Starship Troopers is a kick-ass paramilitary teenybop creature-feature spectacular. in the gleaming techno-fascist future, a group of young recruits, so fearless and square-jawed they make tom cruise in top gun look like a hippie wimp, go into basic training for the mobile infantry and journey to a distant planet to engage in apocalyptic warfare with some very, very big bugs. the bugs, it seems, are out to destroy earth; having seen the movie, i still have no idea why they would bother. nevertheless, the bugs must be stopped!
These outsize insects are amazingly ruthless. They come in a variety of species — there are beautiful big dragonflies, as well as the occasional three-block-long fire-breathing ant beast — but the main threat are the Arachnids, 15-foot-tall spider/ scorpion hybrids with razory spiked legs that can poke through your chest before you’ve had a chance to say ”Damn!” Those talons attack like lightning, and so do the Arachnids; they skitter forward as if jet-propelled. The only way to destroy one, short of landing a machine-gun blast at its nerve center, is to shoot off every last one of its twitching legs, something you’ve got about five seconds to do — Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! — before the bug is in your face. Assuming you succeed, you can turn your attention to the several hundred more Arachnids that are following in its path, coming at you with the same zip-speed, primitive-brained relentlessness.
Starship Troopers is as relentless as those bugs. Directed by Paul ”Tomorrow’s Blockbuster Belongs to Me” Verhoeven, who returns here to the nihilistic shock-comix mode of RoboCop and Total Recall, the picture is like Aliens, Star Wars, Top Gun, and Jurassic Park all jammed together, the whole concoction slathered with a gob of Verhoeven’s smirking Euro-sadist perversity (leering jokes about lost limbs, much sexualized insect imagery). Some of the future-world satire is quite witty. When Verhoeven indulges his knack for exaggerating the worst trends in corporate media culture, staging TV news shows that are like nightly flashes of Armageddon, the picture achieves some of the spoofy bite of RoboCop (his best film). Mostly, though, what Starship Troopers feels like is a hyperactive death-sport videogame. This monster-combat epic is bloody, amoral, and — I won’t deny it — sensationally exciting. Few will mistake it for a pop classic, but once the soldiers face off against the bugs, which have been brought to life with dazzling new levels of computer-animated wizardry, the rhythms of the thrills are scary and addictive. The movie turns its audience into vicarious Terminators.
Maybe that’s why there’s something a little disturbing about the prospect of America’s kids lining up to see Starship Troopers (assuming, of course, that they can duck into the multiplex doors despite an R rating). Kicky and soulless and violent as hell, the movie practically makes a fetish of its own insensitivity. There’s a kinky-camp ghoulishess to it, and that ghoulishness extends to the hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-war! story line, which plays like Beverly Hills, 90210 recast as a military-recruitment film for the Third Reich.
Verhoeven has populated the movie almost entirely with third-tier Aaron Spelling castoffs — actors, in other words, who make Jason Priestley and Heather Locklear look like classical thespians. The blandness of this mannequin troupe is double-edged. We can hardly have much investment in the junior armed-forces soap opera plot — e.g., will dreamboat enlistee Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien, from 90210) win back the hand of aspiring starship pilot Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards, from 90210 and Melrose Place)? Will Carmen fall under the spell of her dashing trainer, Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon, from Melrose)? Can Johnny resist the advances of tough babe Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer, from 90210)? At the same time, the teen-dream plasticity of the characters makes them seem ”idealized” prototypes of a robo-Teutonic future — and, not so incidentally, of a movie future in which sensation is all, and people are just pretty props.
That may be Verhoeven’s ultimate joke. With Starship Troopers, he’s trashing movies even as he makes a brazenly entertaining one. Star Wars, at the time, also seemed a live-action videogame, but one with a touch of wonder, a glimmer of soul. Starship Troopers, by contrast, reduces everything it shows you to a disreputable zap. Like Star Wars, though, it could become ground zero for a new generation of thrill junkies. The first generation, perhaps, that won’t need, or even desire, movie stars. B+