Saturday, June 04, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Blackstar: "Lightning City of the Clouds" (October 24, 1981)

The Overlord plunges all of Sagar -- including the Sagar Tree -- into permanent winter. The key to keeping spring forever locked away rests in Leelana, a Cloud City that possesses a literal key to the season.

Blackstar takes the key from the princess of the city, but must contend with Crios, an icy warlock who serves as Overlord’s minion.   Mara transforms Blackstar into an ice warrior capable of defeating the wintry troops.

“Lightning City of the Clouds” is another sort of by-the-book, or off-the-shelf episode of Filmation’s Blackstar.  The Overlord hatches an evil scheme, using a distinctive minion (here, one based on ice), and only Blackstar and the star-sword can stop him. 

Meanwhile, we get to see another kingdom on Sagar, meet another ruler (in this case a princess and get lots of appropriate wisecracks about the threat of the week.  The bad guy wants to put “Blackstar on ice,” and so forth.  This element of the episode gave me uncomfortable flashbacks of Batman and Robin (1997).

One can see how ideas on the series are starting to repeat, too. This week it’s Eternal Winter. Next week (in “Kingdom of Neptul”) it’s eternal rain.  

Of course, this is a series for children, but the storytelling is all superficial, and geared towards gimmicks.  Ice Warlocks, cloud cities, even Blackstar’s transformation, in the finale, into an ice warrior.

There’s nothing deep or consequential about the characters or their nature here, just a villainous plan to be stopped. As a child, this is fine, but on a re-watch, it feels shallow.  

A similar show, Thundarr the Barbarian (1980) featured an added (and adult…) layer of storytelling because of the post apocalyptic setting.  The interest for the adult was in seeing how the “new” world of magic was built on the ruins -- literally -- of our current world of science and technology. Blackstar possesses no such organizing principle, and vacillates between not-that-inspiring action-fantasy and lame humor (usually featuring the trobbits).

Next week: “Kingdom of Neptul.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "Witch Woman" / "Micro Menace" (October 9, 1982)

In “Witch Woman,” Arboria is attacked by a monster called “Lobos.” This wolf monster -- one of Ming’s creations -- is worshiped as a God by Liza, Queen of the Lizard people.

In “Micro Menace,” the city of the Hawk-men is falling out of the sky and must be repaired. 

It can be fixed only with a device invented by Dr. Zarkov called a “reverser,” but matters are not so simple. 

Ming uses a shrink ray on Flash, Dale, Thun and Gremlin. Now they must work with a race of intelligent mouse/rat people to undo the shrink ray and save the city.

This week, we get two further rather undistinguished episodes of Flash Gordon (1979-1982).  The second season format is really a downgrade from the serialized season one. And because there are two episodes per half-hour, the narratives feel simplistic and half-thought-out. The episodes are mostly mindless action and dopey comedic hijinks from Gremlin.

Surprisingly, “Witch Woman” features some nice moments involving Princess Aura. We see her checking security precautions in Arboria, and grappling with the Lobos without assistance from Flash or Barin.  

It's nice to see that she is depicted here as capable and strong. It’s just too bad that for every good moment with Aura (one of the series’ most intriguing characters, given her arc…) we are also treated to moments with Gremlin doing magic tricks or juggling plates too.

“Micro Menace” brings back the Hawkmen, though they have almost nothing of interest to do in the story.  

Instead, we get a story that feels like it came straight from Irwin Allen’s Land of the Giants (1968-1969). The episode strains our suspension of disbelief since Flash and Dale already have everything they need -- namely the reverser -- to escape all their predicaments.

At the end of the story, one character makes the pronouncement “may your cheese never go stale” (vis-à-vis the rat people…).  

These stories are evidence, perhaps, that Flash Gordon, season two, has gone pretty stale indeed.

Next week: “Flash Back,” and “The Warrior”

Friday, June 03, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: Death Stalk (1974)

Now here's a strange little number: a quasi-savage made-for-tv movie from the disco decade. However, a better name for Death Stalk might actually be The River Mild, since it's the generic and overly familiar story of psychotic prison escapees attacking white-water rafters on a dangerous river.

Deliverance (1972) or even The River Wild (1994) remain scary to this day (just say the words: "squeal like a pig...") because they're intense films wherein man battles harsh nature as well as his fellow man. 

