In some ways, I’ve never really given up the joys of my childhood. I loved learning about animals, whether it was at zoos, natural history museums, or on the nature shows on Discovery and Animal Planet, before those channels were subsumed by reality television. And when I couldn’t see the animals at the zoo or on TV, I could always turn to the creatures in the backyard, my segmented friends, the bugs. I never grew out of my childhood fascination with bugs. While my brother grew increasingly averse to spiders and I found my high school and college friends squeamish about the critters, I continued to think they were cool in there own chitinous, six-to-eight-legged sort of way. Should it be a surprise that I like Starship Troopers? I mean, what could be better than a movie about humans fighting a race of giant bugs on their home planet? The answer to that rhetorical question was no. The only thing that could have made this movie better is if the Arachnids, also called the Bugs, had teamed up with the radioactive ants from Them! to fight the spiders from Eight-Legged Freaks and the giant praying mantis from The Deadly Mantis. I would violate multiple copyrights to see that movie.
Daydreaming aside, the movie spices up the military vs. giant monsters plot by interspersing major scenes with propaganda from the Federation, the central world government in the film. The ridiculous commercials, including a particularly amusing one where soldiers teach kids about guns by handing them automatic rifles and ammo, turn the patriotism and militaristic enthusiasm into a joke. However, the social commentary is not particularly intrusive, even if it’s blatant. For me anyway, it just adds a layer of humor to what I would otherwise take to be a straight action film.
Curiously enough, neither extreme insect-fighting action nor satire were a part of the original novel. I picked up the novel at Barnes and Noble, expecting it to be a pulpy scifi adventure. Instead, I was treated to a novel focused on political philosophy and ruminations on military life rather than actual battles. The Bugs are practically a footnote. It’s been long enough that I can’t remember whether I enjoyed the novel for what it was or not, but suffice it to say that the novel is the polar opposite of the movie.
As a longtime monster movie aficionado, I can say with no hesitation that the insect/arachnid aliens in Starship Troopers are among the coolest in film. The warrior drones are fantastic, which helps because there are hundreds of them and if they’re not eating lead they’re eating humans, severing them in half with pincer-like jaws or stabbing them with their pointy chelae. The brain bug is also pretty fantastic. It’s large, pink, grotesque, and has a slimy proboscis it uses to suck out human brains; there’s a sound like a straw sucking up the last bit of fluid at the bottom of a cup when the brain bug eats someone’s brain. There are also large beetles called tankers that burrow up from under the ground and shoot fire from their head. Wait a minute. Is this not a video game? Actually, the movie was developed into a video game released eight years after the film. Sadly, I don’t own this video game. Otherwise I might espouse facing the hordes of hundreds of evil arachnids on your computer.
My preference for the battle sequences and bugs is largely influenced by how I first viewed the film. I watched Starship Troopers on TV and the film was probably edited to accommodate commercials. Upon rewatching this film, I realized that I couldn’t remember the first 20 to 30 minutes, the part which establishes the relationships between the characters that might make me inclined to care for them. Yet, I don’t think I missed too much the first time. The start of the film, sans propagandistic commercials and the biology class where they dissect giant cockroaches, is a lot like a teen drama about a boy who joins the military in spite of his parents’ protests. Thankfully, the parents destroyed by an asteroid sent by the Arachnids, which provides an impetus for the main character, Johnny, to continue his training to become a private in the mobile infantry. He even joins the military to follow his high school sweetheart Carmen, even though she’s going to become a pilot, but also partly because his teacher inspired him to make his own decisions in life, in spite of his parents’ reservations. While the beginning filled me in on his relationship with Carmen and explained that Lt. Rasczak, leader of the Roughnecks, was Johnny’s teacher, it was slow and seems generically disconnected from the rest of the movie, which falls entirely into the military SF category. Although, to the beginning of the movie’s credit, the start did mesh well with the succeeding boot camp portion of the movie. All of the recruits at boot camp have that kind of high school immaturity, which makes sense for the characters’ ages and military experience; they haven’t yet faced the training and horrors of combat that will make them tougher and more disciplined later in the film. The very start of the film just seems more awkward looking back over the film in its totality.
For a movie with two love triangles, this movie is not very romantic. Johnny loves his high school sweetheart Carmen, who decides to become a career pilot and breaks up with him. The assistant teacher and pilot Zander falls for her and she may or may not reciprocate those feelings. Meanwhile, Dizzy, who has held an unrequited love for Johnny for some time, manages to get him in the sack and confesses her love. He may or may not reciprocate that love. This seems like a soap opera or romance plot, except the bugs stab Dizzy to death and the brain bug sucks Zander’s brains out with his bendy straw proboscis. Although it seems like an ample opportunity for reconciliation between Johnny and Carmen at the end of the film, he’s a lieutenant off to fight more bugs and potentially die, while Carmen is now a full pilot, meaning they really will be apart. This is all aside from the fact that they don’t really share any affection after they break up. Yes this is a minor point in a movie that is about shooting bugs with 50 caliber rifles and capturing the brain bug, but I’m a romantic and the dead-end romance plot did nothing for me. I’m miffed.
I enjoy the film immensely, bug guts and unfulfilled romance plots and all, but there’s still a couple scenes that struck me as strange. First of all, there’s a commercial/news report about a Mormon colony called Fort Smith that established its base too close to the bugs, against military orders, and all the people were massacred. I understand the angle of the fake commercial: show how awful the bugs are. However, why was it a specifically Mormon colony? Were they trying to convert the ravenous bugs? What did the Mormons ever do to you Paul Verhoeven? The second strange thing was the unisex communal showers at the boot camp. Is it realistic to think that men and women will ever be comfortable enough with their bodies to shower with one another? Why would the military enforce mixed showering if its primary function would be to encourage prolonged showers and unfocused, unsoldierly behavior? Not that I’m entirely opposed to the idea…