This month Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars gets its home entertainment release with Casper Van Dien and Dina Meyer returning from Paul Verhoeven’s original to add their voices to the latest entry in the series. The release of this new animated movie marked the twentieth anniversary of the original film, and, more than any other entry in the series, aims to recapture the magic and mayhem of Verhoeven’s 1997 classic.
Things have moved on a great deal since the days of Rico’s Roughnecks and Neil Patrick Harris’s wonderful military uber-scientist. The war with the bugs is still ongoing, and bloodier than ever. Each of the movie sequels has broken off from the main events of the first film and taken a more intimate look at the ravages of constant war. Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars and its predecessor Invasion bring us back to the world-ending chaos with skies aflame and human armies dwarfed by the oncoming hordes of bugs.
Here’s a look at Rico leading the troops into battle once again in the trailer of Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars. There’s a very nice tease of the reunion to come as well…
You can see the size and scope of the new film has taken great advantage of the fully CG production. Having Casper Van Dien and Dina Meyer return brings the series back to its roots. So this is an excellent time to revisit the still-superb original and consider again what makes it such a great 90’s sci-fi film.
“I’m from Buenos Aires, and I say kill ’em all!”
Robert A. Heinlein’s novel formed the basis for what proved to be another searing dissection by Verhoeven of US militarism. After Robocop’s satirical swipes at the military-industrial complex and the corporatisation of law-enforcement, Verhoeven now looked towards gung-ho jingoism and how easy it is to blindly wade into warfare, all the while celebrating a mindless devotion to military might. Verhoeven’s masterstroke was the insertion into Starship Troopers of news clips, showing (for example) small children squashing bugs as their contribution to the war effort, whilst gazing in wide-eyed wonder at soldiers and their considerable military hardware. Real-life amputee Robert David Hall, here playing a recruiting sergeant, pushes back on his chair to reveal his missing legs and ironically says, “mobile infantry made me the man I am today!”.
But it’s not all knowing ironic swipes and satirical jibes. Starship Troopers delivers in spades on the action and spectacle front, so much so that it probably explains why the enduring narrative is that US audiences in general missed the elaborate joke that Verhoeven was telling. By getting his cast to play their roles “straight”, he avoided any risk of knowing glances towards the camera, even as Neil Patrick Harris arrives on screen in a manifestly Gestapo get-up at the film’s climax.
“The only good bug, is a dead bug!”
The main battles with the bugs, whether the Zulu-like onslaught on the outpost on Planet P (“this planet definitely crawls, sir”), or the running battle with the increasingly varied types of bug (fire-breathing, flying, fireball-out-of-bottoms-blasting) that includes Van Dien’s Rico making a hole in a bug’s back, then throwing a grenade in, are all superbly rendered, as you would expect from the director that gave Robocop and Total Recall so much gruesome heft. The effects continue to hold up (more so than the subsequent entries in the franchise that inevitably suffered from budget cuts) even 20 years on, with expertly rendered swarms of bugs alongside wince-inducing dismemberments, decapitations and, in one of the film’s finest moments, a man’s brains being sucked out through the top of his head.
Focussing for a moment on the assault on the outpost on Planet P, it is very easy for this sort of effects-heavy scene to lose its impact – almost meaningless multitudes of aliens, potentially chaotic editing, a loss of a sense of peril and scale – but Verhoeven delivers an astonishingly accomplished set-piece, melding the elements (bleeding-edge CGI, excellent original creature designs, suitably hefty props, a believable set, gruesome injury detail) together to impactful effect.
It is just one example of Verhoeven’s impeccable control over the film. A few years later he would show with Hollow Man how easy it is to lose a film’s substance in the process of showing off new CGI developments. But there were no such problems here – it was his film, made his way. He said what he wanted to say the way he wanted to say it and employed FX in service of a story rather than as an end in itself.
“Everybody fights, no one quits.”
Plenty of sci-fi films have displayed intelligent sub-text (though the 1990s offerings were better known for their bombast than anything else), but it was the way Starship Troopers so effortlessly alloyed its undertones to the surface excitement that truly set it apart. Yes, the violence was extreme (how on earth it garnered a 15 rating for its theatrical release is entirely beyond me), but the thrills and viscera of the action sequences are undeniable. Square-jawed heroes, scenery-chewing supporting stars, buckets of blood, Patrick Muldoon literally losing his mind, Marshall Bell more figuratively so, Michael Ironside epitomising the film’s ramped-up B-movie credentials. It had everything.
The film’s legacy would of course be diluted by its immediate sequels, but we don’t dismiss or marginalize Jaws because of the shortcomings of Jaws: The Revenge, so we should continue to appreciate Starship Troopers for all it represents – a director demonstrating how to disguise satirical commentary as popcorn entertainment, while delivering one of the most viscerally thrilling science fiction films of many a year.