Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008)

If Starship Troopers 2 aimed low but managed to hit some of its targets, part 3 aims higher but misses far more. Some will find ST3 better than part two simply because it is more in keeping with the scope of the first film, but for my money, it is the least enjoyable of the three.

The ‘War on Bugs’ rumbles on, and Colonel John Rico (Casper Van Dien, reprising his role from the first film), though still loyal to the Federation, has become a bit more cynical about the conflict since we last saw him. After a bar brawl, he is convicted of treason and sentenced to hang. However, the Federation actually has other plans for him: to head up a top-secret team that will take on the most terrifying bug yet.

After the ultra-cheap first sequel, it appeared that the Troopers franchise was dead in the water. But clearly a reasonable profit was made, so this second sequel was announced, along with a slightly improved budget. Even better, this budget stretched far enough to rope in the star of the original movie, Casper Van Dien (although I’m not sure he was that hard to get: given the state of his post-Troopers career, he would probably have made this film for $20 and a Snickers bar).

Certainly the return of Van Dien as Johnny Rico is worth some sort of a cheer (of course, only in a Troopers sequel could the appearance of CVD raise any sort of a cheer). Whatever you might think of his thespian skills, he provides some welcome continuity from ST1. Also returning is Ed Neumeier, writer of parts one and two, as writer for part three, as well as making his directorial debut here. Neumeier is a decent genre writer, so any effort from him is usually worth a look.

Unfortunately, without the sure hand of a director like Paul Verhoeven at the helm, it seems Neumeier let this one get away from him. The script is a fairly messy affair that aims to mix the crowd-pleasing action of the first film with a satire on government involvement with religion. Sounds good on paper, but it fails on both counts.

The action, just as in the first sequel, is limited by the low budget of the production. Although there are several locations used in this film, and a variety of battles, they mostly look like bargain basement stuff. In trying to match the first film without the same resources, the film ends up looking like a (reasonably budgeted) TV show. The final battle, involving Rico’s super squad tooled up with the Marauder suits from the original Robert Heinlein novel, should have been a winner. Instead it is a fleeting damp squib, lasting barely a few seconds and cursed with some of the cheapest-looking CGI I’ve seen in quite some time.

The satire, on the other hand, is just bewildering. The idea of the Sky Marshal (effectively President of the Federation) also topping the charts as a pin-up pop star is an amusing idea, but this sets the film up as a spoof of American Idol, The X Factor and the like. A dictator being worshipped as a hero by his people is nothing new of course, but here it is basically played for cheap laughs, and thus feels somewhat out of place.

More confusing are the religious themes of the film. It’s never terribly clear exactly what Neumeier is trying to say. Sometimes it seems he’s attacking people for believing in any religion at all (someone is admonished for believing in “the wrong God!”); then at the end, the (always wonderful) FedNet announcer states “Federation experts agree that: A: God exists, B: He’s on our side, C: He wants us to win” – clearly a swipe at the way that governments use religion for their own dastardly ends. Yet lead character, and former Rico squeeze, Lola Beck (Jolene Blalock) becomes a believer in a weird sort of happy ending. Some reviewers have even suggested Neumeier is pushing a pro-Christian agenda. So what is the audience supposed to make of it all?

The rest of the film doesn’t fare much better. It’s good to see a story that involves other planets, and the surprising return of a key villain from the first film creates some intrigue. The story’s focus isn’t always clear – we start off expectedly following Rico, but he then disappears for several prolonged stretches while the story’s main plot is developed.

The new characters aren’t up to much either. Jolene Blalock plays pretty much the same character she played in Star Trek: Enterprise. Stephen Hogan’s Sky Marshal Anoke is amusing for a while, and Amanda Donohoe adds a bit of value as a high-ranking Federation official. It would have been nice to see one or two other characters from the original beyond Rico – what are Jake Busey or Neil Patrick Harris doing these days anyway? Van Dien himself is fine, clearly at home playing the simple American good guy (though he does look surprisingly short in or two shots).

So a messy second sequel overall. It has its moments, but the confusing tone, uneven pace and lacklustre action seriously impede one’s enjoyment. Unless Sony decide to invest some serious cash in a proper sequel, it regrettably might be time to lay this franchise to rest.

[xrr rating=2/5]

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004)

Having reviewed the first Starship Troopers film recently, I feel duty-bound, as a hopeless completist, to review its direct-to-dvd sequels, Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation and Starship Troopers 3: Marauder. First up, ST2.

Immediately after viewing ST for the first time, a sequel went straight to the top of my most wanted movies. All sorts of possibilities presented themselves: new worlds, bigger battles, even more thrills and spills. Sadly, the distinctly average box-office returns from the first film destroyed any hope of this. Though fanboy interest like mine sustained the occasional rumour, a sequel looked ever more unlikely.

However, these hopes had reckoned without the booming straight-to-dvd market a few years later. Sony decided that they wanted a piece of this action, and began to scour for potential franchises that might make suitable material for a cheapo sequel. Fortunately for them, the team behind the first movie (producer Jon Davison, writer Ed Neumeier and SFX king Phil Tippett) presented them with an offer: a sequel to Starship Troopers, made for just 5% of the original film’s $100m budget. How could they say no?

Originally Clancy Brown was set to reprise his role as Sgt. Zim from the first film as the lead in the sequel, but schedule clashes forced him to pull out. So his character was rewritten as Dax, played by Richard Burgi, and one suspects this was ultimately for the best, given the film’s ending.

