Paul Verhoeven is exactly the wrong man to have made Starship Troopers (starring a bunch of impossibly perfect-looking faux teenagers including Doogie Howser, plus Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown).
Set in a future global Earth society that restricts citizenship to those who serve in the armed forces, Troopers follows a group of teens through a harsh basic training and into a war with giant alien bugs that transforms them from callow, shallow youths into callow shallow, slightly older youths. That none of the twentysomethings playing these high-schoolers can act is, I am certain, all according to director Verhoeven’s plan.
Like the Heinlein novel it’s based on, Troopers requires one thing to make it work: that the audience believes in the crypto-fascist world it creates. Verhoeven does not allow us to believe because he satirizes it through the propaganda “films” that punctuate the movie and his disdain for the characters. Johnny Rico, a compelling and complex character in the novel, is reduced to nothing more than a lovestruck puppy by the robotic performance of Casper Van Dien — so we feel zero sympathy for all he endures through the events of the movie. Even worse, Verhoeven turns his military intelligence characters into parody Gestapo.
Verhoeven might have used his own brilliant Robocop as a template for Troopers. Robocop satirizes our own violence-obsessed, television-addled society, but never at the expense of his protagonists, the robotic cop played — oddly touchingly — by Peter Weller, or his partner, played by Nancy Allen. If Verhoeven felt he needed to lampoon the casual fascism of the world of Starship Troopers, he needed to give us something to sympathize with — preferably, the movie’s characters. But he didn’t. The audience with which I saw Troopers laughed at the characters we should have been in tune with.
James Cameron should have made Starship Troopers. His films allow the suspension of disbelief, no matter how ridiculous the situation. The colonial marines of Aliens are completely believable, even the buffoons like Hudson (played by Bill Paxton) — unlike the soldiers of Troopers. True Lies is pretty farfetched, but Cameron treats the world of the film in a straightforward manner, so the audience can too.
It’s too bad that Starship Troopers didn’t get the respect it deserved. It should have been a much better movie.