Nothing inspires fear and loathing in Hollywood more than a fresh idea. Movie moguls are convinced that audiences won’t buy something they haven’t already seen. Look at the promo ads: The horror flick I Know What You Did Last Summer trumpets its lineage, via screenwriter Kevin Williamson, to the far superior Scream.The Edge, David Mamet’s man-outsmarts-bear adventure, is blurbed as “Jaws with claws.” Even on the indie circuit, purportedly above pedigree pushing, Harmony Korine’s gross-out Gummo is heralded as the latest “from the creator of Kids.”
By this standard, Paul Verhoeven’s futuristic Starship Troopers, a bugs vs. humans epic from the Dutch director who gave us RoboCop, Total Recall and a peek at Sharon Stone’s crotch in Basic Instinct, ought to be a smash. Actually, it’s $100 million worth of smug cynicism spiked with sex and gore as a coed army of bodies beautiful defends Earth from alien insects. But I digress. Verhoeven samples more shamelessly than Coolio, lifting chunks of Star Wars, Alien, The Terminator, assorted war movies, westerns, Nazi-propaganda films and his own fuck-bunny flop, Showgirls, in an unstinting effort to distance us from originality and feeling. Mission accomplished. Of Robert Heinlein’s 1959 science-fiction novel on which the film is based (only loosely, since the science that made Heinlein a sci-fi master has been replaced by Verhoeven’s brand of crude sensation), let’s just say that Ed Neumeir’s script bears as much relation to Heinlein’s book as Showgirls does to art.
Verhoeven has cast his film with a diligent eye for tits, ass, gleaming teeth, toned muscles, bulging crotches and brows unlined by thought. Those bugs can rip you to pieces, but not one of the young stars has a bad-hair day. Casper Van Dien plays the studly hero, Johnny Rico, a high school graduate in Argentina who joins the federal army not so much to blow bugs to hell but to get laid. The object of his lust is Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), who has already signed up for aviator school. Johnny’s math isn’t good enough for him to make the cut as a starship pilot, so he’s shipped off to the mobile-infantry boot camp for bug mop-up, leaving Carmen to the drooling attentions of flyboy Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon) and Johnny to work out his sexual frustration with infantry recruit Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), a babe who enjoys ripping off her shirt, and Johnny’s, for mutual chest licking and nipple biting.
You might call these four actors graduates of the Aaron Spelling School of Dramatic Arts. Van Dien, Richards and Meyer have all won credits on Beverly Hills 90210, while Muldoon matriculated at Melrose Place. To cast the role of Carl Jenkins, who, as the brains of the group, rises to the top of military intelligence, the filmmakers had to venture beyond the stud muffins and Muffys of the Spelling stable to find Neil Patrick Harris, late of Doogie Howser, M.D. As you might have guessed, none of the acting requires heavy lifting.
What is disturbing is the sadistic pleasure that Verhoeven seems to take in showing these pretty young things getting bruised, maimed, pierced and penetrated by insect tentacles. Johnny’s leg is severed and sewn back on, Zander gets his brain sucked out by a jumbo bug that resembles Marlon (“The horror! The horror!”) Brando in Apocalypse Now, and Dizzy chokes up blood while speaking her last words to Johnny: “If I die, it’s OK, because I got to have you.”
The film accelerates relentlessly, like a video game. Verhoeven has the energy of a caffeinated cybergeek and the instincts of a pornographer. His style of no foreplay and all orgasms is gold for pop-culture junkies with attention-deficit disorders, but it’s hell on the book’s politics. Heinlein, who died in 1988 at the age of 80, was a Navy man whose ambition to be an admiral was sidelined by tuberculosis. He wrote many novels for and about young adults coming of age that preached a militaristic doctrine bordering on fascism, most notably in Starship Troopers and his most famous novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. Verhoeven takes a satirical tone to Heinlein’s rhetoric, showing infomercials that hawk guns to children and sell violence as the “great settler of issues.” The facile humor strips Heinlein’s work of its philosophical context concerning the future and the forces that go into shaping it. Onscreen, the emphasis is all on squashing bugs.
Cool, huh? On a technical level, you bet. Visual-effects supervisor Phil Tippett, already Oscar’d for Return of the Jedi and Jurassic Park, deserves another mantel warmer for the miracles he and his team perform with the creepy crawlers. They buzz, swarm, heave and attack with such lifelike menace that you want to reach for the Raid. The actors are no match for these digitized demons. That’s the trouble. All the wonders in Starship Troopers are computer generated; the rest feels untouched by human hands. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Verhoeven assembles his creation from spare parts; he eliminates such pesky matters as character, emotion and substance, and reduces plot to a vid-game face-off between aliens and weapons, with his itchy hand revving the joystick. Maybe Verhoeven isn’t cynical. Maybe he is giving us what he thinks we want. If he’s right, be afraid; be very afraid.
Starship Troopers isn’t the only pandering clone job at the multiplex. Takee Devil’s Advocate, which stars Al Pacino as the devil in disguise (the joke is that he’s the head of a New York law firm) and Keanu Reeves as the young, vain and ambitious Florida attorney he sweeps under his spell. For nearly two and a half punishing hours, director Taylor Hackford patches together plot elements from The Firm and Rosemary’s Baby, and calls them his own. Pacino seems to view playing Satan as a license to overkill, a chance to out-act Jack Nicholson, who played the prince of darkness in The Witches of Eastwick, and Robert De Niro, who did the dishonors in Angel Heart.