ST2 posits that the war has ground to a stalemate since the first film, with neither side gaining the upper hand. On one planet, a small bunch of surviving troopers hole up in an abandoned command post, waiting for rescue. In this small enclosed space (a useful plot device for the low budget), a new type of bug with a very cunning plan makes its presence known…

Given its extreme budgetary limitations, Hero of the Federation could have been a hell of a lot worse. Certainly, with no characters being carried over from the first film, and without the directorial muscle of Verhoeven (or, it has to be said, the financial muscle that came with him), ST2 fails to convincingly expand on the themes of the original film. Any fan looking for the all-out action of ST1 will be sorely disappointed. Bits of SFX footage from the original crop up here as FedNet newsreel footage; FedNet itself is sadly only retained as a bookend device. And the new battles are indeed rather cheap looking, particularly so in the opening sequence.

The real weakness however lies in Phil Tippett’s direction. Admittedly his hands were tied in terms of budget, but a stronger director would probably have been able to hide it better. Certainly they would have tightened the pace and developed the atmosphere of tension a lot more. The look of the film is also rather flat – again, this is due in part to the budget and technology used, so perhaps Tippett couldn’t do much about that. Nevertheless, the film suffers for it.

That is not to say that the film is a total loss though. As a companion piece that pushes forward the story of the bug war, it succeeds to a degree (if one can look past the production values). The epic tone of Verhoeven’s original is gone, true; but in its place is one of claustrophobic sci-fi/horror, similar to John Carpenter’s The Thing. There’s a nice smattering of satire in Neumeier’s script which goes some way to bridging the gap between the two; the Federation remains the villain here, as it was in the original, and Dax’s cynicism about his government is the logical conclusion to a war that has repeatedly failed to be won (as promised in ST1).

The cast aren’t too bad – Burgi is good value, while the rest play their parts well enough. The film’s ending is good too, with the Federation presenting Dax as a Stakhanov-type figure to boost their government’s popularity and their troops’ morale – a tone certainly in keeping with that of its predecessor.

Unable to compete with the original film, ST2 deliberately lowered its ambitions and as a result feels like a much smaller movie than one might have wished for. But it does succeed on its own limited terms if, like me, you are a fairly forgiving viewer.

[xrr rating=3/5]

Confessions of a DTV sequel addict

Hello. My name is … (name removed to protect the individual) and I am a recovering direct-to-video sequel addict. I have been watching mediocre, boring, or just plain awful DTV spin-offs for nearly ten years.

I didn’t used to be like this. Once upon a time I would go to the cinema to see a sci-fi, fantasy or horror film without thinking about the sequel possibilities it might afford. I would enjoy the film (or not, as the case may be) and move on to the next movie. If a sequel popped up in the cinema some time later, then I would try and catch it if I enjoyed the original, or if the reviews were fairly favourable.

Now though, give me a half-decent genre film and, so help me, I look forward to seeing how a DTV sequel might be squeezed out of it.

It all started in the mid-90s. When I first started surfing the Internets, I came across Coming Attractions, one of the first popular movie gossip websites to emerge (now sadly defunct). One film title they had listed as being in development was Tremors 3. Hang on, I thought – Tremors 3…? As in, a sequel to that rather cool Kevin Bacon monster movie from a few years back? Does that mean there was a Tremors 2?!

From that moment on, I was hooked. I wanted to know what happened after every original film had finished. Not just for the Tremors movies, but all the rest: From Dusk Till Dawn, Mimic, Species, Candyman, Starship Troopers… I wanted to watch them all. It was a brave new world of movies: the theatrical originals and their bastard straight-to-video offspring. Which characters lived on? Which died? How did the threat or horror from the first film resurface and continue?

The disappointments of each inferior sequel somehow failed to quench my curiosity. The inept direction, the cheesy dialogue, the shoddy FX work, the prerequisite topless girl scene(s), the low-rent cast: each an essential ingredient for the lazy quick-buck sequel. I searched for some sort of meaningful continuation of the original film’s story and themes; sometimes with modest success, but often doomed to a wild goose chase. Yet I lived in perpetual optimism that perhaps the next sequel would have its compensations…

My addiction grew steadily worse, taking in the wild pointlessness of sequels to films that weren’t even that good in the first place (Hollow Man 2, anyone? Thought not). I read up about new sequels in the pipeline – which cast members could be coaxed back? What tenuous connection would the new film have to its parent (oh look, the ghost of the man who haunted the original house is back as the ghost in the new one…)?

Lately though, I have found my interest has mercifully begun to wane. Perhaps the addiction has now bottomed out and I can start the road back to some form of normality? I live in hope. But still, if I listen hard enough, I can hear the cries of new sequels emerging from the dark minds of Hollywood executives and accountants. New spin-offs to films that didn’t need any form of continuation, films that have committed no crime to cinema but must suffer the indignity of having their modest reputations stripped and sullied in order to keep studio pockets lined with as much cash as possible.

Perhaps it’s too late for me. But if you should see someone wandering up and down the aisles of a dvd store looking at DTV drivel, don’t just snort with derision; spare a thought for them. Maybe they too have become enslaved by the mercenary machinations of Hollywood’s evil geniuses. Maybe have a quiet word and suggest something with a bit more life and intelligence. No Country for Old Men, or something like that.

Now, what’s happening with Starship Troopers 3…?