Yet this TV variation is a watered-down, white-bread version of the same brand of material. Yes, this was made for TV at about the time of Nixon's resignation, meaning there was strict censorship in terms of what could be depicted on screen, but Death Stalk still lacks both subtlety and artistry. 

Think of other great 1970s TV movies. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Bad Ronald, Gargoyles, and Someone's Watching Me all leap to mind, right? 

The oddly-titled Death Stalk isn't in the same league. It filled a 90-minute slot in prime time, but precious else can be said about it. The movie is filmed in generic terms: the river, the mountains, even the violence conducted on the's all genuinely...mild...and lacking distinction.

Death Stalk finds two suburban couples rafting on a dangerous river for the weekend. A common refrain early in the film is "don't forget the booze." 

Anyway, there's Pat (Anjanette Comer) and Jack (Vince Edwards); and Kathy (Carol Lynley) and Hugh (Robert Webber). They're all enjoying their weekend nature excursion when suddenly they run afoul of four escaped convicts from the nearby penitentiary (in 1970s "bleeding heart liberal" lingo, a rehabilitation center).

In a great bit of seventies casting, the nasty convicts are played by Combat star Vic Morrow, CHiPs star Larry Wilcox, Three's Company's Mr. Roper (Norman Fell) and the psychotic Neville Brand of Eaten Alive (1976) fame. 

Guess which one I'd be scared of? Hint: it isn't Mr. Roper...

Anyway, the convicts tie up the men, and head up the river with the women in tow. "I've been in jail so long I was starting to believe the greatest smell in the world was coffee," a lecherous Shepherd (Brand) says, menacing Lynley's Kathy. 

And that's just part of Death Stalk's 1970s-era sexual underpinnings. 

Pat quickly falls for the leader of the convict pack, Morrow's Brunner. She steals a moment with her fellow captive and suggests to Kathy that they should *ahem* submit to the men. These two women have an in-depth conversation, in fact, about granting sexual favors to the convicts in order to stay alive. When Kathy reacts with horror at this thought, Pat gets offended and says Kathy should be down with the arrangement since she "played around" before marriage. 


In another weirdly sexist touch, the women are treated by their husbands as inferior, materialistic creatures. One of the husbands urges his wife to row the boat faster, and if she does so, he'll buy her a "new dress." 


Anyway, Hugh and Jack follow their missing ladies up the river in their supply raft, but Norman Fell turns the tables and waits for them with a rifle, and tries to pick them off. During the battle, Hugh -- the corporate boss --  proves himself a coward. Jack, by contrast, proves he's got the stuff to kill when driven to murderous rage. Imagine how that reckoning could play out in Deliverance, or a Wes Craven movie. Keep imagining, because here the resolution is just plain bland.

Death Stalk progresses with a washed-out visual palette, and director Robert Day seems unable to establish the river's geography, or the character's positions on the river. A consequence of this old-style TV thinking is that the climax falls to generate any excitement, or even a raised pulse. Jack catches up with his wife Pat, and finds her getting it on with Morrow's character. Then they all stare intently at each other. Pat whimpers a little bit. Then the credits roll over imagery of the river.

Anyway, as longtime readers of my work know, my favorite kind of horror movie is "the savage cinema" of the 1970s. I'm talking about revenge movies like Straw Dogs (1971), Deliverance (1972), The Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). These movies concern random violence perpetrated on unsuspecting victims; wrong turns of fate and destiny; and those same characters (or the survivors anyway...) finding the interior mettle to stand up to the pure, unadulterated horror.

Death Stalk comes from the same time period in Hollywood history. But being made for TV, it lacks teeth. 

And, truth be told, it's pretty dull. 

And "seventies sexist" to boot, to quote Joss Whedon.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

The Films of 2004: Incident at Loch Ness

Incident at Loch Ness (2004) is a mock-documentary from director Zak Penn that stars legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog. The movie is part comedy, and part horror movie as well.  But like the best of the horror genre, the film goes beyond scary scenes to comment on something really important, in this case, film-making.

Specifically, Incident at Loch Ness involves an important, seemingly eternal debate.

Is film merely commerce?

Or is film something greater. Is it art? 

This question is pondered in the mock-doc through two  primary characters, or more aptly, two personalities. They are mirror images.

