Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Curse of Netflix Roulette: Starship Troopers 3

A friend of mine asked me when I was going to do another Netflix Roulette post. He seemed disappointed when I told him that I was likely going to retire the roulette posts. Not because I don't enjoy doing them--nothing of the sort. The problem is Netflix itself. Some time last year, they changed the interface on their streaming pages to a kind of infinite scroll, the kind so popular with social applications. This makes it kind of difficult to determine the range of numbers for the random number generator. Deliberately picking films from the streaming array seems like cheating. The randomness is the point. Somewhere along the line I had the bright idea of playing roulette with my Roku interface. That's a standard list of fifty movies per category. This is manageable. So this morning, I gave it a try. I used the science fiction and fantasy row rather than the horror row to reduce the chances that I'd get a result that I've already seen, and the randomizer gave me Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008, directed by Edward Neumeier). Oof.

At this point, I need to own up to the fact that I'm an old school science fiction fan: I grew up reading Heinlein and Asimov and Bradbury and Lovecraft and Howard, I went to conventions, I read Analog and Omni and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (and still read Clarkesworld and Apex and some other online outlets occasionally). I was a Hugo voter last year. I'm less immersed in the culture of science fiction these days--most of what I read nowadays are hardboiled crime novels and literary fiction, but I still have an affection for it. When the original Starship Troopers came out, I still had a foot in that world, and a lot of my sci fi friends were both geeked by the movie and disappointed by it. Geeked, because it was a violent spectacle based on a novel they loved (a lot of my old science fiction friends are libertarians thanks to early exposure to Robert Heinlein novels like Starship Troopers; this is not uncommon). Some of my gamer friends vowed to recreate the movie on a tabletop. Most of them bitched up a storm about the lack of the armored suits the soldiers in the original book wore. This complaint got annoying eventually.

I'm not a fan of the original Starship Troopers. Oh, I get that it's a satire, that it's about young fascists caught up in fascism that they don't realize is fascism. Whatever. I thought the experience of watching it was brutalizing, which tended to obscure whatever points it was making, and I generally didn't like either Casper Van Dien or Denise Richards, who I thought gave stiff, mannered performances. I skipped the DTV sequel and I didn't even know this film existed until I dialed it up on the roulette wheel.

The satire is still there in Starship Troopers 3: Marauder. The Federation is still a fascist state with a leader who has cultivated a personality cult and where the military is the only pathway to citizenship. The bugs are still a convenient other: utterly alien, utterly merciless, and lacking in any quality that might invite human beings to empathize with them. This is a film that doesn't put much stock in empathy. The story here follows three friends, one of whom is Johnny Rico from the first film (again played by Van Dien), now a colonel. His other two friends are General Dix Hauser and Captain Lola Beck. Beck and Hauser are touring the front with Sky Marshall Anoke and are reunited with Rico at a flyspeck outpost on the eve of a bug attack. Dix and Rico get into a bar fight with some locals, and in the course of trying to restrain Dix's more authoritarian tendencies, winds up under arrest for insubordination. Rico doesn't have time for that, though. There are bugs to kill. Beck and the Sky Marshall, meanwhile, hightail it for the shuttle and escape the planet, leaving their friends behind in what is ultimately a disastrous defeat for the Federation. Things aren't so good for Beck and the Sky Marshall, either. They're hit while coming out of warp and crash land on a planet controlled by the bugs. They send out a distress signal. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Dix discovers a plot against the Sky Marshall when a junior officer brings him evidence that the Sky Marshall's distress signal is being ignored by Admriral Phid, apparently as part of a coup d'etat. Dix decides that the perfect instrument for investigating this is Rico, who is cooling in a cell waiting to be executed. Dix has other motives beside loyalty: Beck is his fiance, and she's one of the very few naval captains who knows the location of the fleet's secret staging yard, Sanctuary. If she falls into enemy hands, the gig is up. He dispatches Rico on a rescue mission with a crack team equipped with new "Marauder" suits of high tech battle armor. But Admiral Phid is playing a deeper game, too. Nothing is what it seems...

This is a film that doesn't have the same level of spectacle as the Verhoeven film. It's budget is much, much lower, but it's not as far off the standard of production design that film set as you might expect. Special effects continue to advance, and this film looks better than a comparable film made in, say, 1997 would have looked. The computer effects that are used to create the bugs and the space ships and the Marauder suits may be on par with television science fiction, but television science fiction has drastically improved in the last two decades, so there's no shame in that. I sometimes think I'm getting jaded in an era when every major film has jaw-dropping special effects. That sort of thing used to be a rare treat. Now it's commonplace. It drains the genre of its sense of wonder, but I'm getting off on a tangent here.

This film doesn't have the original film's sense for the jugular. It gives it the old college try, though, including a memorable scene where a captured brain bug goes all Scanners on its captors (complete with exploding head), and another scene near the end when the god bug shows up in all its Lovecraftian ickiness, speaking to the humans through the characters it has impaled on its arthropods. But it's not as thoroughly disgusting. Paul Verhoeven's sensibility on that count remains singular to him. This film is but a pale echo. I don't know how to feel about this, actually, because on the one hand, the first film's goo and spew put me off, but its lack here robs the film of some of the original's personality. I don't understand why I react to some things the way that I do. Fickle, I guess. As an aside, they say that the golden age of science fiction is twelve and I'm sure the monsters and gore-loving twelve year old I used to be would have loved this film, to say nothing of the original item. But I dream as an adult now, and all that. Anyway...

Starship Troopers 3 still suffers from stiff performances by its leads, though. Van Dien hasn't improved as an actor since the first film, and Boris Kodjoe and Stephen Hogan are functional at best as General Dix and the Sky Marshall, respectively. The female characters, on the other hand, are much better. Jolene Blalock is good as Captain Beck, though the role asks entirely too much of her at the end of the film. I don't know that any actress could convince me of the character development she's asked to play. Amanda Donohoe has a low grade version of the "it" presence of movie stars, and she plays the part of Admiral Phid with a twinkle in her eyes that blows all of her co-stars off the screen. She's criminally underused.

About Captain Beck's character arc, since I mentioned it: The basic spoiler here is that The Sky Marshall is a psyker who has come under the influence of the brain bug and its controller, the god bug. He's gotten religion. But he's not the only character. There's also the character of Holly Little (Marnette Patterson) who is the most annoying kind of holy roller, who views every adversity as an opportunity to show her faith as an example to others. Beck is annoyed by Little, and so is the audience (I hope). The thematic takeaway here is that Neumeier is attempting to link the totalitarian fascism of the Federation with a fundamentalist religion. This isn't a bad idea in practice and he even carries it off at first. The best line in the movie is when Holly deflects Beck's assertion that The Sky Marshall's religion isn't any different from hers. "But it's the wrong god," she says. I laughed at that. Unfortunately,  in order for Neumeier to make the link with the end of the movie, he has to throw Beck into a "no atheists in foxholes" plot turn, which is so out of character with the way she has been presented thus far that it backfires on the filmmakers. I didn't hate most of the movie. I liked some of it a lot, actually. But this plot turn, I hated. Big hate.

In any event, I don't hang around with most of my science fiction friends much anymore, but the next time I see some of them, I'm probably going to tell them to stop bitching about the lack of the power armor in the original film. A decade later, this has been addressed, so drop it already...

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