STARSHIP TROOPERS - Blu-ray review

Paul Verhoeven's satiric, 1997, sci-fi, war-movie romance is admittedly an acquired taste.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"War is hell."
--William Tecumseh Sherman

"The only good bug is a dead bug."
--"Starship Troopers"

Liking "Starship Troopers," Paul Verhoeven's satiric, 1997, sci-fi, war-movie romance is admittedly an acquired taste, but, then again, liking anything by Paul Verhoeven is an acquired taste. Some of the Dutch director's English-language pictures are easy to swallow ("RoboCop," "Total Recall," "Basic Instinct"), and others are just plain unpalatable ("Showgirls," "Hollow Man").

In any case, "Starship Troopers" was never author Robert Heinlein's best book--"Stranger in a Strange Land" gets that honor--nor is the movie version of "Troopers" in the same league as the best science-fiction films of our day. But it is a good, amusing action-adventure fantasy with enough F/X wizardry to engage most viewers, and its graphics and sound alone easily justify its newest release on high-definition Blu-ray.

In director Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier's hands, "Starship Troopers" is part gung-ho war movie filled with stalwart heroes with impossibly square jaws and gorgeous girls with impossibly perfect teeth; part love story involving hopelessly idealistic young people; and part propaganda spoof, embracing stirring speeches, nationalistic slogans, and patriotic recruiting posters. It's also the first movie I recall using CGI special effects to create enormous armies of antagonists. "Jurassic Park" had solidified the use of computer graphics just four years before this film appeared, and "Independence Day" had proved its effectiveness in duplicating multiple aliens just a year earlier. But "Troopers" was amazing in offering up literally thousands of giant, villainous insects on the screen at once.

Like Stanley Kubrick in "Full Metal Jacket," Verhoeven tells the story of "Starship Troopers" in two parts. First, he gives us a detailed account of the recruitment and training of a group of young men and women into the Federal Armed Service, the strong arm of a future fascist state that has united all of Earth. Then, in the second half, the director allows us to follow their exploits in an outer-space war against gigantic bugs that threaten the Earth. Unlike the Kubrick film, however, which was most interesting in its boot-camp scenes and relatively routine in its actual war sequences, "Starship Troopers" is rather long and slow going in the initial phase, which Verhoeven intends as a sarcastic treatise against totalitarianism, but then gets fairly exciting once the action starts in the second half.

Verhoeven tells the story itself in mock-documentary style, like an old World War II indoctrination film, and to this end he purposely chose lesser-known actors for the major roles. Casper Van Dien stars as Johnny Rico, a fellow who would rather serve his country in the Mobile Infantry than go to Harvard (especially when his girlfriend is also joining up for service); Denise Richards is Carmen Ibanez, Johnny's girlfriend; Dina Meyer is Dizzy Flores, who also has a crush on Johnny; Jake Busey is Pvt. Ace Levy, everybody's friend; Neil Patrick Harris is Col. Carl Jenkins, a psychic who becomes a high-ranking officer by the time he's twenty-four (go figure); Patrick Muldoon is Zander Barcalow, a hotshot spaceship pilot; Clancy Brown is Career Sgt. Zim, a hard-ass drill instructor; and Michael Ironside is Lt. Rasczak, an even harder ass.

The actors, of course, are totally inconsequential. Nothing more is required of them but to stand around and look handsome or beautiful, as the case may be. It is only Ironside, the old veteran of the crowd, who makes much of an impression. When a raving-mad general tells Rasczak to shoot him, with a perfectly straight face Ironside actually starts to carry out the order. It's a grim, sardonic, and to me very funny moment.

The documentary device works amusingly, although it doesn't sustain as much viewer involvement as Verhoeven's previous gimmick did in "Total Recall," where the filmgoer constantly questioned whether the whole affair was for real or just a dream. Nevertheless, the pseudo-documentary approach allows the director to explore plot considerations that would have been awkward to do with more conventional story telling, things like explaining background material on the war, public opinion toward it, and various character motivations. Moreover, the approach is different and fun. Nothing wrong with that.

The war with the bugs is the centerpiece of the movie, as we might expect, and thanks to some lavish computer graphics, it comes off pretty well. The huge insects, some of them gargantuan, fire-breathing beetles, are scary not only because of their immense size and bizarre appearance but because of their sheer numbers. I mean, once the animators create a particular computer-generated design, they can reproduce it any number of times. The movie does this with a vengeance, providing the audience with the sight of thousands of these creatures swarming over the screen at once. Then, in terms of spaceships, futuristic paraphernalia, alien creatures, and the like, the movie gives us nothing we haven't seen before, but it gives us more of it.

