‘Starship Troopers’ Lesser-Known Sequel Is Directed by a Hollywood Legend

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The Big Picture

  • Phil Tippett’s special effects shaped iconic films of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, creating memorable creatures and characters.
  • Tippett’s directorial debut,
    Starship Troopers 2,
    faced budget constraints, impacting production quality and critical reception.
  • Despite flaws, the sequel offers a unique viewing experience within the franchise.



You know Phil Tippett‘s creations even if you don’t know his name. He’s a two-time Oscar-winning special effects supervisor and creature designer, whose work, characterized by a sleekly modified form of stop-motion, is a key element of the most legendary movies of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Tippett is responsible for the holographic chess set in Star Wars, the AT-ATs and Tauntauns in Empire Strikes Back, ED-209 in Robocop, and the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. He was part of the core creative team behind Starship Troopers, the 1997 space opera about a brutal meatgrinder of a war that pits fascistic space soldiers from Earth against a race of space insects known as Arachnids.


Paul Verhoeven, who directed Robocop, and came on to direct StarshipTroopers after the ball was already rolling, credited Tippett’s involvement as the reason he chose to join the production. He also named Tippett one of the movie’s three spiritual « co-directors. » This was not just a cheap complement. Tippett designed Starship Trooper‘s Arachnids and, working with the production’s second unit in the deserts of Wyoming, created many of the shots in which the bugs appear on their own. And when, in 2002, Tippett tried his hand at directing, he chose, as his directorial debut, to continue the story of the war between man and Arachnid in the direct-to-cable sequel Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation.


Starship Troopers 2 had a drastically reduced budget compared to the original — supposedly $7 million compared to $100 million. The budget may have been so curtailed because Starship Troopers was not a box office success. It was not a critical success either, at first. However, only a few years later, critics and audiences began to come around on Starship Troopers, and it’s now widely considered a kind of cult classic masterpiece, whose satirical elements were whiffed on due to late ’90s cultural blindspots. Meanwhile, in 2022, Tippett released Mad God, only his second film as director, a strange stop-motion safari of an alien hellscape that, though decades in the making, immediately found a loving audience. And yet, neither the increased esteem for Starship Troopers, nor Tippett’s breakthrough as a director, have led to a reappraisal of Starship Troopers 2 —which at the time of its release received even worse reviews than Paul Verhoeven’s original. But is there a good reason for those critical pans? Or is now the time for Starship Troopers 2 to be reconsidered, as the original once was?

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation

In the sequel to Paul Verhoeven’s loved/reviled sci-fi film, a group of troopers taking refuge in an abandoned outpost after fighting alien bugs, failing to realize that more danger lays in wait.

Release Date
April 20, 2004

Cast
Billy Brown , Richard Burgi , Kelly Carlson , Cy Carter , Sandrine Holt , Ed Lauter

Runtime
88

Writers
Edward Neumeier

Tagline
They’re Coming Back to Wipe Us Out!



How Does ‘Starship Troopers 2’ Continue the Saga?

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation takes place in the same reality as Starship Troopers, in which humanity, ruled by a planet-wide military government called the Terran Federation, does battle with many species of space-traveling insects from far-off planets. However, it does not feature a single recurring cast member or character from the original. The only sign that it takes place after the events of the first movie is that humanity already knows that the Arachnids are more intelligent than originally believed, a significant development which only occurs at the midpoint of Starship Troopers.

With a reduced budget, the sequel does not attempt to emulate any of the original’s large-scale battle sequences. Instead, it tells a scaled-down story of a small group of human soldiers — primarily featuring the cowardly company man Lieutenant Dill (Lawrence Monoson) and the possibly psychic Private Sahara (Colleen Porch) — who take refuge in an abandoned Terran outpost after their battalion is overrun with Arachnids. There, they find a sole survivor: Captain V.J. Dax (Richard Burgi), a human soldier who had been imprisoned for murdering his superior officer. The character of Dax appears to have been heavily influenced by the character of Riddick, who Vin Diesel had recently played for the first time in The Chronicles of Riddick: Into Pitch Black. Like Riddick, Dax is introduced as a criminal prisoner, who must be released in order to help fight a more dangerous enemy. Dax sees through the hypocrisy of the Federation, which callously sends soldiers off to die by the thousands. But, despite his violent opposition to society, he’s both an honorable person and a kick-ass soldier.


However, what none of them know is that their bug enemies have evolved a new weapon to use against humanity. The newest form of insect can burrow into your brain and control your mind. Arachnid-controlled humans can spread their infection to each other by vomiting bugs into each other’s mouths. The story plays out much like John Carpenter’s classic The Thing. Gradually, more and more humans are infected, and by the time the human characters even figure out what’s happening, they are already outnumbered. Dax, Dill, and Sahara are left as the only people that can stop the bugs from introducing an infected general (Ed Lauter) into Terran society, where he can infect the rest of its military leadership.

Is ‘Starship Troopers 2’ Any Good?