Herzog is the resolute, thoughtful artist, a man who makes movies to explore ideas and enhance not merely knowledge, but self-knowledge. His movie within the movie -- a documentary about the Loch Ness Monster -- is conceived by the filmmaker as an exploration of the differences between “fact and truth.” 

For Herzog, the film isn’t about discovering a monster at all; it’s about discovering why the monster’s existence (or non-existence) matters to so many millions of people. 

In other words, Herzog wants to explore what it is about man and his nature that demands the creations of legends like Big Foot or Nessie. 

Why do we believe? Why do we want to believe?  These are the questions that consume Herzog.

By contrast, Zak Penn plays the film’s craven producer, a man who feels that Herzog’s movie can only be bankable if there’s some manufactured drama. 

Thus he casts a gorgeous, busty Playboy model as a ship’s "sonar operator.' Thus he has a prop man create a fake “Nessie” monster for the documentary crew to encounter.

Now, pity poor Zak Penn, because he plays, for lack of a better word, the film’s villain; the individual who wishes to reduce every one of Herzog’s brilliant, cerebral concepts to crass commercialism. 

Since he is the director of Incident at Loch Ness, and he casts himself as the voice for film as commerce here, audiences must assume that Penn is aware that he will be pilloried by critics and audiences as being representative of everything that is wrong with Hollywood filmmaking. 

In fact, Penn is commenting on Hollywood filmmaking. He is using his own name to expose a certain brand of producer, despite the fact that a certain segment of the audience will simply think he is playing “himself.”

He’s actually taking a bullet for the team, and for the movie. But it's a smart move, because Penn's presence (and world-view) brings better into focus Herzog's world-view.

Incident at Loch Ness is presented as a documentary about the search for the Loch Ness Monster, but that surface description tells little of the movie’s style and substance. This is really a film about the gap between independent filmmaking and Hollywood filmmaking, between film art, and film as product, or commerce. 

The film is sharp, funny, exciting, and caustic in its observations about filmmaking. Finally, Incident at Loch Ness reminds us that what some filmmakers deem “reality” may not be real at all. Reality may simply be that which sells best.

“The more time you spend here the less monsters you will see.”

A film crew making a cinematic biography of legendary director Werner Herzog follows him as he embarks on his latest project: a documentary, shot on location in Scotland, about the Loch Ness Monster.

For the first time in his career, Herzog is accompanied by a Hollywood producer, Zak Penn. Penn feels that Herzog’s ideas will prove even more compelling if backed up by manufactured drama, like monster sightings and busty sonar operators in bikinis.

This conflict about the vision for the film creates tension on the boat, the Discovery 4, as Herzog attempts to discern the truth about Nessie.  

While Herzog attempts to remain committed to his vision (and Penn takes every opportunity to spice it up), something strange happens.

A real life sea monster appears, and threatens the ship and filmmakers.

“This study of my life had turned into some kind of horror movie.”

Incident at Loch Ness is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in some time, in part because of the dead-pan approach of all the actors.

Nobody is out to be a showboat, or score points, and the result is a film that, at times, feels alarmingly authentic. 

But here’s the distinction: it feels Hollywood real.

If you’ve spent anytime interfacing with Hollywood personalities, you likely know what I mean.

I remember, a few years back, being on a conference call with a notable “star” and listening, aghast, as he discussed at length -- during a story session -- how he could not be photographed sitting down, or wearing certain attire. 

This went on and on, as he promised to give “110 percent” to the project…so long as he wasn’t seated, I guess.

You get to Hollywood, and achieve a certain level of success, and you start to feel entitled to make selfish (and weird) demands like that, I suppose. Demands that don’t necessarily concern the project (the art), but rather your image, your career.  In Incident at Loch Ness, Penn brings in "acting" personalities who are like that: a model and an actor who are looking to get screen time and further their individual careers.  For them, the project isn’t really about art, or about ideas. It's about leveraging a credit to maximum profit.

Penn plays the kind of producer that, fortunately, I’ve read about, but not encountered on any sets. 

When he discovers that a boat’s engine is too loud for filming, he demands either a new boat, or a transplanted engine that will be less noisy.  The poor ship’s captain who must accommodate -- or be fired -- has about a day to perform that switcheroo.  Penn bullies him into compliance. 

