In the future, the human race has gone beyond Earth to conquer the stars. But one inhabitable alien planet has a problem: it's locals are huge killer bugs that are out to destroy the humans. Can new army recruit Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) make a difference? Is it possible to wipe out the big bug menace?
This colourful, blackly comic science fiction spectacular was written by Edward Neumeier and based on the novel by Robert Heinlein. Rarely has a genre film created so much division - Heinlein fans hated it, and it was accused of being little better than two-dimensional pretty faces in space. On the other hand, the film's champions claimed it was a satire, making a comment against fascism; indeed, Paul Verhoeven and Neumeier said the theme was "War makes fascists of us all".
Starship Troopers looks like a recruitment film for a militaristic society, saying "Join up now! Fight for your country!" It's a man's life in the army. or rather, it's a man's life being a Citizen. We get strong hints about the society's set up: people are divided into Citizens and Civilians. To be a Citizen you have to enlist and from there you can get such privileges as going into politics and generally running the show - Civilians don't get to make decisions.
Johnny is presented as a rebel because he goes against his parents' wishes and joins up, as do his friends. Carmen (Denise Richards) becomes a pilot, and Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) is recruited by some sort of psychic Gestapo due to his extra sensory powers. We follow the trials and tribulations of the troops on the front line: Johnny has romantic problems because he loves Carmen, but Dizzy (Dina Meyer) loves him, and he has a crisis of faith when a training exercise goes badly wrong.
All through the film there are cleverly patriotic news bulletins, giving us further glimpses of the world, demonising the aliens and reminding you of Robocop's similarly sardonic take on the media. We are treated to pithy expressions like "The only good bug is a dead bug!" and "Everyone fights, no one quits!" and there are plentiful combat scenes. Phil Tippet's insect design is excellent, running from the soldier bugs to huge napalm-spitting beetles. And the ways they find to kill off the soldiers are creative, with bodies being sliced in half and brains being sucked out - the violence is nothing if not graphic.
Unless you enjoy the action, however, watching Starship Troopers can be an empty experience. The cynical way that the story and characters are presented may leave you with a knowing smile on your face if you buy into its satirical angle, but two hours is a bit much for a propaganda send-up, ingenious as it is. Johnny and his friends are dupes, cannon fodder on behalf of an invading, hostile force (that's us), so you don't really care about their intentionally soap opera-style relationships and corny lines. Music by Basil Poledouris.
Verhoeven's sharp sense of humour tempers his over-the-top style, but he frequently sails too close to being ridiculous for many to take him seriously. The war drama Black Book, filmed in his native Holland, raised his standing once more, and his black comedy thriller Elle won great acclaim for star Isabelle Huppert.