The film soon sinks into trite moralizing, with the Evil One lambasting God as an “absentee landlord” and tempting Reeves’ character to defend wife killers and child molesters. Did anyone connected with this movie ever think that lawyers are obligated to provide the best defense? Did anyone connected with this movie ever think of what would happen to our justice system without that obligation? Did anyone connected with this film ever think, period? Pacino, so great in films from The Godfather to Donnie Brasco, reverts to the “Hoo-ha!” mode that won him an undeserved Oscar for Scent of a Woman. His deviled ham has won him rhapsodic reviews, a healthy box office and this rave from Larry King: “If you don’t love Devil’s Advocate, rush to your cardiologist, because there is no pulse.”
While I run a check on my vital signs, you might want to check some of the other replicant movies that are out there pretending to have a heartbeat. Gattaca, written and directed by New Zealander Andrew Niccol, certainly examines the future with more intelligence than Starship Troopers and handles its fantasy elements with more assurance than Devil’s Advocate. But to what end? Gattaca has been touted for taking on the hot-button topic of genetic engineering, which is more of a creeping reality now than it was when director Fritz Lang kicked around the notion of an elite future society in the 1926 silent classic Metropolis. Yet Lang’s ground-breaker leaves its followers in the dust.
Niccol takes a grave tone to announce the seriousness of his intentions, but his ideas rarely cut deep. This, despite a strong performance from Ethan Hawke as Vincent, a citizen of the new world who was born the old-fashioned way and is therefore prey to old-fashioned genetic defects such as weak vision, a short life expectancy and unstable emotions. His younger brother, conceived in a test tube, has all the advantages that Vincent lacks to fulfill his goal of becoming an astronaut. Vincent is an Invalid who wants to pass for perfect. To that end, he runs away and changes his identity by buying DNA materials from Jerome (Jude Law in a scene-stealing performance of savage wit and touching gravity), a Valid who has been invalidated after being paralyzed in an accident. Using Jerome’s blood and urine to pass the screening process, Vincent lands a job at the Gattaca aerospace corporation, where he might realize his dreams of flying and of dating co-worker Irene (Uma Thurman), a gene dream who senses something in him — could it be sexy, messy humanity? — that she’s been missing.
The usual complications ensue, adding up to sentiments that could be expressed more tersely in a pop song: “I don’t care what they say, I won’t stay in a world without love.” Niccol, entering features from commercials, gives the film a sleek, cold surface that’s nothing we haven’t seen in films from 1984 to Blade Runner. Don’t be surprised if a feeling of déjàvu washes over you while watching Gattaca: It’s been built on borrowed DNA.
The impression of “been there, done that” also suffuses Mad City, a hostage drama starring Dustin Hoffman as Max Brackett, a TV reporter, and John Travolta as Sam Baily, a fired museum security guard who holds a group of children at gunpoint to get his job back. Max, a former hotshot reduced to local reporting after mouthing off on-air to network anchor Kevin Hollander (Alan Alda), sees Sam as the story that could get him back in the big leagues. Sam, a good-natured slob pushed by a desperation he can’t handle, sees his life unraveling as Max moves in the TV cameras so that the nation can watch family man Sam fall apart.
Director Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing) hasn’t lost his knack for tension or his rage at seeing humanity exploited in the name of fame, greed or politics. But the script by first-timer Tom Matthews undercuts his best intentions, and those of Hoffman and Travolta, with melodramatic situations that trudge down old paths instead of carving out the new ones needed to penetrate the heart of media darkness.
Don’t get me wrong. Not all movies have to be revolutionary to be entertaining. Look at the neat twists that director Jonathan Mostow used to spiff up the recent Breakdown, with Kurt Russell and wife Kathleen Quinlan getting kidnapped by truckers led by an indelibly evil J.T. Walsh. Writer Jeb Stuart (The Fugitive,) making his directing debut, gets the same kind of mojo working in Switchback, starring Dennis Quaid as a rogue FBI agent on the trail of the serial killer who kidnapped his son. Along the way, he meets a retired railroader (Danny Glover) and a young hitchhiker (Jared Leto), who may or may not hold the key to the mystery. Switchback gets the job done, that’s all, but that’s preferable to the avantgarde clichés of Gummo, the directing debut of Kids screenwriter Harmony Korine, 23. Korine finds endless fascination in peeking at a bunch of Ohio teens, including a mute boy in bunny ears (Jacob Sewell) and skinny Solomon (Jacob Reynolds), who eats spaghetti while soaking in dirty bathwater. The boys drown cats, sniff glue and watch girls rip tape off of their breasts to make their nipples pinker and fuller. Though Gummo pretends to be new and daring, it’s a clumsy attempt to copy the shock effects of the surrealists.
If Gummo doesn’t depress you, Hollywood’s jones for cloning surely will. The machine that churns out movies has a serious malfunction. Having lost the capacity to install new ideas, the system keeps spewing out old ones. Come on, guys. Even Starship Troopers is right about one thing: It’s time to get the bugs out.