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Posts Tagged ‘annoyingly vapid Denise Richards’

Quite a few years ago, I saw Shekhar Kapur’s adaptation of The Four Feathers, which was one of those films that almost dropped through the net completely – it didn’t get much of a release, received lukewarm reviews, and didn’t recover its budget. The reason why, I suspect, is that The Four Feathers is a stirring tale of imperial bravery, whereas Kapur’s movie was intended as a deconstruction and critique of colonial attitudes – almost a wilful subversion of the source material.

This sort of approach is very difficult to pull off. Unless you are Paul Verhoeven, apparently, for he does something very similar in his 1997 adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Over ten years earlier Verhoeven had made one of the best SF films of the 1980s in RoboCop, and while I’m not sure I’d make the same kind of claim about Starship Troopers, it’s still a typically provocative and accomplished piece of work.

Some time in the future, Earth has become a gleaming utopia; rather Americanised too, it seems, for even Buenos Aires looks like somewhere in California. Here we find Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), handsome high-school jock, his more academic girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards), and Diz (Dina Meyer), a girl who has a bit of a thing for him. Carmen wants to fly spaceships, so she enlists in the military of the Terran Federation, as this is her best chance of doing so. Johnny follows her into the service, largely to impress her, and Diz joins up to stay close to him.

Carmen gets her wish and ends up in the space fleet, while Johnny and Diz become members of the infantry. Their training proceeds, with only a moderate level of maiming and crippling amongst the recruits, but events are progressing in the wider world, with tensions growing between the Terran Federation and the Arachnids, an arthropod race from the other side of the galaxy. A devastating Arachnid attack on Earth results in Johnny and the others going to war with the invertebrate menace…

Starship Troopers, the movie, has a very strange relationship with its source novel, but this becomes a bit more understandable once you learn that it started existence as a wholly separate entity entitled Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine. When various similarities with Heinlein’s book were noticed, the decision was made to buy the rights to it and retrofit the script to be even closer to the story.

If nothing else, this explains one of the most noticeable differences in the substance of the movie – the novel’s most lasting SF innovation was the invention of powered armour battle-suits, as worn by Rico and the others as they take on the Bugs. Power armour is completely absent from the film, which mainly concerns foot infantry carrying automatic rifles and rocket launchers.

The more significant change is subtler and arguably more interesting. Heinlein’s novel is largely a vehicle for the author’s political views, and as a result the book is very right-wing, to the point where some have accused it of open militarism (written as a piece of SF for younger readers, the original publisher refused to accept it for this reason). However, what is sincerely and seriously presented in the novel is outrageously satirised in the movie – the movie is to some extent parodying the book it is based on.

As a result, Verhoeven and his scriptwriter Ed Neumeier have been criticised for wilfully misrepresenting Heinlein. The movie depicts an implicitly totalitarian, arguably fascist society, where public executions are broadcast live on TV and having a child requires a license, and one of the key points of the book is that its world is still a democratic one. There’s something to this, but on the other hand the book does contain a sequence in which Heinlein argues the case for aggressive war as a moral imperative, on apparently racial grounds.

The important thing is that whatever political commentary Verhoeven is making, it’s entirely implicit: it’s possible to watch Starship Troopers and just come away thinking you’ve watched a lavish SF action-adventure with a somewhat hackneyed story, and this does in fact seem to be what happened on the film’s original release, given the extent to which it apparently baffled audiences and divided critics. Personally I find the nature of the film as another piece of stupendously violent SF satire impossible to miss, no matter how tongue-in-cheek it is (and it is extremely tongue-in-cheek in places) – I’ve even heard it argued that the casting of Denise Richards, an actress whose dramatic range means she is really best qualified to appear in shampoo commercials, is a flag to the audience that this is not meant to be taken seriously.

The difference between RoboCop and Starship Troopers, I suppose, is that at the heart of RoboCop is a genuine and powerful human story, which Verhoeven surrounds with various elements of topical satire, whereas the story of Starship Troopers is a deliberately superficial and corny tale, solely intended as a delivery system for the satire which is what the film is really about. One striking thing about Starship Troopers is the eerie way in which it seems to anticipate American politics and foreign policy, and media coverage of them, in the years immediately after the September 11th attacks. Watching the movie now, it seems resonant and relevant in a way it didn’t at the time it was released.

That said, of course, while the movie may only superficially be an SF action movie, it’s still an extremely accomplished one – Verhoeven knows when to play it straight and pull out a superb set-piece action sequence, and does so at various points in the movie – the Them!-meets-Zulu battle at the outpost is as good as anything in Aliens. He’s helped, of course, by a score from Basil Poledouris, the best composer in the Hollywood if you want to make bombast sound fun (also the only one to play a redshirt in Star Trek), and special effects which still stand up well today. In terms of the casting, Verhoeven seems to have been actively searching for blandly good-looking young actors (see comments on Denise Richards above), but he also finds a chunky role for veteran genre actor Michael Ironside, who delivers a perfectly-pitched performance – I can’t imagine anyone else delivering a line like ‘His brain has been sucked out!’ with quite the same degree of ambiguity – is he playing it absolutely straight or engaged in a deadpan send-up of the whole thing? It’s impossible to tell. Perhaps he’s doing both.

