Trilogy Review: Starship Troopers

Very loosely based off the novel by the same name, Starship Troopers was a pretty infamous film when I was growing up, but it has become a cult favourite of the science fiction genre. Unfortunately… people thought this lightning-in-a-bottle exploitation of Paul Verhoeven deserved a sequel… and another sequel…

To this day I refused to watch the sequels, but now I feel I am ready to see just how trashy they really are.
Yes, there is a third animated sequel now, but that one will have to wait!


Starship Troopers
(1997)

Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi love letter to warploitation and war satire still stands up by today’s scrutiny! As silly and self-aware as it is.

In a future were Humanity is in the middle of a mindless war with an unknown alien force, enrollment with the military is encourage and even enforced over young people. Ricco is one such young soldier, and the story follows his recruitment, training and finally battle experiences.

If there is one thing Verhoeven is good at, it is making vastly enjoyable, satirical adult movies, distilled most completely in this film and 1987’s RoboCop. The film takes the few comic skits from RoboCop (television adverts) and blows them up by eleven with full military recruitment videos that treat war, bloodshed and killing in defense of Earth as a family friendly commitment for all, young and old. The satire is rife throughout this film, coupled with the seemingly ambiguous designs or origins of the war to begin with! It is great fun, though I’m sure some audiences might find some grief in it if they are looking for a more “serious” toned sci-fi film.

Starship Troopers is a long, loaded film too. It goes through multiple phases as we follow not just Rico’s (Casper Van Dien) career but also his girlfriend’s (Denise Richards) career as a space pilot and their own friends. The narrative almost feels episodic, but its heart and satire prevents it from feeling like a stop-and-start.
The visual effects, asides the occasional alien, are still fantastic. Verhoeven clearly put a lot of money and effort into making his film look physical and practical, with model effects for the spaceships and several physical effects for some aliens. This coupled with awesome blood squibs to ramp up the gore makes the film a riot in terms of action and war scenarios!

This film has some infamy for me personally; at least, for people my age. Released in 1997 were I was thirteen, this film became notorious for containing aliens, war, swearing, nudity and gore, I remember friends feeling proud having seen it! It certainly delivers all of these things in ample supply!

It has plenty of cliche, and the episodic nature of the screenplay makes things feel a little forced at times, especially with how flippantly the universe and the society are described. It plays fast and loose with its logic which might annoy or perplex more cynical people. It has surprisingly not aged, though there is one scene at a party with some pretty dated music playing!

Overall it is a great science fiction action movie! I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the genre and hasn’t seen it yet. It is gory, adult, full of wartime satire and packed with action set pieces and awesome special effects.


Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation
(2004)

Without Paul Verhoeven at the helm and a fraction of the original film’s budget, none of the cast returning… the sequel completely tanks unless viewed in a vacuum (of space!)

Set after the events of the first film, the story follows a platoon devastated in the war against the Bugs on a distant planet. They become entrenched within an abandoned factory, and while their psychic officer sense something within their ranks, they find an imprisoned and disgraced officer.

Well… this is certainly a step down from the original’s budget and tone! The film opens with action as our squad is vastly outnumbered… at least… we assume they are. The cinematography is terrible, the shots alternate between our characters shooting in a grey fog, to aliens running around in isolation.
The majority of the film however takes place inside the factory, and actually takes the tone of a horror movie instead of an all out war film like Verhoeven’s original. We get very few of the original aliens; our protagonists are safe behind a surrounding energy barrier, instead the threat comes in the form of body-snatchers.

The budget kills the film stone dead, the filming is poor, the acting is poor, we are trapped in a single location and the enemies are hiding within our human characters, and by comparison to its glorified and sprawling predecessor this film deserves a lot of frustration and hate. It doesn’t even attempt to justify its existence with decent setup and connection with the greater universe.

But… by its own merits, it has some redeeming factors. It has some decent claustrophobia, and there are still great physical alien effects that are gooey and bursting with venom and bile. Director Phil Tippett has done very little actual direction work, but he had worked as a stop-motion animation supervisor and creator on such little known films as RoboCop, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the original Star Wars trilogy! While his direction is terrible, I can appreciate the monster effects that he clearly had a lot of say with.
I suppose I had such low expectations for this film that these few decent qualities surprised me and actually made me appreciate the atmosphere generated.

Put it this way, the first film had a budget of $100,000,000, this film had $7,000,000! Not even a tenth of the original budget! So while it is very questionable why this film even exists, you can forgive its need to reuse “money-shots” from the first film, and television-grade acting.

There are better body-snatcher stories out there, it has little to no connection with the first film, making it quite a redundant watch unless you like to see some creepy alien designs.


Starship Troopers 3: Marauder
(2008)

Directed neither by Verhoeven or Tippett, Marauder was a straight-to-DVD affair even in the USA and directed by Edward Neumeier. It claws back some of the original’s satirical tone, has more budget to play with but feels really awkward when it is all said and done.

Johnny Rico (played by returning actor Casper Van Dien) now a Colonel, must rescue an important psychic military leader who’s ship crash lands on a distant world. The handful of soldiers on the planet must hold out against approaching aliens long enough to be saved, yet political espionage threatens Ricco’s rescue attempt.

Unlike the second film, the third movie attempts to embrace the wider universe and government that lurks in the background of the franchise, and… marginally fails in doing so. While it does recapture some of the tone and satire, the delve into why this corrupt, military controlled government shows the flaws in the premise all too well, and this film lacks the ambiguity the original film could play with.
The killer issue I had with this film is a strange switch of narrative direction when we get to the third act. A villain, determined by their actions, is positively redeemed and proven to be correct about everything and virtually wins when other conspiracies come to light. It is hard to explain without “spoiling” it, but it felt as though the third act had been rewritten for some reason and a narrative (and thematic) flip occurs. There’s also a heavy handed religious development, which comes out of nowhere and doesn’t feel right within the satire of warploitation movies…

Despite Rico returning, the film is mostly centred around Captain Lola Beck (Jolene Blalock, of Star Trek: Enterprise… err… fame?) as she leads the hopeless survivors of the crash landing to safety. While this isn’t terrible by providing some nice landscapes and photography, the script is bland and I counted several occasions where they rip off Pitch Black (“Where’s your God now?” quips Beck)
While the budget is a little better here, it is still woefully short at $9million, the bugs CG looks like the worst it has ever been, though the film maintains a level of physical effects. The opening attack on an entrenched fortress is decent and has some fun moments.
The film feels quite scatter gun, as if they wanted to hit as many notes as possible like the original film but with a fraction of the cost, most notable is the completely shoehorned “group nude scene” that presumably fills in for the original’s shower scene. But unlike a shower scene, this one feels completely unnecessary and completely gratuitous.

It is hard to say which is better, ST2 or ST3… While the second film lacks any of the tone or heart or integrity of the first film, it does feel more comfortable with its singular purpose. The third film feels like a low-rent but full sequel to the original, despite narrative flaws and cheap special effects. While it is a close call… the third film’s attempt to be an actual sequel means it just wins out.

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