Monday, March 24, 2014

Starship Troopers


I left Chateau Maine unusually early this morning in order to make my way down to Jose Eber’s salon for a consultation with Mr. Pepper, my personal stylist. It was imperative that I deal quickly with my Salina singed scalp before there was permanent follicular damage. I was in a bit of a foul mood for that rancid tabloid, The National Intruder , managed to get a paparazzi photo of me leaving the concert hall, before I had a chance to make myself presentable. They are threatening to run it next week under the headline 'Vicki Lester's Performance Ignites Audience'. Madame Rose, my publicist, is in talks with them to try to lessen the potential damage to my career and image. She feels that a pre-emptive strike may be called for so she wants me to have a studio photo session this afternoon, before my cheeks lose their new found 'healthy red glow' as she puts it. Avedon and Leibowitz are both unavailable today so Sadie Mae Glutz, who is apparently all the rage amongst the avant-garde, will take the photos. After a wash and comb out and the best ministrations of Mr. Pepper, I still look like a refugee from Camp Pendleton, so I will be breaking out all of the turbans I bought at the Gloria Swanson estate sale. I'm starting with a stunning black silk number with a dusting of rhinestones in a night sky pattern.

When I got home, Norman was busy agitating Nurse Tameka by putting Black Flag Ant and Roach killer into her morning coffee. She threatened to quit for the third time this week, until I sent out for some Krispy Kreme donuts in order to keep the peace. I left them munching contentedly, watching Judge Judy while I repaired to the home theater to rest up prior to keeping my photo appointment.

Insect life being somewhat on my mind after the episode of Norman and the coffee, I was in the mood for a bug movie. I could not find my DVDs of The Naked Jungle or Mothra (Norman has been attempting to alphabetize again and L.A. Confidential was somewhere in the ‘T’s) so I settled for a DVD of Paul Verhoven's Starship Troopers , a film with more than its share of exceedingly large space arthropods. Starship Troopers is based, vaguely, upon Robert Heinlein's classic 1959 science fiction novel of the same name; the book uses the society of the distant future as a catalyst for the study of why people go to war and what makes the military mindset. The movie keeps the general concept of future people battling bugs in deep space, and some of the character names, but otherwise jettisons most of Heinlein for an 'us versus them' sci-fi war movie on anabolic steroids.

The film does not seem to have a human cast, but rather a large number of animatronic figures imported from Euro-Disney. They are so politically correct in terms of ethnicity and gender, that I expected the platoons of combat marines to break into It's A Small World After All at any moment. Chief among them are a group of high school friends from Buenos Aires, who, despite Latin names and locations, look like they hail from North Dakota. They include Casper Van Dien as Johnny Rico, our hero, who defies his family to join the military and see the galaxy. He's in love with Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards, still vying for the title of decade's worst actress) who's in love with her career as a pilot. Johnny, in turn is loved by Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) who follows him to boot camp and into the field. Johnny's best friend, Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), ends up in military intelligence where his decisions determine the others' fate. Carmen, being a modern woman, tries to balance two men in her life, Johnny and pilot Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon).

It's several hundred years in the future; we know this from some not very good matte paintings and models. Fashions have cycled and late 20th century must be in style again. This is about as ludicrous as today's high schoolers showing up at the prom in Louis XIV court clothes but hey, this is Hollywood. The planet is united in a single ethnic/gender neutral society called the Federation where the military caste maintains all political power and runs the planet. As our heroes prepare to leave high school for the world, the federation runs into an alien race around the planet Klendathu; a horde of giant insects, provoked when a group of radical Mormons builds a settlement in one of their territories. They start lobbing meteors at the earth and soon the federation and the bugs are at war.

Johnny Rico and his friends endure all the usual World War II army movie clichés: Boot camp under the sadistic drill instructor; the failed assault; bonding at the bar; the seemingly impossible situation whence they are rescued in the nick of time; the tragic shipwreck; the final confrontation with the enemy leaders. Only, instead of Nazis or Japanese, the villains are huge computer generated bugs with nasty sharp mandibles and mouths. Other villainous insects spout fire, bombard the atmosphere with plasma energy, or zoom through the advancing hordes like so many dog fighting Spitfires. Unlike the World War II movies of the 1940s, however, this one is served up with plenty of flying body parts, blood splatters, and insect fluids. This is definitely not a film for the squeamish.

If Verhoven had chosen a cast of young people who could act, this film might have been campy good fun. Instead, he went with pretty faces who look great in wide screen, but who have all the charisma of a Calvin Klein perfume ad. So, while our heroes are constantly in and out of danger, and bugs chomp large numbers of the supporting cast, we have no real interest in them or their fate. The young attractive cast does get naked often enough to keep you from falling asleep, however, especially in a co-ed shower scene. I think it is supposed to show true gender equality but just serves to prove that Verhoven is a dirty old man.

The biggest flaw in the film, however, is that neither Verhoven nor his screenwriter, Ed Neumeier, seems to have figured out what kind of a film it is they're trying to make. Is it a subversive comedy? Is it an action-adventure battle film? Is it a pro-war or an anti-war picture? The film hasn’t the vaguest, so scene after scene sputters out for lack of any subtext beyond who will Johnny or Carmen choose for sex. There is a commentary with the director and writer on the DVD and even after this, I remain unconvinced that either of them knew what their film was about.

The film is at its best when it veers into comedy. Verhoven is a master of black comedy moments (think of RoboCop or Basic Instinct or his Dutch film,The 4th Man ). The set pieces of the film are linked with montages that are dead on parodies of World War II 'Why We Fight' propaganda films. Most of the adults with whom our young heroes come into contact prior to their enlistment are horribly scarred (presumably from their military experiences) but our heroes are too dim to make the connection. There are cute moments of soldiers handing automatic assault weapons to pre-teens, televised executions, and bug stomping that show this future society is not very nice. Fascist is probably the best word for it and there are subtle touches in the costumes and set decorations that evoke SS Uniforms and the architecture of Albert Speer.

My favorite moment in the film comes early, when our young protagonists have to dissect giant bugs in biology class. Rue McLanahan, almost unrecognizable under her facial scar make-up and big black 'Blind' glasses, is their teacher, tapping around the room with her white cane while bug guts make the students retch. If the film could have kept up that kind of gusto, it might have been something. Unfortunately, we go from there to the tired romantic triangles and, ultimately, bug planets and Rue McLanahan is never seen again.

The DVD has a great wide screen transfer and excellent sound quality. In addition to the film, there is a commentary track by Verhoven and Neumeier which I cannot recommend as they don't have much of value to say. They pontificate on the nature of fascism and the military without really giving any point of view and spend a good deal of time explaining an already simplistic plot. There are a few cut scenes, removed after previews to make Carmen more sympathetic. If they had been left in, they would have made the romantic subplots drearier than they are already. There is also a very short 'Making of' documentary and the theatrical trailer.

Senior Prom. Futuristic gymnastics football. Knife through hand. Hand held tactical nuclear devices. Gratuitous group shower scene. Plexiglas violin. Dismembered television commentator. Exploding space ships. Exploding arthropods. Exploding people. Gratuitous brain sucking. Telepathic moments.

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