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Wednesday, June 17, 2015
June Bugs: Starship Troopers (1997)
Screenplay by Ed Neuemeier, based on the book by Robert A. Heinlein*
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
*I can't remember where I read it, but supposedly this script started out as something called Bug Attack on Outpost 9. After it was purchased, the legal department of the studio pointed out the similarities to Robert Heinlein's novel and the simplest and easiest fix involved just buying the movie rights to the book and making this film. I think I recall hearing that Paul Verhoeven had never read the novel.
Casper Van Dien: Johnny Rico
Dina Meyer: Dizzy Flores
Denise Richards: Lt. Carmen Ibanez
Neil Patrick Harris: Carl Jenkins
With Jake Busey, Clancy Brown, Michael Ironside, Seth Gilliam, Dean Norris and RUE MCCLANAHAN as the blinded biology teacher, if you can believe that
I only started this blog two and a half years ago; by the standards of the B movie scene online I'm quite the neophyte. Badmovies.org, Teleport City, and the gone but not forgotten Stomp Tokyo and Cold Fusion Reviews all got their starts minutes after the internet had pictures on it, and back when webrings were a thing. They--and dozens of other sites--had the chance to kick this movie around for a good long while. Although anyone who did so when it came out in 1997 would have missed the most intriguing aspect of the film--it plays out like the satire of a war that hadn't happened yet when it came out. I'm not the first one to notice this (or even the second one), But this movie really does play out like David Rees wrote a screenplay called Get Your Bug War On. And after the first two June Bugs movies, I owed myself something ludicrously entertaining. So here we are.
The film starts with the science-fiction equivalent of a newsreel exposition dump; furthermore, it packages the entire backstory into a handy 90 seconds or so of graphics and voiceover. A recruiting commercial for the Terran Mobile Infantry features square-jawed, carefully-selected soldiers (there's one "ethnic" one shown right before the apple-cheeked Aryan boy who wants to join up). The first use of the phrase "Service Guarantees Citizenship" occurs here, though the film doesn't bother explaining what it means. There's also some kind of brief infomercial / propaganda spot for the improved meteor-destroying planetary defenses that leads--via a mouse pointer and the prompt "Do you want to know more?"--to an explanation of Klendathu, a planet in a binary-sun system that has an endless supply of big rocks to chuck at Earth from across the galaxy. (Parenthetically, if the aliens are capable of throwing meteors and hitting Earth from the distance they're allegedy doing it from, the human race should roll over and die to save time--that's a feat more difficult that standing on top of a moving train in Tokyo and hitting a golf ball hard enough to reach New York City and precisely enough to break a specific window in the Empire State Building). The Terran one-world government declares that Klendathu--the bug homeworld--must be destroyed to preserve the safety of all mankind.
The exposition feed gets interrupted to a live feed from the invasion fleet (complete with news graphics meant to clue the audience in to what they're watching and how they should feel about it). And this is as good a time as any to point out to readers that the film isn't supposed to just be a narrative; it's got commercial breaks and news flashes woven into the story. It's my surmise that what we, the audience, are watching is the Terran Mobile Infantry equivalent of something like Top Gun or Red Dawn--a big dumb action movie meant to get the audience all riled up to whip some enemy ass. It's not meant to be a manual of military tactics (and thank Christ for that, because the most elaborate maneuvers the audience sees are literally "land on a planet, walk a few hundred yards, and start shooting at the alien bugs" level stuff). It's also the reason that a remarkably white cast is playing characters named Juan Rico and Carmen Ibanez--although I've got a little bit more to say about that later.
A middle-aged white reporter in combat fatigues gives a live update from the Klendathu invasion and becomes the first depicted casualty when an eight-foot tall alien bug with massive jaws and claw spikes picks him up, rag-dolls him for a little while and bites him in half--and since I'm still irritated at how long it took the marabunta to show up in The Naked Jungle, I was overjoyed to see a lethal alien insect beast show up a mere two minutes into the film. A couple other characters (including his unseen cameraman) follow the reporter into death and one of the soldiers takes a bug claw through the thigh before the image dissolves into static and the title "One Year Earlier" shows up on the screen as the camera pulls back to show the star field filling the image is just the desktop graphic on a high school student's in-desk computer screen. Juan "Johnny" Rico is fucking around sketching his girlfriend when he's supposed to be paying attention to Mr. Rasczak in his moral instruction class. Rasczak is missing his left hand; he, like several other maimed characters, can be assumed to be veterans of whatever future wars the human race is fighting.