And when the ship’s radio proves too noisy too, Penn orders an underling to have it removed from the ship, despite the fact that the radio is a necessity in case of a crisis on the water.

Nothing, in other words, will stop Penn from getting his way.  And his way includes renaming the ship, assigning the crew uniforms (with the word expedition misspelled), adding T&A in the form of the ship’s sonar director, and staging false Nessie sightings.

I distorted things so they would be more dramatic,” Penn reports, when things go disastrously awry on the expedition.  He even retreats to the stance that cinema consists of mostly “lies,” but clearly he has misunderstood the amazing career of Herzog (whom Penn holds at gunpoint during one sequence).  

Herzog may stage a “lie” in a (fiction) film to get at some point or deep truth, but Penn wants to lie in a documentary to make it more bankable. He’s incapable of seeing the difference between those two approaches. He doesn't strive for authenticity.  He isn't trying to make a point.  He wants the movie to be a hit.

Herzog proves to be a great and powerful presence in the film. He exudes gravitas and authenticity because we all know what he has gone through -- and put others through -- to achieve his artistic vision.  

Again, when Herzog pushes people it isn’t for more money, or for fame, it’s ostensibly because he is exploring something. It’s because he wants to discover or know something.  

There’s something terribly ironic, and indeed Hellish, about his journey here. Herzog suffers not in the pursuit of art, but for commercialism, at the hands of Penn. Perhaps this is why he sees the documentary, during its final moments, as a horror show; as something "doomed from the beginning," that "didn't want to come to life."

Incident at Loch Ness is clever too, in the way it proves self-reflexive. Herzog opines, early on, that mankind “need monsters.”  This movie provides us not one, but two monster.  First, there’s Nessie – which attacks the ship -- and secondly, there’s Penn himself.

Movies need monsters too, the film suggests.  We could not appreciate Herzog’s character if we did not see it in direct comparison to Penn’s. We need Penn to take that bullet for the movie, and to play the worst, most craven and crass producer imaginable.  We couldn’t understand, perhaps, the value of a “typical Herzog-ian moment” if we didn’t have the anti-matter representation of its opposite, symbolized by Penn.

It’s also quite ironic that Herzog is described, in the film, as having a reputation as a “dangerous” filmmaker for exploring worlds and ideas that are uncomfortable (and difficult to capture on celluloid). 

Because what Incident at Loch Ness proves so adeptly is that it is actually the film-as-commerce voice -- Penn -- who is truly dangerous. To make money, he risks everybody’s survival. People die because of the choices he makes on the documentary.  Cinematographers may not be “cowards” according to Herzog, but that rule does not apply to entitled producers, apparently.

This review likely makes Incident at Loch Ness sound ultra-serious, but the truth is that the movie is both funny and tense, and finally a little scary and sad. It’s one of the best mock-documentaries I’ve seen outside the canon of Christopher Guest, and it suggests what might happen if the film-s commerce-voice overpowers dramatically the film-as-art voice.

The result? A life gets turned into a horror movie. Fortunately, not a “vulgar and pointless” one, as Herzog fears during the film’s conclusion.  Rather a supremely entertaining and thoughtful one.

Movie Trailer: Incident at Loch Ness (2004)

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

The Films of 1997: Starship Troopers

Not long ago on the blog, I examined the science fiction films of director Paul Verhoeven, including favorites RoboCop (1987), and Total Recall (1990).

The third film in Verhoeven’s sci-fi trilogy is Starship Troopers, an adaptation of -- or more correctly, a cinematic rebuttal to -- Robert A. Heinlen’s Hugo Award winning 1959 novel.

Owing in part to his early life in Nazi-controlled Netherlands, Verhoeven’s science fiction films often parody or critique extreme right-wing aspects of American culture, namely the excessive freedom and power of corporations, and the alarming violence of the society as a whole.

Verhoeven’s films are gory, pointed, and funny, and accordingly Starship Troopers succeeds, in many ways, as the perfect capper for the trilogy.

In other words, it functions as a summation of the director’s individual and artistic perspective.

This time out, Verhoeven reminds audiences of how easily and readily some citizens fall in line behind totalitarian, even quasi-fascist regimes, and how Authority (with a capital “A”) utilizes propaganda to transmit its message of unthinking nationalism or patriotism. 

