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Was I Wrong?: Starship Troopers

The purpose of this column is to revisit a movie and see if my opinion has changed years later.  It might be a movie I liked or, as is the case here, a movie I hated.  Often, a different perspective or expectations can make for a very different movie experience.  Almost 15 years later, will that be the case for Starship Troopers?  Was I wrong to hate it?

If I am honest with myself, I have to admit I didn’t give Starship Troopers a fair viewing the first time around.  I’m not really much of a sci-fi fan.  My geek sweet spot is superheroes.  Sure, I love Star Wars and old school Star Trek.  But I’ve never been able get behind “generic” science fiction like Stargate.  And as you can see from the movie poster above, Starship Troopers had the smell of generic science fiction all over it.

So, the movie had one strike against it going in.  Still, it could have won me over.  Instead, the movie earned me ire with over-the-top violence and 2-dimensional characters who were just plain unlikeable.  Plus, there was something about Starship Troopers that just reeked of fascism.  Sure, I could tell that director Paul Verhoeven was going for an anti-war satire.  But I felt like the satire was so dry that it managed to come across supporting that which it sought to condemn.

Was I wrong?  Well, not entirely.  The characters are flat.  And I’m pretty certain Verhoeven specifically cast Casper Van Dien as his lead in no small part due to his utter lack of charisma.  As played by Van Dien, Johnny Rico is a dim bulb.  The entire cast is full of impossibly good-looking knuckle-heads who would be ideally suited to a pro-Nazi propaganda poster.

And that’s kind of the point.  A point Verhoeven drives home none-too-subtly by dressing them all like the Hitler youth.  All the imagery comes right out of WW2-era Germany.

Even back in 1997, the fact that this was intentional wasn’t lost on me.  I just didn’t think it made for a very compelling movie.  I was rooting against the protagonists.  It was like if someone had made a version of Star Wars from the stormtroopers’ point of view.  (Actually, that makes it sound kind of awesome.)

Watching Starship Troopers today, I have to admit it is kind of awesome.  In fact, it feels like a completely different movie from the one I hated so much nearly fifteen years ago.

Why so?  Well, I think the biggest reason here is my expectations.  I went into Starship Troopers expecting to hate it for its big, dumb generic sci-fi action.  I was hoping to be surprised by something tense and thrilling like Aliens.  But when I saw a bunch of unsympathetic two-dimensional jerks being graphically ripped apart by bugs, it confirmed all my worst expectations.

Going into Starship Troopers today, I know I’m not supposed to like Johnny Rico.  I’m not supposed to root for him to get the vapid bimbo of a love interest.  I’m not even supposed to care if Johnny lives or dies.  Knowing that, it was fun to watch Johnny fail at every turn.  And I laughed to myself every time one of Johnny’s superior officers was graphically eviscerated.  Every time Johnny advances in his career, it’s because someone ahead of him got ripped in half by a bug.

Freed from the expectation that I was supposed to be invested in things like the hackneyed love story, I was better able to appreciate the dark satire of Starship Troopers.  Verhoeven plays it so straight you could almost take Starship Troopers for a pro-fascism propaganda film.  But then he shows soldiers handing out giant weapons and ammunition to smiling school kids and you know that he’s just being subversive.

One of my favorite moments in the film is a small one and it’s easily missed.  Johnny Rico has finally assumed command of his unit (the Roughnecks) due to the death of his lieutenant played by the always-great Michael Ironsides.  (In fact, Johnny shot the lieutenant himself after his legs got ripped off by a bug.)

Johnny and his buddy Ace (played by a grinning Jake Busey – son of kooky Gary) inspect their troops.  Ace notes that most of them are fresh out of bootcamp.  We see a glimpse of the recruits and they are kids.  Usually in movies, you don’t see teenage soldiers.  Most of the actors here are in their 20s.  But for one moment we’re reminded that in real war, it’s usually the young who pay the price.

Which brings me to the next thing that changed my perspective about Starship Troopers.  Although it was originally released in 1997, it’s impossible to watch it today without seeing the eerie parallels to 9/11 (the destruction of Buenos Aires) and the war in Iraq.  Most of the battle scenes take pace on a desert planet that looks like the middle east.  And the soldiers hunt the bugs in caves.  Plus all the pro-war jingoism sounds a lot like “shock and awe” America.

With that in mind, Troopers plays like a whip-smart satire that was way ahead of its time.  In fairness, Verhoeven and screenwriter Edward Neumeier were satirizing war in general.  So there would likely be comparisons to be made to any subsequent war that may have broken out.  But there’s no shaking the fact that Starship Troopers feels more timely today than it did in the 1990’s.

