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Bug out!

Paul Verhoeven has become quite a master at making movies that make your skin crawl. That would be a compliment, except that Verhoeven doesn't specialize in terror flicks.

Certainly there are elements of horror _ the grisly splatter-shocks, at least _ in Verhoeven's latest fit of cinematic excess, a sci-fiasco called Starship Troopers. But it's difficult to tell whether that queasy feeling gripping your stomach is a result of the gore or the feeble human drama that takes place in between.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a group of young space cadets who graduate and carry their romantic crushes and petty squabbles to the ends of the universe. Meanwhile, an invasion of massive insects must be stopped on their home planet of Klendathu before Earth becomes their next target. Can these intrepid soldiers stop whining long enough to put down the threat? Or will they become another mass of half-chewed flesh that Verhoeven seems so intent on foisting upon us?

Former St. Petersburg resident Casper Van Dien lends his Ken-doll looks to the role of Johnny Rico, a rich kid who forsakes the easy life to become a soldier in the Mobile Infantry force. He could be one of those hotshot spaceship pilots like his girlfriend, Carmen (Denise Richards), but that would deprive us of watching him get jealous about her handsome co-pilot.

None of this material is worth a fraction of the money and time that Verhoeven invests. All we can do is wait for the next bug attack. And since the creatures have more personality than do the people, at least it's easy to know who, or in this case what, to cheer for.

The only factor that lifts Starship Troopers above a grade of F is its creature effects, created by Phil Tippett (Jurassic Park). Swarms of rabid dragonflies and spider hybrids are impressive achievements. Yet, even with these creatures at his disposal, Verhoeven never creates a single indelible image that lingers in your mind. There is nothing akin to a White House explosion or those enormous motherships in Independence Day.

It's difficult to understand exactly who is supposed to be entertained by this movie. The characters are mostly bland teen-idol types spouting cliches devoid of irony or humor. This is science fiction filtered through Aaron Spelling, with an immaturity that makes the comic-book tone of Independence Day look like a Homerian epic. For that reason, science fiction enthusiasts will be disappointed by the lack of wit and foresight.

Starship Troopers might have been considered a satisfactory fantasy for younger viewers were it not for Verhoeven packing his film with so many graphic episodes of alien bugs desecrating human flesh or veering into sexual themes inappropriate for children. Starship Troopers is silly and dull when it isn't frantic and gross. Only the gorehounds in the audience have any chance to walk away satisfied.

The violence of Starship Troopers is so staggering that the MPAA was leaning toward an NC-17 or even X rating before Verhoeven trimmed some of the viscera. Two scenes _ an exploding cow that sprays gore, and the insertion of a testing device into an alien that resembles female genitalia _ are covered with "Censored" cards. However, since other scenes showing on TV screens at the same time included dozens of mutilated bodies, we can guess that these were two segments that made the ratings board nervous; Verhoeven played it for a laugh.

Watch the sickening images and sexual overtones that intrude on our senses in Starship Troopers and then force yourself to once again sit through his vilified Showgirls and its misogynist attitudes. You can't avoid wondering if Verhoeven will ever work again in Hollywood, or if he'll get that professional help he so obviously needs.

In its own way, Starship Troopers is a more offensive exercise in filmmaking that Showgirls, which at least bore the imprint of overrated screenwriter Joe Eszterhas to warn audiences about what to expect. This film is based on one of the few science fiction novels that deserves the cult adoration that has surrounded it for decades. Robert A. Heinlein's novel dealt with much more than giant munching bugs; it also was a fable of one man's maturation against societal odds.

Verhoeven has no interest in that. He's more concerned with setting up the next squishy impaling or crunched-bones shot, or figuring out how he can squeeze some gratuitous nudity into the mix. Or else he's ripping off the media satire jokes of his previous film Robocop, with a series of satellite news feeds that show us how far society has fallen in the future. Each of the news breaks has the appearance of an interactive computer, punctuated by the tease: "Don't you want to know more?"

Frankly, no.


Starship Troopers

+ Director: Paul Verhoeven

+ Cast: Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris, Denise Richards, Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown

+ Screenplay: Ed Neumeier, based on the novel by Robert A. Heinlein

+ Rating: R; violence, profanity, nudity, sexual situations

+ Running time: 120 min.

+ Studio: TriStar Pictures