starship troopers

Depending on how cute you get with your math, there are no less than four separate universes focused upon Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. First, of course, came the original novel itself, then the 1997 blockbuster film by Paul Verhoeven. From there, things get a little dicier. There was Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles, an animated television series based on Verhoeven’s film that ran for two seasons back in 1999 and 2000. Then there’s Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation and Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, the live-action and direct-to-video sequels to the 1997 release. Finally, there’s Starship Troopers: Invasion, a 2012 release that rebooted the cinematic universe and refusesd to acknowledge the second and third movies. For one of Hollywood’s most notorious flops, Starship Troopers has had some pretty long legs in its theatrical afterlife.

Of course, that’s not all. This Monday marks the one-night release of Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars, the latest animated adaption of the original movie. And since some diehard Starship Troopers fans out there might be in desperate need of a franchise refresher, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to revisit the first four movies – canonical or otherwise — in the Starship Troopers universe.

Some of these films are good, some are not, but their willingness to deconstruct the source material and find a narrative (and genre) that works for them is what makes the Starship Troopers franchise the gift that keeps on giving.

starship troopers 2

Starship Troopers

Paul Verhoeven’s subversive blockbuster classic needs very little defense at this point; the Criterion Collection could add it to its list of upcoming Blu-ray announcements and some of our best and brightest writers would gladly fight to the death over the opportunity to write the essay. Critically and commercially reviled in its day, Starship Troopers has quietly seen the rest of the world catch up to its biting satire. What seemed ludicrous beyond belief in 1997 is now one of the premiere anti-fascism films of our generation, and the current wave of alt-right politics has, incredibly, only made the film’s broad displays of xenophobia, jingoism, and fascism seem all-the-more prescient. We tend to celebrate any movie with a little bit of vision as being ahead of its time, but Starship Troopers is a film that has improved a little more with each passing year.

You know the story: Johnny Rico and company sign up to fight in the endless war between humans and Arachnids, and as the human casualties mount, the war effort reaches a frenzied pitch back home. Much has been made of Verhoeven’s wondrous Federation Network (FedNet) broadcasts, and they – like the rest of the film – have found their stride with age. Children fighting aggressively for the opportunity to hold a soldier’s rifle; public discourse on the morality of the Arachnids shrugged off as bleeding heart liberalism; dehumanization of the enemy that involves destroying even those things that bear a passing resemblance to it (earth insects). The FedNet broadcasts may have seemed ridiculous to the point of lunacy in 1997, but at that point, Fox News was less than a year old. State-approved neocon propaganda was still a relatively new thing for audience members.

What really stands out on subsequent rewatches, however, is how essential the romantic subplot is to the success of the film. Maybe Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards don’t exactly have a crackling onscreen chemistry, but their scenes together give Verhoeven’s satirical elements the breathing room it needs to remain safely out of the spotlight. As long as Rico, Flores, and Ibanez are playing out their Riverdale melodrama in the midst of an interstellar war, Verhoeven is free to stuff his movie with as much fascist imagery as he wants, secure in the knowledge that the “life-and-death” stakes of his love triangle will always disguise the darker story elements of the movie. As is always the case with the smartest movies, the “worst” parts of Starship Troopers are incredibly calculated.

And while the film’s reputation has been repaired on the basis of its intelligence, it’s also worth mentioning that Starship Troopers is also one helluva’n action film. The work done by Industrial Light and Magic on the starship models and creature design gives a physical texture to the battlefield; even when Rico’s command post is being overrun by thousands of Arachnids, there’s still a sense of physicality for viewers that would be frequently forgotten by early CGI modeling in the years to come. Like all the best action movies, Starship Troopers’s violence comes as a blend of modeling, prosthetics, and CG; as he did throughout the decade, Verhoeven moves nimbly between genres, giving his action sequences a horror or science fiction bent depending on his mood. This, paradoxically, is what makes the rest of the Starship Troopers franchise such a bizarre mixed bag. Verhoeven was too good to be pinned down to any one genre, so his followers were free to pick and choose from horror, overwrought science fiction, and action depending on their own predilections.

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