Around you the ragged breathing of your comrades in arms can be heard as you survey the sun-battered alien landscape that streches out before you. Far off in the distance, you can see them coming. The Bugs. You don't know where they came from, you don't know why they're here, you only know your duty. The ground rattles beneath your feet. They're coming. You peer out at the wasteland once again. The giant behemoths are rampaging now, tearing their way to you. "This is it", calls your commander, "it's time to prove yourself as a citizen!"
You look back over your shoulder at him, tall and thin in his fetishistic nazi-style uniform, stalking the ramparts with a confidence he Doogie Howser never showed before in the Hospital and you knew you were going to win.
After falling flat on his face with the surprisingly boring crap-fest that was Showgirls (1995), Dutch-born Paul Verhoeven, director of genre-favs Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990), returned to the realm of Sci-Fi action with this movie adapted from a story by Robert A. Heinlein. Though where the book was an examination of a future where compulsory service was the norm and how a society that bordered on fascism was a good thing, the film focuses on large Arthropods operating with surprising military efficiency and mankind's struggle to rage against the dying of the light.
In other words: BIG COMPUTER GENERATED BUGS MUST GO SQUISH NOW.
Big. Dumb. Loud. Three words that perfectly sum up this picture. Focusing on a group of young high school grads, the film primarily tells the tale of Rico (Casper Van Dien), Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), and Ace Levy (Jake Busey) as they move up the ranks of the military during the afore-mentioned war against an alien race of bugs (who can fire asteroids out of their.... butts).
You can already see where the film is going to go wrong in the first 10 minutes or so, where the film decides to develop it's "characters" with scenes of them still in high school and interacting with family. The failure, of course, is that both Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards are interchangeable with posterboard cutouts, something that hasn't changed with subsequent appearances in other films. Only when you get grizzled Michael Ironside (Total Recall) and Clancy Brown (Highlander) toting pulse rifles does the film become even remotely watchable. In the director's cut we watched, these scenes are even longer, delaying the set-piece eviceration-by-insect scenes that are this movie's hallmark.
Oh, and Neil Patrick Harris is a Psychic who can scramble bug minds while wearing very Gestapo-ish gear. When the film was released, he still hadn't shed his Doogie Howser image, which made this the best part of the movie, really.
The effects, which were state-of-the art CG in their day, hold up better in some scenes then others. The problem is that the film relies heavily on them to try to distract from the sheer level of suck everywhere else in the production, from script to direction. Verhoeven pulled out all the stops, with Bullets, Booms, and Boobs-alongside the trademark satirical television spots that frequently outshine the rest of the film. These, with the twist at the end, almost make the film worth sitting through and actually pay attention, but not quite.
All told, this film failed to generate any real excitement in our Cavalcade, but I'm still going to give it a recommendation as long as you watch the shorter theatrical version simply for the sight of Neil Patrick Harris in full gear. Just have the remote handy, in case you need to skip ahead to the entertaining bits.