mobile Infantry after he scores too low to join his girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards) in Flight School. Their friend Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) joins the Military Intelligence unit due to his psychic abilities.

After training with Career Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown), Johnny is made squad leader due to his leadership skills. He finds himself drifting further and further away from Carmen because of their different roles. He's also not pleased to learn she's working closely with an old high school rival of his, Zander (Patrick Muldoon). This disconnect in Johnny and Carmen's relationship is further highlighted as Johnny is joined by Dizzy (Dina Meyer), a former classmate who joins the unit to be near him.

A training session in Johnny's charge goes wrong, killing one of his squad members. Johnny finds himself demoted and flogged due to the military law they operate under. He decides to quit and makes a video call to his parents in Buenos Aries. During the transmission, an Arachnid-directed asteroid destroys the city and kills Johnny's parents. As Earth declares war on the Bugs, Johnny decides to stay in the Infantry to avenge their deaths.

While the Federation is eager to squash the Bugs, their large-scale invasion becomes a quagmire. The Federation has underestimated the combat ability of the Arachnids. Possessing amazing firepower that's capable of destroying Fleet vessels in space from the planet's surface, the Arachnids prove themselves demanding foes. During the initial invasion, over 100,000 troops are killed, and Johnny is severely wounded.

The death toll rises quickly, and at one point, over 300,000 deaths are reported on the Ticonderoga Battle Station where the remains of the Fleet dock. The majority of Johnny's squad is killed, and a casualty list that mistakenly lists him as dead leaves Carmen in mourning. Puzzled by the superior fighting ability of the Bugs, scientists posit "Brain Bugs" that call the shots are serving as their generals. A plan is formed to take them out and save the remains of the fleet from destruction.

What follows is a visual spectacle punctuated by high-quality special effects and sly details that mark the satirical nature of the film. Military uniforms are modeled after Nazi uniforms to add a feeling of fascism, and that point is brought home with undertones that point out the Arachnids were merely defending themselves against foreign invaders. Break-ins to news reports highlight the demonization of the Bugs for what amounts to self-defense as well as the propaganda used to convince more young men and women to join up and fight the good fight.

By the end of the film, after fighting against seemingly impossible odds, the fleet manages to capture one of the Brain Bugs, which is trumpeted as a huge victory on the news reports, as it will help the military learn how the enemy thinks. The violence and destruction of this victory are downplayed in the rush to glorify the "heroes" who saved the day, helping the Federation create even more propaganda to lure other young men and women to their own doom in the name of blind patriotism.

The use of over-the-top imagery and satire is subtle at times and blatant and others. Verhoeven uses this to ask the audience to examine why we go to war and what we actually gain from it. Exciting action sequences will draw audiences to the film, but the social and political commentary it examines will leave them thinking deeply long after the credits roll.