There's another dollop of exposition dropped on the audience here; Rasczak gives a history lesson written by the eventual winners, where "social scientists" almost brought about the end of humanity through their permissiveness and military veterans took over to guide humanity to a brighter destiny. It looks like Rico isn't the only one not paying attention; another student tries to explain why only military veterans are given the right to vote in this future world and gets it wrong (he says it's a reward for faithful service; the teacher says it's violence applied to a political end). While Rasczak explains that violence solves more issues than any other technique, Johnny Rico sends a self-drawn cartoon of himself and his girlfriend Carmen kissing (incidentally, this film features stylus-controlled tablet computers as standard high school teen possessions; stack that prediction up alongside the DVD playing Dick Jones' death taunt to Bob Morton in RoboCop and it does look like Verhoeven or his screenwriters got some things quite right about technology in the future). Rasczak tells his students none of them understand civic virtue before the bell rings and Rico and Carmen check the giant telescreen for their math final scores. Carmen scored a 97 (foreshadowing Denise Richards' eventual appearance as a nuclear physicist in a James Bond movie); Rico managed a whopping 35%. As he might say, that's almost a tenth of Carmen's score.
Rico's friend Carl Jenkins shows up to razz him for being dogshit at math (and to show the audience that Doogie Howser is in this movie; it occupies a berth in one of the lulls in Neil Patrick Harris' career but he is unquestionably the best thing in it--the guy's a trouper on the Donald Pleasence level, refusing to phone in his performance and showing the audience how ridiculous the whole thing is). After the riveting "math comparison" scene it's time for a biology class where the scarred and blinded bio teacher (Rue McClanahan, and don't I wish I knew what the hell one of the Golden Girls was doing in a satiric movie about a bug war) tells her students that the giant alien ticks they're dissecting contribute their entire existence to their societies, don't know fear and reproduce much faster than humans, making them superior in several ways. The Arachnids are exceptionally advanced alien bugs, according to the bio teacher, and present an existential threat to human existence.
But enough of that lecture (and half a dozen grossout gags related to alien bug organs and slime, and Carmen throwing up at the stink in the bio lab), it's time to hang out with Carl and Johnny. Carl is a psychic trying to hone his skills with Johnny's assistance, but it turns out that young Mr. Rico has no psionic potential whatsoever. When Carl's pet marmot Cyrano interferes with the study, the psychic sends him off on a prank to bother Carl's mom--which demonstrates that he does have some kind of abilities, though he says he can't influence humans. ("Yet".)
It's time for more high school whatnot, with an indoor football game between the Tigers (Johnny's school) and the Giants (someone else). When one of the Sharks wipes out into the stands he lands at Carmen's feet and makes an instant impression (it doesn't hurt that he mentions he's going to the Fleet academy the next day). Johnny and the new guy get into a testosterone-fueled pissing match on the field and Rico spaces out just in time to get flattened during a play. But he gets serious for the next play and scores the winning touchdown, and hey, wasn't there a bug war in this film?
The football scene is also the first clue that the film's supposed to be taking place in Buenos Aires, which I would not have guessed at all from the overwhelming majority of the cast, which ranges in tone from fishbelly to snow to mayonnaise. There's two possibilities that come to mind for why this is (three, actually, if you count "it was that way in the book"). First, that Verhoeven is making fun of the whitewashing that Hollywood can be counted on to perform when casting a film--it's how we got milky pale Benedict Cumberbatch cast as a person named Khan Noonien Singh as well as Emma Stone playing a character called Allison Ng. The second possibilty is significantly darker; can you imagine how a military empire with Hugo Boss uniforms might wind up with a South American city filled exclusively with white people?
Anyway, after the game and before the big dance Johnny's parents get all up in his grill about the Federal Service brochure sent to their house and tell him that he's going to Harvard, not into the Terran military (they even set up a bribe to Zegema Beach, wherever that is, to talk him out of it). Then he goes to the dance, where the other point in a romantic triangle that Johnny barely perceives snags him for a dance. It's Dizzy Flores, another white person with an ethnic name. Her pursuit of Rico makes for some of the best jokes in the Rifftrax take on this movie; I bow to their inherent superiority and won't be trying to beat them at mocking this part of the film. Anyway, Johnny cuts out on their dance to talk to Mr. Rasczak, making me type that name again, and gets some actually valid advice from his teacher--he gets told that he's free to make up his own mind, so he ought to go do that.
