Starship Troopers *** 1/2
Starring: Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Neil Patrick Harris
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven Produced by: Jon Davison

It's senior year of high school, and the bright-eyed young classroom makes Melrose Place look like Taxi Driver. Johnny (Casper Van Dien), captain of the football team, doodles a note to his cute girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards) while the teacher drones on. These blond, fresh-faced kids are somewhere in the Midwest, right? Nope, Buenos Aires.

We start to see that this clean, sparkling society is not Utopia. This is what Hitler's daydreams must have been like: ethnic cleansing has been achieved, and the Earth is populated by beautiful, happy servants of the state. We identify with the innocent Johnny as he wins the big game, then follows Carmen into the military. Dizzy (Dina Meyer), in love with Johnny, follows him into service. All very 90210-like. But many of these kids are joining the military because the state-run media tells us that "service guarantees citizenship."

War is essential in a fascistic society; the genetically superior must conquer the savages for the good of all. The savages are giant bugs on the faraway planet Klendathu, who have killed a band of "Mormon extremists." This is no tragedy since the only accepted religion is nationalism, but then an asteroid from the direction of Klendathu destroys Johnny's hometown, killing his parents. This is lifted unapologetically from Star Wars, but don't be fooled; Johnny has joined the Empire, not the Rebellion.

We follow Johnny, Carmen, and Dizzy in their military careers as Earth attacks Klendathu; we pay less attention to their former classmate (Doogie Howser's Neil Patrick Harris), who is assigned to military intelligence and therefore not fodder for the recruiting propaganda of valiant soldiers with rippling muscles and heavy-assault rifles. Instead, he's on the team that creates the propaganda and directs the soldiers into battle from his armchair, sacrificing them mercilessly where needed. Boring to the viewers of the Federal Network, who are used to watching 5-second murder trials followed by televised executions, in between government-produced "news" about the invasion of Klendathu.

The movie's offical Web site is actually a simulation of the Federal Network, the government-run source of news in the movie. Check it out.

The action scenes are gripping and brilliantly executed by Verhoeven, with testosterone and humor enough to make us forget that we're invading a planet of bugs who, in this movie, do not have the technology to instigate an asteroid attack (in Heinlein's book, they did launch the asteroid). Do any of the soldiers realize this? Theirs is not to question why. True citizens should be proud to die for the expansion of the state.

Doogie periodically shows up in his Gestapo uniform, telling the soldiers to get used to dying. Compared to his former classmates, he's a bit scrawny and mousy, not the perfect Aryan warrior, but how many of the old Nazi officers looked like the perfect human? Doogie is a psychic, experimenting with mind-control techniques, trying to keep his perfect soldiers in line. In fact, many of the recruiting ads on the Federal Network begin, "Are YOU psychic?" Recall the Nazi obsession with research into the paranormal and the occult during World War II.

But Verhoeven doesn't let us think about all this while we're watching; his masterful execution of the battle sequences gets us caught up in the bloodlust. We can feel the soldiers becoming killing machines, instruments of war; still innocent children, but now with ranks. And yet this isn't a blatant war-is-bad movie. We only get the perspective of the humans, and they're celebrating war and death even as they die by the thousands. Whether the insects were truly the aggressors is inconsequential; once the conflict begins, the total victory of the superior side is the only acceptable outcome. Whom are we rooting for? The humans, of course.

We're not spared any of the carnage, either. The movie's $50 million special-effects budget is enough to show us plenty of bugs and humans ripping either other to shreds before our eyes. Thousands of names show up on the huge military viewscreen's KIA list, unfortunate but necessary casualties who died honorably as citizens. Contrast this with the media attention paid to a single peacetime murder of one human by another; the value of life is relative.

Don't worry, Verhoeven isn't beating us over the head with a political statement; we have to infer the nature of this society. And the big-budget battle scenes, with human firepower against giant arachnid claws, are some of the most impressive and exciting ever seen. This is an action movie, and a damn good one.

--Roger J. Bright