This movie is easily one of my all-time favorites for so, so many reasons. The only thing I would hold against it would be the retention of Heinlein's title... it should've been something else, with a small tagline somewhere or other saying "Inspired by Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers". Perhaps Teenagers In Space or Doogie Howser Goes To War! (and this time, It's Personal) or maybe something more oblique such as Return To The Planet Of The Bugs...

Anyway, I digress. And yes, I've read the book, and liked that, too. This film has nothing to do with that book.

I really really really liked this movie. I never expected it to be an intellectual powerhouse (nor its stars), nor did I expect all of the layers of preachy nonsense Verhoven slathers to work. But when it's good, it's good. And when it's bad, it's hilarious. Like when Dizzy dies. Or during the ferret scene. Or the propaganda reel of kids stomping (Earth's) bugs. Or any of the "Would you like to know more?" spots, for that matter.

Melrose in Space it ain't, but the perfectly-tanned, always smiling teens (Denise Richards has admitted in interviews to being told to flash her pearly whites for the whole film) were only a foretaste of the oncoming teen/millennial revolution of culture it preceded.

Er, I've digressed again.

So if you to turn your brain off and laugh for a while, rent this on DVD. The quality is awesome, and the movie rocks. Make sure you watch it at least six times.

The weekend when I first saw it culminated in a 5 a.m. Sunday-morning showing, during which I was able to pretty much recite the entire movie, as well as repeat most of the snide comments I'd said the first four times, all the while crouched on the armrests of the theatre seats, perching like a parrot and laughing like a madman.

codger:ramblings

Good God! Didn't anyone read the original book? It is a masterpiece of dissection of modern society. It is very conservative, yes, but quite good. Anyone who thinks that they know how society works and/or how it might be fixed should be required to read this book before they open their mouths in a public place.

Heinlein, like many people in the 50's, based his theories of human behavior on a common sense model of the family. This model consists of a strict parent, who is the final authority in all things, supported but not outranked by the other parent, and on whom the remaining members of the family depend. The leader's authority entails responsibility for the family's welfare, a responsibility that is carried out by giving rewards and dealing punishments.

This model is Heinlein's template. We get to follow Juan Rico as Juan learns how his world works.

The story is very strong on the Might Makes Right motif, but with added touches of moral conservatism. Moral strength is reflected in physical strength, and physical weakness is a sign of moral weakness. Everyone is responsible to defend themselves against aggressors to show their moral strength, and using physical force is morally acceptable because it succeeds only against a moral inferior.

Note: this writeup refers to the 1997 movie version of Starship Troopers.

The overwhelming majority of viewers and even most critics failed to get the drift of this disturbing and thought-provoking satire of American popular culture in general and the science fiction genre in particular. Small wonder--the film is so on-target that it almost (but not quite) becomes the subject it is scrutinizing. Audiences unused to ambiguity in cinema, which means almost everyone these days, were often left baffled and unsatisfied.

The anti-intellectual and fascistic elements in the picture are one hundred per cent intentional. Verhoeven, who took as his inspiration the propaganda films of World War Two, both cynically provokes and ruthlessly dissects our hunger for the cinematic quick fix as provided by a rugged ubermensch with a gun who blows away everything that makes life difficult and confusing. It is very similar to the critique found in Norman Spinrad's Nazi science fiction novel The Iron Dream.

If you have a DVD player, I highly recommend watching the movie with the director and writer's commentary playing.

In addition to Nick's writeup, Heinlein focused a great deal on competence and understanding. His belief was that in order to lead, one had to experience.

Analogy:
Take an hypothetical city. Populate it with hypothetical people. Give these people jobs to accomplish, thereby creating a functioning (hypothetical) economy.
However, after a certain amount of time has elapsed, the social structure of the city collapses upon itself, due to lack of self-regulation.

Restart city. Create city council to moderate economic exchange. City council is composed of government sleaze who did nothing in previous city (except stagnate).
Of course, the city now falls into corruption.

Heinlein's governing body is composed of people who have worked their way through the ranks, gaining a modicum of experience in all of the subclasses they command. Such a organization would maintain cohesion by sheer force of loyalty, since the senior holders of office would have passed through all of the positions they command.

