Saturday, April 14, 2018

Starship Troopers: Traitor on Mars (Lucent Pictures Entertainment, Sola Digital Arts, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars movie screening in Golden Hill ( consisted of a feature called Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars — fifth in a series of films based on Robert A. Heinlein’s fascistic 1959 science-fiction novel, which began with a live-action movie directed by Paul Verhoeven (who apparently fused Heinlein’s story with one of his own that had in common that both were about military units in a science-fiction future fighting a mindless enemy of giant-sized arthropods, variously known to the Earthlings on the other side of them as “Arachnids” or just “Bugs”) and which spawned four sequelae, of which this is the most recent. The screening also included an episode of a hopelessly useless children’s series called Butt-Ugly Martians which, aside from a pretty cool theme song, had so little to offer that I slept through most of it; and a surprisingly compelling episode of a 2005 Gerry Anderson TV series called Captain Scarlet. Gerry Anderson was the auteur of a set of oddball British TV series in the 1960’s done with puppet characters for which he and his wife Sylvia supplied most of the voices: Fireball XL-5, Supercar, Thunderbirds, Stingray, etc. (Some of these had been shown in a previous screening, along with a screamingly funny parody called Superthunderstingcar.) Anderson’s original puppet shows had been advertised as being in a process called “Supermarionation,” and in the 2000’s other producers revived his characters (just what Anderson’s own involvement was with these later shows is unknown) but with computer-generated imagery (CGI) instead of the original puppet animation — albeit the new shows claimed to be in a process called “Hypermarionation.” (One audience member at the screening joked that that’s what happens when puppeteers drink too much coffee.) 

One of Anderson’s 1960’s series had been called Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons — the Mysterons being to his universe essentially what the Daleks were on Dr. Who, mindless and ill-motivated agents of destruction whose function was to be the generic bad guys. (I asked afterwards what connection this series had to Mars and was told that the Mysterons were supposed to be Martians.) In 2005 this was revived in CGI and, at least judging from the episode we got to see, “Chiller,” it was quite good: about the only down side of CGI was that, though the rest of the characters’ bodies looked convincing and moved effectively, they all looked like their hair was permanently bonded to their heads and made of plastic. This is because doing convincing hair in CGI requires a separate computer code for each strand, and filmmakers at the level of director Mark Woolard simply don’t have that kind of budget or time available. Nonetheless, “Chiller” turned out to be a quite nice sci-fi superhero story in which the conceit that various accidents and treatments have rendered star “Captain Scarlet” (Wayne Forester) “virtually indestructible,” the bad guys put him on a train filled with explosives and blow him up. His bosses at Skylab, the name of the good guys’ organization, recover his body but Dr. Gold (head medico at Skylab’s base) examines him and declares that the damage done to his body has been so extensive even Scarlet’s vaunted invulnerability can’t keep him alive from this one. Meanwhile, Captain Black (Nigel Paskett), head of the Mysterons (nearly all the major recurring characters in this series are named after colors — about the only one who isn’t is Scarlet’s partner and love interest, Destiny Angel, voiced by Emma Tate), has hired a Skylab engineer named Xander Story (voiced by Jeremy Hitchen, though an “Trivia” poster claims they based the character on actor Steve Buscemi) to plant a bomb that will blow up Skylab headquarters. Story has been bribed to do this with a briefcase full of uncut diamonds, but Scarlet tries to warn him that the Mysterons will kill him as soon as he does their dirty work and Skylab blows up. Unfortunately Scarlet can’t communicate with anybody because, though he actually survived the explosion in a train, somehow his spirit separated from his body and he’s wandering around Skylab like a ghost, aware of the danger facing the base but unable to communicate a warning about it. The show was intelligently written for a 21-minute animated TV show aimed at kids, the perils were reasonably well depicted, Story drawn as an appealingly ambiguous character and the characters were drawn well enough they actually looked genuinely sexy. 

