The Starship Troopers franchise is a bizarre animal. Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 original was overlooked by many as a bloody sci-fi blockbuster; little more than dull buggery. Point of fact, Starship Troopers is, true to Verhoeven form, a biting satire that takes skillful aim at the military industrial complex, fascism, and the price of patriotism. It is a film that is actually far smarter than a cursory glance would reveal. It is also far too good a film to suffer the indignities of two middling to poor direct-to-video sequels. However, the third film in the series did have the distinction of being directed by effects icon Phil Tippett, to date his only feature film. Starship Troopers 3: Marauder also brought back Johnny Rico himself, Casper Van Dien. For this fourth film, Van Dien is now a producer and the series has ventured into animated territory. Japanese director Shinji Aramaki brings us the story of a requisitioned spacecraft, a treacherous, but familiar member of the Federation, and more of the beloved insect carnage we’ve come to expect.
It’s hard not to lower one’s expectations for a fourth film within a franchise, particularly when dealing with an entirely new medium. However, Starship Troopers: Invasion manages to maintain one of the progenitor film’s principle strengths: action. The action sequences here are intense, well-edited, and impressive. The computer-generated animation style proves to be of major benefit to these sequences as the bugs have full range of motion and their speed is perfectly frightening. Aramaki obviously feels completely uninhibited within the anime format as the scope and ambition of his action sequences are awe-inspiring. One particular flying mech-suit rampage was astounding. There is even something of a slight enhancement in the animated action of Starship Troopers: Invasion. The battle scenes actually feel far more personal than they did in the 1997 original; marines using special sniper riffles and keeping close tally of their kills while mourning with indignant sorrow the loss of every soldier.
As any fan will tell you, however, action alone does not a worthy Starship Troopers sequel make. Starship Troopers: Invasion is also admirably concerned with paying loving homage to the characters and spirit of the very first film. The incorporation of Johnny Rico, though inexplicably not voiced by CVD, is not only a nice nod, but the fact that he’s in such a high ranking position within the military feels like a natural evolution of that character’s arc. New and interesting roles are also assigned to Carmen (once Denise Richards in carbon-based versions) and Carl Jenkins (formerly Neil Patrick Harris). It goes so far as to build upon the crucial involvement of telepathic research and implementation in the war against the bugs; something that fuels a rather clever and compelling plot. In so many ways, this fourth film sticks closely to Starship Troopers lore. Even the seemingly excessive nudity that runs through the movie feels like justified homage. In brief, it’s as sexually active as the original.
The one thing sorely missing from this equation is the vital element lacking in terms of the Starship Troopers universe: the satire. Paul Verhoeven is an absolute master at crafting biting satirical commentary and then sewing it into the fabric of a seemingly mindless sci-fi actioner. While Aramaki captures the essence of the characters and demonstrates a knack for action (a knaction?), there is no attempt at satire in this sequel. Gone are the fake commercials and subversive Federation newsreels. Even Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, overwhelmingly flawed though it may have been, had the wherewithal to kick off with a host of these satirical transmissions. Though filmmakers working within a franchise are not necessarily beholden to all of the conventions that defined previous entries, the lack of satire creates a noticeable and unfortunate void.
The bad news for those with an irrational fear of the uncanny valley, is that Starship Troopers: Invasion is the mayor of that valley. While the animation utilized for ship architecture, action set pieces, and bug construction skillfully courts realism, the faces of the characters, especially when speaking, is quite off-putting and may actually keep enough people at arms length to deny this sequel its due consideration. It’s not impossible to enjoy Starship Troopers: Invasion in spite of the facial creepiness, but it woefully reinforces certain negative preconceptions about this style of animation.
All in all, if you are a fan of the series, or even just Verhoeven’s original film, Starship Troopers: Invasion will easily sate your marine-on-bug appetite. Even if you don’t count yourself a faithful grunt, the animated action sequences and intriguing story will hold your attention through its scant 89-minute runtime.