Starship Troopers

Tagged: Film

Film (1997). TriStar Pictures and Touchstone Pictures present a Jon Davison production. Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Written by Ed Neumeier based on Starship Troopers (October-November 1959 F&SF as "Starship Soldier"; 1959) by Robert A Heinlein. Cast includes Clancy Brown, Jake Busey, Casper Van Dien, Neil Patrick Harris, Michael Ironside, Dina Meyer and Denise Richards. 129 minutes. Colour.

Starship Troopers the film operates as critique as well as dramatization of Heinlein's celebrated novel. Much of it works as Satire, the thrust of which is to rebrand the ideology of Heinlein's book as evident fascism. However, it appears that only relatively sophisticated viewers got the point. The culture of the Hollywood blockbuster around the turn of the century was not, and still is not, sympathetic to irony. Ironic films are normally cult successes at best.

With the exception of the film's propaganda segments, which are witty meldings of comedy and exposition that Verhoeven based on the real-life World War Two titles Why We Fight, most of Starship Troopers could easily be taken at face value as uncomplicated action movie fare, even the intelligence officer's Gestapo-style trench coat. It is certainly gory and visceral enough to work quite well on that level; indeed it appears that this was the only level that most of the target audience of young males took it at. Many reviewers also missed the humour, and Verhoeven was savaged by several influential critics for making such a violent and immoral film. Verhoeven himself has countered that Starship Troopers was not just an attack on the politics of Heinlein's novel, but also on the Hollywood blockbuster genre itself.

The fact that this particular film can be enjoyed as uncomplicated blockbuster narrative allows the director, Verhoeven, to have his box-office cake and eat it too, probably a deliberate strategy, as this was also the case with his earlier sf films RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990). However, with the box-office charts for 1997 showing Starship Troopers as coming in only at number 38 for the year, it could be called rather a mild success at best.

Structurally, Starship Troopers follows the core of Heinlein's plot quite faithfully. In an apparently not too distant future, Johnny Rico (Van Dien) joins the Mobile Infantry and gets through basic training in an extended flashback sequence. He is then sent to the front lines in the Future War against an advanced insect (see Hive-Mind) race, unimaginatively called "Bugs" by the humans. After an initially disastrous invasion of the Bugs' homeworld, the humans regroup and by the movie's end victory seems assured. The core political point is also retained and emphasized: to become a citizen with voting rights a civilian must first complete a tour of military service.

Hugely expensive, Starship Troopers's effects (largely computer generated) were cutting-edge at the time. It was the first film to be able convincingly to show alien armies numbering in the thousands; although the scenes where the two sides clash are occasionally marred by the human actors occasionally seeming to fire their weapons off to the side of the digital monsters they are supposed to be aiming at.

The cast is a mix of fresh-faced youngsters and grizzled character actors. The juvenile leads are veterans of television soap operas, intentionally chosen for their physical beauty and wooden acting skills: another joke of Verhoeven's that was missed by many, probably including the only-marginally-competent actors themselves. An admirable element of the novel which is retained seriously is the gender and racial equality in this future time; it is certainly unusual for a Hollywood film to have a South American protagonist, even one played by an all-American boy. (In the novel, this character was revealed by various indirect hints to be a Filipino.)

The biggest failing of the movie as an adaptation is in its portrayal of the Mobile Infantry itself. With the jettisoning of the powered battle suits (see Mecha; Powered Armour), the soldiers – based by Heinlein on the US marines – are no longer very mobile, and the most memorable action sequences of the novel are therefore cut, replaced with routine "re-enactments-in-space" of the Alamo and the Normandy landings. Gone too are any semblance of real tactics: the MI mill around in packs and fire wildly at any bugs that appear, and any sign that this army puts stock in Heinlein's line "you don't walk away on another cap trooper, not while there's a chance he's still alive" is near-invisible. As an adaptation, Starship Troopers can therefore be seen as something of a missed opportunity, but as a work of satire it remains amusing.

A cartoon television series, Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles (1999) was released after the film. It brought back the Powered Armour suits and the secondary alien race the "Skinnies" from the novel, and was more sophisticated than might be expected from a spin-off series, but was cancelled after thirty-six episodes. Later a direct-to-video sequel to the movie was released, Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004). Written again by Neumeier, and directed by the original film's effects man Phil Tippett, this low-budget film was an amateurish retread of the alien-taking-on-human-shape theme of The Thing (1982), so diluted from its source material as to be all but unrecognizable as belonging in the same universe as Heinlein's novel. However, Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008), with Neumeier as director, recaptures the original film's subversive irony even while remaining in the realm of low-budget exploitation. [JN/PN]

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