Starship Troopers just turned 20 years old on November 7, 2017. It originally tanked worldwide, wasn’t kindly received by critics and has now lived a long and prosperous life in various iterations of home video.
Sony had handled the domestic distribution on director Paul Verhoeven’s early ’90s features, both of which were box office smashes — Total Recall (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992). In 1993 Sony TriStar began negotiations with Verhoeven on Starship Troopers, but the director had numerous projects in various forms of development and the next picture that went before the cameras was the infamous Showgirls (MGM). Before Showgirls was released and cemented its place in the pantheon of bad cinema, in 1995 Sony greenlit Starship Troopers. Worried about their risk on the expensive $105 million project, Sony brokered a deal with Disney’s Buena Vista International division to split all costs and share all revenue. Sony TriStar would handle domestic distribution and Disney would have overseas responsibilities.
The head of TriStar Mike Medavoy, who was working to get Verhoeven to commit to Starship Troopers in 1993, was fired in 1994 and what followed at TriStar was many short lived regime changes and executive shuffling. That Starship Troopers exists at all, let alone in its full gory, demented glory, is that TriStar went through these short lived regime changes and the execs were largely unaware of the film — until Verhoeven delivered his extremely expensive and absurd gorefest to the new regime.
Despite the B movie premise of intergalactic bugs who are at war with humanity, it’s the satirical take of ‘lets all go to war and die’ as Verhoeven puts it, that keeps this from ever becoming schlock — which it most certainly would be in lesser hands. It also feels like a casting director’s idea of a joke to put the up and coming talents of Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Jake Busey and Dina Meyer, who was hilariously awful in her big screen debut 2 years earlier in Johnny Mnemonic, into a Verhoeven film — who was coming off Showgirls. These 30 year old high school students have the kind of vacant look on their faces and stilted dialogue readings, that being mixed into a fascist satire of sorts never derails the film from their awful acting.
Starship Troopers goes on for far too long, especially the first act, which back in 1997 was ridiculed as Melrose Place in Space, but once the second act kicks into gear, it’s a relentless onslaught of mayhem and quirky Verhoeven trademarks. There’s dual gender shower scenes, bloodletting by the gallon, a brainbug that was designed to be an ungodly mix of an anus and vagina and fascistic art and set design. A battle sequence inspired from Zulu is a highlight. The visual effects still hold up remarkably well and Starship Troopers is still one hell of a time.
For its release, Starship Troopers opened against the wide expansion of Bean and the dud Mad City. Reviews were mixed, leaning toward negative and what was envisioned as a massive tentpole, did open respectably with $22,058,773. Word of mouth was poor and auds gave the movie a C+ cinemascore and it sank 54.5% the following weekend to $10,034,337. Starship Troopers continued to post large declines and left theaters with a very disappointing $54,814,377. Sony would see returned about $30.1 million after theaters take their percentage of the gross, which would likely cover most of the marketing expenses but none of their exposure to the budget.
Disney did not have much better luck in the overseas market, where it stalled at $66.4 million.