Studio: Sony Pictures
Director: Shinji Aramaki, Masaru Matsumoto
Writer: Ed Neumeier
Producer: Joseph Chou
Stars: Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, DeRay Davis, Justin Doran, Luci Christian, Emily Neves, Scott Gibbs, Juliet Simmons, Chris Gibson, Greg Ayres, Leraldo Anzaldua
When a Federation conspiracy threatens to destroy Mars, Johnny Rico leads a team of rookies on a mission to save the planet.
To get a frame of reference for this review of animated sequel “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars,” we should get a small handle on the franchise’s filmic timeline, as well as my experience with its fiction. This will explain where I’m coming from so you can calibrate expectations for how your own familiarity with the series fits with this film.
I’ve only seen the original “Starship Troopers” twice. The first time was opening weekend at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome in 1997. The second was not long after, when the movie made it to DVD and I watched it with audio commentary enabled. I remember enjoying the film on both occasions. How could I not? It was written and directed by the same duo responsible for “Robocop,” a top contender for my favorite film of all time. However, aside from the basic gist of the premise and its overall satirical spirit, my memory couldn’t tell you anything more specific about the movie other than who starred in it.
“Starship Troopers” dropped its first sequel, “Hero of the Federation,” straight to home video in 2004. Other than having rented it via Netflix, my one recollection of the flick is that familiar face Richard Burgi starred as its new lead.
Another DTV sequel followed in 2008. This one had Casper Van Dien reprising his role as Johnny Rico. The only thing I know about “Starship Troopers 3: Marauder” is that it exists.
After a single season of the “Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles” series in 1999, the property took another animated turn in 2012. This time, “Starship Troopers: Invasion” opted to unburden itself from the canon of the live-action sequels, bringing back several of the first film’s characters as CGI for a rebooted continuity instead.
This essentially makes “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars” the third in a trilogy with the original film at the start and “Invasion” in the middle. Having only a foggy recollection of “Starship Troopers” and no knowledge at all of “Invasion,” it’s a bit of a trick to spin up to speed on the fictional people still in rotation.
What would really be useful is if the animated movies somehow said, “this is who Neil Patrick Harris played” (people remember him, not his character’s name) or “this used to be Denise Richards,” particularly since these CGI character models look nothing like their live-action predecessors. NPH’s psychic military strategist Carl Jenkins reappears here, though he looks more like a middle-aged Stephen McHattie, or maybe Lance Henriksen. Denise Richard’s pilot Carmen Ibanez also returns in unrecognizable form, likewise making me thankful a little research was done first. I otherwise wouldn’t have any immediate idea that these are characters we’ve seen before.
The truth of it is, you don’t need to know anything about the series to engage with “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars” independently. It plays straight as a space-set war story of humans versus aliens (and other humans). Everyone is archetypical to the point where narrative roles can be identified without knowing individual histories, e.g. media-hungry hotshot, sneaky rogue operative, etc. But if you only have a casual recollection of “Starship Troopers,” knowing how Carl and Carmen connect may add another layer to the experience.
Casper Van Dien is back as Johnny Rico, with an eye patch, facial scars, and streak of white hair to prove how battle hardened he is. Since an incident I assume came to pass in “Starship Troopers: Invasion,” Rico has basically been banished to a Federation station above Mars, tasked with overseeing training for a motley band of misfit military recruits.
Down below on the planet’s surface, separatists are piping up about proposed Martian independence. They’re tired of the ongoing war with the “Bugs” and want out, with 73% of Martian citizens saying they “would rather drink beer” than fight.
This makes it a good time to mention that original “Starship Troopers” writer Ed Neumeier, who also wrote the two live-action sequels, does screenplay duty again on “Traitor of Mars.” Thus, this follow-up has the same slight sense of self-aware humor, which also includes a nice comedic callback regarding an ill-fated rookie. “Traitor of Mars” has enough of this touch to fall in step with the established Verhoeven/Neumeier sensibility of gloriously gratuitous violence accented by irreverent levity. The latter is evidenced often in several live-action news interruptions that are more snarky than serious.
Grumblings of Mars making an exit aren’t sitting well within the Federation. So someone assists the alien Arachnids in overrunning the planet, which in turn offers an excuse to bomb Mars into oblivion, killing two inconvenient birds with one nuclear detonation.
You’ve likely guessed by now that the only thing standing in the conspiracy’s way is Johnny Rico and his inexperienced squadron of clumsy cowards. And if you didn’t guess that, you haven’t been paying attention to how these sorts of setups work.
“Traitor of Mars” tells a routine tale of redemption on the road to self-sacrificial heroism. But that’s a longstanding staple of war movies. It’s a clichéd copout to defend a film for having no intentions of reinventing any genre conventions it exploits. Still, as straightforward sci-fi, “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars” hits the right notes for an action-packed animated adventure, even if it is predictable.
Animation wise, some of the lip-synching is off, with rubbery mouths twisting in odd contortions. A couple of the mo-caps also don’t go the extra method-acting mile. One shot has Johnny Rico looking like a jogger waiting for a crosswalk light to change when he should be hauling ass down a hallway to escape an explosion. Nitpicks aside, the motion-captured animation is both highly detailed (countless dirt particles can be seen during land detonations) and incredibly lifelike.
Probably the biggest complaint that may be leveled against the look is that “Traitor of Mars” can feel like watching a “Gears of War” cutscene. There is a definite video game vibe to the movie on multiple fronts that might have many wishing they were playing it instead of watching it.
Overall, I can’t speak for the series’ dedicated faithful. Yet for a casual “Starship Troopers” fan, this CGI incarnation satisfies with intense action and excellent animation, sketchy likenesses notwithstanding.
Firefights deliver creature carnage and energetic explosions in the sky and on the ground. Side stories ratchet up a fair amount of invested intrigue. Pacing problems, like a desert wandering sequence that is nearly as dull as the Davy Jones’ Locker chunk of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” trip up the tempo. But catching up with familiar characters, even if they require reminders of who they are, helps keeps things more fun than not.
Review Score: 75