Bad movie lovers, isn’t it high time to erect a monument to bad boy Paul Verhoeven? We know that the director’s European output includes extraordinary stuff like Soldier of Orange, The 4th Man and Black Book but it’s Verhoeven’s brilliantly bad back-to-back American trash trio Showgirls, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man that delivered some of the biggest belly laughs in bad movie history.
You’ve just got to give it up for a perverse, lunatic genius like Verhoeven who actually seemed to believe that Starship Troopers, his pretty space cadets vs. giant bugs from outer space epic, would be his “Get Out of Jail Free” card after the side-splitting Showgirls. He took a classic, highly award-winning, controversial 1959 Robert Heinlein sci-fi novel and blew it up into one of the goofiest, most subversive and enjoyably campy hoots of all time. Maybe the director should have actually bothered to read the novel, something he proudly admits he never did.
Anyway, the first third of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers plays like a cranked-up version of a standard Hollywood war flick, loaded with flag-waving propaganda and leaving no cliché untouched including the obligatory pack of raw recruits brutalized during basic training by a psycho drill sergeant, buddy bonding, rivalries, misplaced optimism – the usual elements, except for the coed shower scene, that is. The delightfully perverse Verhoeven plucked a good number of his cast members from nighttime soaps like Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210 -- among the most vapid “actors” ever to wander off Malibu Beach onto a soundstage.
The mirthful mistakes start with lantern-jawed Casper Van Dien who rises from spoiled rich boy to squadron leader and finally, to psychotic uber-fascist. Looking like Elvis reimagined as an Aryan wet dream, Van Dien lets his torso and teeth do the heavy lifting, especially when he’s punished for bad soldiering by getting hoisted to a whipping post and lashed in full-on kinky homoerotic S&M splendor. The object of his affections is Denise Richards, doe-eyed, constantly smiling and vacantly va-voomy; in their scenes together, Van Dien and Beyond the Valley of the-ready Richards look like two minds but with a single, lonely thought.
About to be shipped off to an unjustified war on giant arachnid life forms, Richards purrs, with all the emotion of a vibrator: “Oh, it’s exciting going away … but I’m scared.” Van Dien’s rival for Richards’s charms is smarmy, hair gel-crazy officer Patrick Muldoon who flashes bedroom eyes at his ace co-pilot Richards and croons, “I heard about this crazy girl coming to the academy – excels in math, a little hard on the stick.” Volleys back Richards with the grin of an easy lay, “Your career is in … my hands.” Meanwhile, Richards’ rival for Van Dien is two-fisted, feisty fellow enlistee Dina Meyer, who seethes when V.D. threatens to return to civilian life: “You take that stroll down washout lane, you’re only going to prove one thing – that you don’t have what it takes.”
But Starship Troopers goes fully, gloriously buggy when Verhoeven sends his clueless human Ken and Barbie dolls into hilariously gruesome combat with the zillions of crawling, flying, rampaging giant bugs that, though, CGI-generated, are so much more lifelike and sympathetic than our stars that we practically cheer when they ambush, outsmart and Cuisinart them limb from limb. “The only good bug is a dead bug!” yells one of Verhoeven’s satiric hyper-“patriots” in the aftermath of one of the movie’s fantastic bugs-amok sequences that recall classic movie Westerns and adventure films like Gunga Din and Zulu. “The goddamn bugs whacked us!” snarls Van Dien – dialogue that wouldn’t be caught dead in a vintage Hollywood classic -- after an attack that sends geysers of blood, severed arms, limbs, heads and other body parts flying every which way.
Happily, Neil Patrick Harris is on hand as a icy, telepathic Nazi-ish scientist who helpfully informs that one of the movie’s biggest, most repulsive bugs possesses emotions and a mighty brain – qualities not demonstrated by the movie’s human stars. OK, so Verhoeven and some of the cast members are obviously in on the anti-Fascist, anti-imperialist jokes but the movie’s gore and ham-fisted satire are so over-the-top and insistent that the highly educated, gifted, sly Verhoeven seems all the more gonzo. Did the bugs get to him? Maybe, as Michael Ironside growls in the movie’s all-time funniest line about the bugs: “They sucked his brain out!”
Now, let’s get working on that Verhoeven statue. Who’s with us?