Monday, June 12, 2017

Super Troopers

I like to use holiday weekends to catch up on beloved favorites.

I don't know why, exactly. But something about not working on a Monday -- this time, to celebrate the birthday of the queen -- makes me want to dig back into the archives, usually from my own collection, to reacquaint myself with movies I love but maybe haven't seen in several years.

It was six years in the case of the movies I watched Saturday and Sunday nights, only one of which I want to talk about at length here. (And more than 20 years for the one I saw on Friday night, Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, which I saw twice in either 1993 or 1994 as part of a film class in college, doing a visual project on a freeze frame from the movie. Did you know the color red appears in every shot in the film?)

The two movies were supposed to make for a double feature on Saturday night, as they are both in the sci-fi genre featuring various degrees of technological speculation (small amounts in the first, large amounts in the second) -- they even both contain scenes of men watching video messages where women break up with them. But Airport ended up being our second half of Saturday's double feature (as discussed here) and the second movie got shifted to Sunday night.

The first movie was Moon, my #1 movie of 2009, which I love dearly but which did not inspire me with any fresh blog-worthy insights on this viewing.

The second one was Starship Troopers, my #4 movie of 1997, and I've got a whole host of subheadings about this movie if you're ready for them. Spoilers ahead, of course.

The effects still look great

One of my most regular talking points about Starship Troopers over the years is that the visual effects still look great, even as the movie is now celebrating its 20th anniversary. However, I hadn't actually seen the movie since New Year's Day of 2011 in order to be able to sure if my words still held water.

I'm glad to say they still do -- for the most part.

I wouldn't include that last qualifier except I think I saw a few moments (perhaps only because I was straining to see them) where the outline of the effects looked barely visible against the humans and real backdrops. Though really, only barely, and even mentioning it countermands my argument in ways I don't think are really fair.

Not only do these bugs still look terrific, but they have actual weight in the physical space, which has been a serious deficiency of our current digital era. There are plenty of examples throughout the movie, but my favorite example is the one when the troopers are trying to prevent the arachnids from getting inside the fallen base as they wait for a transport to evacuate them. They've already breached the perimeter on into the landing that runs the circumference of the wall, where the troopers had just been standing moments before in their desperate attempt to stave off the attack. One of the bugs falls to ground level inside the base in his death throes, and when he does, he scatters a bunch of large, heavy metal cylinders probably used to hold propane or something, like bowling pins. Not only does that profoundly emphasize that creature's presence in the real world, but it shows just how dangerous they are -- you might die just from being hit by something they dislodge when they fall. (Or merely by their body falling, as underscored earlier when an out-of-control winged bug smears Mashall Bell's body across the pavement. Did I tell you I once said hello to Marshall Bell in Los Angeles?)

Anyway, the apparent realism of the bugs was always what made this movie indelible to me, and I'm glad to say they still look good. (Much better than the cheaper version made for Starship Trooper 3: Marauder, which I still haven't seen but whose trailer appears on my Troopers BluRay.)

The gender politics are good

Although much is made of how Troopers is a parody of Nazi propaganda -- and indeed, that's one of the many things this movie is doing -- it's actually anything but fascist in terms of its social, ethnic and gender politics. (For the purposes of this subheading, I'm focusing primarily on the gender politics.)

The two main female characters, Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) and Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), are both strong -- but different types of strong. Many action movies use "can kick your ass" as a metric for whether a female character is strong, and Dizzy does fit that description. But Carmen is mentally strong and incredibly agile, her high marks earning her a trip to cadet school, where she quickly becomes one of the fleet's best pilots. Her recklessness has a kind of precision to it. Not only does she clear the wall of the docking bay by mere meters when taking the starship out (for the very first time!) and not only is this narrow margin totally intentional, but she also later detects a gravitational pull that allows them to avoid being destroyed by an unseen asteroid. Reckless as she may be in a superficial sense, though, she's so committed to protocol that when her starship has been blown in half later on, she doesn't immediately rush for the escape pods -- she sends a mayday signal that the Roger Young is going down. In fact, she even says "I repeat," and begins to give the message again. Her commanding officer has to physically pull her away from the communications device.

