In 1997, director Paul Verhoeven brought his scabrous wit to Starship Troopers, an adaptation of Robert A Heinlein’s gung-ho military fable about humans fighting bugs on a distant planet. It was violent, trashy, and very funny, with its fascistic imagery gamely inverting the book’s pro-military sentiments.
The film’s cult as opposed to outright commercial success ensured that its sequels, Hero Of The Federation (2004) and Marauder (2008) were cheaply made and went straight to video. There was also a CGI animated TV series called Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles (1999), which ran for just under one year.
As producer Neal Moritz quietly works on his plants to remake Verhoeven’s movie, along comes Starship Troopers: Invasion, a direct-to-DVD fourth instalment in the current series. A Japanese and American co-production, it’s CG animated like the old Roughnecks show, and takes as much inspiration from Heinlein’s source novel as Verhoeven’s original movie – an attempt, perhaps, to please fanatics on both sides of the Troopers fence.
Invasion follows Carmen Ibanez and a group of towel-snapping, cordite-for-brains Roughneck grunts as they attempt to locate the John A Warden – Ibanez’s gigantic Federation starship which has been spirited away to a far-flung part of the galaxy by the sinister Carl Jenkins. When Ibanez and her troops finally locate the ship, the crew’s dead, the lights are out, and a legion bugs are waiting to attack. Jenkins has been up to no good, and his antics could spell doom for both Ibanez and everyone back on Earth.
The benefit of ditching traditional sets and actors is evident from Invasion’s opening frame; now fully animated, we no longer have to put up with the iffy production values and evident budget restrictions of the second and third films. Limb-snipping bugs can now pour onto the screen in abundance, and Invasion can finally bring to the franchise what Marauder could only hint at – those powerful armoured suits beloved by fans of the original book.
Director Shinji Aramaki is something of an anime legend, having previously directed a part of 80s OAV series Megazone 23, Metal Skin Panic: MADOX-01 and the 2004 CG movie, Appleseed and its sequel. It’s little surprise, then, that Invasion comes with a slick futuristic sheen, or that its mechanical designs are so lovingly detailed.
Unfortunately, the problem with Invasion lies not with its mecha suits, but the people inside them. Every single one is a basic archetype recognisable from videogames and old war movies; there’s a hulking tough guy called Ratzass (who “doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anything”), a sharp-shooting woman with a ponytail called Trig, a kung-fu expert named Chow, a disgraced major called Hero, and a mystic with tattoos whose name I don’t recollect.
There are a couple of names here that fans of the book and films will recollect, though. Carmen Ibanez, Carl Jenkins and even Johnny Rico all turn up here, albeit in seriously amended form. Ibanez no longer looks like Denise Richards, Rico has a beard and an eye patch, while Jenkins looks like a reanimated corpse and suffers from occasional bouts of rambling madness.
If the characterisations sound thin, the dialogue’s worse, and largely amounts to threats, taunts, barked commands and calls for help. At its best, it’s unintentionally amusing – a cry of “We are under massive bug attack” is a beauty, as is a moment where one character calmly tells his buddies, “I’ll see you on the other side” while receiving repeated, mortal wounds to his chest and viscera from alien claws.
You could argue that part of the problem with Invasion is its dead-eyed CG characters from the uncanny valley, whose stilted gestures and awkward facial movements impart even less emotion than Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards managed to wring out of themselves in the 1997 film. But really, the problem lies in the writing and direction, which piles crisis upon crisis without pause or attempting to build a sense of tension or (God forbid) genuine pathos.
The story is largely a retread of James Cameron’s Aliens, with a steadily dwindling cast and an unlimited supply of identical-looking monsters. Shorn of the political undertones and playful sense of fun that made Verhoeven’s movie so shiny, this iteration of Starship Troopers is simply a straight action movie, hampered still further by its repetitive violence, juvenile (not to mention creepy) usage of nudity and an unwelcome air of grave seriousness.
Slavish devotees of sci-fi military hardware and interspecies violence may wrest a bit of amusement from Starship Troopers: Invasion, but I suspect most fans of the book or even the cheesier film sequels will be disappointed with this all-CG entry.
What a shame that what could have been a revitalising boost for the series should turn out to be just another bug hunt.
Starship Troopers: Invasion is out on DVD and Blu-ray on the 27th August.
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