Also, Starship Troopers points out how easy it is to manipulate opinion based on fear, specifically after an attack on the homeland.

Like RoboCop, the central narrative of Starship Troopers is interrupted periodically by short films. These interstitial interludes do not mock TV commercials this time, but rather propaganda films of the fictional Federation. These short films reveal the Earth government at its absolute, pandering worst.

These shorts -- and particularly those involving the indoctrination of children into patriotic group think -- also remain hysterically funny to this day.

Yet, while everyone seems to understand the social critique presented by RoboCop, there exist two camps of thought regarding Starship Troopers.

In the camp of those who don't really understand the film are those folks who complain about the callow cast, the tongue-in-cheek approach to violence, and the sometimes hard-to-swallow tactics adopted by the futuristic mobile infantry in the war against the vicious Arachnids, the "Bugs."

But those who do get and understand Starship Troopers tend to see it for what it actually is: a humorous warning against blossoming totalitarianism, and mindless nationalism. 

As was the case in RoboCop, Verhoeven artfully uses exaggeration to craft the film’s dystopian landscape, and by doing so, points out just how silly -- and transparent -- propaganda can be.

To put the matter another way, some critics and viewers mistake Starship Troopers for a stupid, special effects adventure, when in fact it lampoons stupid, special effects adventures, and reminds us through its grotesque, bloody carnage that there is nothing heroic, glorious or ennobling about war, or its mindless pursuit by the State.

And no, this is not at all how Heinlein imagined his literary universe.

Contrarily Heinlein’s novel suggests that violence has settled more contentious issues in society than any other course of action. The author reserves the right to vote and lead in his Utopian future only for those who have served in war.  

Everyone else is just a civilian, less-than-a=second-class citizen. Heinlein also dehumanizes his enemies in terms that Americans are all too familiar with. The Arachnids are “Bugs” in the same way that other, real-life enemies were labeled “Gooks.” 

It’s so much easier to hate and destroy an enemy when we give them names that don’t register their full humanity or intelligence, when we can separate them from "our side" and tag them as different from us.

Verhoeven’s film aptly punctures these aspect of war and fascism too.

As noted above then, the movie Starship Troopers is actually a meticulous, dedicated rebuttal to the novel, and a warning about the brand of thinking that informs Heinlein’s world view.

Would you like to know more?

“They’re just like us.  They want to know us. So they can kill us.”

In the not-too-distant future, a limited democracy, the Federation, faces a new challenge from deep space: a rival race of powerful Arachnids, or bugs.

When Buenos Aires is pulped by an asteroid that originated in the AQZ (Arachnid Quarantine Zone), war is declared, and three friends go different ways.

Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) joins the Mobile Infantry, Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) pursues her dream of piloting a star-ship, and Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) joins military intelligence.

After a botched, failed invasion of the Bug home world, Klendathu, the Earth Federation changes Sky Marshals, and adopts a new philosophy. To defeat the Bug, humans must think like the bug.

Part of that new approach involves capturing a Brain Bug, an intelligent arachnid that has never before been seen by human eyes.

“We’re in this for the species, boys and girls.”

Much of the pseudo-fascist philosophy of Starship Troopers is voiced in the Verhoeven film by Michael Ironside’s character, Rasczak. He starts the film as the high school teacher of Rico and Ibanez, and is thus able to describe the historical and moral underpinnings of the film’s “universe” in his class lecture and discussion.

Rasczak describes, specifically, the “failure of democracy” in the past (implicitly our time, the 20th and early 21st century), and the ensuing course correction: veterans took control of the levers of power and established stability.  

What he describes, though not in exact words, is actually a military coup. 

Bluntly stated, soldiers knocked down a civilian democracy and installed themselves as rulers of a free people. Then, they favored their own people -- veterans and soldiers -- and forbid any non-veterans from serving in the government or in any other positions of leadership, for that matter.

The new Federation, then, is an example of leadership by the few, the proud, the privileged and the powerful, while the masses can only succeed by serving in the wars that their masters choose.  

There’s some debate among readers and viewers, based on Heinlen’s book, about whether all Federation service is military service, but that’s certainly how it appears in the film. To gain citizenship and even the right to vote, you must first hope you don’t become cannon fodder in your master’s chosen campaign of sustained invasion and attack.

