The first time I saw Starship Troopers in 1997, I was taken with its top-notch special effects, brazen violence, and what I briefly thought of as unintentionally funny dialogue. Subsequent viewings revealed Troopers as an amazing trick, almost impossible to duplicate: a violent, gung-ho special effects spectacular laced with subtly satirical cheesiness. Paul Verhoeven’s film is not strictly a goof on Hollywood blockbusters (it would be easier to classify if it were); it’s questionable as to how much of the cast and crew is in on the joke. But the film includes moments of outright hilarity (the faux news reports, extrapolated from Verhoeven’s own Robocop) alongside vicious, thrilling bug attacks.
Doubly disappointing, the computer-animated companion series, Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, is neither thrilling nor particularly funny. It follows the continuing exploits of the troopers, a military outfit at war with a hostile race of giant insects. Although Verhoeven is credited as an executive producer, the series is a mix of elements from the film and the original Robert Heinlein novel. Heinlein’s bulky trooper armor, for example, appears in the animated series, rather than the film’s visual emphasis on sexy bodies (and their gory ends).
Unfortunately, the animation softens the bug-versus-human violence. The newly futuristic bullets don’t look or sound very hazardous, and most often, the bugs seem vulnerable, killed off in surprisingly wan explosions. The series even goes as far as resurrecting Dizzy Flores, a major character killed in the film (and, according to the IMDB, in the first chapter of the novel).
Moreover, while current computer animation is well-suited for telling stories of interplanetary bug wars, it can’t yet portray a large cast of flesh-and-blood humans. The budgetary limits imposed on TV animation further reduce possibilities for complex designs. As a result, the Roughnecks characters are caught between blandness and a semi-cartoon stylization, looking like real people were left on the sunny dashboard of someone’s car for an hour.
This contrasts sharply with the approach of the film version, where actors like Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards are stiff and modelish, to be sure, but with the strangely humane and familiar emptiness of the best/worst B-movie acting. And so Starship Troopers is that rare film that ascends into self parody.
Roughnecks is too earnest to work as self-parody, and too kid-friendly to work as consistent entertainment. I never saw the show when it first aired. But the DVDs do the series no favors. The packaging of the episodes is confusing; the newest edition, “Trackers,” contains a single 20-minute featured episode, with four additional episodes included as “bonus material.” Tucking away 80 out of 100 minutes’ worth of narrative doesn’t exactly establish a sense of continuity, and the episodes aren’t individually compelling. In “Trackers,” ESP-touched Carl Jenkins (voiced by Rider Strong) searches for the escaping queen brain bug, as several troopers try to get closer to a closed-off bunkmate. Fair enough, but the episode puts us through a variety of limp twists before ending in the over-but-not-over manner of a serial: many enemy bugs are destroyed and the queen remains at large.
This take on Starship Troopers is vaguely faithful but never startling-even audiences who hated the film version, or thought it unintentionally funny, were somewhat jarred by the experience of watching it. It’s been said that there’s too much violence on TV. If only Roughnecks was interested in picking up its fair share.