I have struggled for years now, off and on, to write the definitive apologia for the 1989 film Road House. My chief obstacle is not that doing so would be a waste of time — I’m very much aware that it is, and made peace with that some time ago— but that I am unable to precisely define what it is about the movie that works. At first glance, very little does.
The acting is wretched. There is not a single line, plot point, or dramatic beat that makes any sense, let alone that is recognizable as human behavior. The clash of dude-culture signifiers and throbbing female-gaze homoeroticism borders on emotionally confusing. Patrick Swayze’s character has a philosophy PhD but he never quotes a single philosopher. It is an attempted retelling of a small-town sexual predator’s vigilante murder that somehow arrived on a kung fu movie set among bouncers in Missouri.
However, as Roger Ebert said at the time, “This is not a good movie. But viewed in the right frame of mind, it is not a boring one, either.” Sure, it isn’t particularly realistic that a warlord maintains total control of a Midwestern town by running monster trucks over incorporated businesses within the FBI’s jurisdiction, but for some reason, none of that matters. The film is arguably the opposite of art but entertains the bejeezus out of me nonetheless, and I still delight in every inane non-sequitir even after a dozen viewings — pain hurts, like, definitionally.
Road House is an objectively terrible movie by any standard that Cahiers du Cinema would recognize, yet there is an indefinable excellence lurking in those shallow waters, something that was begotten and not made, as the people who made it evidently lack the talent to beget anything.
My point is not to defend the epic of Dalton, save to establish non-hater credibility for my larger contention: at the risk of contradicting Scorcese’s thesis of cinematic mana, the intention of a film does not trump the product. It doesn’t matter that a movie is incredibly stupid if it’s fun, just as a clever premise can’t redeem a boring, tiresome, repetitive slog.
Which leads me to my primary target. It’s high time that the pop culture internet gives up its most insufferable, masturbatory pet cause, and accepts that “is Starship Troopers a satire?” is an entirely separate question from “is Starship Troopers actually good?” …and maybe, if at all possible, admits that the answer to both questions is “not really.”
The rehabilitation of unjustly-panned works might be my favorite thing about the online film community, but the collective will of that community can’t turn this movie into Heaven’s Gate. Troopers’ cult reputation isn’t a case of genius reexamined, it’s a product of social media’s cultural quarters being dominated by dudes who were kids in 1997. I know that because I was born in 1987, so I was at the perfect age to experience the infamous “Song 2” trailer when it debuted.
Like every other [male] child in America, I summarily declared that it was the coolest thing in the got-dang universe. Between the incoherently exploding spaceships and CGI armies on an unprecedented scale, there are no words for how mind-blowing this was on our 20-inch 500-pound TVs, and Clinton kids all carry a sentimental torch for that moment of sheer exhilaration. The Starship Troopers legend was born of our emotional need to rationalize the dismal film from which this minute of rip-shit awesomeness was cobbled:
I say that trailer is ‘infamous’ because it became a cautionary tale in Hollywood after the box office came in — studio execs still gather ‘round the campfire to hear the gruesome tale of the R-rated movie that was marketed squarely at 9 year-old boys — and because those paltry audiences complained that Troopers was nowhere near as much fun as the SFX sizzle reel had led them to believe. It was an accurate complaint.
From this wholly prudent audience reaction, a credence was born amongst the generation who needed to justify their nostalgia for a Super Bowl commercial: Troopers wasn’t bad, it was failed by its marketing. That ad campaign (which was the whole reason we gave a shit in the first place) didn’t properly butter up an action-hungry public to appreciate the subversive genius of its anti-war satire.
This credence metastasized into rigid online dogma as the people who needed that bullshit to be true aged to adulthood. Wherever Millennials are found on the internet, the Lost Cause mythology of American pop culture rings out: “Starship Troopers is good, akshually. People who aren’t as smart as me just didn’t get the satire.”
Well, I get the satire, and I got it when I was a child watching this movie on a rented VHS. I knew then that this movie is a failure, and I know it now.