Rasczak also notes in the film that “naked force,” violence, is the “supreme authority from which all other authority is derived.” 

Again, what this means in practice is simply that might makes right.  Violence is a moral good in this fictional universe. Those with military power get to impose their value system on the losers in any conflict. Why, because they have might on their side.

And yes, indeed, this seems very much like a fascist world-view. It is right in line with the precepts of Spanish fascism in the early 20th century (as voiced by Primo de Rivera): “no other argument is admissible than that of fists and pistols when justice of the Fatherland is attacked.

We see this very tenet played out in theVerhoeven film.  

At first, the Federation doesn’t believe that bugs are intelligent at all. But when territory in AQZ (Arachnid Quarantine Zone) might be acquired by Earth, suddenly the bugs are capable of hurling an asteroid directly at us, launching a sneak-attack or war upon the human race.  

Ask yourself, if the bugs have no intelligence, how could they have possibly slingshot that asteroid into Buenos Aires?

This question is never raised in the film, or by anyone in the Federation. Instead, we see news footage of the city’s destruction. We see the body count tally on the screen, going up, up and up into the millions.  

And then, quite simply, before we know anything about the enemy, we see the call to action, the call to all-out war. Honor must be satisfied. Blood must be avenged.

Importantly, a journalist asks a question about the Bugs at one point. He wonders if it is possible that they have responded in this bloody fashion because humans invaded their territory first.  He similarly questions if negotiations can’t begin, based on the things that the Bugs and the humans have in common (implicitly, territoriality).

Rico’s response? “Kill them all.”

There will be no accommodation with this particular enemy. 

The jingoistic rhetoric mounts (“we’re in this for the species, boys and girls,”) and the mobile infantry invades the Bug solar system.  And yet the so-called meteor attack may not even be an attack at all. But if it is an attack, it may be based on the same fears regarding territory and dominion that our species frequently ponders.  

But no quarter will be given, and Bug Space will soon be Human Space.

In school rooms across the planet, human students learn that bugs have “no intelligence” and that they are “evil.” And the propaganda industry begins broadcasting scenes that show mobilization on the home front. 

One very funny Federation propaganda video reveals children in a suburban neighborhood going out in the street and stomping terrestrial bugs, while a happy Mother claps and cheers, encouraged by the mindless hatred for anything insect-like.

Notice again that this isn't a defensive war launched by Earth to protect the planet or the homeland; rather an offensive spearhead deep into Arachnid territory. The battle doesn't even occur in neutral territory.  

The troopers fight them there so they won't have to fight them here, right?

The point is that the attack -- intentional or otherwise -- is mere pretext, something a fascist government requires to keep the war machine oiled and continuing...eternally.

We can tell from Starship Troopers that Earth has become a fascist state not just by Rasczak’s words and by the explicit nature of the war effort, but by the existence of the propagandist Federal Network that controls all the news broadcasts.

In describing a "WORLD THAT WORKS," a govt. propaganda film shows kindly soldiers handing out giant machine guns and bullets - like they're candy - to smiling civilian children in a suburban neighborhood. 

The military is seen here as a kind of helpful big brother; the first recourse when there's a crisis. They come bearing not food or shelter, but heavy arms.

Again, forget diplomacy, please.

Another propaganda film is called "CRIME AND PUNISHMENT" and it informs us that a convicted criminal is arrested, tried and executed in one day. 

Swift justice? Or too-swift justice? Is there any longer a thing, in this state, known as due process?

In a fascist society, all dissenters are called "criminals" and dispatched quickly. Lest the government be threatened by facts or evidence.. Lest viewers get to hear an argument that goes counter to government policy.

Another propaganda film in the movie is called "KNOW YOUR FOE," which gives advice about how do successfully manage a kill shot on a bug.

And then, there's "I'M DOING MY PART," which shows young children in heavy combat armor and helmets and makes the case for obliterating the Bug Homeworld, for genocide.

There's also "DO YOUR PART: COUNTDOWN TO VICTORY” which assures the scared masses at home that no matter how many soldiers die in the field of battle (308,000 die at the Klendathu encounter alone...), their country is winning. 

Facts -- and reality -- be damned. Just stay the bloody course.

So, what Verhoeven has accomplished here, in very dynamic and memorable terms, is make the protagonists of his unique film -- the starship troopers of the title -- part and parcel of an autocratic, controlling, fascist society. 