Turns out the other football guy is named Zander; he was talking with Carmen and Johnny cuts in to their chat in order to get his girlfriend on the dance floor for the last dance. Significantly (if this movie is supposed to be Hollywood propaganda from the world it's set in), as soon as Johnny tells Carmen he's going to join the military she says her father isn't home that night. See, kids? If you join the dictatorship army you'll get laid!
The next morning there's a big swearing-in ceremony where hundreds of bright young lads and lassies pledge their lives to the Federation for two years (or more if it's deemed necessary). The paper-pusher who stamps their official Oath Certificates says to Johnny that the Terran Mobile Infantry made him the man he is, which is not very good news because the guy is missing one hand and both legs. Carl is bound for military intelligence and Carmen's going to be a pilot, because both of them are smarter than Johnny.
Johnny's dad takes it pretty hard and there's a big soap-opera quality shouting match (complete with Johnny saying "I am not going on vacation! I want to be a citizen!", which is so clunky it has to be intentional). He winds up alienating both parents and making his way to the military transport hub with the clothes on his back and nothing else in the world. He and Carmen share one last kiss (and say they love each other for the first time) before she leaves on a rapid shuttle transport and there's a commercial break at a dramatically appropriate moment.
The commercials include kids getting free souvenir bullets from Mobile Infantry recruits and the announcement of a live execution at 6 PM on every channel (the murderer scheduled to die is a silent cameo from the screenwriter). There's also a news bulletin dedicated to showing ghastly carnage on a forbidden colony set up in the "quarantine zone" near Arachnid-controlled space. Dozens of dismembered bodies lie all over the shake-and-bake colony, and then it's time to return to the film (for once, the "Do you want to know more?" is answered in the negative).
And since that commercial break serves as the dividing line between acts I and II, there's a big change of scenery. Johnny's now at a training camp being verbally and physically abused--along with all the other cadets--by the terrifying figure of Career Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown, making expert use of his voice and physicality). The first "sergeant bellowing at the new recruits" scene establishes that the Mobile Infantry is not expecting most of the newbies to make it into the service; any time someone wants to quit, they can resign and walk down Washout Lane. It's an effective way to make sure only the most dedicated men and women (for the Mobile Infantry is co-ed, which it was not in the novel) make it into the meat grinder. It might also be Verhoeven supplying some more background diegetically, but all the officers and instructors in the M.I. camp are men (Fleet, which depends on qualities other than the physical, depicts women in command of some of their ships and training).
Right after Zim breaks the hell out of the token redneck recruit's arm, a new cadet shows up--looks like Dizzy Flores has pulled strings to get herself assigned to this very platoon! She also lands a punch on Zim, to his visible surprise. Then it's time for mess (and for Casper Van Dien's face to be perfectly centered as he tells Ace Levy to get to the back of the line rather than cutting in; it's a shot that could have been on a propaganda poster as the meathead jock enforces the rules to another meathead). There's also another "Zim hurts a cadet" scene when Ace takes a throwing knife to the hand to demonstrate some principle or other that doesn't even make sense within the frame of the movie. It's a treat to hear Clancy Brown yell for a medic right after that, though.
During a shower scene (with plenty of fodder for the male gaze) one of the recruits asks why everyone joined; some are in it for the money, some for a change of scenery, and one woman says it's a lot easier to get a eugenic license once you've served. Again, not to hugely belabor the point, but you know who else tried to take control of his country's reproductive future, right? There's also a videotaped letter to Carmen that Johnny tries to send without other M.I. cadets mooning the camera (he fails at this). The letter serves as a transition device--we pull back from the camera's point of view as Johnny is on screen to Carmen at a desk watching it, so there's some Fleet training action to observe next. It turns out that Zander (the football guy from the other team) is the trainee instructor, so there's another face from the first act showing up again. It turns out that Carmen's a natural pilot, and her superlative reflexes and spatial sense both serving as natural advantages for her military career.