Starship Troopers 2 Hero of the Federation – Richard Burgi as Dax delivers a pep talk
Image via TriStar Pictures


Reviewers criticized Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation for its cheap appearance and familiar storyline. But that doesn’t feel like the greatest insult the film has received. In the loving 2019 documentary tribute Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters —made with Tippett’s cooperation — Starship Troopers 2, despite being Tippett’s directorial debut, receives only a few seconds of screen acknowledgment in a title card, and is never spoken of by any of its interview subjects. This suggests it’s a film even its makers would prefer to forget.

As is often the case with sequels, particularly direct-to-video sequels, there’s plenty to criticize here. Most of it feels like it can be blamed on the inadequate budget. The movie feels imprisoned on a single set, and over-relies on disjointed close-ups that feel like they’re being used to hide the lack of production design. The movie has a few snippets of Arachnid action, and Tippett, as always, gets good performances out of his creatures. But, whereas Starship Troopers constantly introduced new insect variants, the sequel only reuses the basic « Warrior Bugs » that were killed by the dozen in the original. Mind-controlling insects appear to be a clever way of drastically reducing the scope while expanding the storyline (without cheating, as the Arachnids had similar psychic powers in the original as well). But, there’s just no denying the fact that « humans acting freaky because they have bugs in their brains » are simply not an acceptable substitute for the original’s brilliant creature designs.


However, if you go into Starship Troopers 2 expecting basic cable schlock, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the film’s moments of verve. The cast includes few recognizable actors other than Burgi and Sandrine Holt, familiar from TV, and Ed Lauter, a character actor in the grizzled mold of the original’s Michael Ironside and Clancy Brown. But the cast is game, with an especially memorable performance by J.P. Manoux as a mild-mannered mechanic. There are flashes of the bizarre textures that would animate Mad God, particularly when the camera perspective pulls back to landscape view and the outpost is played by a miniature, with bizarrely mechanized defensive weapons. Overall, the movie is an awkward fit in the Starship Troopers franchise, which later included animated sequels that are more appreciated. But it’s worth watching as its own strange thing a flawed debut from a film legend.


Related

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Would you like to know more?

The Sequel Illustrates What Makes the Original ‘Starship Troopers’ So Special

Phil Tippett’s effects work for Starship Troopers was defeated at the Oscars by Titanic. Titanic also blew Starship Troopers’ box office out of the water. However, Starship Troopers leads in one category: it has been the subject of far more academic articles. The puzzle of its conflicting tones is one of cinema’s most indecipherable riddles. There’s something unnerving about the way it walks the knife’s edge between a thrilling war movie with heroes and villains, and an amoral dystopian nightmare.


It’s simplest to describe Starship Troopers as « satire » and to define the movie by its satiric intentions: to make fun of fascism and militarism in our enemies and here at home. And that’s not incorrect. But I think there’s a more precise description in film scholar Todd Berliner’s book on film genres, Hollywood Aesthetic: Pleasure in American Cinema. Berliner does not consider Starship Troopers (to which he dedicates an entire chapter) to be a war satire in the mold of Dr. Strangelove or In the Loop, films which, brilliant as they are, are consistently clear in their point of view, and thus easier to digest.

Starship Troopers contains unmistakable signals that it’s a satire of the Terran society which the film’s main characters bravely, and unquestioningly, fight for. (Most obvious of these are the grotesque commercials for the Terran military that appear intermittently, and which were largely filmed on location in Los Angeles after the production was completed.) But Berliner argues that the film is special because it grafts the genre hallmarks of a war satire onto a traditional, thrilling, war movie, one which never fully « breaks character » to reveal the underlying nightmare. « Starship Troopers‘ genre properties so complicate the film’s ideology that spectators cannot comfortably identify the film’s form and meaning, » he writes.


This hybrid form is natural, because the source material is a novel by 1950s sci-fi legend Robert Heinlein, that is widely considered to be sincerely advocating for replacing democracy with a military dictatorship. As the behind-the-scenes mini-doc « Death From Above » reveals, Starship Troopers‘ authors, most notably screenwriter Ed Neumeier and producer Jon Davison, recognized that the book’s politics were awful, but still wanted to film it, in part because they remembered loving the book as kids, and they wanted to see its Arachnids brought to life by Phil Tippett. Verhoeven was able to understand these conflicted intentions, and to sharpen this conflict to an unbearable point in the film’s final form. As Verhoeven explains in « Death From Above, » he wanted to « seduce the audience into joining, but then ask, ‘What are you really joining up for?' »


Likewise, Starship Troopers 2 also contains many of the genre hallmarks of a war satire. It opens and closes with the same creepy Terran war propaganda. Its soldiers are caricatures of the soldiers in a 1950s World War II movie, as they were in the original. The sequel is also written by Neumeier and produced by Davison, and they understand what made the original sing. There are many reasons the sequel doesn’t work nearly as well as a satire. The film’s heroes are fighting for their own survival, rather than sacrificing themselves for the Terran Federation. The character of Dax, though a fun badass, is aware that he’s living in a militaristic dystopia, which no one in the original was. The conflict between what the audience is rooting for and what it knows is right is not as sharp. But the biggest reason the movie fails may be simply that it’s not a good war movie. It isn’t enjoyable enough to make you question your reasons for enjoying it.

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation is available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video on the U.S.


Rent on PrimeVideo

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