Review: Starship Troopers (1997)

Composer: Basil Poledouris

Label: Varese Sarabande  

Catalogue Nr.: VSD 5877

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In 1959 Robert A. Heinlein, self-declared libertarian and famed author of such novels as 'Stranger In A Strange Land', wrote 'Starship Troopers', one of the most controversial sci-fi novels ever which describes the dangers of a militant future society in which people only receive full civil rights when they serve the troops and support the war against an hostile arachnid though intelligent alien species called 'bugs'. The whole topic is disturbingly up-to-date, highly controversial and was basically predestined to be turned into a film by a director whose second name is 'controversy': Paul Verhoeven. His movie basically takes on some of the fascistic aspects of Heinlein's vision and exaggerates them to an often satirical effect while following the life of Johnny Rico who joins the military after school against the wish of his parents. Rico successfully rises in rank as his friends and commanders are killed in the war. Besides some satirical elements there is a lot of gore going on especially during the battle scenes and by 'a lot' I actually mean a hell of a lot of gore. People get stabbed, minced, shoot, burned, cut-in-half, brain-sucked-out and... stabbed, minced, shoot, burned... throughout the movie. Along with the, albeit satirical, fascist elements of the film it was quickly indexed and re-cut in several countries including Germany (ironically, they have only cut the gore but not the fascistic elements).

The score:

Not even half as controversial as the film is its score by Basil Poledouris. Almost all film music critics (well, except Clemmensen) and fans basically agreed that the music he composed for Verhoeven's Starship Troopers is one of the best scores brought to life in 1997. It's a truly excellent and well-thought out score that can be approached from many different perspectives and will always succeed in a way that screams for a much closer examination. It's a very complex work with a lot of themes and motifs for various situations, institutions, characters and bugs but most of these themes are not really that obvious especially on this short album which only carries 31 minutes of score - less than 50% of what Poledouris composed for the film. There is an excellent heroic main theme with a very tragic twist, a federation theme, a theme for Carmen Ibanez (the love interest of Rico), a love theme, a theme for Dizzy (the other love interest of Rico), a theme for the large tanker bug, a theme for the soldier bugs, a victory theme, a 'roughnecks' theme (for Rico's squad) and a brain bug theme (and I am sure there are even more themes). The music also supports the satirical aspects of Verhoeven's futuristic bug hunt. There are several exaggerated propaganda spots from the federation's global TV network Fed Net but they can only work in a comical way because Poledouris' overly militaristic music works as an integral part of these mini-spots. And last but not least, there is the action music which is just amazingly thrilling. All of these various aspects are working hand in hand as a highly entertaining and clever musical accompaniment.

The film and album begins with "Fed Net March" for the opening propaganda TV spot introducing the civil-war-like marching Fed Net theme heard during most of these mini-spots. This cue was shortened, omitting the second half as heard in the film and going directly into "Klendathu Drop" with the big statement of the main theme heard during the invasion of the alien planet. It's a big and heroic tune with brass fanfares and snare drums but somehow never fully glorifies the events and even has a slightly tragic nature as these thousands of highly motivated young men and women are just running into their death. This strong ambivalence of heroism and tragedy in the theme alone makes it a perfect musical summary for the entire message of the film (most acts of heroism that happen in the movie lead to death) and a treasure in Poledouris' body of work. Another snare drum march comes next in "Punishment/Asteroid Gazing". This slow march with occasional outbursts of grim brass fanfares accompanies a public whipping scene and rises before it is greeted by broad space fanfares as the film fades from the punishment scene to a large star ship where Carmen is flight officer. Her innocent little theme is heard subtly on flute and woodwinds as she is flirting with her colleague Zander but the romance ends with a boast of grim brass as the ship is on collision course with an asteroid. Nervously shrieking strings  follow as the crew is trying to avoid the collision.

The following track has to rank among the best compositions of 1997. It starts with frenetic music for a federation bombing run on the alien planet "Tango Urilla" and continues with the marching theme for the roughnecks squad before a timpani inferno and a 6-note melody for low brass announces the appearance of the gigantic fire-spitting tanker bug. Now it comes: the entire orchestra suddenly starts a riot as Rico jumps on the beast and rides on its back. The entire ensemble is basically rolling notes around a cadence of low brass strikes which is one of the most amazing things I have ever heard. It's nothing atonal or unfocused noise which makes this moment even more amazing (how many other composers would have just put some pointless noise in there?). You immediately get a feeling for the pounding fury of this rampaging giant cockroach which just wants to kick this nasty little human off its back. All that rises to a mind-blowing coda for which the orchestra unites to several strong hits ala James Horner's "Bishop's Countdown" finale from Aliens (1986) though Poledouris is doing it with much more force here. Really, I can recommend the CD with a clear conscience for that track alone. It will blow your socks off. "Hopper Canyon" opens with a quiet suspense-motif for strings as the roughnecks are walking through a canyon. The strings indicate that there is something lurking around behind the rocks and suddenly they start whirling frenetically like an exaggerated version of Rimsky-Korsakov's interlude "Flight Of The Bumblebee" as some flying bugs are attacking the squad. Probably a very clever musical in-joke from Poledouris.