They are cogs in a fascist machine, and these Federal Network "films" dotting the movie make us aware of that fact. Again and again, but always humorously.

But that's not the only clue. 

The other obvious "tell" in Starship Troopers that Verhoeven is making a statement about the perils of blind nationalism comes from the wardrobe, the costuming choices. 

Just take a gander at the uniform Neil Patrick Harris wears as he enters the battleship near the end of the film. 

The black leather. The hat. The trench coat. Look at all familiar to you?

Who does he resemble, this heroic representative of Earth's "military intelligence" division?

There's no doubt: he looks like a Nazi, a Gestapo officer, specifically, and that's very much the metaphor here. Of course, Nazis were fascists, but also masters of propaganda, so it's a strong historical allusion.

As for the cast? Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Casper Van Dien and the like have been disparaged many times and in many places as callow and insipid clothes-horses and WB Network stars-in-the-making. 

Indeed. I think that, on certain physical/visual level this is exactly right. They are all gorgeous.

In fact, I think this is precisely why they were cast in the first place. Not a one of these protagonists seems very smart (Despite their test scores in Math). Not a one of them has any depth. Let alone perspective or insight. They are all immature.

Yet these are exactly the kind of people a fascist society would want to see populate its citizenry. Callow folks who don't question orders or the "way things are." They gladly take orders and are easily riled to violence.

So even down to casting,  Verhoeven has pulled a fast one on his audience.  What happens, one might ask, after a century of Paris Hilton/Kim Kardashian culture?

I submit that you end up with the characters of Starship Troopers: physically beautiful nincompoops. 

Village idiots all...just like the characters in this film. They're tan, gorgeous, physically fit, and without a single important thought in their pretty little heads.

And at least, from the government's standpoint, they're easy to control.

As for the attack tactics dramatize in the film, well, it's true, the Earth mobile infantry seems pretty lame and ineffective. The men and women of these forces stand around and form circles carrying over-sized machine guns, and blast away (wasting ammo...) at the indestructible bugs. 

It's not subtle, but this is surely another way of indicating that to the fascist overlords, the common man -- the grunt -- means absolutely nothing. They’re cannon fodder as likely to shoot one another as they are the bugs. We need numbers, not sound strategy, dammit!

And, in verification of this notion, by the end of the film, the government is recruiting twelve old kids.

To its credit, Starship Troopers also predicts one of the absolute worst developments in the military and journalism: embedding journalists with the troops, so that they owe their safety to the soldiers and can’t be objective about the nature of the conflict, or the purpose behind it.  It is a journalist’s job to be dispassionate and objective, but it’s hard to do that when soldiers are physically protecting you from harm, and you come under fire. 

Finally, Starship Troopers notes well how, in times of war, propaganda helps to dehumanize our enemies.  

Our opponents in combat become “savages,” and “brutal,” and “barbaric,” like they are craven monsters…not actually fellow human beings with whom we have ideological differences.  

Starship Troopers provides the ultimate example of this de-humanization: the enemies are, literally, monstrous insects. 

They are disgusting bugs, and so humans have no compunctions whatsoever about destroying them utterly. These citizens of a totalitarian, highly-militarized state have been conditioned to believe the bugs are inferior to us, and deserve to die.  Again, you can go back in history and look at descriptors such as Gooks, Charlie, Japs, Jerry, and more to see how easy it is to slip into a slang that de-humanizes the enemy, making them less than our equals.

Even outside the social critique, which is more relevant today after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan than it was in 1997, Starship Troopers really holds up.  

The special effects remain, for the most part, astonishing. The scenes involving the Rodger Young in space combat look staggeringly good. And I scanned and scanned for signs of fakery with the rampaging hordes of bugs, only to not find many at all.

Over a decade ago, Verhoeven gave us a warning about the slippery slope of totalitarianism and jingoistic, blind nationalism. It was in the form of a silly, special-effects laden, gory outer space movie, and I guess it was pretty easy to ignore or discount.

It’s not that easy to ignore anymore.  

The gap between the world of fictional exaggeration and the world of reality, as we also saw in RoboCop, seems to be shrinking at a terrifying rate.

Action Figures of the Week: Starship Troopers (1997; Galoob)