Perhaps the sole pleasure moviegoers over the age of 11 will derive from Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven's science-fiction war epic that pits a militaristic future society against an army of giant space insects, is finding inventive ways to describe it to curious friends and loved ones. But even such attempts as 'Leni Riefenstahl Meets 'Melrose Place,'' 'Ayn Rand's Top Gun 2,' and 'Gidget Goes Gattaca' fail to convey the staggering mindlessness of this huge-scale exercise in neo-Orwellian kitsch. The one-two punch delivered by Showgirls and the director's latest effort offers compelling evidence that, at least on the big screen, lightning can strike twice in the same place.

Adapted by Ed Neumeier (Verhoeven's RoboCop) from Robert Heinlein's novel, Starship Troopers imagines a technically advanced society in which the ruthless application of deadly force has replaced the search for peace and the only way to acquire citizenship is to serve in the military. The story centers on Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), a high-school football star from Buenos Aires who joins the Mobile Infantry to impress his girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards), a future starship pilot.

Following the requisite boot-camp sequence in which Rico learns the ropes, makes friends, and trades his arrogance for humility by taking responsibility for a fellow soldier's death during a training exercise, two tragedies befall our hero. First, he's dumped by the careerist, spaceship-steering Carmen via video e-mail; then-look out, Buenos Aires!-his home town is wiped out in a surprise attack by the space bugs.

Soon, along with Rico and his crew-the violin-playing Ace Levy (Jake Busey) and Xena-clone Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), who's been carrying a torch for Rico since their high-school football days-the infantry is sent into space to do battle with the bugs. The insects prove to be smarter, tougher adversaries than originally thought, confirming the presence of a brainy, strategy-devising bug that must be eliminated to vanquish our planet's antennae-twitching foes. When Carmen crashes her ship smack into the brain bug's lair, Rico dashes to the rescue. Will all be lost? Is it curtains for Carmen? Is this the end of Rico?

Verhoeven offers battle scenes aplenty and, in league with d.p. Jost Vacano, uses the many bodies at his disposal to create compositions that evoke both Olympia and Busby Berkeley. However, the visual scheme isn't impressive enough, nor is the action sufficiently rousing, to counter the weak narrative and cardboard characters. As for the bugs, they aren't nearly as scary as Ellen Mirojnick's garishly designed costumes. The one possible point of interest in the plot, communication between humans and insects, is never broached, and despite the filmmakers' RoboCop-like attempts to satirize the society in whose interest the heroes are risking life and limb, it still leaves a bad taste.

Further compounding the damage are the porno-movie-level lead performances, the like of which hasn't been seen in a studio film since Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. To provide relief from his bland, if nubile, principals, Verhoeven keeps inventing reasons to bring back the relatively minor characters played by Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside, two of the only cast members who can deliver the thespian goods.

If Showgirls represented Verhoeven's bid to become Hollywood's most shameless vulgarian, that sound you hear in Starship Troopers is the other shoe dropping.

--Bob Satuloff