Flashy yet Deep
Starship Troopers (1997) Starring Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, and Neil Patrick Harris. Written by Edward Neumeier (adapted from a novel by Robert A. Heinlein). Directed by Paul Verhoeven.
It has been observed that wars are started by old people, who then send young people to do the fighting. This fact proves inconvenient for filmmakers who want to show us warriors earning glory through impressive feats of action. They don't want to show us heroic teenagers. So they usually gloss over this reality. From John Wayne to George Clooney, most fictional war heroes are older than the real soldiers we send to fight in real combat.
One proud exception is Starship Troopers. This science fiction film gives us war heroes as young as the ones in real life. And just as importantly, perhaps, it offers young audiences a great movie.
Warriors and Teenagers
Our main character (Casper Van Dien) deals with typical teenager problems. He worries his girlfriend (Denise Richards) will leave him for the handsome jock on a rival team, while Van Dien himself is pursued by the rugged beauty (Dena Meyer) he sees only as a pal. He argues with parents whose plans for him differ from his own plans.
Nicely enough, this film breaks from the usual pattern of teenagers bowing down to their parents. Van Dien's parents want their son to go to Harvard, but he chooses military service instead.
Predictably, there is a scene later in which, after suffering greatly in his training, Van Dien calls his parents and tells them he was wrong and wants to come home. What makes this scene bearable is how it is presented: not so much a wayward son coming to his senses, but more a young man suffering a moment of self-doubt he must overcome before continuing on his hero's journey. In other words, the filmmakers are not necessarily pushing submission to one's parents as a good thing. (Robert A. Heinlein's novel reportedly goes even further, with the protagonist's father so moved by his son's example of civic duty that the father, too, decides to finally join up.)
Some may bristle at Van Dien joining, and essentially throwing his life away, for the silly reason of wanting to impress his girlfriend, who seemingly is not that into him anyway. But in real life people do sometimes do illogical things in pursuit of love. Van Dien's silliness is balanced out beautifully during the celebrated co-ed shower scene (celebrated largely for Dina Meyer's sex-appeal). Other showering soldiers, just as young as Van Dien, reveal their reasons for joining, and most of their reasons are well thought-out, following their best opportunities for the future they want. Van Dien has enough sense to be embarrassed and refuses to say why he joined. When Meyer outs him, he leaves the room, trailed by teasing and catcalls.
The film makes clear that Van Dien's bad decision does not reflect on teenagers in general.
Like The Dirty Dozen, Starship Troopers offers plenty of character development before taking our heroes into combat, but none of this is boring, not for a second. Every moment is original and surprising.
Writer Ed Neumeir and director Paul Verhoven (who previously collaborated on Robocop) get riveting suspense out of scenes other filmmakers would have skipped. When Denise Richards pilots a starship for her first time, she pulls away from the dock and leaves viewers terrified she will damage the ship, and relieved when she does not. Like a teenager driving a car the first time, it's scary, but she does just fine.
And like The Dirty Dozen, Starship Troopers gets a big payoff from investing heavily in character development before the main action scenes, drawing far more impact by giving us characters we care about and placing them in danger. The combat scenes in which our heroes battle it out with giant insects are as terrifying as any scenes in any Vietnam movie.
Respect for Youth
And yes, Van Dien does get to be a hero. He triumphs over giant bugs that overwhelm other soldiers. He displays cleverness, athletic ability, and character.
But the most important way these filmmakers show respect for young audiences is simply by giving them a great movie. Too many filmmakers think young audiences are not worth much effort. Starship Troopers shows tons of effort, not just with its dazzling special effects, but with dazzling writing and directing.
This film is modeled after the World War II propaganda films, but the filmmakers add such depth and complexity, viewers are unsure whether the intent is to emulate the old films or to scorn them. We see the glory of battle triumph, but we also see the ugly savagery of war, and we see the heartlessness with which soldiers are sent to the slaughter.
One of the scariest scenes comes just before the first battle. Bringing the film's buildup to a crescendo, the commanding officer tells our young soldiers, "Remember your training and you will make it back alive." We know he is lying. No training could guarantee the survival of all these soldiers. He is telling them what they want to believe, what he wants them to believe. We are left to wonder if the film's narrator isn't doing the same to us when he gives us such cheerleading as: "They'll keep fighting. And they'll win."
Beneath it's flashy surface, this sci-fi fantasy film offers a deeper level of honesty, leaving viewers with an emotional complexity that puts this film closer to an art house flick than to Star Wars. Such complexity is rare in Hollywood, and even more rare in big-budget action films. It seldom leads to financial triumph for the studio, but it is films like this that make cinema not just a business but an art.