Meanwhile, back with the M.I. group, there's some kind of laser tag training exercise (with vests that painfully shock people who get hit); Johnny and Dizzy have their backs to the wall. In the manner of all kids' movies, a football play from the first act gets deployed in the second to devastating effect. Johnny also picks up a defeated soldier's gun and dual-wields for the big finish before capturing the opposing team's flag. Zim, observing the exercise, assigns Johnny to the position of "squad leader", which has been mentioned as a thing to aspire to multiple times. Back in the bunkhouse, Johnny's at least nice enough to tell Dizzy that he couldn't have gotten the position without her, and offers friendship (which she's willing to settle for, though she mostly just wants to jump his bones). Things look better for Dizzy once it turns out that the letter Johnny got in the most recent mail call is more of a "Dear John" than a "Love you forever" kind of thing.
Things go a lot worse for Johnny after that--a live-fire training exercise leads to the death of a recruit. Big dumb redneck Breckenridge takes a bullet to the skull when he has a helmet malfunction; after Johnny takes a look at the equipment someone else got shot with a shock-laser and sprayed ammo all over Hell's creation. Which, honestly, would have happened multiple times on the assault course by now. The inquest after Breckenridge's death assigns (fully justified) guilt to Rico, and he gets ten lashes at the base whipping post. It's probably significant that the soldier assigned to bullwhip Rico is a black man. I can't imagine that you'd accidentally cast a black actor for your sadomasochistic punishment scene.
Back in Fleet, it turns out that Carmen is such a natural astronavigator that she figured out a better course than Zander could (even with his greater experience). Their imminent spit-swapping session on the bridge is interrupted by a gravitational field that shouldn't be there (signaled by coffee in a mug tilting at a severe angle); the pair of trainees manage to get the ship out of the way of the incoming asteroid with minor damage rather than getting splattered on it like a bug on a windshield. Unfortunately their communications systems got scraped off the ship so there's no way to warn the rest of Fleet that the Arachnids have chucked another big rock at Earth.
After his whipping, Rico's planning to quit the Mobile Infantry in the wake of his self-doubt. He figures he took his legally required beating for Breckenridge's death but doesn't think he ever belonged in the service. His videoscreen call home to his parents to announce that he's quitting the service goes quite well at first (they're just happy to hear from him and that he's come to his senses), and then goes suddenly dark before cutting out in a burst of static. Rico's on his way out of the base camp when the news breaks; even when everyone in camp is running to look at the big videoscreen Verhoeven keeps Rico at the absolute center of the frame. And, inevitably, it turns out that the big rock fired by the Arachnids at Earth hit Buenos Aires--killing millions of people in an attack out of nowhere and giving Johnny the reason to re-enlist in the Mobile Infantry. Dizzy's opinions never really get consulted about the massive casualties and devastation, because she isn't the protagonist and she is a woman.
Johnny goes to talk to the base commander to try and de-de-enlist, and the hidebound military professionals who only go by the book are swayed when they learn that his family was in Buenos Aires, going so far as to claim they don't think the signature on his washout paperwork is genuine before re-enstating him in the M.I. The Federal Network offers up a brand new "golden insignia reflecting flames" logo for the next info dump / commercial break / third act notification system. There's a clip of a dead dog crushed by rubble followed by its owner(?) exactly centered in the frame saying the only good bug is a dead bug. The head of the military dictatorship, Sky Marshal Dienes, says that it's time to scrape the entire Arachnid species off the galaxy so that humanity is never again threatened by an exterior foe.
There's also a moment where Neil Patrick Harris, in a uniform that looks like it was Casual Freitag for the SS, tortures and kills a captured Arachnid as a public service announcement explaining where to shoot them for an effective result. There's also a clip of laughing children stomping on cockroaches for their part in the victory drive, and then the assault on Klendathu (the Arachnid homeworld) begins, which is also where the narrative started a little under an hour ago.
There's some "talking to the troops" footage from the reporter who got bitten in half on the raid in teh first two minutes of the movie; he asks for opinions about how the war is going to go and mentions that some people think it's possible to live and let live with the Arachnids (the resulting response has Rico--perfectly centered in the frame again--saying he's from Buenos Aires and that genocide is the only option). Just before he can get shitfaced and tattooed with his chums from the Mobile Infantry, Johnny gets spotted by Carmen, who's off duty in the same spaceport. They have an uncomfortable talk and then Zander shows up to piss in Johnny's cornflakes by making it obvious that when he says he and Carmen are a "flight team" he's talking about much more. Johnny says he doesn't want to get in a ruckus with a superior officer, so Zander calmly says he's willing to disregard rank. That leads to a punch in the face and a pretty evenly matched brawl; the M.I. people drag Johnny away while Zander's Fleet-mates hold him back. Then it's time for matching "Death from Above" skull tattoos etched in by laser and the drop down to Klendathu. This sequence, by the way, has a truly amazing score courtesy of Basil Poledouris.