Indeed, Captain Scarlet was considerably more entertaining than Starship Troopers: Traitor on Mars, the fifth in a series of films based on Heinlein’s fascistic future in which only military veterans are allowed to vote — though I suspect the most important innovations in the original story are the uses of the terms “starship” (instead of “spaceship”) and “Federation” that were later copied by Gene Roddenberry in the prospectus for Star Trek. I’d never read Starship Troopers, nor have I seen the Verhoeven film from 1997, but this rather sorry movie tells me all I need to know about the franchise: it’s based on a small unit of, well, starship troopers headed by Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien, who played the character “live” in the Verhoeven film and continued to supply the voice for the computer-animated sequelae), whose eyepatch and forbidding mien makes it seem like Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., walked over from the Marvel universe and took a place in this one. What’s numbing about Starship Troopers: Traitor on Mars is that it’s simply a transposition of the usual clichés of the war movie into science fiction; the plot is little more than a pretext for battle footage, in most of which Rico and his men (and one woman, his sort-of girlfriend Dizzy Flores, voiced by Dina Meyer) shoot down Bugs en masse because the Bugs, like John Ford’s Indians or Peter Jackson’s Orcs, conveniently nullify the seemingly unsurpassable advantage of outnumbering the good guys tens or even hundreds to one by charging in a straight line and getting themselves mowed down by the Starship Troopers’ guns, some of which are armed with nuclear weapons even though these don’t seem to do any lasting damage to the good guys. 

To the extent this film has a plot, the principal (human) villainess is Amy Snapp (Evelyn Nieves), the ruler of the Federation — or at least that section of it encompassing the solar system that contains both Earth and Mars. One wonders, given the film’s 2017 copyright date, if writer Edward Neumeier was intending this character as a satire of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: she’s a vainglorious woman who is obsessed with her approval rating in the polls and follows this minute-by-minute. She’s also secretly introduced Bugs into the human colony on Mars after the Martians threatened to revolt against Federation rule and demand independence. Her idea is that if she can “sell” the leadership of the Federation on allowing her to blow up Mars and kill everybody on it, human colonists as well as Bugs, she can set an example that will deter any other planet from attempting to rebel. The story’s Good Woman to Amy’s Bad Woman is Carmen Ibanez (Luci Christian), who’s a starship captain in her own right and who’s in love with secret-service agent Carl Jenkins (Justin Doran), who communicates telepathically and comes off like a screaming queen. Unfortunately, Amy has set Carl up to be the fall guy for her schemes and wants to make him look like the traitor. Amy’s willingness to destroy all of Mars, including its population of human colonists, to further her own ambitions comes off in 2018 as decidedly Trumpian, though of course it’s forestalled as Rico’s unit manages to kill off hundreds of Bugs swarming Mars and ultimately commits genocide against the entire Bug population by sabotaging the machines that remodel Mars’s atmosphere to the high oxygen content of Earth’s. The fact that this would also kill Mars’s human population because people can’t breathe the unaltered Martian atmosphere — and therefore the good guys are doing the same thing they’ve criticized the bad guys for doing — is a complication that goes ignored in Neumeier’s script; instead all the Bugs on Mars die, the humans are saved, Rico (who in the original Heinlein novel was a private who gradually rose through the ranks) gets promoted from colonel to general, and the human race is saved from the giant crawling things. 

Incidentally it’s hard to figure out just what the giant crawling things are supposed to be: the name “Arachnid” would suggest spiders, which have eight legs, while ordinary insects have six, but the creatures in the movie just have four, probably to make the task of animating them easier. Alas, otherwise they just look like giant, upright-walking grasshoppers or mantises, and the only real sense of menace surrounding them (aside from one scene, better than most of the rest of the film, in which Casper Van Dien has to attack and kill a Bug in hand-to-hand combat, armed only with a knife, to ward off its scythe-like claws and stab it to death, which of course he does) is their sheer number. There’s not even the half-assed attempt Orson Scott Card made in the Ender cycle (which clearly owed a lot to Starship Troopers as well as to Star Wars) to give us some idea of What Made the Formics Run; instead the Bugs are simply pests, much like real-world insects, just scaled up. Though Starship Troopers: Traitor on Mars is undoubtedly many generations removed from Heinlein’s involvement, the morals inherent in the original book (from what I’ve read about it) are carried over even this far into the cycle: war is inevitable, militarism is good, a population that never has to fight goes into moral atrophy and dooms itself. That’s certainly far removed from how I think about the world and humanity’s role in it, but it’s likely Robert Heinlein made a better case for it than Neumeier did — it seemed all Neumeier did was take the clichés of the buddy-buddy combat movie and move them from Earth to Mars. The film credits two directors, Shinji Aramuki and Matsaru Masumoto, but just because you hire two Japanese to direct your computer-animated sci-fi film doth not make it animé!