(Welcome to DTV Descent, a series that explores the weird and wild world of direct-to-video sequels to theatrically released movies. This week, we go to war… in space!)

Paul Verhoeven is a filmmaker whose career has seen highs and lows, hits and misses, blockbusters and quiet indies, but the one constant is that his best film will always be Robocop (1987). This is not an article about Robocop, but it is about the big, action/sci-fi movie he made a decade later that echoes some of the same satirical stylings.

1997’s Starship Troopers is a loose adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s novel – an unrelated script was the film’s basis, and the studio simply bought the title rights from the novel before mashing the two together – but where the book is hardcore militaristic, Verhoeven’s film takes a more cynical, darkly humorous, and dismissive tone. It wasn’t quite the hit they hoped for, but its growth into a cult favorite helped spawn two live-action sequels that went straight to DVD/TV. So let’s be good citizens and give ’em a spin!

The Beginning – Starship Troopers (1997)

It’s the 23rd century, and humanity is no longer the most voracious species in the universe. The bug-like Arachnids – a misnomer as spiders aren’t insects (ie bugs) but an easily forgivable mistake as war is no time for facts! – are held responsible for deadly asteroids targeting earth. Four recent high school graduates who totally look eighteen years old sign up for military service, and soon all four friends are guns, guts, and co-ed showers deep in humanity’s war with the bugs. One becomes a pilot, another joins the psy-ops section, and two wind up as grunts fighting the enemy on the battlefield. The coolest one won’t make it home alive.

The DTV Plot – Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004)

An attack on a bug-infested planet has led to ruin leaving only a small squad left to fend off the creatures. The soldiers hold off the bugs for the most part, but unbeknownst to them the enemy has targeted them with a new variation of their weaponized bodies. A smaller species is now capable of entering human brains through their facial orifices – and it’s a “gift” transmitted by the mouth of the already infected. The tide turns, and before you can even say Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the aliens are within inches of hopping a ride back to Earth where their body-takeover shenanigans could spell the end for humanity.

Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008)

The war rages on. Johnny Rico, once a hero and now an older hero, fights the good fight on a planet that humanity is trying to domesticate through agriculture and reliable brew pubs. Trouble arrives when an old flame and an old friend – now a couple in their own right – land on the planet mere hours before a bug uprising. War, politics, and love clash with messy results, but a bigger threat appears to loom in the form of a high-ranking officer’s support of the banished concept of religion. The question, though, is to what god is he praying?

Talent Shift

As mentioned in the intro, Starship Troopers was directed by the great Paul Verhoeven, and if you don’t know his name you most likely know his movies which include Robocop, Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995), Hollow Man (2000), and Elle (2016). He’s a formidable talent, and even when his films go off the rails they typically do so in entertaining fashion. It was written by Ed Neumeier (RobocopAnaconda: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, 2004), features big name producers, and was budgeted at just over $100 million. None of that money went to securing a name cast, though, and instead we’re gifted with newcomers and supporting veterans like Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Neil Patrick Harris, Michael Ironside, and Rue McClanahan. (Of course Paul Verhoeven secured the most promiscuous of the Golden Girls for his movie.)

The fall to Hero of the Federation was a mighty one as the budget dropped to $7m, but at least the director’s name was recognizable to genre fans as visual effects legend Phil Tippett took the helm for his sole feature directorial effort. Yes, the same Tippett whose work graces the screen in Star Wars (1977), Dragonslayer (1981), Howard the Duck (1986), Willow (1988), Jurassic Park (1993), Starship Troopers, and many, many more. He’s an immensely talented artist, but it’s good to know your limitations. Ed Neumeier returned as writer, but the best it could do cast-wise was a roster highlighted by Sandrine Holt and Ed Lauter. You know their faces even if you don’t recognize their names.

Marauder saw writer Ed Neumeier also take on director’s duties, finally, but he wasn’t the only returning player. Johnny Rico himself, Casper Van Dien, returned too and was joined by Jolene Blalock, Amanda Donohoe, and an uncredited Catherine Oxenberg.

How the Sequels Respect the Original

Verhoeven’s original film is a big, bold, and messy knock against blind obedience, jingoism, and the horrors of war, and that’s what makes it so much fun. It’s gung ho about being bad-asses and serving our leaders, but it’s all done with a sly but never subtle tongue in cheek approach. These grunts are tough as nails, but they’re working for a government who sees them as meat for the grinder. It’s all they know, though, and as the messaging from birth has been to serve the Federation they play their roles straight even as the film is having a laugh.

The sequels both continue that core idea, but it’s only Marauder that succeeds at communicating it with its own ideas and humorous commentary. We see the Federation maintaining its hardline policy about service, but we also realize it’s anti-religion and peace – humanity is in a constant state of war, so peace protests are labeled a dangerous activity, and as for religion? The government is the only higher power they want people looking up to in fear or love. The film explores the idea, albeit slightly, with characters who are secretly faithful towards god, and by the end the government has shifted to account for that. Now government and god are equally demanding of your fear and respect.

Visually speaking, it’s again Marauder that returns to the big(gish), gory battles of Verhoeven’s original with plenty of gun play and bloody demises as soldiers are torn asunder and bugs are shot full of holes. The action is solid, the bugs look pretty good too, and for those of you interested in such things – no judgment here – Neumeier also brings back an affinity for co-ed nude scenes to such a degree that Verhoeven himself would be proud.

How the Sequels Shit on the Original

It’s rare for the DTV sequel field, but Marauder mostly escapes unscathed on this point. To be clear, it’s still a low budget action/sci-fi film so it has its own issues, but as a sequel to Verhoeven’s original it does good considering. There’s action, commentary, and Johnny Rico, so what else do you need? Hero of the Federation, though… hoo boy is this movie a slight against the original, the genre, the fans, the idea that film is art, and the concept of sight itself.

Hero of the Federation owes more to the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Species (1995) than to Starship Troopers, and while that sounds in theory like a fun combination the result is anything but. Bugs are few and far between, an odd choice for a franchise built on fighting the fast-moving vermin, and instead the focus becomes “human” threats. It’s far cheaper, understandably, but it’s also terribly boring. One by one characters fall prey to someone else’s mouth until it’s down to just a handful of survivors, but while the fate of humanity rests in their resistance to rogue smooching you’ll find it hard to care.

While the story, the lack of bugs, and the general absence of social/political commentary all result in a sad misfire, the film’s visuals are equally to blame for its status as an intergalactic dud. The film is lit so poorly as to leave the bulk of it in dim darkness. We can see what’s happening more often than not, but not a single damn beat jumps from the screen the way the other two films’ bug action does on a regular basis. The visual dullness pairs well with the narrative boredom, and neither of those are claims you can suggest with a straight face against Verhoeven’s original.

Conclusion

Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is a bigger cult hit than a commercial one, but its impact continues to be felt decades later. While Marauder was the last live-action sequel, so far, there have also been two animated sequels in 2012 and 2017. Talk of an official remake – or possibly a true adaptation of Heinlein’s novel – has also circulated over the years with the most recent round occurring in 2016 involving the writers of both Friday the 13th (2009) and Baywatch (2017). I’m not sure anyone wants that, but I for one would be happy with more DTV sequels as long as they veer more Marauder than Hero of the Federation.

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