11-11-97: Starship Troopers

This Week at the Movies

The Aisle Seat, by Andy Dursin


A couple of “contenders” open around the country. First up is THE JACKAL, the Bruce Willis-Richard Gere reworking of the 1973 film (and Frederick Forysth’s novel). Word is highly varied on this project, though Variety gave it a “thumb’s up” last week. Also opening is the supposedly pretty funny Bill Murray vehicle THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE, with Chris Young music, but with “The Jackal” and “Starship Troopers” sure to dominate the box-office, this spy spoof will probably get buried by the competition.


STARSHIP TROOPERS (****): I honestly can’t remember the last time I came out of a big “event” movie so thoroughly satisfied. As someone who has never been a big fan of Paul Verhoeven’s films, I admittedly was a little bit hesitant about his latest sci-fi extravaganza, STARSHIP TROOPERS. However, after sitting through all 129 minutes of this rousing, stellar epic, it’s clear that the director has finally figured it all out. By that I mean, Verhoeven has finally fine-tuned his penchant for blood-pumping action and violence and combined it with a clever, old-fashioned script (patterned after many a WWII actioner) and a smart sense of humor. More importantly, Verhoeven doesn’t wallow in sadistic violence (as he did in ROBOCOP and TOTAL RECALL, to name but a few of his earlier, over-the-top efforts), and keeps the film on an engrossing, steady course all the way through. It’s a spectacle movie with familiar elements, but it’s been many, many years since we’ve seen a genre formula so expertly played and masterfully executed at every turn. Casper Von Dien is the youthful hero Johnny Rico, who suits up and joins the Federation when his girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards) decides to become an intergalactic pilot. Of course, their love is thwarted by a swarm of giant insects who launch a meteorite at our planet from their galaxy far, far away. After a tremendously entertaining first hour–introducing the characters and bringing them into a delightfully over-the-top boot camp, complete with drill sargent Clancy Brown–the movie settles into a sensational second hour, with hordes of creatures attacking the young starship troopers on the arachnids’ home turf. Von Dien and Jake Busey are sufficiently engaging as the male leads, while Neil Patrick Harris is a hoot as the futuristic Doogie Howser trying to strategically defeat the bugs. On the female end, strong physical presence and screen charisma is adeptly handled by Denise Richards (very easy on the eyes in an unlikeable part) and, particularly, Dina Meyer, the latter as the tough chic who unrequitedly falls for Von Dien. The scenes of the young stars are well handled by Verhoeven and ROBOCOP scribe Ed Neumier, playing off standard war-movie cliches and adding fresh, often tongue-in-cheek twists throughout. Serious support is lent by Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside, genre vets who turn in some of their best work here. Last but not least are Basil Poledouris’ unsurprisingly masterful score (it works flawlessly in the movie) and Phil Tippett’s amazing special effects, with pulse-pounding battle sequences simultaneously playing homage to great war movies (ZULU) and Ray Harryhausen Saturday matinee flicks. It’s an unbeatable combination of elements, all of which truly gel under Verhoeven’s direction. The humorous mock “newsreel” sequences are hysterical, adding some satirical “jingoistic” commentary to the picture’s unfliching commentary of war, but again, Verhoeven takes it easy on the subtext and concentrates on producing one hell of an entertainment machine. After seeing one gigantic, overly hyped studio product after another over the last few years, STARSHIP TROOPERS truly stands as the most exciting “blockbuster” to come out of the Hollywood factory in eons–and arguably the most breathtaking genre picture since ALIENS. Walking out of this movie, I actually started not only wondering, but actually ANTICIPATING, when the sequel will be made–and when was the last time THAT happened at the movies?! [R, 129 mins.]


THE FIFTH ELEMENT (***1/2): Bruce Willis is an intergalactic taxi driver, Milla Jovovich is a Ronald McDonald-haired outer-space goddess who holds the key to the galaxy, and Gary Oldman does a Russ Perot accent in this inventive sci-fi fantasy, pure eye candy courtesy of writer-director Luc Besson. It doesn’t matter that the plot is recycled out of a number of genre films–that’s part of the point of Besson’s tongue-in-cheek script, which makes just enough sense to hang all of his outlandish and simply spectacular visuals on. Sure to lose something on the small-screen, the movie should get a home-theater boost with its widescreen letterboxed laserdisc release this week (11/11), with a DVD to follow a few weeks down the road. [PG-13, 130 mins.]

BATMAN & ROBIN (**1/2): Superior to Joel Schumacher’s boring and garish “Batman Forever,” this is Joel Schumacher’s overlong but at least more watchable follow-up, dominated (what else is new?) by villains Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr.Freeze) and Uma Thurman (Poison Ivy). George Clooney is fine as Batman, but as we all know, the role doesn’t require much in the way of talent or charisma–just a lot of moping about. As Freeze, Arnold earns every cent of his hefty pay-check, gleefully romping through Gotham City in one his most entertaining performances; Thuman is likewise energetic as the sexy Ivy. Support is added by Alicia Silverstone (heavier here but just as cute as she was in “Clueless”) in the thankless role of Batgirl, while Chris O’Donnell phones in his lifeless performance as Robin, and Elle Macpherson adds window dressing as Wayne’s latest galpal. As with the case of all the Batman films, this picture suffers from lethargic pacing and a script that needed a rewrite–at 130 mins., it feels half an hour too long, and Avika Goldsman’s script adds a needlessly dour Alfred the Butler subplot that feels at odds with the campy tone of the rest of the picture. Still, it’s fun, though Danny Elfman’s music remains sadly missed–Elliot Goldenthal’s score, as with his “Batman Forever” effort, comes across as a heavy-handed, blaring mass of sound, lacking the dramatic flair and texture of Elfman’s original works. [PG-13, 130 mins.]