This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Joe Brown picked “Starship Troopers.”
The Movie: “Starship Troopers” (1997)
Starring: Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Jake Busey.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Plot Summary: (From Netflix) Gung-ho grunts vs. bugs from space. Saving the human race from extinction is just another day on the job.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 63 percent.
Brown: After two wretched movies, I figured it was time of watch a good movie for a change. Well, good is subjective in this case. I remember watching this movie in eighth or ninth grade and thinking it was great, so I felt it worthwhile to see if this movie was as good as I thought it was during puberty.
I know it has been a while since you watched “Starship Troopers,” so I’m curious to hear your memories from this movie before we revisited it this past week.
Froemming: I hadn’t seen this movie since around the time it came out on video — during the dreaded VHS days. There are two things that stand out to me since the time I first watched it and when I revisited it for this. One: it didn’t seem like a two-hour movie back then. Two: time certainly hasn’t calmed my irrational hatred of Denise Richards.
Aside from that, I still really enjoy this film. For those unfamiliar, it is basically a satire film that looks and feels like a combination of those old Frank Capra WWII propaganda films, pro-fascist sentiments and a Mountain Dew commercial. How has this film aged for you, Joe?
Brown: I can certainly see why I enjoyed this movie as a youth: a lot of gore and gunplay, some gratuitous nudity and just all around ridiculousness. Which isn’t a surprise considering the director is Paul Verhoeven, who was responsible for movies like “Robocop” and “Total Recall.” But then again, he also directed “Showgirls.” Where this movie falls… I’d say somewhere in between.
With that, let’s get into what this movie is about. I also loved those propaganda films throughout “Starship Troopers.” And like they always ask: “Would you like to know more?” Well, let’s give the people more.
Froemming: OK, so the film is about high school kids who make the decision to join the military so they can become citizens. The politics are confusing at times (I never read the book, and apparently neither did the director).
Brown: The only time we hear about being a citizen mattering is for more political reasons: voting and running for office in some capacity. That’s all we’re exposed to.
Froemming: Our protagonist is Johnny Rico who joins the military against his parents wishes to impress his girlfriend, Carmen Ibanez (played by the awful she-demon Richards). Also, apparently all these white kids with South American names actually live in Buenos Aires in the film, which is somewhat baffling, but only when I thought about that half-way through the film.
Brown: Rico also gets talked into doing military service by his teacher, played by Jeremy Ironside (making his second appearance in the Joe-Down!). And in this beginning part, this movie has all the tropes of a bad 90s teen movie/melodrama like “Melrose’s Place.” There’s flirting in class, a football game that involves Jet Li-type of moves and a school dance. It’s comforting that in the future, high-school kids still can’t dance.
Rico’s parents disapprove of his desire to go into the military by saying he should go on vacation or to Harvard. And Harvard’s standards clearly dropped because Rico gets mocked for getting a 35 percent in his math exam. But, Rico, ever the hopeless romantic, follows his girlfriend into the service and gets assigned as mobile infantry, which is the equivalent of Operation: Human Shield. That’s when we head to boot camp.
Froemming: Not just boot camp, we also head into that giant space moon that is Jake Busey’s teeth. Interestingly, I did not find Busey all that grating in this film. Dare I say, I kind of enjoyed his character. Maybe it was
the Kurgan Sgt. Zim (Clancy Brown, marking two “Highlander” villains in this film) throwing a knife into his hand that eased my initial annoyance.
Brown: We also get more of an introduction to Dizzy, who I would propose to in a heartbeat. She’s clearly in love with Rico during the high school scenes, adding to the groan-inducing “Dawson’s Creek”-ness of the film. She’s also the quarterback and throughout the entire movie is the most competent person, period. I love her.
Froemming: Dizzy certainly was a likable character. I wasn’t as infatuated with her as you clearly were, but she was the rock of the main characters for me. She was the only one I didn’t find myself saying “come on now, that’s a stupid move” throughout.
Brown: Right? When Rico becomes squad leader during boot camp, he gets a squadmate killed during live-round training. Ace (Busey) gets promoted after Sgt. Zim throws a knife through his hand for questioning orders, and he’s never done anything that we see to earn such an honor. Dizzy’s the one making Rico look good in training and in the football game. Again, why is Rico the hero?!
Since I touched on it, Rico takes 10 lashings for getting his squadmate killed and is about to quit his service before the alien forces attack Earth, specifically Buenos Aires. Why Buenos Aires is a main target for a military attack I’ll never understand. But because of this, we’re off to WAR!
Froemming: War against the arachnids. Which brings me to a point I’d like to make. This is one of the early uses of CGI that I can remember, and it still looks pretty good almost 20 years later. I wish George Lucas would have looked at this movie and said “that’s how it should be done.” But we all know how crazy he went with it during the “Star Wars” prequels.
Brown: Agreed. The CGI did the same thing that “Jurassic Park” did that makes those effects work: they mixed practical effects with the CGI and they do it pretty seamlessly. When you start showing masses of arachnids, the effects wane a little bit, but that’s few and far between.
Froemming: The war is on now after the attack on South America, and this is when the film veers into full-on insanity. The characters are war-hungry and they want to blow up some giant spiders.
Brown: They were also clearly recruited from a GQ magazine…
Froemming: It felt like “Full Metal Jacket” hooked up with said GQ magazine. And everyone was hyped up on Surge cola.
Brown: Well, you mentioned it before that the director didn’t read the whole book (and full disclosure: I did not, either). It’s hard for me to decipher if this movie is pro-fascist or a full-on satire.