If you liked the timpani tour-de-force that was Alan Silvestri's score for Ricochet (1991) then you will love the next cue called "Bugs!". The timpani is basically the driving element in this track accompanied by strings often switching to pizzicato to musically stress the large army of bugs that is attacking a fort. Finally, with "Dizzy's Funeral" there comes a track to take a breath and relax from the action. Here, we hear Dizzy's theme for the first time in a full but very sad way since it is her funeral (so much about spoilers in track names) but it already appeared several times before in the full score and the absence of these statements on this CD kind of robs this sad funeral climax of its impact. "Destruction of Roger Young" brings back the main theme accompanied by a synth-choir and goes into frenetic space action music for the entire ensemble as Carmen is trying to escape the space ship Roger Young. However, the more interesting developments come near the end of the cue. Carmen contacts Rico as she is flying to the alien planet in an escape pod and as communication is lost, Basil Poledouris switches from a suspenseful fanfare-outburst of Carmen's theme to a gentle version of the roughnecks' theme and puts a very quiet statement of Dizzy's theme on a woodwind as a counterpoint. I love that particular moment because it is expressing Rico's fear of having lost another beloved one. But Carmen isn't dead and so the space action music continues with a four-note floating motif for strings as the pod is approaching the planet at high speed.

"Brain Bug" is another one of those typical Poledouris-moments of pure genius. It opens mysterious with a horn-string combo and goes into slow, outstretched horn fanfares with a majestic yet grim appearance for the fat bug overlord. The horns are joined by an organ which underlines this odd combination of majesty and disgust. It's like one of those gothic character introduction pieces that would not be out of place in a Dracula movie and fits the big bug perfectly. Another statement of the main theme comes at the end. A full arrangement of the victory theme is the entire last track of the score "They Will Win". It's a glorious tune full of trumpets, fanfares and soaring heroism with the love theme thrown in-between on gentle woodwinds. The victory theme itself appears as a small motif throughout the score but isn't heard in full until this final cue. For the last few seconds of the score which are playing over another Fed Ned spot, Basil pulled out all the stops and builds up to a really crazy and insane coda that is both overly heroic and totally insane. One thing is for sure: It's not your stereotype boom-tss finale ala John Williams but Basil Poledouris at his best. His daughter Zoe provided the cheesy rock-pop song from the end of the album called "Into It" which is heard during a high school ball at the beginning of the film... skip it... or otherwise these 4 1/2 minutes will ruin a great half an hour of excellent score.

 

RATING:

Score as heard in the film: 87%

Score as heard on CD: 87%

TOTAL: 87%

 

The presentation:

As mentioned above, the album is very short with only 31 minutes of score and skips nearly all of the material from the beginning of the movie as well as a large portion from the middle section. Most of the cues for the propaganda TV spots are absent from this disc except for the opening and closing piece and most of the thematic development in this score remains unnoticed because the album is omitting major and mainly minor statements of key themes and motifs. A travesty which makes Basil's score appear like your typical action score when in fact it is much more than that. The inclusion of Zoe Poledouris' song can only be a nice gesture from her father to help getting her career started but I would rather wanted to have the "Fort Escape" cue instead. Sound quality is very good and the booklet contains some short but informative notes by Basil Poledouris about his score and how it was working with Verhoeven.

Presentation by the Label: 39%

 

Summary:

Basil Poledouris' score for Starship Troopers is quite an event. Although the album is very short and only presents some highlights from the complete score it is still a great listening experience with some really amazing material such as the dramatically heroic "Klendathu Drop", the massive tanker bug action music in "Tango Urilla", the timpani inferno in "Bugs!", the majestically creepy "Brain Bug" and the insanely patriotic "They Will Win" while the remaining tracks have something to offer as well. An expanded edition is very much needed because most of the complex thematic connections in the score just can't be noticed in this 30 minutes cut. Despite the absence of more than 50% of the total score from this CD it is still very clear that Basil Poledouris composed a well-thought out and one of the best sci-fi action scores of the 90's for Starship Troopers.

Review by Andreas Creutzburg

 

                   Tracklisting:

01. Fed Net March (00:49)
02. Klendathu Drop (04:29)
03. Punishment/Asteroid Grazing (04:50)
04. Tango Urilla (03:50)
05. Hopper Canyon (02:44)
06. Bugs!! (02:20)
07. Dizzy's Funeral (01:18)
08. Destruction of Roger Young (03:27)
09. Brainbug (03:59)
10. They Will Win (04:01)
11. Into It - perf. by Zoe Poledouris (04:36)