The Arachnid troops on the planet's surface fire pale blue burning plasma up at the Fleet ships in orbit; it turns out that what military intelligence thought would be a negligible threat is really something that will be blasting Fleet out of the sky. It doesn't go any better on the ground--there's just more footage of Bug war before everything goes utterly pear-shaped. There's thousands of soldier-cast Arachnids on the ground, but the plasma-venting tank beetles the size of tractor-trailers are new. Those are the things taking care of Fleet in orbit; two rocket-launcher shots from two M.I. soldiers take care of a pair of the plasma-tank bugs (which probably clears a cone of safe airspace above Rico's platoon). The officer leading the charge gets shanked instantly by one bug, which takes concentrated fire from half a dozen grunts before it goes down. Then a hundred or so charge in and it's Murder City for the human characters. A good half-gallon or so of Cast Thinner gets mixed in to the movie as the Arachnids dismember and decapitate their way through the characters. Mere moments after the first charge there's a general retreat and every living soldier beats feet for the landing pods. Those that make it to the boats before they take off survive; those that aren't fast enough hopefully saved a grenade for themselves because that's faster than whatever the Arachnids were going to do. Rico empties his main gun and takes a Bug claw through the thigh; he's down to some kind of close-combat shotgun and foul language when the second Arachnid attacks him and the screen goes black.
And then we get the somber Federal Network logo (no more flames and promises of vengeance; now it's time to reflect soberly on the hundred thousand soldiers who died in the first hour of combat on Klendathu). Sky Marshal Dienes steps down in atonement for the colossal fuckup; Sky Marshal Tahat Meru takes over wearing an identical uniform, with an identical haircut, and continuing an identical policy of total extermination of the Arachnids (this scene manages to be a great meet-the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss comment through the sheer force of cinematography, lighting and costume choices). There's also a brief clip from the Federal Network version of Hannity and Colmes, where a daffy idiot claims there's just no way the bugs could be smart and the approved political stance of "they sure as hell can" gets put forth by someone looking significantly smarter.
Carmen brings her ship in to the massive space station, with every surviving Federation craft showing horrific battle damage (one of them is in the process of still exploding when she pulls up to her docking port). Inside it's pretty much the same thing, but with human beings instead of space ships. Looks like there's going to be more limbless vets teaching civics in the planet's high schools. There are over 300,000 casualties listed on a giant scrolling wall screen--instead of showing his bad math grades, this time we see that John Rico was killed in action along with hundreds of thousands of others. Carmen is stunned to see that he's gone but it turns out to just be that most common of military phenomena, a paperwork error. Johnny's sedated in a tissue regenerator tank and gets a three-day vacation while his gaping leg wound gets repaired.
When he's out of the tank he, Ace Levy and Dizzy get transferred to a new squad--Levy hears their lieutenant drives his soldiers hard but that they've also got the best kill count out of anyone who dropped down to Klendathu. Johnny naturally assumes that he's going to be the best soldier in the new outfit (he's been quite lucky so far, all things considered) and a pair of black veterans give him static about that. And again, I don't think it's an accident that the square-jawed white hero faces opposition from inside the ranks from nonwhites; there's multiple times in the movie that a black soldier doesn't like Johnny until he does something awesome in combat and then later the same character says they appreciate what he's done. It plays out like an adaptation of a children's book for white supremacists. And considering that the USA was a white supremacist nation in 1959, when Heinlein's book was published, that's exactly what it is. (Levy, by the way, gets a punch in the face when he comments on how the lieutenant has a fearsome reputation, which results in a blonde, blue-eyed man getting shown his place by a black woman for disrespecting the unit commander; the movie shows that he unquestionably deserved getting smacked down.)
Inevitably, after that kind of buildup, it's time to meet the lieutenant. He's a balding, middle-aged white guy with a robotic left hand. And now I have to double-check the spelling of Rasczak over and over. Looks like there's at least one person that made it out of Buenos Aires after the attack. And whether or not he liked the students he was teaching at his previous day job, he's certainly ready to get some vengeance. He tells the three new soldiers that if they don't do their job, he'll kill them himself to free up space on the org chart for someone who will. Then he says there's a new plan for the war--instead of throwing hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers at Tango Urilla, the Fleet's going to bomb the crap out of everything and send the Mobile Infantry in to wipe up the remaining enemy forces.