So, was I wrong to hate Starship Troopers?  I’m going to answer with a qualified “yes”.  There’s a lot to like about Starship Troopers and I was wrong not to appreciate it.  Having said that, I think my original reasons for disliking the film were valid ones.  However, once you’ve embraced the satire of the film, those criticisms feed into the film’s strengths.

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Posted on March 20, 2011, in Movies, Was I Wrong? and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. i think it was the best sci fi movie i’ve seen from paul verhoeven besides robocop, total recall and hollow man. basil poledouris did good music for this movie besides robocop before he died. still one of my favorites.

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  2. paul verhoeven and john milius were brilliant using basil poledouris to do music for their films.

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  3. Yes, LeBeau, you were wrong…just don’t go anywhere near the sequels. You have been warned.

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    • As a rule, I avoid direct-to-video sequels no matter how curious I may be. I have to admit I was tempted to watch the most recent sequel on Netflix due to the return of Casper Van Dien. But no Verhoven = no good. He elevated Starship Troopers from run of the mill sci fi flick to hystrerical satire. I just wish I had been more open to it the first time.

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  4. I got sucked into the second one way back when it came out. Shame on me. What a disaster. Right from the start, they limited the movie to an enclosed area and I knew it was a very, very bad sign. We’ve all seen movies like that. 7 people stuck in a building or whatever. It’s always the same. Death by numbers. Just to be clear, Starship Troopers 2 is by far one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. They actually tried to recreate Paul Verhoeven’s dark comedic style, which of course turned out just great ; ) Phil Tippett directed this. Let it be known right now that Phil Tippet is a fantastic special effects man!

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  5. i would choose this movie over batman and robin and titanic anyday of the week. best of paul verhoeven when it comes to sci fi.

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  6. this is the best sci fi movie i’ve seen besides robocop and total recall.

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  7. I actually think lebeau is exaggerating when it comes to this one. I just finished watching it. The fascism stuff is there of course but I cared for the characters. Specifically I like how Casper had an arc where he cared for his troops above all else by the third act. If anything this movie actually worked as a propaganda piece because I found myself wondering what it might be like to join the army. Something I don’t get from, say, Top Gun (Top Gun sucks).

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  8. Starship Troopers is a guilty pleasure really. Good CGI for its time, and some pretty good popcorn eating action. But, if you watch it not understanding Verhoeven mixes in as much satire as he does Sci-Fi, you’ll be left going “What the hell?” Whereas Robocop was more restrained humor (I’d buy that for a dollar!) Starship Troopers is in your face goofy as hell fun (Brain Bug? Neil Patrick Harris? Denise Richards saving fleet command ships? It goes on and on….) If I could sum up Starship Troopers: It was playing on TV a few weeks ago, and I left it on and my girlfriend immediately said turn it, “this looks ridiculous.” After it being on 10 minutes, she didn’t want me to turn it. Goofy, but it sucks you in for the ride. As a bonus, you get to see Casper Van Dien’s career rise and fall all within a 2 hour time span!

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  9. Good; I like adding my photo. I’m a sexy dude, with an erractic resume:-) As Doe Walsh once sang, “…I know there must be something better…”

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  10. I meant “Joe”. Sorry Joe Walsh, erratic day.

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  11. Ohh yes, II ove me some Dina Meyer (wait, so I’m NOT quite over her? Yep, I’m a fool. But a fool for a Lifetime film? Yep:-)

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    • I liked her on Birds of Prey. I hated Birds of Prey. But I liked her on it. Too bad the show wasn’t better.

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      • Huh…I never seen “Birds of Prey” (I wasn’t really a series guy until “Dexter” happened (I know…”Dexter”..I don’t don’t know, I loved that show so. Well, except for the Debra part, but THAT’S for a different message).. I’ll The one Nina Meyer film I remember is the goofy “Federal Protection” film.

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        • Birds of Prey is a comic book. It’s about Oracle, the former Batgirl who was paralyzed after being shot by the Joker. She puts together a team of operative like Black Canary and the Huntress who go on adventures. After Smallville, the WB launched Birds of Prey as a series. But they changed most everything about it. Dina Meyer played Oracle and she was perfect for the role. But it was set in some near-future where Batman and the Joker have gone missing. And Huntress is the daughter of Batman and Catwoman which somehow gave her hunter powers. Black Canary was a teenager. It was awful.

