Fango Flashback: “STARSHIP TROOPERS” (1997)
Following TOTAL RECALL, Paul Verhoeven’s career explored a strange and unexpected path, as the director experienced his greatest financial success back to back with his most marring critical and financial failure. In the wake of the latter, Verhoeven went returned to genre territory, optioning a script from his ROBOCOP collaborator Ed Neumeier entitled BUG HUNT AT OUTPOST 9 and refashioning it with elements from Robert Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS. A loose adaptation at best, Verhoeven saw the potential in another science-fiction satire and pursued it head-on, now with cutting-edge digital FX, an estimated budget of $105 million and a repertoire of both new and old collaborators at his disposal.
Even though the project was a gamble, Verhoeven’s return to ultraviolent Sci-Fi was aided by the unlikeliest, and most unintentional, ally: STAR WARS. With the announcement of production of the STAR WARS prequels, as well as the re-release of the STAR WARS films in their “Special Edition” format, space-set science fiction films were coming back in a big way, and subsequently aiding to speed the productions of ALIEN: RESURRECTION, DARK CITY, EVENT HORIZON and, of course, STARSHIP TROOPERS. By filling the film’s main cast with heartthrobs like Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards, Verhoeven hoped to bring in a younger generation possibly unfamiliar with his previous outings, while also bringing TOTAL RECALL alumni Marshall Bell, Dean Norris and Michael Ironside, to appeal to his longtime fans.
Of course, by taking on Robert Heinlein’s novel, Verhoeven also used the heavily-criticized element of rampant pro-militarism that flowed through the story as cannon fodder for his satirical wit. Possibly his most intentionally funny film, STARSHIP TROOPERS became an outlet for Verhoeven to make farce out of propaganda while also indulging in all of his trademark aesthetics, including graphic nudity and gory violence. Verhoeven was perhaps the most passionate and impulse-driven of directors to take on STARSHIP TROOPERS, and by doing so, created a film much more memorable and exhilarating than the source material may have offered alone.
Verhoeven’s penchant for special FX helped separate the film from the black mark on his Hollywood record, SHOWGIRLS. For STARSHIP, the filmmaker snuck in as many practical effects as he could, courtesy of Amalgamated Dynamics Inc., which included a human head with its brains sucked out and various bugs built to full scale. Due to practicality however, Verhoeven turned to Industrial Light and Magic—then the gold-standard for computer generated imagery—for his digital effects, which not only hold up tremendously but also provided the film with its one and only Academy Award Nomination. In STARSHIP TROOPERS, Verhoeven separated his SFX from that of films before (and most after) by injecting a specific personality into every creation, whether its ruthlessness, cowardice or defensive rage, which further helped when the bug enemy turned out to be master strategists.
Furthermore, Verhoeven’s crew had mainly been comprised of trustworthy collaborators, most of which previously helped bring his worlds to life. ROBOCOP and TOTAL RECALL cinematographer Jost Vocano once again teamed with the director, bringing his particularly lush lens and intuition for shooting SFX back with a vengeance. Verhoeven also enlisted his go-to sci-fi set decorator, Robert Gould, to help realize the fleshed-out futuristic locations, as well as composer Basil Poledouris to orchestrate the rousing and memorable score, one that rivals the bombastic ROBOCOP.
STARSHIP TROOPERS also boasts a diverse cast, some of whom give career best performances tailored to fit the grandiose film. Casper Van Dien’s natural charisma bests his limited range, although his performance as the All-American Johnny Rico who avenges his family and country is perfectly in tune with Verhoeven’s mentality and pulls off a believable and supportable hero. Dina Meyer, Neil Patrick Harris, Clancy Brown and Jake Busey all offer their animated and often times awesome performances as supporting characters, while the aforementioned Verhoeven regulars, as well as a scene-stealing cameo from Rue McClanahan, get their moment to shine amongst the younger actors. In fact, the only actors who really don’t stand out under Verhoeven’s direction is the restrained Patrick Muldoon, who is seemingly indecisive over the level of smarm he is committing, and Denise Richards, who appears right for the character but is seemingly unprepared for the emotional commitment the role required.
Despite commanding the box office for its opening weekend and staying strong during its second, STARSHIP TROOPERS eventually relied on its international gross to recoup its budget. Verhoeven’s film quickly became a cult favorite amongst critics and audiences alike however, and made waves when released on home video. The film later spurned on three sequels, a limited run animated series entitled ROUGHNECKS and a video game adaptation in 2005. Following the release of STARSHIP TROOPERS, Verhoeven’s box office clout tumbled, and the madcap director had one more Hollywood film in him before returning to the cinema of Netherlands: 2000’s HOLLOW MAN, Verhoeven’s stylistic update on THE INVISIBLE MAN.
STARSHIP TROOPERS screens Friday, March 21 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of FLESH + BLOOD: THE FILMS OF PAUL VERHOEVEN. For more, including ticket info, see here.