The first phase of that plan works out perfectly; turns out the Arachnid soldier caste bugs can't fly so napalm bombing runs take care of them pretty handily. Also, the CG effects for the bugs hold up remarkably well for a movie that's eighteen years old. Then it's time for the second phase of the plan; Lieutenant Rasczak gives orders to nuke any underground Arachnid tunnels as his platoon, the Roughnecks, spread out to kill anything that lived through the bombing run. Watkins (the black soldier that's currently the best in the platoon) takes Rico and Flores along with him to sweep for stragglers and gets sprayed with an Evil Dead amount of green bug blood when they find one.
Rico finds a bug tunnel and it turns out that "nuke" wasn't a euphemism--the M.I. uses micro-nuke smart missiles to clean out the holes, which might not be the safest thing in the world to pop off right next to soldiers that haven't been issued any radiation suits or gas masks. The fight is actually going well for the human forces until a massive tanker-truck sized bug breaks out from the ground and sprays corrosive flaming chemicals over everyone that isn't fast enough to get out of the way. Rico jumps on the back of the bug and blows a hole in its armor, then chucks in a grenade and leaps off in an action sequence that reportedly broke one of Casper Van Dien's ribs. This is enough for Rasczak to actually take a look at the new guy, realize that it's someone from one of his classes back on Earth, and give Rico a battlefield promotion to corporal "until you're dead or I find someone better".
That night, it's time for everyone to drink and dance and toss footballs around to blow off a little steam ("Have fun! That's an order!"); Rico's still pining for the Fleet pilot he can't have and blows Dizzy off when she asks him to dance, but Rasczak gives him some advice--don't pass up a good thing. This results in Dizzy and Johnny in a tent and out of uniform. Before that happens, there's the surreal sight of black soldiers dancing happily to "Dixie", as played by Ace Levy on a plastic violin of the FUTURE!, speaking of white supremacist imagery.
Fun time with Rico and Flores almost winds up cancelled when the lieutenant unzips the tent flap they're in and tells Rico to pack up and ride out in ten minutes; there's a distress call the Roughnecks are responding to on "Planet P", another bug-infested desert hellhole. When he sees that Rico is fraternizing with a soldier under his direct command he raises the time limit to twenty minutes rather than putting his corporal up on charges.
Planet P looks like Space Afghanistan; plenty of mountains for cover and deserts for wide-open spaces. The rocks tumbling down those mountains in the distance have to have been knocked down by something, and the lieutenant and Rico see buglike shapes moving in the distance. When the radio trooper gets sent to higher ground a flying bug impales him and carries him off; the lieutenant shoots the doomed soldier himself as a mercy and Johnny comes marching into another battlefield promotion right before the Roughnecks find a seemingly abandoned outpost perforated with bullet holes and with dozens of human and Arachnid casualties arrayed on the decks.
The lieutenant says they need a retrieval craft; he's not sticking around for another massacre. While waiting for a dropship the soldiers set up a defensive perimeter and try to figure out what happened in the compound. They find some previously unseen bug type about the size of a breadbox and a soldier with a massive circular scalp wound and a hollow skull. Even after stepping over dozens of dismembered bodies, that's got to shake the Roughnecks up a little. It's not much of a morale booster when they find a general hiding in the camp refrigerator; the officer is pretty obviously dancing on the edge of madness but he provides vital intelligence. It turns out the bugs have psychics on their side as well, and they've induced the soldiers on the base to make a distress call in order to set a trap. The Roughnecks were lucky enough to respond, and they're going to be on the pointy end of Space Rorke's Drift in a matter of minutes.
In fact, it's the arrival of a gigantic Arachnid swarm that prevents Rasczak from shooting the general as a risk to morale. The following action sequence is the standout of the movie, with the outnumbered soldiers equipped only with what they were carrying to stand against an endless tide of Arachnid soldiers. The soldier bugs are tiger-striped, which makes them stand out nicely in the tan/grey desert scenery--I wonder if that's a clue that Klendathu isn't their home world either. Regardless, it's go time. The bugs are smart enough to send the flying warriors against the heavy-weapons crews in the observation towers and Rico shooting one out of the sky accidentally turns the general into a red smear on the outpost deck. Adios, Marshall Bell. I couldn't remember where I'd seen you before until I hit you IMDB page and found you were the prison warden in Diggstown.
