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Starship Troopers: Special Edition

Starship Troopers may well be one of the most misunderstood films of the last decade. Directed by that great satirist Paul Verhoeven, who's so unafraid that he made the glorious Showgirls with a straight face (OK, that's probably the most misunderstood movie of the previous decade), many critics and viewers derided the picture as a big, brain-dead spectacle inhabited by monotone pretty people. Worse, some thought it an endorsement of fascist thought. And in their own wrong way, these critics were, right, as the colorful, plastic-looking, cartoonish Starship Troopers is filled with vapid beauties and is a successful vision of sexy fascism (put Doogie Howser in an SS-style outfit and suddenly he's a good-looking fellow). But that's entirely the point. As Verhoeven muses on this Special Edition disc (which replaces the previous DVD release), he may have done too good a job with the satire. Starship Troopers is so seamless and so unflinching in its vision of teeny-bopper totalitarianism that it's understandable why those going to a mindless bug-killing movie were confused when they had to check their heads afterwards: "Are we supposed to like these people?" But for anyone with an eye for parody, it still is baffling as to how they couldn't get the film's slick, WWII-inspired recruitment ads ("Join Now!") in which laughing soldiers hand bullets out to children, or little kids enthusiastically smash bugs while an approving mother looks on, as just one part of the film's clever caricature. "The only good bug is a dead bug," a crusty man barks with emblematic anger. Now really, in the hyper-PC times of 1997, do you think a film truly would offer this sentiment as an incitement for viewers to embrace genocide? In this DVD's entertaining and informative documentary "Death from Above," some people did see Verhoeven as endorsing fascism, leaving the liberal Dutchman continually in defense of his film, particularly in Europe (you'd think they'd get it), where an article criticized Starship Troopers as part of Hollywood's fascist fetishism in film. What may be more perplexing are those critics who understood the film and yet still didn't understand, like Roger Ebert. His intelligent but finally confused review complained that the film wasn't like a certain famous space epic: "Unlike the Star Wars movies, which embraced a joyous vision and great comic invention, Starship Troopers doesn't resonate. It's one-dimensional ... where's the warmth of human nature? The spark of genius or rebellion? If Star Wars is humanist, Starship Troopers is totalitarian." That's a criticism? That this movie isn't like Star Wars? And yet both pictures used scenes from Leni Riefenstahl's beautiful, terrifying Nazi-propaganda art-film Triumph of the Will for inspiration. We see it in Star Wars' final award ceremony scene, and — as confessed in the Starship Troopers documentary — in the picture's propaganda. Verhoeven even shows clips from Triumph to illustrate how, like Riefenstahl, he chose the most beautiful people to punctuate the film's pretty jingoism.

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But to the movie. Based on the novel Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein, the technically advanced future Earth is governed by a militarist federation where news is presented in newsreel-style computer announcements, informing people of even the most horrific and gory events. Interspersed throughout the movie, these patriotic pieces serve as the film's wry reminder that we are indeed watching a sardonic satire. Currently the perfect world presented is threatened by a race of super-bugs, huge insects that are blasting asteroids from their planet, attempting to extinguish all of humanity. There is a need for men, and this is a cause worth fighting for, pushing a group of high school friends into service. Squared-jawed Johnny Ricco (Casper Van Dien) signs up, mainly because his girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards) does, but they're soon separated when she — the smart one — becomes a pilot. In the meantime, Johnny is part of infantry, along with the girl who's in love with him, the butch Diz (Dina Meyer), while his rival, Zander (Patrick Muldoon) is also a pilot, sitting close to Carmen. The other friend, Carl (Neil Patrick Harris — need we remind you this is Doogie Howser?), is ultra-smart, assigned to Military Intelligence. There's a teen love story in this, and poor Johnny gets the shaft from Carmen, causing him to nearly ditch the effort until he finds his parents dead, killed by an asteroid wielded by evil bugs. Now super-bitter and super-psyched, Johnny goes all-out Rambo, and the film takes us to the simultaneously horrifying and hilarious bug planet where impressive insects are wreaking repulsive carnage on soldiers whose bodies are mangled to death, their limbs littering the terrain (with some heads clearly sucked in by these voracious creatures). The razor legs, crabby bodies, and ability to jump, bite, and cut are just some of the creatures' horrifying and nearly un-stoppable assets, along with gooey discharge we get to watch spray in the soldier's faces as they blast them. These battles are wonderfully staged, cartoonish but truly gory, and yes, fun. But let us not forget that Starship Troopers is saying something, commenting on the lure of fascism, the gung-ho ridiculousness of so many stupid action films and the plastic world of perfection. Many critics don't want to live in a world where women have smiles as gorgeously huge (and creepy) as Denise Richards', and yet part of them probably do, making Starship Troopers all the more cunning. Columbia TriStar's two-disc special edition presents a pristine anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio Dolby Digital 5.1 and English, Spanish and French subtitles. Disc One's supplements include a fascinating commentary by Verhoeven and his with screenwriter Ed Neumeier (who scripted Verhoeven's other great violent satire Robocop) and a second track with Verhoeven and his cast, including Van Dien and Richards. Also included is the film's score available on an isolated track with commentary by composer Basil Poledouris. Disc Two's supplements include deleted scenes, the enlightening and engaging doc "Death from Above" (where, in addition to being comprehensive, it's nice to see a director actually helping actors scream at a blue screen), behind-the-scenes featurettes, screen tests, screen deconstructions by Verhoeven, and eight sequences with special-effects comparisons. Starship Troopers and this DVD are immense, thought-provoking fun — which is, in a word, rare. Dual-DVD digipak.
—Kim Morgan

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