First off, the concept was hopelessly muddled from the very beginning, starting with the pairing of the source material with the director. I don’t know why Paul Verhoeven tried to adapt a militaristic far-right-wing philosophical screed with three action scenes as a maximalist left-wing satire while keeping exactly the same structure… and neither does Paul Verhoeven. He apparently hated the “boring” novel:
“I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring,” says Verhoeven of his attempts to read Heinlein’s opus. “It is really quite a bad book. I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn’t read the thing. It’s a very right-wing book. And with the movie we tried, and I think at least partially succeeded, in commenting on that at the same time. It would be eat your cake and have it. All the way through we were fighting with the fascism, the ultra-militarism. All the way through I wanted the audience to be asking, ‘Are these people crazy?’”
The film neither has nor eats that cake. Paul did not produce Milius-Stone Manichean alchemy by splitting the difference between his own worldview and a book he hated. The two diametrically-opposed objectives spend the whole movie cancelling each other out, and the end result is not a refutation or even a send-up of Heinlein’s thesis. It’s the same thesis restated as a smartassed remark.
This is a straightforward imitation of fascist propaganda whose insincere delivery stands in for comment, leaving it with nothing particularly trenchant to say about authoritarianism except bog-standard observations about thuggish groupthink (which would be put to shame by frigging Pleasantville within the next year). This hollow commentary has only become a bigger problem now that we’ve gained firsthand experience.
At the risk of being that guy, there is nothing about this movie that has gotten more resonant since Trump came into office. Believe me, I go looking for that resonance: Sam’s once-boring speech at the end of The Two Towers had me breaking down in tears when I watched it after Biden got elected. It’s inexplicable to me that this movie was made by a guy who grew up in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, yet it seems to include nothing from his own experience except the uniforms.
Paul was more interested in the German perspective anyway: he was proud of himself for copying Leni Riefenstahl films shot-for-shot for the Federation newsreels. However, anyone who’s seen Triumph of the Will knows that Leni’s style didn’t leave much room to insert a sardonic edge, as those were seen as inherently Jewish at the time. The in-movie propaganda videos are delivered so earnestly that the critics could be forgiven for failing to recognize them as jokes: the monotone announcement of the live broadcast of an execution ain’t exactly the Nuke ’Em commercial from Robocop.
He also derails the premise from the jump with his most significant change from the books: if you’re going to make a satire about the way fascism drives people to dehumanize the “enemy,” you probably shouldn’t start out by literally dehumanizing the enemy.
In the novel, the arachnids are sentient beings with lasers and missiles and all that shit, so when they get called “bugs” or the MI says “this place crawls” that is a way of othering and demeaning them. However, it’s slightly less racist and dehumanizing to call them “bugs” if they are actually mindless arthropods, which is a weird move when you’re countering the novel’s assertion that dehumanizing them is a good thing. The design of the enemy is a visual and narrative justification for the very fascistic impulses that they’re supposed to be satirizing.
That choice was probably forced by available SFX technology, which couldn’t handle expressive alien faces, let alone full-scale battles. That said, I doubt it was a hardship for Paul “Fun David Cronenberg” Verhoeven to turn sentient soldiers into big sets of jaws for the sake of gnarly, audience-pleasing gore shots, which is the exact opposite of calling our fascistic bloodlust to account.
I guess the movie versions still make the same point, once the audience makes the logical inference that a species capable of interstellar travel would be more intelligent than the propaganda claims, no matter how dumb they look. I got lost in this mental exercise for about 5 minutes during my first viewing, because “the audience has to make a logical inference” is describing a lesser category of plot hole.
Such unspoken suggestion wouldn’t be in keeping with Verhoeven’s sassy & brassy style, either. The man made Black Book, a Holocaust movie in which Carice van Houten’s Jewish character dyes her pubic hair blond to maintain her cover (in a clearly-framed shot that makes me feel like an ungrateful shit for writing any of this). Like, you can’t pretend like he’s Mr. Subtlety in this one specific case to justify the inscrutable delivery.
But for a director who loves to be big, loud, and crass, an equally inexplicable production decision (for any reason except effects capabilities) is the choice to take out the MI’s heavily-armed mech suits. The novel introduced the robot exoskeleton to science fiction, a concept which has become hugely influential on both sides of the Pacific — the first issue of Iron Man came out four years later. It’s arguably the reason the novel had the cultural cachet to get greenlit four decades on, and it would practically be the whole reason this movie got made in our age of geek-culture production logic.
