I’ve already written two pieces on TIFF’s Paul Verhoeven retrospective (“Agent Provocateur: The Films of Paul Verhoeven” and “Comedy of Eros: Verhoven’s Lurid Pair”). I never figured I was a big Verhoeven aficionado, but with Starship Troopers showing tomorrow night, I find myself writing a third (and I still haven’t talked about Total Recall or Robocop!). Sometimes he’s brilliant, sometimes he’s an over-the-top cheese-meister; often Verhoeven is both. Still I gotta admit, Starship Troopers is one of the best damn war movies of all time. Seriously! Don’t believe me, private? Pipe down and I’ll give you a briefing, soldier, after the jump!
We don’t have a lot of time, marine, so I’ll give it to you straight, point-by-point:
1) Propaganda movies! Starship Troopers has this great running gag on those Why We Fight black and white news reels from the early days of film, with triumphal clips extolling the rightness and success of humanity’s battle against the bugs. Whether it’s kids gleefully stomping on insects, playing with real assault weapons, or live executions of criminals, future TV is terrifying.
2) The bugs! What a bad guy! Freakishly over-sized six-legged monsters with clacking jaws and high-pitched screeches, they’re AWFUL, and they clearly DESERVE TO DIE.
3) Click-bait! Each news-reel clip ends with a banner inviting “Would you like to know more?” Hell yes we’d like to know more, you diabolical internet-slideshow-foreseeing genius.
4) The mock-doc! The movie opens with a classic fake documentary framing device, starting at the middle and showing the disastrous military landing on Klendathu. All hell breaks loose, and then we’re jumping back a year to see how we got to this mess. Perfect war movie plotting.
5) Michael Ironside! Ol’ stone-face plays an amputee civics instructor teaching a high school class in Buenos Aires the meaning of citizenship and sacrifice. When he points with that stump of an arm, people listen.
6) The good fascism! Citizenship is only awarded to veterans, because only they understand the sacrifice necessary for freedom. It’s a brilliant satirical point, showing the extremes of self-oppression a society will embrace for its own preservation.
7) Terrible computer graphics! Not the special FX, which for 90s visuals are pretty good in terms of the bug CGI. But hoo boy those images that light up people’s computer screens are piss-poor. Be glad our future is a retina future.
8) Denise Richards! Playing the cocky pilot with an edge, no less.
9) Neil Patrick Harris! In the dry patch of his brilliant career, NPH started to claw his way back onto the radar with his role as a calculating military intelligence officer. That Verhoeven dresses him up as a sci-fi Nazi commander only adds to the weird irony of the role.
10) Psychic NPH! Yep, even better, Harris has psychic abilities he can use to control ferrets’ minds, and ferret out bug secrets (see what I did there?)
11) Future sports! All great sci-fi has some ludicrous concept of its own contemporary popular sport. Whatever the acrobatic unisex short-track football in Starship Troopers is, it’s too funny.
12) Parents suck! Those rich parents always stand in a hero’s way, ya know?
13) Dizz! Dina Meyer is pretty excellent as the almost-stalker relegated to friend who turns out to be the best love interest for the hero and then dies anyway. C’mon, we’ve all gone out with one some time or another.
14) Boot camp! From the arm-breaking, knife-throwing psycho drill-sergeant to the laser-tag training exercises, this proving ground is awesome. Plus, unisex showers!
15) “The ashes of Buenos Aires!” Wiped off the earth by a bug-launched asteroid bomb, the annihilation of Buenos Aires pushes humanity into all-out war. Four years before 9/11, the way society goes ballistic in the face of terrorist destruction is remarkably prescient.
16) SNAFU! Yep, once we get back to the botched invasion that started the movie, we can see even more how all those carefully laid plans mean squat on the ground, and in the sky. More meat for the grinder indeed.
I could go on, but you get the picture. With Starship Troopers Verhoeven finds a perfect vehicle for his satirical edge and his anarchic love-affair with ultra-violence. In the go-go 90s, the movie was a bit of an anomaly, getting a very mixed reception for its neo-fascist politics and blatantly obvious war movie stereotypes (critics couldn’t decide if they or Verhoeven were in on the joke, or what the joke might even be). It all makes tremendous sense now, Verhoeven freely admitting he deliberately quoted scenes from Nazi propaganda director Leni Riefenstahl in those war-time doc segments, for instance. Simply as a tale of rip-roaring military adventure, Starship Troopers is immensely entertaining, and a cut above the right-wing jingoism of the Robert Heinlein book it’s loosely based on. So check it out, soldier, and remember, the only good bug is a dead bug.
Starship Troopers screens on Friday, March 21st at 9:15pm. You can also find it on Netflix Canada and iTunes. But unless you’re well-trained in movie-dumpster-diving, stay away from the sequels. They’re not Verhoeven’s fault, but some crimes are unforgivable.