Some questions, though: Why did the director choose to reveal the bugs in their entirety so early on in the story? In most good sci-fi and horror movies-- "Jaws," "Them," "Alien," "Mimic"--the monster or monsters are unveiled a little at a time, the better to sustain their mystery and build suspense. But Verhoeven proudly displays his bugs in full view from the very beginning of the picture. Was he purposely trying to demystify them? To have striven for the ordinary so soon, documentary style or not, seems to me to have lessened the monsters' dramatic appeal, their element of surprise. Furthermore, why would the soldiers of such an advanced technological future as the one depicted in this movie still be using bullets, and why do the starships have virtually no defense systems?

Oh, well, in spite of my minor reservations, "Starship Troopers" holds one's attention, especially, as I say, in the second half, combining action, drama, thrills, high energy, and a surprising amount of humor in appropriate measure.

Of course, the sight of multiple battles with swarms of giant insects shows up Blu-ray's capabilities nicely. The Sony engineers use an MPEG-4/AVC, 1080p encode spread out over a dual-layer BD50 for maximum picture quality. Like its standard-definition counterparts, the high-def, 1.85:1 ratio transfer is bright and clear, with excellent object delineation, deep black levels, and strong contrasts and shadings. In addition to the movie's sharp focus, its hues are vivid and natural. Although facial close-ups are a tad soft, a fine film grain provides enough texture to add to the picture's realism.

But the clincher is comparing it to the Superbit edition, which I had previously thought was quite good. And I guess it is...for standard definition. But switching between the Superbit (upscaled) and the BD, the high definition refinement becomes even more apparent. The Superbit looks faded, washed out, blurred, and jaggy by comparison. The Blu-ray looks crisper, cleaner, sharper, richer, deeper, more detailed, you name it. Faces look a bit smoothed out in both editions, so nothing seems lost in the new translation.

Although the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound is also pretty good, it doesn't quite match the level of the video. Even in a new lossless codec, I found it very slightly veiled and not quite so all-enveloping nor so dynamic as the best audio in recent action movies. Indeed, in the first half of the film, the major function of the rear channels is to convey nothing more than musical ambience. But wait for it. When the battles with the bugs begin in the movie's second half, all the speakers come to life and display ample range and impact.

Although most of the extras on this Blu-ray disc come from previous editions, there are several that are exclusive to the BD. The first exclusive is a "FedNet Mode." This is a picture-in-picture affair that takes you behind the scenes with the cast and filmmakers. It frames the movie in what looks like a spaceship's computer screen and then, using a small, rectangular insert in the lower right of the main screen, permits the movie folk to talk about sundry stuff concerning the making of the movie while it's going on. The next BD exclusive is a twenty-seven-minute "Recruitment Test," containing questions that rank you for the Federation's Citizen Army. I didn't stick with it for very long. After that is an exclusive gimmick called "Blu-Wizard," which allows you to customize the way you watch the disc's bonus materials--where and when you watch them--by creating your own unique playlist. Finally, there is a BD-Live exclusive (for Profile 2.0 players), which enables you to access additional Internet items (which I did not address). Since Sony pretty much invented Blu-ray, they seem intent on offering the newest features available.

Up next are a couple of old friends; namely, the audio commentaries found on earlier editions of the movie, the first with director Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier and the second with director Verhoeven and cast members Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, and Neil Patrick Harris.

After the commentaries we find a number of documentaries and featurettes from the past. "Death From Above" is thirty-two minutes long and the most comprehensive of the lot. "The Making of Starship Troopers," "The Spaceships of Starship Troopers," and "Bug Test Film: Don't Look Now" total about twelve minutes; "Know Your Foe" details various bug types and lasts about sixteen minutes; two "Scene Deconstructions" with director Verhoeven total about seven minutes; nine "FX Comparisons" total close to half an hour; five deleted scenes make up about ten minutes; and a couple of screen tests with Johnny and Carmen bring up the rear.

To conclude, there are sixteen scene selections (down from the twenty-eight on the Superbit edition); previews of five other Sony products; bookmarks; English and French spoken languages; English, French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

One other thing: In order to begin the film, you have to click through (or watch in their entirety) a Sony start-up logo, a trailer, a main menu, a rating screen, an FBI warning, an INTERPOL warning in English, an INTERPOL warning in other languages, a commentary disclaimer, and, geez.... Couldn't Sony just open with the movie as some other studios do?

Parting Thoughts:
"Starship Troopers" is wonderfully corny in all the right ways. The filmmakers have a great time lampooning the typical stereotypes and clichés of action movies, sci-fi moves, romantic movies, and war-movies, at the same time supplying fans of these genres all the thrills and spectacle they require.

The MPAA gave the film an R rating for intense violence, blood, gore, carnage, and brain sucking. By contrast, the small amount of nudity present is hardly an issue.


Film Value