Then again, the same is true of all of Starship Troopers – it’s both an exploitation movie and a vicious parody of exploitation movies, a lavish war film and a parody of war films – apparently hugely excessive and dumb, but at the same time very subtle and clever. The one thing it’s not, except on the most superficial level, is a genuine attempt at an adaptation of Heinlein’s novel. No-one else has made SF movies with the same level of wit and sense of gleeful mischief than Paul Verhoeven, and few people have matched his level of technical ability as a storyteller. Starship Troopers requires you to engage your brain in a way that few other Hollywood SF action movies do, but that’s hardly a criticism, especially when this is what makes it such a rewarding piece of entertainment.

 

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My opinion is usually a fairly intractable thing, but when it comes to the issue of Brosnan-era Bond films it has, in the past, been almost embarrassingly inconstant – certainly as far as the vexed ‘which is best?’ question goes.

Even while emerging from Tomorrow Never Dies I was declaring to anyone who’d listen that it was far superior to Goldeneye. Then, in accordance with my ‘every Bond’s third film is his best one’ thesis (since recanted, by the way), I spent some time promoting The World Is Not Enough as the Irish Bond’s finest two and a bit hours. And, despite (or possibly due to) its general ridiculousness, Die Another Day also got its moment in the heart of my affections. Ironically enough, these days I’ve mostly reverted to the view that Goldeneye is the best one. Is there a moral for us here? I think there isn’t.

I say ‘mostly reverted’, because every time I watch The World Is Not Enough I catch myself wondering if this isn’t the best Bond of its period, and one of the best of the lot. Directed by Michael Apted, it’s in many ways the antithesis of its immediate predecessor: where Tomorrow Never Dies had a straightforward, even mechanical storyline, which moved urgently from one slick and lavish action sequence to the next, TWINE has a convoluted and slightly baffling story which – I think – makes sense if you can be bothered to unravel all the details, but the action beats are – well, they’re not actually bad, they just feel a little incongruous and perfunctory given the tone of the rest of the movie. (Exempt from this criticism is the splendid opening speedboat chase up the Thames, which – regrettably – was as close as the Dome ever came to coolness.)

In many ways this is a film which feels ahead of its time, in that the plot revolves around a bitter struggle for the control of oil supplies, touches on the spread of terrorism in central Asia and the near East, and concludes with an attempt at nuclear suicide bombing. On paper it looks very much like standard Bond stuff, albeit not adhering to any of the classic plots, as terminal headcase Renard (Robert Carlyle at the height of his fame) targets a family of British-based oil tycoons, specifically beautiful heiress Elektra King (Sophie Marceau). With the head of MI6 feeling partly responsible for the situation, Bond is sent to protect the woman. But not everyone or everything is what they appear to be…

Bond movies have a somewhat-deserved reputation for thin characterisation and formulaic stereotyping, but it’s in this department in particular that TWINE is something special. Anyone who’s seen a few of these films knows the stock characters: the Girl, the Master Villain, the Local Ally, the Heavy, the Bad Girl (the last two are occasionally omitted or conflated). Things are much less clear-cut in this film. It’s more than edges simply being blurred – characters initially appear to be one thing then unexpectedly turn out to be something quite different. This would be fairly unexceptional in a standard thriller but for a Bond film it’s noteworthy (possibly a symptom of the perceived problems which the Casino Royale reboot was intended to alleviate). And there’s some very odd, twisted stuff going on here, too – Renard has performance anxiety and worries about Bond being better in bed than him, for instance. (You never got that kind of thing from Christopher Lee or Donald Pleasence.)

However, if there’s a weak element to TWINE it’s in the (thrusting) person of supporting girl Christmas Jones, played by Denise Richards. Yes, this is a brilliant nuclear scientist, an expert in many fields and a speaker of multiple languages, so who have they cast? Denise Richards. The word ‘vapid’ immediately springs to mind, along with ‘unconvincing’, ’embarrassment’ and ‘no wonder she couldn’t sustain a top-echelon career for more than a couple of years’.

Apart from Denise Richards, this is a great film, which manages to walk the razor’s edge between Bond-dom daftness and grown-up movie credibility with great aplomb. There are some good gags and nice character moments, the villains’ scheme is credible yet entirely deserving of Bond’s time, and Robbie Coltrane and John Cleese get to come on and have some fun. Desmond Llewellyn’s swan-song as Q is also, in retrospect, a lovely, poignant moment. Quite why Eon decided to go, relatively speaking, off the deep end with the very next film I’m not really sure: but if they’re still looking for a template which merges the hallmarks of the franchise at its best with adult credibility and depth, they could do much worse than take another look at The World Is Not Enough.

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