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  12. My ex-wife liked “Smallville”; I viewed that series and thought it was solid. So, “Birds of Prey” was a comic book and spin off of “Smallville”? Wow, thanks Lebeau, I learned something!:-)

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  13. Starship Troopers isn’t “kind of” awesome, it’s full-on awesome. And I don’t understand the hate for Johhny Rico. I’ve never heard, before, the interpretation that the viewer isn’t supposed to like Johnny Rico. Besides accidentally blowing off the head of one of his fellow trainees at boot camp, he seemed quite a likeable character. And yes, Casper Van Dien is no Daniel Day Lewis, but for the kind of movie it is he fit in nicely.

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  14. I wouldn’t go as far as to call this movie a masterpiece, but it was great as a satire on war and politics. I haven’t seen it for years, but I remember there was quite a bit of dark humor in it. The “ads” were hilarious as well (or maybe depressing when you think that nothing really changed in people’s psychology). Rico was likable enough to root for him and his friends, but ultimately flawed (which I like). All in all, for an action film about bugs invasion it was surprisingly clever.

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  15. The only thing I hate in starship troopers is Denise Richards, she’s annoying. Everything else, for the movie it is, is great. Loved it the first time I have seen it for all the reasons other readers write above. Also I loved the bugs.

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    • Derailed Film Stars: The Denise Richards Sheen

      http://www.twcc.com/articles/2015/07/05/d/derailed-film-stars-the-denise-richards-sheen

      Starship Teasers

      Starship Troopers (1997)

      Considering her infamous threesome scene in Wild Things, it’s a little odd that Richards refused to do a nude scene in Paul Verhoeven’s violent sci-fi action flick, Starship Troopers. However, her pouty-lipped expressions as Casper Van Dien’s driven fighter pilot ex-girlfriend still made an impression on moviegoers. The dialogue in Verhoeven’s film is pretty terrible across the board, but the good-looking cast helped ease the pain at least a little.

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    • I really don’t care much for Denise Richards in anything…well, there was that brief scene in “National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon I”, and for years I didn’t even know that was her in that scene.

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  16. I guess I didn’t go into this movie with any particular social relevance expectations. I just thought that the trailers of the bugs looked really interesting and I thought I might like it.

    Nope, I didn’t. I found the movie to be a combination of lost opportunities combined with total nonsense. The CGI bugs were great, but the rest. . .blah.

    Spoilers

    The things that struck me were:
    1) They made the movie unnecessarily violent and graphic for its primary audience of younger teens.
    2) They killed off the only likable character in the movie (Dizzy)

    3) Denise Richards (who I kind of like) was absolutely unbelievable as a Starship captain.

    One scene really got me. The one where – after a whopping 2 weeks or so out of the academy – she is placed in command of a starship.
    So what does she do?
    She doesn’t like the route that the captain has directed her to follow and arbitrarily decides that faster route should be taken.
    So she directs the ship into an asteroid field and barely avoids losing the multi-billion dollar vehicle.
    So what happens to her. Why instead of being court marshalled and deservedly being dismissed from service, she is rewarded for her quick action in saving the ship.
    Excuse me. Wasn’t she the one who almost got everyone killed by directly going against the captains orders?
    Can you imagine what would have happened if Kirk or Picard were the captain.

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  17. Ugh this is a badly written mess. i realise it’s not exactly a new article but I’ve read enough garbage on this website and left it be only to return at a later date and see something even dumber so now you’re getting both barrels. In this article you’re trying too hard to get in on a joke that you missed twenty years ago and you’re desperately trying to hold onto criticisms that you actually acknowledge hold no weight in a parody. Satire works far better if it’s done very close to the bone in a way that momentarily fools you into believing it’s sincere, so keeping that in mind…
    How can you be aware that this is a satire and still attempt to criticise everything that is satirical about it?

    When satirising something so ludicrously pro military you have to be subtle because there’s no way to magnify the message Heinlein was trying to get across without it becoming a cartoon. Paul Verhoeven gave us a comic book instead of a cartoon, it works in a way that should not have to be explained at all but there you are saying “it’s okay I get it now. I mean obviously I was right to hate it when it came out because those were valid criticisms but it sure is a whip smart satire now that 9/11’s out of the way!”
    It’s dreadful writing when every second sentence contradicts the first.

    “I understand the satire but Casper Van Dien sure lacks charisma for a good looking guy”

    I don’t think you do understand it….at all.


    https://polldaddy.com/js/rating/rating.js

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    • Sorry this article didn’t appeal to you. I hope you can find something on the Internet more suited to your tastes.

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    • If you’re going to be a superior asshat, you might want to start capitalizing the pronoun “I” before you unload your crapgun with “both barrels”. Also, I’m not sure you understand how quotation marks work. You are quoting things that don’t appear in the article.

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