Instead, the Mobile Infantry became the sleeveless riot cops we know so well, raw-dogging the atmosphere of hostile alien planets with their useless rifles in hand, fighting in the dumbest manner imaginable to facilitate clunky special effects that couldn’t handle motion. That’s the reason the MI are always standing still like a redshirt dying on Star Trek: TOS when they get eaten: because it’s the same production technique.
Again, I can already hear the chorus of “they die that way because it’s satire of fascist self-sacrifice to the pointless war machine and blah blah blah.” All that may be, but the sequence starts to get pretty frustrating by the eighth time you see it happen.
However, there are no inherently doomed concepts in cinema, only failures of execution (Road House being a quantum state of both of those things and neither simultaneously). Seemingly insipid or bizarre conceits can make for great movies in the right hands, especially with the right cast… so at the risk of violating Medium’s policy on incitements to violence, I feel compelled to say that the casting director of this movie should’ve been taken out and shot.
I’ve heard it suggested that the not-even-remotely-Argentine cast was meant to evoke fascist propaganda from a white supremacist future, but there are a lot of Principal Rooneys standing in the way of that particular “Ferris isn’t real” theory, from the un-fascist gender equality to the smattering of Mobile Infantry of color. Also, I think it’s genuinely odd to suggest that Hollywood would require some kind of ulterior motive to put white people in a movie.
Verhoeven is even on record as trying to cast younger actors — befitting a coming-of-age novel — but he said the studio demanded these stupid-hot 35 year-olds from the wrong side of the Falklands War. I know that Argentina ain’t exactly Peru, racially speaking, and it’s hardly the first time a movie studio has whitened up a lead role, but they usually get a white boy with more screen presence than this.
I don’t want to be cruel to Casper Van Dien, but making my point sorta requires me to explain how and why he is not Patrick Swayze. As the RiffTrax crew memorably noted, 90% of the movie’s dialog in its second half is someone yelling either “Move!” or “Go!” …so why would you cast a dude whose gratingly dweeby scream makes his milquetoast speaking voice sound like Gregory f***ing Peck?
The male lead of Starship Troopers has the same astronomical hotness-to-screen-presence ratio as the first chick to die in a B-horror movie. His acting ability is on par with the same, and that lack of range is one of the major impediments to the satire. I read a review of A Star Is Born that said Bradley Cooper’s biggest shortcoming was that he was clearly trying his hardest to sing as well as he possibly could, whereas Kris Kristofferson could intentionally dial back his own natural ability to convincingly portray a singer whose talents are fading. Likewise, an actor can’t really ham it up for cheeseball fascist propaganda if he’s already spiral-cut.
And no matter how much I loves me some Scanners, Harold & Kumar, and Drop Dead Gorgeous, the rest of the cast is barely better. Michael Ironside beats the low curve and gives the best performance in the movie, befitting the cast member with the wherewithal to ask the director “why are you making this?” to his face.
I mention DDG mainly to be diplomatic, before expressing my younger self’s uncouth frustration that a year before she was in a lesbian softcore flick, Denise Richards is the only woman in this movie who keeps her shirt on. In Jake Busey and NPH’s cases, I’ll attribute to their below-replacement charisma to the Kuleshov effect of being onscreen with such flat presences.
Speaking of which, Dizzy Flores is the other glaring weak point. At the risk of sounding like the Cary Mulligan guy, Dina Meyer’s perfectly-constructed face is all wrong for an “ugly duckling jock with a crush” arc. There’s a universe where a young, tomboyish actress (or more likely an actress with a tomboyish haircut) finally wins the love and respect of a Johnny Rico played by an 18 year-old who’s believable as a Spanish-Italian-Nazi mestizo, and I can see that being some great cinema.
On Earth-1, however, there just isn’t much emotional purchase to be found in this depiction of another runway model moving in on Carmen’s man, to his lantern-jawed palpable irritation.
