'Starship Troopers': An un-ironic appreciation

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Cult Classics: Starship Troopers

9:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 26
Enzian Theater, Maitland

Is Starship Troopers so bad it’s good, or is it just flat-out good? Camp or not camp? That is the question.

To appreciate the art of Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven is to have more than a modicum of appreciation for torrid, B-movie schlock. It requires the ability to see beyond the tawdry surface pleasures to the insidious artistic subtext lurking underneath. Call it subterranean satire.

Verhoeven released Starship Troopers two years after completing Showgirls, a panoramic and pungent anti-Hollywood allegory delivered under the guise of trashy pseudo-porn. It has its defenders today, but it remains an unjustly maligned modern classic, rejected by audiences and critics who still can’t see the forest of satire for the boobs.

Starship Troopers has fared better than the ceaseless hostility leveled at Showgirls, but its tepid 62 percent “fresh” status on Rotten Tomatoes suggests that it hasn’t, and won’t, be fully accepted by the elite (which is probably fine with Verhoeven, who famously accepted the Razzie for Worst Director for Showgirls).

So let’s start with the glossy surface of Starship Troopers: It’s a bloody science-fiction movie, based on a classic young-adult novel and ostensibly targeted at teenagers, about young military cadets fighting an army of robotic arachnids on some far-flung planet. This doesn’t sound like anybody’s A-material. But right from the get-go, Verhoeven launches reference points our way, in the first of several mouse-clicked, new-media montages about life in the future. The first words emblazoned on the screen are “Why We Fight,” a nod to Frank Capra’s World War II propaganda films, commissioned by the government to promote the war effort against the Nazis.

These kind of calls for patriotism will have an impact on the three high school graduates at the film’s center: academically challenged football star Rico (Casper Van Dien), his brainy paramour Carmen (Denise Richards) and his electronics-wiz buddy Carl (Neil Patrick Harris). But it’s Rico who dominates the narrative, particularly after he enlists in the mobile infantry – the front line of attackers, or what a recruiter dubs “fresh meat for the grinder.” Inspired to fight after the bugs obliterate his home country in a nuclear holocaust, Rico rises through the ranks of the military as it launches one suicide mission after another, all the while donning insignia that look strikingly evocative of German emblems from the Third Reich.

Brewing under that surface of Starship Troopers is an antiwar screed as powerful as anything under Samuel Fuller’s brutal baton. Verhoeven taps into the dehumanizing nature of war – the otherness that must be assigned to the enemy in order to transform innocent young people into killing machines. What better way to accomplish this objective than to make the interstellar oppressors non-human to begin with? Verhoeven also can’t resist a dig at American hubris when a news reporter alludes that the bugs only attacked our planet because we invaded their airspace.

Beyond that, the film spills over with wicked satirical asides, such as an ad for a nationally televised execution (“on all channels!”) and a news cameraman who continues to film his colleague even as the correspondent is being disemboweled by a bug. There are also moments of admirable progressivism: A woman quarterbacks a co-ed football team, male and female soldiers shower in the same room and innovations like high-speed rail, remote viewing and an early version of Skype are "de rigueur".

It must be said that the eardrum-splitting action sequences of Starship Troopers are tedious and indistinguishable from the mass-audience spectacles of Michael Bay. But that’s OK. Sometimes, if we need to eat our vegetables, they need to be coated in candy.

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