Froemming: It is satire, but over-the-top satire. Which I loved. It is no “Dr. Strangelove” in that area, but it makes its point. Basically a lot like what Stephen Colbert did with “The Colbert Report.”
Brown: That’s a good point. The over-the-top nature of the movie makes it a lot of fun to me, which I think undercuts any political message that I came across. I think it’s hard to make that point when there’s so many action cliches that take away from it.
Also taking away from it for me was Denise Richards. Oh man, what an insufferable character, and that’s not just because of my infatuation with Dizzy.
Froemming: Agreed. I couldn’t stand Richards, and the “other guy” subplot was boring. Because I am also the resident “Saved By The Bell” expert, the other guy (Zander Barcalow, played by Patrick Muldoon) also played the creep who stole Kelly Kapowski from Zack Morris. So, I guess he was perfect for that role?
Brown: I cared about him as much as I cared about Richards. She has the personality of a turnip. She dumps Rico days into military service because she decides to be a career military pilot and she falls in love instantly with Zander (because we need more “Beverly Hills 90210) drama. And, she should have died at least three times in this movie. Like, next-level dead floating in space.
Froemming: They made her out to be this great pilot, and the only thing I saw regarding that was that she could pull a ship out of port without killing everybody (that scene was just bad).
Brown: Congrats! You can pull out of a parking spot. Also, when she alters the flight plan to Jupiter, doesn’t she inadvertently put the ship in danger with the arachnid asteroid?
Froemming: That was what I took from it.
Brown: There’s one point where the cockpit of the ship is engulfed in flames and in the next scene, all she has is a scratch over her left eye. She should look like Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent from “The Dark Knight.”
Froemming: Well, Rico does get injured in the fight with the arachnids. And I liked the nod to “Empire Strikes Back” with Rico in a similar looking water chamber thing to what they put Luke Skywalker in.
Brown: And after Rico recovers from his injuries, they are sent back to one of the bug planet’s moons to do clean-up duty. Instead, they come across a human colony that was slaughtered. Turns out, it’s a set-up by the arachnids as they try to capture high-rank military and learn secrets through the brain bugs, who suck out peoples’ brains like I suck out the final bits of ICEE at a movie theater.
Froemming: Unfortunately, during this battle with the brain slurpers, we lose the love of your life.
Brown: Stop… it’s too painful to relive… The worst part is that it gives Denise Richards more screen time. RIP Dizzy. You were the best of them all.
Froemming: Yeah, and they shoot her corpse into space in a giant sunglasses case like at the end of “Wrath of Khan.” (and yes, that was a “Seinfeld” reference).
Brown: And we also found out they got sent on that suicide mission because Neil Patrick Harris (how did we get this far into the review without mentioning NPH?!) thinks they can pinpoint where the brain bug is hiding. They need the brain bug alive, and Rico’s Roughnecks are the ones for the job.
Froemming: Also, NPH in a full-on Nazi uniform was a little jarring.
Froemming: It was kind of a shame that NPH only had a small role in this. I thought he would have been featured more, since he was probably the best known of all the actors at the time.
Brown: While Rico’s squad is searching some underground tunnels, he gets a strange psychic feeling and knows where Carmen is, which leads him straight to the brain bug.
Froemming: The psychic stuff was hinted at during the beginning, and then is dropped until that moment.
Brown: The psychic stuff… that’s the Force, right?
Froemming: NPH is testing Rico for psychic ability toward the start, and lies to him when he keeps guessing the right card. We all know the Force is made of midi-chlorians.
Brown: OK, one part about NPH’s psychic powers is when they finally capture the brain bug (spoiler alert), he puts his hand on the bug and proclaims “It’s afraid. It’s afraid!” Dude, you didn’t need to be psychic to know it was afraid. All it took to see the brain bug was afraid was a basic understanding of body language. The bug is cowering for goodness sake!
Another point I need to bring up about the climax: this movie is awfully lenient on its use of nukes. They’re used like a ho-hum rocket launcher in a Schwarzenegger movie. We’re dealing with nuclear weapons! Every mobile infantry soldier should be suffering from radiation poisoning like a character in the “Fallout” video games.
After the brain bug capture, we get one more propaganda film showing how far Rico, Carmen and Ace have advanced in their military careers as the tide of war seems to have turned for mankind.
Froemming: The nuke thing bothered me as well. They used them so liberally that I was at times kind of shocked. Those aren’t grenades you know. Those things cause massive destruction.
The ending was a little disappointing to me, but the rest of the film was just bananas fun.
Brown: “Would you like to know more?” No, I think we covered all the bases. Let’s wrap this up.
Would You Recommend?:
Brown: Absolutely! If you’re looking for a deep movie, this isn’t the place for you. This movie is like learning fascism from a pop-up book. But as a popcorn movie, it’s fantastic. The action is pure 90s fare and the whole thing has a camp vibe to it. I wouldn’t say the acting is good, but it fits the mood of the movie. It’s as deep as a slip-and-slide, but it’s a lot of fun. My tastes have changed a good deal since my teenage years, but this is still an enjoyable watch.
Froemming: I would definitely recommend this film. It is fun, it is funny, bizarre and though some of the late 90s styles really date it at times, it still holds up. I’m glad I took some film studies classes in college, otherwise some of the propaganda moments (especially the heavy nods toward Capra) might not have hit me as well as it did. It works both as a fun action movie and a political satire. I haven’t seen the sequels, and I have no real desire to see them, but this movie is still as enjoyable as when I first saw it.