'Starship Troopers' sequel lacks original's satirical bite

There's plenty of action in animated follow-up "Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars," but the over-the-top style and satire that made the original a cult favorite are missing.

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Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
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Sony Pictures

"Johnny Rico!"

If you're a fan of the sci-fi cult classic "Starship Troopers," you're familiar with the name, that of the film's lead character, played by Casper Van Dien.

Van Dien heard someone shout it just moments before walking into the lobby of the Embassy Suites San Diego Bay. Of course, this was the week of San Diego's Comic-Con International, and the waterfront neighborhood was teeming with comic book geeks and sci-fi fanatics -- exactly the kind of people who would appreciate "Starship Troopers."

It turns out, he hears his character's name a lot more than you'd think.

"Inevitably, every single day of my life somebody comes up to me and goes 'Johnny Rico!' or 'Rico!' or 'You know what to do' or 'Kill 'em all!'" Van Dien said in an interview last month at the height of the Comic-Con craze.


An older Johnny Rico, voiced by original actor Casper Van Dien, takes center stage in "Traitor of Mars."

Sony Pictures

Critics didn't know what to make of "Starship Troopers" when it came out nearly 20 years ago (the anniversary of its release in theaters is on Nov. 7). The film, which has a score of 51 on Metacritic, was a strange brew of over-the-top graphic violence, stiff acting, cheesy dialogue and many of the usual space opera and military tropes. Taken at face value, it's kind of a terrible movie.

But dig deeper, and you start to see layers of biting satire and commentary against fascism, the military industrial complex and even the way we consume media. Yes, the dialogue can be cartoonish, but it is highly quotable (just ask Van Dien). 

It's also a favorite, Van Dien said, of directors like Robert Rodriguez, whom he worked with on the upcoming film "Alita: Battle Angel," and Quentin Tarantino.

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Van Dien and original writer Ed Neumeier are teaming up again to see if they can recreate some of that magic with "Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars," a computer-generated follow-up that's out in theaters Monday and available for digital download Tuesday. The Blu-ray comes out on Sept. 19. If you're in Los Angeles, the two men will be making an appearance at Monday's 7:30 p.m. PT showing at the L.A. Live entertainment complex.

Given the colorful political climate, could there be a better time for a new "Starship Troopers" film? Neumeier teased a similar voice to the original.

""It's not to be taken too seriously, and there is a little bit of satire about the government, the way we do things here on Earth," he said.

'Starship Troopers' franchise?


The original film is nearly 20 years old. 

TriStar Pictures

Amazingly, this is the fifth "Starship Troopers" film in the franchise, although all but the original and this latest one saw no time in a movie theater. Van Dien and Neumeier were part of the third film, "Starship Troopers 3: Marauder," a film whose ambitions extended beyond its budget's capabilities.

"Traitor of Mars" is the second animated film after the previous outing, "Starship Troopers: Invasion."

Fortunately, you don't need to see any of the other films to understand "Traitor of Mars," which puts an older, grizzled Johnny Rico in charge of a squadron of new recruits from Mars. 

You also get appearances from other characters from the original, like ship captain Carmen Ibanez and psychic intelligence officer Carl Jenkins. Dina Meyers mysteriously returns as the voice of Isabelle "Dizzy" Flores, a love interest of Rico's who died in the original. (If you've read this far, I assume you're interested enough in "Starship Troopers" to recognize those names.)

As the title suggests, most of the action is set on Mars, with some scenes on Earth. No surprise, an overwhelming number of bugs show up. All hell breaks loose, and Rico has to save the day.

But how is it?

"Traitor of Mars" is a more straightforward follow-up to the original film, with the move to CGI allowing director Shinji Aramaki to create some fantastic action set pieces. Aramaki, who has worked on well-known anime projects like "Appleseed Alpha," was also behind the slickly designed "armored suits" that Rico and his fellow troopers wear, a nod to the original novel by Robert Heinlein.


After a digital release tomorrow, the film goes out on DVD and Blu-Ray on Sept. 19. 

Sony Pictures

And while there are the same cutaways to Federal Network news segments and some propaganda casually thrown out, they felt like lightweight versions from the original. There's a bit of commentary on the state of leadership -- still a relevant topic nowadays -- but it lacks the bite of the original.

Paul Verhoeven, the director of the original, as well as other gleefully violent films as "Robocop" and "Total Recall," did a memorable job of fleshing out the world of "Starship Troopers," creating an epic feel to the film.

"Traitor of Mars" largely focuses on Rico, and the result is a scaled-down feel.

Then there are the usual issues with CG films, with faces that you don't quite connect with emotionally. And much of the time, those faces are covered up in power suits. While the action is well directed, those scenes feel like a well-produced video game. 

The voice acting is a bit stiff, but that's in keeping with the original.

The result is a serviceable action film that plays things a bit safer. The CGI helps create a more polished film, but the dorky uniforms and practical creature effects helped make original great. Yes, there are attempts at satire and commentary, but it's less nuanced too.

I never thought I'd use "nuance" to describe "Starship Troopers." 

Despite the criticism, "Traitor of Mars" opens the door to a universe I've sorely missed and wouldn't mind seeing more of in the future. 

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