The battle is going quite badly for the Mobile Infantry; they're shooting dozens of bugs but the Arachnids are using the hive-mind approved tactic of climbing up the mountain of warrior-caste bodies to get into the outpost. The retrieval boat is on the way but they'll have to land inside the outpost itself because there's no clear ground outside it and no way for the M.I. troops to get to it without being butchered. Thankfully, Fleet has a naturally gifted flight team that's capable of performing a navigational feat nobody's ever attempted.
Lieutenant Rasczak gets bitten nearly in half by a bug that tunnels under the outpost, and Dizzy gets impaled four times (!) by a soldier bug before they can get to the retrieval boat. Johnny stumbles into another battlefield promotion and the retrieval ship makes it out with maybe a little more than half of the soldiers that landed on Planet P's surface. Dizzy dies on the way back to the mothership after saying she's okay with embracing the cold hand of death because she got to have Johnny before it happened. Rico's request for a planet-wide airstrike is denied; turns out that the Sky Marshal herself wants to try something new on Planet P.
Before that operation can happen, it's time for the spacegoing equivalent of a burial at sea; Rico (perfectly centered in the frame, as all the propaganda speeches are) says that a citizen is the noblest of humans, because they make the safety of their race their own personal responsibility. Dizzy's coffin is jettisoned into the void and the funeral detail is dismissed after an officer from the Psionic Corps shows up. It's Carl, looking haunted and cadaverous by the demands placed on his mind and soul by the war. One of those demands was sending the Roughnecks down into a situation that could have been a trap, because if it was a trap that would mean a brain-caste bug was on the planet. Capturing one of those would be the equivalent of breaking the Enigma codes; it was worth risking a platoon of grunts to find out if the Federation could capture an enemy general. And, of course, telling the Expendable Meat they were walking into a trap would have warned the brain bug that something was wrong. It just turns out that Rasczak, and then Rico, were effective enough battlefield commanders to get some of the troops off Planet P alive.
Now that the Federation knows there's a brain bug hiding in a spider hole somewhere on Planet P it's time to capture it. Johnny is officially promoted to Lieutenant (it's good for one's career to have a colonel in military intelligence pulling for you) and Johnny says he'll serve until he gets killed or Carl finds someone better. On the planet's surface, Johnny's apparently in the "fake it till you make it" phase of command--he just repeats the things Rasczak told him and goes from there. Or he's supposed to be really inspiring--it's Casper Van Dien, so I can't tell.
It's now time for the Mobile Infantry to try and capture a brain-caste bug. Which probably isn't going to go so well for them; every time they show up for a fight they get murdered by the dozens if they're lucky and the hundreds of thousands if they aren't. Up in orbit, the Bug plasma is doing a number on the Earth ships, but it doesn't look to be the complete rout that it was before, not least because now the pilots expect it and can try to evade the shots. Not that it works out for Carmen's ship; it gets blown in half seconds before a warp jump out of the system. The captain goes down with the ship (more or less involuntarily; she's caught in a closing bulkhead door and won't be going anywhere with a crushed spine even if that hadn't killed her). The two-person escape pod containing Zander and Carmen makes it out of the ship just before it gets blown to fragments. Johnny (thanks to Ace) happens to hear the distress call and sees the escape capsule land; unfortunately, just after he gets the coordinates that will let him rescue his old girlfriend a swarm of Arachnids surrounds to two pilots. For the first time in the movie the soldiers don't just go into Murder Mode the second they come into contact with humans, which is actually worse than if they'd just started shanking the pair of officers.
The bugs inflict disabling but not immediately lethal injuries on Carmen and Zander (which is contrary to all the doctrine that the Earth forces know about them); Johnny even cancels the rescue mission before it starts because he knows that the Arachnids don't take prisoners. But down in the tunnels he gets a gut feeling about which tunnel to go down, and that Carmen is waiting at the end of it. He gets two volunteers (Ace and Watkins, who is played by Seth "I played Carver on The Wire" Gilliam) to go with him and find Carmen.
