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Review: "Ship" of Fools

Blast San Francisco Bureau

"Starship Troopers" is an exciting warp-speed rollercoaster ride of fancy F/X and slimy alien bugs that never lets up. It explodes onscreen with action and has a slight satiric bite that makes the film even more fun.

It's also the stupidest movie I've seen in a long time.

That's not to say you won't enjoy it. "Troopers" and the kind of movie "events" it now epitomizes are now the rule, not the exception, and they're suposed to entice the entertainment masses through mouth-watering marketing and high-octane film energy. Cinematic fun, payment on delivery.

Based on Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 sci-fi novel of the same name, "Troopers"is your basic war-is-hell movie, set in futuristic outer space against the backdrop of your typical humans-vs.-evil aliens conflict. It was directed by Paul Verhoeven, the guy who gave us the fine sci-fi films "RoboCop" and "Total Recall" and the idiotic yet unintentionally hilarious "Showgirls."

We are introduced to this future setting through high-tech newsreels. Here, the world is a militaristic caste society of civilians, regular earth folk, and "citizens," those who earned their class by enlisting, doing their duty, maybe losing a limb in action. The video news bulletins are a humorous reminder of our own media-obsessed society (mimicking much of the same news satire seen in "RoboCop").

The film plunges the audience directly in the line of fire, as the Mobile Infantry are shooting bullets aplenty at the spidery aliens. These suckers are nasty, mean creatures that grab the space marines with their huge pinchers and snap them in half. Blood and guts galore ensues.

Then it flashes back a year, out of "Aliens" territory and smack in the middle of "Beverly Hills 90210." We are introduced to the core group of young heroines that make up the brave recruits, a bunch of older kids hitting the books in school in Buenos Aires. There's clean-cut football hero Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his gorgeous girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards). She flirts with the equally handsome Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon) while the Veronica in this Archie equation, Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) has eyes on the suave Rico. Smart-boy Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris -- yes, THE "Doogie Howser") takes up the time perfectly his grades and psychic ability. Helping to keep them in line in school is a tight-ass never-smiling teacher named Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside).

The prom comes and so too does graduation. Carmen and Zander aim high and become space pilots, a couple of starry-eyed top guns. Rico joins the foot soldiers of MI, joined by -- surprise -- Flores. Doogie enlists in military intelligence. The 45-minute "Melrose Place" episode fades into "An Officer and a Gentlemen."

And that's the first problem with the film. It's bad enough these Spanish-surnamed kids are as white as Tori Spelling (What kind of Aryan wet dream of a future is Verhoeven trying to paint anyway?), but do they all have to cardboard cutouts of Aaron Spelling-type characters?

The recruits get a welcome dose of hard-core training, live ammo and all, real character builders. Rico becomes the center of the narrative as we witness his progression from kid to soldier and as he climbs the ranks in MI.

He gets stabbed by a spider, but he lives. A fellow solider dies in training under his command, but circumstances keep him from quitting the force. He and thousands of soldiers face creepy swarms of spider aliens, flying mosquito-like E.T.'s, even giant beetles that shoot fire from their ass (!), but does he back down. No, he's the Energizer Bunny; he just keeps going and his hair stays perfectly gelled.

Peppering the action are the tongue-in-cheek news bulletins. Their humor helps balance out the high body count.

The war scenes in the film as exciting and gory. Limbs fly like dirt, heads rolls, bullets fly, blood spills. Verhoeven more than earns the R rating. And the effects are indeed special, with the film's desert planet crawling with herds of those damn spiders. The outerspace scenes of monolithic ships are grand and impressive. Somebody in F/X was staying up late at night to fill the screen and it shows.

Against the war backdrop, the love quadrangle subplot continues. Rico breaks up with Carmen, Carmen gets friendly with Zander, Flores and Rico get naked.

Of course, this being war and all, the romance is interrupted by some splendidly filmed military deaths, including film history's best brain-sucking scene.

It's all retarded fun. Then it stops cold. You know how most rollercoasters build up more and more speed, making wild turns and spine-turning spirals, then eventually ending in some grand crescendo like a deadly descent or a sudden five-fold boost in speed? All good rollercoasters are like that. Not to give away the ending but, well, "Troopers" rides on and on, getting faster and wilder until you think you're gonna fall out of your Coke-stained theater seat ... then it halts to disappointing conclusion; it almost has no ending, just room for a sequel. How blatant. How cheap.

If you go see "Troopers" enjoy the ride while you can but try not to linger on thinking about afterward too much. Lots of the film makes no sense.It's not the grisly reality of war that'll bring solemn introspection like "Schindler's List." It's the complete opposite, a cartoon wrapped up in live action and digital F/X. At least "Star Wars" brought some awe to it and had a cool bad guy with black cape and a badass sword.