The time is the future. Johnny Rico joins the military after graduation to become a citizen and for the love of his high school sweetheart. In the war against the bug aliens of Klendathu, the military is a very dangerous place to be. Johnny works his way through several battles and with the help of his friends and comrades, helps turn the tide of the war, and save the human race.
The novel Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heiniein was published in 1959. It won sci- fi's prestigious Hugo Award and promptly sailed into a maelstrom of controversy. An account of a young grunt's induction into a futuristic military and his subsequent glory as an officer, you can get the gist of where it's coming from by its dedication: "To "sarge" Arthur George Smith — soldier, citizen, scientist — and to all sergeants anywhere who have laboured to make men out of boys." reads the title page. Hmmmm. This will be a "guy thing" then.
For the next 200-odd pages we're treated to a khaki-moistening militaristic wet-dream as Heiniein treats us to homespun philosophy ("it's just as foolish to hit an enemy city with an H Bomb as it would be to spank a baby with an axe," — hey, for the sake of the kids let's all remember that), gratuitous violence and meticulously, not to say leeringly, described public floggings. It's an insane hymn to smooth-limbed, blue-eyed, firm-buttocked fascism and it would take a lunatic with suspicious political leanings and equally dubious taste to even think of making such a book into a multi-million dollar movie.
Enter Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven had his eye on the material for some time and, as Hollywood legend goes, finally stumped up his own cash to make a short test reel to show wary execs. A futuristic soldier stands in the middle of the screen before being ripped limb from limb by a giant insect. After which the director himself walks into shot. "Pleeeshe let me make Shtarship Troopersh!" he implores. Either the Dutchman's chutzpah or the state-of-the-art digital carnage did the trick and the studio, despite the road-accident that was Showgirls, Verhoeven's previous outing, coughed up.
Storywise the audience has nothing too complicated to worry about. Earth is at war with the suspiciously Celtic sounding "bug" planet Klendathu and the world's youth, unlike the novel both male and female, are being exhorted to join up and kick insect abdomen. Rich kid Johnny Ricco (Van Dien, sporting a jaw that looks as if it has been drawn with a set-square) and high-school pals hit movie boot camp and all its attendant cliches: nasty drill instructors who routinely break their charges' arms, getting tattoos and — innovative this — engaging in horseplay in the mixed sex showers (a sequence which Verhoeven persuaded his pneumatic young cast was "artistically essential" by himself stripping off to direct it). After that it's off to a bug planet for an hour or so's gratifyingly gooey mayhem as Verhoeven showcases some astounding tommy versus tarantula CG action.
Hordes of arachnids swarm across desert battlefields strewn with human bodyparts, giant beetles fart fire into space (only Verhoeven would attempt to get away with that) while the whole shebang is punctuated with the same kind of faux newsreels which he used to such great effect in Robocop. Hate-faced children stamping on cockroaches while shouting "Kill! Kill!". ("They're doing their bit!" the cheesy voice-over proudly announces.) Cows get ripped to shreds in "demonstrations" of terrifying bug power and criminals are tried, sentenced and executed in the same day, all channels, all nets. Do you want to know more?
Verhoeven's movie treads the line between satire and jingoism with almost mesmerising inconsistency, falling on either side at different points. On the one hand you can hardly take po-faced dialogue like "Come on you apes! You wanna live forever?" or "They sucked his brains out!" with anything other than a wry smile. And then there's "Fort Cronkite" and a cameo by Paul "Pee Wee" Reubens. On the other, the constant fetishising of weaponry, the camera's lavishing heroic glances at its, frankly, Ayrian cast and the reduction of the enemy to insects (hey, no guilt when you're fragging a fruit-fly) together with Verhoeven's previous dabblings with militaristic imagery in Robocop and Total Recall hint that the director may be slightly closer to out-and-out admiration than he would like to admit. As might be some of his audience.
Given the levels of hammery involved, it simply wouldn't have worked with good actors — or even competent ones for that matter. So Verhoeven simply chose pulchritudinous mobile mannequins and forced them to deliver some of the most vapid dialogue imaginable ("I'm from Buenos Aires, and I say kill 'em all!"). It is also, as a matter of record, the only film in which you get to see a soldier stabbed to death up the arse by a giant space dragonfly, and for that alone, must take its place in science fiction movie history.
Whatever the politics, Starship Troopers remains, on one level at least, a supremely good joke. For most directors a cast composed of Melrose Place flotsam (Caspar Van Dien), an ex-Doogie Howser (Neil Patrick Harris) and Michael Ironside is a nightmare made real. For Verhoeven it's essential — his perky cast are deliciously unaware that they are in part the fodder for an $80 million urine extraction project.