They made the issue even worse with cuts to the love quadrangle story, since test audiences were horrified that Denise Richards would get back with Johnny after the brain bug tragically destroys the haircut from the salon book with its mind-penis (killing Zander in the process). These screening-audience plebs felt that Carmen should have vowed celibacy and joined a convent after the death of her college boyfriend, because folks assert the patriarchy reaaaaal hard in test screenings.
So in place of Carmen’s no-longer divided loyalties, Dizzy hangs out in the background being desperate and thirsty while Johnny and Carmen are together, then Carmen leaves and Dizzy swoops on Johnny, then they’re a totally cute couple until she dies, and then he and Carmen never get back together — even after a path is cleared by their significant others’ violent deaths. In short, the movie’s main interpersonal conflict was replaced with a single man dating a woman from his work after his high school girlfriend goes to college, whom he casually runs into later and says hi.
So the movie also fails as a soap opera. But the truly unforgivable part to me — unforgivable to me as an adult, unforgivable to the 10 year-old kid who watched that trailer, and unforgivable to all the brave Japanese soldiers who died so that the awesome violence of this intellectual property might live — is its failure as a space opera, effects showcase, and action movie.
Troopers came out in 1997, the summer of the Star Wars Special Editions, at the outset of what could be called the “Jar-Jar Binks era” of CGI. It was George Lucas’s good friends and colleagues who actually planted the seeds of this dark age with Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, but George gets the credit as the Godfather of Bad CGI because those movies sent him careening towards the most high-profile fuck-ups in cinema history.
Sadly, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg’s talent set a piss-poor example for less visionary directors. The journeyman class failed to recognize that everything in T2, from the script to the stunts to Robert Patrick’s face, was designed to render a terrifying villain from a primitive technology. They failed to see that the T-Rex and raptors were as scary as they were because Uncle Steven used limited CGI to bring the puppets to life, not the other way around.
Like so many others, Paul Verhoeven saw the results of the careful construction of those films and took all the wrong lessons: that this immature technology could put literally anything he wanted onscreen, that it could do so as an afterthought to the real work, and that it could do so believably.
The decade after Jurassic Park was a killing field of directors fooled into thinking that they could realize overly ambitious concepts, and the resulting hybrids of VeggieTales animation and live action are closer to Mary Poppins than they are to escaping the uncanny valley. Even undisputed masters of the craft fell into this trap — for further reading, see “Hulk, The” (2003).
Starship Troopers looms large in this elephant graveyard. They were using CGI so primitive that they still had dudes in Burbank sticking TNT into balsa wood spaceships to film the explosions —one of the most reliable sources of flaccid action in this movie is the fleet scenes, thanks to the combination of badly greenscreened digital composites and plywood-ass sets that are palpably not therein — yet somehow, the production team convinced themselves they were going to make a terrifying live-action Zerg Swarm with this technology.
The bugs never feel real, let alone like they’re interacting with the cast. There was no installed knowledge base for how to do this stuff, or how to work with actors to integrate their performances into the effects — this was well before Andy Serkis, though he was alive and my current age at the time.
It’s why nearly every action beat in the entire movie consists of a row of largely-stationary marines firing at a bug who runs forward and kills one of them: the person who holds the greenscreen stick can’t really walk in front of a row of dudes firing blanks, so they had to fire at a fixed point. They had to be standing still for the cut to the stunt/prop/CGI death, because they had no motion tracking technology. The results are the best they could do at the time on an R-rated budget, but they aren’t great action.
There’s a reason people walked out of the theater feeling ripped off by that action-packed TV spot: the movie failed to execute any of the cool shit from the trailer in a satisfying way. It’s legitimately boring as hell to watch five guys shooting at the same thing for like 20 seconds without killing it.
Once you’ve watched the dropships land on Klendathu and our heroes fire the nuke at the spore colony, you have seen every cool thing that’s going to be in the movie, except maybe the spider-vagina-faced grubs. Lord knows that witty banter will be in short supply from there on out. If you want to pretend that the remaining 10% of the dialog that isn’t “Go/Move!” is downright Swiftian, I can’t stop you. But deep down, I think we both know that you’re wrong.
And whether you give up this charade or not, at least we’ll always have the trailer. The movie in question can never take that away from us.