In the 23rd Century, humans encounter a hostile insectoid species called Arachnids or Bugs, which seem to be savage killing machines. In the United Citizen Federation, citizenship is only available to those providing service to the state, mostly military. Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), and his best friend Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris), who is psychic, enlist in federal service, despite Rico’s sceptical parents. Carmen becomes a spaceship pilot, Carl joins military intelligence, and Rico enlists in the mobile infantry, where he finds that his former classmate Isabelle “Dizzy” Flores (Dina Meyer) has transferred to his squad, probably because she has feelings for him.
Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown) ruthlessly trains the recruits. Rico befriends fellow cadet Ace Levy (Jake Busey) and is promoted to squad leader. He receives a Dear John letter from Carmen, who serves with Rico’s high-school rival Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon). After a live-fire training incident in which one man dies and another quits, Rico is demoted and flogged. He is ready to give up, but an asteroid supposedly launched by the Arachnids obliterates Bueno Aires, killing his parents among the millions.An invasion of the Arachnids’ home planet Klendathu goes awry. Rico is wounded and reported dead. After recovery, he and Dizzy are assigned to the Roughnecks, an elite unit commanded by their former high-school teacher Lieutenant Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside, of course). Rico is promoted to Corporal after destroying a Tanker Bug. He and Dizzy have sex.
A distress call comes in from Planet P, where they observe an outpost that has been devastated by Bugs. But the distress call was a trap, and the Arachnids swarm the outpost. Rico euthanizes a wounded Rasczak after his legs are bitten off. Dizzy is killed and Carmen and Zander rescue the surviving Roughnecks. At a funeral, they run into Carl, who is now a high-ranking intelligence officer, and he suggests there is a Brain Bug controlling everything. Rico is promoted to Lieutenant, and he commands the Roughnecks in an attempt to secure the Brain Bug.
The fleet encounters heavy fire and Carmen’s ship is destroyed. She and Zander crash in their escape pod into a tunnel system. The Brain Bug eats Zander’s brain and is about to do the same to Carmen, but she cuts off its proboscis with a knife. Rico and his command arrive and threaten the Bugs with a small nuclear device. They flee and the Brain Bug escapes, but Sugar Watkins (Seth Gilliam), mortally wounded, sets off the bomb, killing himself. Returning to the surface, they find that Sergeant Zim, now a Private, has captured the Brain Bug. Carl tells Rico and Carmen that the humans will now be victorious as he telepathically scans the Brain Bug. A propaganda clip starring our heroes encourages viewers to enlist.
The film was directed by Paul Verhoeven of Robocop, Total Recall, and Hollow Man fame, and was written by Edward Meumeier, based on Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel. It received negative reviews from critics, who may well not have gotten the satirical nature of the gung-ho story. The scriptwriter was a big fan of the novel, but Verhoeven was bored by it and did not finish reading. The cast agreed to do a co-ed nude shower scene if Verhoevan filmed it naked, which he did, and his cinematographer had been raised in a nudist colony, so he was all right with it too. Despite pushback, it was kept in the film. Voerhoven was amused that the gory scenes of humans being ripped apart was less offensive than a bunch of naked young people.
The novel was accused of promoting militarism and fascism, but the movie satirizes this. A recruiting advertisement for the mobile infantry was adapted shot-for-shot from a scene in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). The black uniforms are fascistic, but the emblems thereon were not from Nazi origins, but from the American military. The movie was nominated for an Oscar, won two Saturns, and was beaten out for a Stinkers Bad Movie Award by Batman and Robin. There were four direct to DVD sequels and an eight-episode TV series, not to mention a board game, a video game, and a pinball game.
In his black uniform, Neil Patrick Harris was called Doogie Himmler by the crew. Controversy still rages about whether Heinlein approved of the military life depicted in the book, as a former military officer, or whether he opposed it as a Libertarian. Reaction to the movie was just as controversial. Lieutenant Willy is played by Steven Ford, son of President Gerald Ford. Verhoeven’s commentary on DVD was one of the first to be accompanied by a disclaimer stating that his opinions were not those of the studio.
Paul Verhoeven had lived in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands and his attitude toward fascism should be pretty clear. The boot camp was named Arthur Currie for Canada’s first four-star general, whose nickname was Guts and Garters. The McGill University gymnasium is also named for him. Phil Tippet was largely responsible for the Bugs being created digitally, after Jurassic Park. There were more than 1400 extras in the film. It is pretty clear that the despised and derided Bugs are much superior military strategists than the human beings.