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Attack of the $100- Million Insects

Movies: Action director Paul Verhoeven takes his turn with a sci-fi creature feature and it could be the one of the most staggeringly expensive films ever.

September 23, 1996|DAVID KRONKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ed Neumeier had a dream. "I wanted to do a big, silly, jingoistic, xenophobic, let's-go-out-and-kill-the-enemy movie, and I had settled on the idea that it should be against insects," says the screenwriter-co-producer ("RoboCop"). "I wanted to make a war movie, but I also wanted to make a teenage romance movie."

Which brings us today to the site of Neumeier's reunion with "RoboCop" director Paul Verhoeven, the Fountain Valley set of "Starship Troopers"--a sprawling, futuristic military base dotted with olive-drab, Hershey's-Kiss-shaped cabins and silver Mylar pup tents. Flags ominously melding the images of an eagle and a jet fighter flap listlessly overhead; scores of crew members linger under a merciless sun as Verhoeven makes a point. He's explaining, thoroughly, to the film's star and heartthrob-in-waiting, Casper Van Dien, how to hurl a shiny flat knife.

Van Dien's practice tosses glance off the target repeatedly, the knives clanging as they hit the ground in frustrating failure. When cameras roll, however, and Van Dien's first toss is no more than an inch from piercing the bulls-eye. Published reports say $100 million is being spent on "Starship Troopers." In the wake of mega-hit "Independence Day" and the upcoming Christmas extravaganza "Mars Attacks," moviegoers may have maxed-out on aliens-whipping-Earthling-butt-and-vice-versa flicks by next July 2, when "Troopers" marches into the nation's theaters.

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But what everyone really wants to know about this movie is, how are the bugs? "Troopers," based on the last juvenile sci-fi book by Robert A. Heinlein before he moved on to more adult novels, was not green-lit until Verhoeven shot some test footage three years ago with Oscar-winning special-effects master Phil Tippett ("Jurassic Park"), who whipped up some menacing, computer-generated arachnids attacking two soldiers on rocky terrain. This 40-second clip immediately sold all who would get involved with the film on its essential viability, as well as its tone and visual style.

Verhoeven, who describes his film as being like "The Battle of the Bulge" or "A Bridge Too Far" "if the Germans were insects," considers his collaboration with Tippett a "co-directorship." "I never would have thought of making this movie if not with the cooperation of Phil Tippett," he says. "He's a genius at this kind of fantasy."

Tippett says as preparation he saw just about every wildlife show about insects ever made, and his Bay Area studio is filled with live models. "I respond with revulsion to some of the pets we have around here--well, the hissing cockroaches are pretty nice," Tippett says amiably. "But I draw the line at spiders and pulpy creatures."

Screenwriter and co-producer Neumeier confesses, "One of my original inspirations was my wife's catatonic fear of insects." The bugs have been changed from Heinlein's original description, he reports: "Paul said, 'I just can't see a bug with a gun in his hand.' "

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Most of the insects are arachnids measuring seven feet tall with a 15-foot leg span and enormous jaws, though there are 30-foot-long "tanker" bugs and 80-foot-long "plasma" bugs. "They're like insects as sharks--all they do is come up to you and kill you," Neumeier says. "They have a ground speed of 35 mph. Their mode of attack is overwhelming force. My science teacher in seventh grade said, 'The Chinese, they'll march at you like zombies, with wooden sticks in their hands, and even if you had a machine gun in your hand they'd overwhelm you!' That's what I think about the bugs."

Anyone expecting the Mayhem Lite of "Independence Day" has obviously forgotten who's directing this thing. "This is not benevolent, it's not sugar-coated," Verhoeven says. "I treat this as a matter of life and death. We're killing off some of our heroes--not everyone gets through the movie." As a result, bugs will gut and slash human soldiers in half, and the insects' very sticky, extremely gory viscera will be shown in Verhoevenly visceral detail.

But all this tantalizing information doesn't help the actors much when they're on the set. As Van Dien, who plays the leader of a bug-battling battalion, says: "We're fighting an enemy that's not there. We're fighting tennis balls on sticks."

Van Dien, a former soap actor ("Beverly Hills, 90210" and "One Life to Live," where he played "a hick who came in and ripped my clothes off and had sex with a woman once a week for 10 months") with a passing resemblance to Tom Cruise, went through eight months of training for the role, losing 3 1/2 inches off his waist, yet adding 5 pounds of muscle. All of which helped in one sequence shot in Wyoming in which the 27-year-old actor performed a noggin-rattling stunt that sounds like a potential amusement-park ride.

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