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May 15, 2007

In Case You Missed It—May 15, 2007

We all have that relative. You know, the uncle who gets drunk at the family Christmas party and makes lewd comments about your aunt. The annoying nephew whom you’re positive is going to grow up and become a sociopath. The cousin who gets knocked up at age 16 and comes to family gatherings with her chain-smoking boyfriend Earl. These people have many flaws, but despite all their mistakes they are still family, and you’re forced to love them.

On some level, too, they are hilarious in their depravity, and their almost purposeful mockery of social norms eventually makes you feel better about yourself for some reason.

That’s how I feel about the movie Starship Troopers. It’s like the retarded stepchild of the sci-fi genre. It is that creepy little nephew—the one about whom you can’t seem to figure out whether he’s a quiet genius or a brooding serial killer.

When it was released, Starship Troopers was panned by critics, rejected by fans, and pretty much ripped limb-from-limb by anyone who saw it. It was quite obviously not a good movie. It was full of horrendous acting, painfully cheesy one-liners, and a plot that could be understood by a hamster.

The story follows Johnny Rico (Casper van Dien) as he fights against the deadly Arachnids to protect the future of humanity.

It also fulfills two of my other criteria for awful sci-fi. It has award-winning lines like “They sucked his brains out!” and it co-stars Michael Ironside. If you guessed that Michael Ironside plays some sort of tough old man who’s full of grit but has a heart of gold, you are correct!

But 10 years later, there’s just something about this movie that refuses to die. Entertainment Weekly recently ranked it as one of the 25 greatest moments in sci-fi in the past 25 years (though, in all fairness, that list did include Galaxy Quest). Believe it or not, this forgettable, campy, ridiculous movie has spawned quite a debate—should it rank as a clever and subtle critique of sci-fi as a genre and Heinlein as an author, or is it really just that bad?

On the one hand, it is hard to believe that director Paul Verhoeven, who hit such an unlikely note with Total Recall, would fail so miserably in casting, directing, and scripting. I mean, Denise Richards was cast as one of the lead roles, along with van Dien. The combination just screams “Hollywood Pretty Boy/Girl” too loudly for anyone to ignore.

If we give Verhoeven even the slightest bit of credit, the choice of actors alone lends credence to the theory that this movie was intentionally made to be bad, although Neil Patrick Harris does show up as some sort of psychic S.S. officer, which is pretty much the high point of the movie.

But why? What could it possibly accomplish to make such a god-awful movie on purpose? In Heinlein’s novel, only those who served in the military in some capacity were eligible to vote. The idea was that civic virtue and personal sacrifice should trump any so-called natural right.

The movie is hopelessly full of near-fascist slogans, jingoism, and suicidal obedience—to the point where it can’t help but become humorous. It could easily be argued that Verhoeven is spoofing Heinlein, showing the kind of chauvinistic and nonsensical society that arises from Heinlein’s views.

This movie is the anti–sci-fi. Whereas real sci-fi uses the genre’s unique characteristics to thrust the audience into strange situations so they can better understand their own circumstances, Starship Troopers focuses on mindless killing and blind nationalism. Whereas real sci-fi tries (and often fails) to focus on the human situation instead of the futuristic world, Starship Troopers focuses on little besides killing bugs.

But is Verhoeven secretly satirizing an industry that forces otherwise promising scripts and ideas into situations where they have to pander to the lowest common denominator? It is possible, but the theory only has as much credit as you give Verhoeven.

In my personal opinion, Starship Troopers is just a train wreck. The movie obviously failed to be good on a traditional level, and its existent or nonexistent spoof of Heinlein and the genre was missed by almost everyone who watched it the first time around. I’m not usually one to trust the critics, but if Verhoeven’s disdain for popular culture and military jingoism was missed by movie critics, he failed in that respect too. Plus, he later directed Hollow Man, so he pretty much fails at everything.

But on a side note, I can’t help but watch this movie whenever I get the chance. The special effects were some of the best you’ll find in the late ’90s, and despite all its flaws, there is a definite “Oh hell yeah!” quality to the movie. Perhaps that’s why any spoof had to be as ridiculous as the movie ended up being. Had Verhoeven made the movie any better or more serious, I might have signed up to fight the Arachnids myself.

That’s all for this week. As always, suggestions are more than welcome. Just send them my way at bmw940@uchicago.edu.