And speaking of that, Brenda Strong in that role is only one of several women we see in really senior roles. The new sky marshall -- in other words, one of the most powerful humans alive -- is not only a woman, she's also African. (I'm inferring she's African from her name more than her skin color -- it's Tehat Meru.) The high school teacher who teaches them alien biology is played by golden girl Rue McClanahan, and the Roughnecks corporal who gets her arm burned off by that giant ant-like creature is also a (black) woman. Even when Ibanez goes out flying for the first time, the other trainee pilot is also a woman, played by Amy Smart.

What is so miraculous about these gender politics -- which might logically figure to be retrograde if you considered only that the actors are alums of shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place -- is how unobtrusive they are. No one even makes anything of how women are just as good or as tough as men -- it is just accepted as a given that they are. There may be nothing that underscores this concept more than that men and women shower together during basic training, as if it was nothing. In this strangely utopian future version of our world, the genders truly are equal.

In terms of ethnicity, you do have blacks in prominent roles throughout, though not among the main five or six characters unfortunately. But Seth Gilliam of The Wire and Walking Dead does play the role of hero at the end. And more than black-white politics, I'm interested in the fact that the world has truly become a blend in which ethnicity and country of origin have become a big melange. Some people complained about how the three main characters are from Buenos Aires yet they do not appear to be Latin American, ethnically. They do have Latin surnames, but otherwise they appear to just be white. A cynical person would (possibly correctly) attribute this to the impossibility of casting minorities in the lead of a film with a $105 million budget (and that's $105 million in 1997 dollars). (Not that the people they did cast were exactly household names.) I'd rather embrace the world this film gives us and attribute it to the ethnic diaspora pervading earth at the time, where anybody lives anywhere because there are no longer the strictly drawn prejudices we live with today.

The acting is not actually bad

One of the biggest knocks about this movie is that the actors are not good. When we say that -- and I do NOT include myself in that "we" -- we are basing it on their aforementioned soap opera origins.

But you know what? I defy you to find a truly false note in these performances.

I once thought that false note was the reactions, or lack of reactions, of the three leads to the fact that their home and everyone they know has just been wiped off the face of the map. Indeed, these reactions are, shall we say, muted. But I watched those scenes with special interest this time, and I don't find them to be as devoid of humanity as I once did. When Richards delivers the line about pretending it happened to somebody else, and the fact that she can't stop crying when she does think about it, I saw a legitimate pain behind her eyes, and it's a true method of coping that anyone who lost someone in 9/11 is probably familiar with. Starship Troopers is not about us watching people engulfed by grief, especially not if the intention is to make Carmen and Dizzy seem as strong as the film does. Richards also does a fantastic job acting out having an arachnid talon impaled through her shoulder, while Meyer's death scene is believably wild and panicky.

But what I was really noticing this time was the small choices made by Casper van Dien, who may have more of a reputation of limited range than any of the others. He has a dozen little moments that strike me as inordinately human. Like the way his expression changes, and he looks at his mom for confirmation, when his dad offers him a trip to The Outer Rings ("Zegema Beach!") rather than signing up for military service. Like his smile of realization of his own change of feelings toward Dizzy after she kisses the tank where he's convalescing (for three days!) from his arachnid leg injury. Like the subtle way he takes in the realization that he's going to get some when Richards whispers in his ear that her father isn't home. Even the moment of high humor when he calculates that 20 minutes is enough time to have sex with Dizzy before the fleet takes off. "We can do it," he says to her, then immediately starts shimmying out of his pants.

And all the rest

Like, every moment in all of the "Do you want to know more?" video segments that are interspersed throughout the narrative.

Like, the insanely gruesome violence, which gives as forthright a notion of the true violence of war as any film you are likely to see, and which continues to make me call this one of my all-time favorite war movies.

Like, the basic training sequences, which have a gee-whiz quality while also including some of that insanely gruesome violence.

Like, the fact that you can see Neil Patrick Harris' reflection in the bulbous eyeballs of the "brain bug" when he reads its mind at the end.

Like, the individual great lines of dialogue, such as my favorite ("We can ill afford another Klendathu!"), the most badass ("They don't look like much when you're scraping them off your boot.") and the most gloriously cheesy ("They sucked his brains out.").

This love fest could probably go on and on, but I'll spare you.

I'll just conclude by saying that I love this movie a little more each time I see it, and suggest that if you were one of those who originally thought you hated this movie, I advise you to see it again. It's chock full.

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