They'd best hurry, because the brain bug turns out to be a slime-dripping Freudian nightmare for a face, complete with a dentata spike that sucks out Zander's brains. Welp, it looks like Chekhov's Emptied Skull from the previous act just paid off. Zander spits at the brain bug before it kills him, and says that one day a human's going to wipe out the entire Arachnid race. He didn't say "species", which you might have guessed, but "race". I'm betting that ties in to the whole "fascist dictatorship run by genocidal maniacs" theme. After Zander gets his skull emptied, Carmen uses the other pilot's boot knife to sever the dentata spike and preserve whatever is in Denise Richard's head to live and fight another day. The soldier bugs would probably tear her into postage-stamp sized pieces for that but Johnny walks up with a live nuclear grenade at just that moment; since the brain bug has ingested at least one Federation officer's grey matter it knows what that conical beeping thing in Johnny's hand is. Rico forces a stalemate (the brain bug needs to be carried around by lots of little servitor beetle looking things, and can't get away quickly, so while it's still in the blast radius the soldiers can't attack). Once the brain bug is safe in a tunnel, though, it's go time for all the Arachnid soldiers. The four Terrans make a fighting retreat but Watkins gets horribly wounded and takes the nuke to go Full Gorman when he gets overrun, leaving the three white actors to run away from a fireball when the blastwave hits. Outside of the tunnel, it turns out that the rest of the Roughnecks captured the brain bug thanks to a drill sergeant who voluntarily demoted himself to private in order to get into the war; it's the brutal sadist Sergeant Zim who managed to find the bug leader (it's the one that Carmen disarmed, so it can't even poke at anyone); under psychic interrogation, Carl determines the perhaps self-evident fact that it's afraid. Cheers all around for an actually successful mission!
Carl, Carmen and Johnny walk past throngs of cheering soldiers while they talk about how great it is that the common soldier was able to capture a brain-cast Arachnid and how that means the war is going to be over just as soon as humanity learns how to out-think the bug menace. And that means it's time for one last Federal Network signal cut-in, telling the viewer that victory is inevitable with brand new weapons, improved ships (which the Federation is going to need, since so many of the old ones are forming debris rings around Klendathu or Planet P). The war goes on forever, and it's going to need millions of recruits to jump into the meat grinder before the mission is accomplished.
I'm positive that Paul Verhoeven didn't tell the main actors that he was going to be casting them in a feature length sick joke that would put people who looked like the cast of Beverly Hills 90210 into the eternal war in the grim darkness of the future. There's one thing I hadn't mentioned about the director up until now--when he was a child, he grew up in Nazi-controlled territory; his family lived in The Hague, where the German military was in control of the Netherlands during the 1940s. When he was five years old he lived in Reich-controlled territory and he's probably got a completely different view than Robert Heinlein about whether or not a military-controlled dictatorship is a great idea for a system of government. He might have left out the Iron Man-style power armor suits from the novel--I'm guessing that he was told that the studio had the budget for the bugs but not the M.I. suits--but he kept the rancid core of the politics completely intact and spent the entire running time of the film taking jabs at them.
Audiences didn't really know what to make of the film (I remember seeing it on opening night, about eighteen years ago from this writing, and being irritated that the power armor was completely gone while still enjoying the gore-splattered ultraviolence). Critics were mildly impressed with the film (it's 63% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and it made enough money for a pair of direct-to-video sequels, one of which has Casper Van Dien returning to the franchise to make some house payments. He has the absolutely perfect look for a Terran Mobile Infantry hero; he's also wooden enough that he's a perfect match for a film made to glorify a monstrous system and try to get lunkheads to join the military and fight for Mother Terra against the ravening hordes of the Arachnid menace. But there were plenty of people just like him fighting for their Fatherland, and I can't imagine that after RoboCop, Verhoeven lost his ability to write satire set in the future and saturated with gore.
Of course, that doesn't say anything good at all about America, given that our own response to an attack out of nowhere four years after this film came out was another endless war in the desert against an enemy that's supposed to be an existential threat to our very society. It's too bad that we finally caught up with the satire in order to turn it into a tragedy that currently has no end in sight. The movie's good, but it's not that good.
This is one of Checkpoint Telstar's entries in this year's June Bugs roundtable. The other June Bugs films are:
Skeeter, Caved In: Prehistoric Terror, and Millennium Bug from Cinemasochist Apocalypse;
Them! and Bug from Micro-Brewed Reviews;
Godzilla vs. Megaguirus and Rebirth of Mothra at Terrible Claw Reviews.