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Junkfood Cinema: Starship Troopers

By  · Published on April 8th, 2011

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; if this is your first time, you have to fight. Despair all ye who accidentally stumbled upon this column while searching for information on junk bonds, food poisoning, and/or Cinema Paradiso. Instead you found the weekly internet column that celebrates the cheesiest, the corniest, and the hammiest that Hollywood has to offer.

Every Friday I serve up a not-so-great movie and pick apart its faults until only the greasy carcass remains. But then I fashion that carcass into an unsightly headdress which I then don as an embarrassing testament to my love for said movie. As if this weren’t obnoxious enough, I will then pair the film with an appropriately terrible-for-you snack that will wreak havoc upon your insides as the movie cannibalizes your IQ.

This week’s treat: Starship Troopers

What Makes It Bad?

Truth be told, I only saw Starship Troopers for the first time about two months ago. It instantly rocketed it’s way to the upper echelons of my favorite sci-fi flicks and had me pondering my long avoidance of the film. To be perfectly honest, in my blackest heart of hearts, I don’t think Starship Troopers is a bad film at all. So why include it in this feature? Perfectly fair question…all none of you who asked. The one shortcoming by which Starship Troopers is hindered: its cast. Ordinarily, one problematic element does not a terrible movie make. But when coupled with the nigh exploitation levels of blood and monsters, the cast of this film can easily color one’s perception of the film and force an undue association between Starship Troopers and indefensible schlock. I truly feel this is what happened in my case and therefore this article will attempt the sacrilegious task of debunking the idea that Starship Troopers is a bad movie.

But first, a word about Starship Troopers’ terrible cast. The cast reads like the roster of the Pro Bowl of 90s hack. At starting face, Casper Van Dien! Guy’s like an action figure that evolved the ability to speak without a pull-string. Don’t be ashamed if you don’t remember this chiseled pile of abs and chin as he so rapidly fell off the face of the Earth that he barely qualifies as a “flash in the pan.” He’s more like a flicker in the crock-pot. Backing him up is the lizard-like sex container that is Denise Richards. She is a walking testament to…how excited we all are that the 90s ended. Her acting is so wooden that I’m not convinced her nose doesn’t grow when she lies. And let’s not forget the unstoppable star power that only Dina Meyer can bring to – sorry, halfway through that sentence I forgot who she was. And the perfect compliment to all this unchecked hotness is obviously…Jake Busey? Jake happens to be the worst thing Gary Busey ever gave us; outside of Rookie of the Year that is. What’s so upsetting about this confederation of dunces is the fact that Neil Patrick Harris is far superior to any of them and gets woefully less screen time. But at least we get healthy doses of Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside to curb the hurting; makes everything okay again until, oh God, is that Amy Smart? Noooooo!!!

Why I Love It!

Two words: Paul Verhoeven. Had it dawned on me that the director or Robocop also gave us Starship Troopers, I would not have neglected it for so long. Verhoeven’s genius is his ability to take over-the-top, schlocky material and inject into it wit and satire until you end up with something far smarter than it has any right to be. Now granted, Starship Troopers is based on Heinlein who is, by all reports, a pretty brainy guy. But the interstitial content of the film, the commercials and newscasts, feature the exact same biting social commentary as did the fake reports and product placements of Robocop. I think my favorite has to be the public service announcement in which small children are handed lethal weapons by soldiers and happily load them with live rounds as the voiceover touts the merits of the corps. But more than that, there is an even heavier commentary about how militaristic our society is becoming as its mentioned that military service is a prerequisite for having children, serving in politics, even becoming a citizen of The Federation. All of this of course occurs as giant alien bugs are ripping people in half. Would you like to know more?

The effects in Starship Troopers haven’t aged a day. I watched the Blu-ray which, as marvelous a format as it is, can often cast into stark, unforgiving light all the imperfections of a film’s special effects when they aren’t exactly great. But in the case of Starship Troopers, I was absolutely awestruck by the practical monster stuff and even the CG was fairly seamless. I have seen spacecraft in movies released a decade after the release of this film that didn’t look half as good. I’m also not going to pretend that the disgusting, savage little kid inside didn’t enjoy the sloppy, visceral gore that poured out of this film like the guts of a space marine being eviscerated by arachnids. Where the practical effects really shine is in the amount of manufactured entrails and innards. Boy howdy!

Be not fooled by Starship Troopers’ blockbuster veneer, there really is an interesting story at its heart. Granted, its cast is populated with a clutch of talking magazine covers, but Verhoeven still manages to make their journey interesting. We watch them from high school to basic training to the battlefields of alien worlds. It works within high genre to get at the same “innocence lost” character arcs that most military dramas explore. These dolts may be insufferably handsome, but there is a naivete there, which may actually be a byproduct of their movie star vapidness, that nevertheless serves the film profoundly well. It is easier to connect with how scared these kids are and how heartbreaking are their demises since they do legitimately seem like babes in the woods. Pair that with Verhoeven’s aforementioned flair for social commentary and it’s impossible to write off Starship Troopers as a mindless actioner.

As unrepentantly brain-dead as Van Dien’s Johnny Rico is, you have got to admire his ability to climb the ladder. While most of us spend years trying to make a good impression in our various fields in the fleeting hope that our efforts will be recognized and that, in the long run, we will achieve the level of success to which we aspire…Johnny goes from intern to king of the war in a week! It seemed like every single battle, no matter how unsuccessful, ended with a juicy promotion for Rico. What slays me about this is that it usually came as the result of his superiors getting slaughtered in horrific fashion. So in other words, “Hey kid, you didn’t do a very good job watching my back but goddamn are you pretty.” “You take my place.” In any real world scenario, this film would have to feature an extra three hours worth of scenes depicting boards reviewing requests for change of rank and endless amounts of paperwork being filed. I guess Verhoeven thought that would be too “mind-numbingly boring” so he just stuck to badass combat scenes and people getting eaten. Fine!

Junkfood Pairing: Bug Juice

It’s green, it’s slimy, and it contains an unfortunate amount of insect DNA. I am talking of course about this awful candy concoction that I actually think I remember eating as a kid. In Starship Troopers, plenty of bug juice is splashed and spilled and, much as one would with this horrid candy, the soldiers demonstrate an especially adverse reaction to getting any of that crap in their mouths. But perhaps if you pour bottle after bottle onto your person, your cohorts will be convinced that you do indeed “kill bugs good.”

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.