“Starship Troopers” is a seminal science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein. First published in 1959, it is one of Heinlein’s most popular and widely analysed books, successfully combining a strong military action motif with lengthy discussion of political and ethical principles. The actual plot is extremely simple: Juan Rico, a wealthy young man from the Philippines1, joins the Federal army and becomes a member of the “Mobile Infantry”, rising through the ranks and fighting insectoid and humanoid aliens in numerous battles on distant worlds, until he finally decides to become a career soldier. Most of the story is actually about Rico’s training. However, the plot is only half of the book, and in fact serves only to illustrate the political and ethical commentary which is far closer to Heinlein’s heart.

In fact, Heinlein originally planned for Troopers to be a juvenile adventure story, driven entirely by plot. But he apparently realised midway through writing it that Rico’s adventures would be the perfect device to bring life to the ethical issues he wanted to write about.

Starship Troopers is also a 1997 movie directed by Paul Verhoeven, purportedly based on the Heinlein novel. This movie is quite simply an abomination, failing on so many levels it’s hard to even know where to start dissecting it. While the general outline of the plot is true to the book’s core plot, everything else has changed. Almost all of the science fiction elements have been removed, leaving us with a thinly plotted war story with giant crustaceans as the foul, vaguely Communist enemy. As a war movie, however, it’s one of the worst since Rambo 3, utterly lacking any sense of strategy, tactics or authenticity. Most of the political-ethical dialogues of the book have also been removed, forcing the movie to rely on the strength of a nauseatingly cute love triangle, tremendous amounts of gore, and some admittedly cool animated bugs.



“WHAT ARE WE DOING, RICO?”
“KILL THEM. KILL THEM ALL”
- actual quote from the movie, I kid you not.

It has been suggested that Verhoeven’s version of “Troopers” was meant to be a parody of some sort. However, this idea is not supported by Verhoeven’s previous work, nor was it ever suggested in the initial publicity campaign for the movie. The trailers for the movie and published interviews with members of the crew all suggest a very serious work that was supposedly meant to be truly faithful to Heinlein’s vision, with minor modifications to bring the forty-year-old text up to date.2 Many fans of Heinlein’s masterpiece were eagerly anticipating the movie from the moment they heard that it was going to be done by the director of “Robocop” and “Total Recall” - surely a man with at least a working idea how to present SF action on the big screen. What we all forgot was that this was also the man who directed “Showgirls”.

In his infinite wisdom, Paul Verhoeven decided to turn “Troopers” into a straight war movie. My impression is that he wanted to remake James Cameron’s “Aliens” with supposedly cooler creature models. So why didn’t he get a decent technical advisor for the military issues? James Cameron may not have actually been in the military - for all I know, he may have just watched a lot of Vietnam movies - but at least his “Colonial Marines” had some basis in reality. They were organised into squads, with appropriate weaponry and equipment. They had support vehicles, a proper chain of command, and they used something approximating proper skirmishing tactics - all things that were also used by Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry.

Verhoeven’s Mobile Infantry have none of these things. They run around like a mob of co-ed Scouts, literally charging up hillsides in packs like six-year-olds playing World War II games. A bunch of Indiana paintballers would have done better than these guys. They were so pathetic, I wanted the Bugs to eat them all and make room for a better species. Preferably starting with the so-called “heroes” - a team of idiots who never would have survived Basic in the real world.

Observe the following problems with the military aspects of the movie, but be warned - if you have any military experience, you may hurt yourself laughing:

I’m not sure of the size of the “Roughnecks” unit in the movie, but it looks like a regiment at least. So why do they have only one radio? This is, of course, a plot device, designed to create suspense in the climactic battle scene, in which our brave yanqui protagonists must fix the radio in the empty outpost before they can call for a pickup. In reality, modern infantry carry at least one high-powered radio per squad, and usually more than that. Tanks usually have two or three radios each, and command tanks can have four or five. Not to mention auxiliary vehicles dedicated exclusively to communications.

Which brings us to the next point - where is the damned support for these guys? The MI gets sent down to a planet to root out the elusive brain bug, something that might be called a mission of vital importance - and no one in the higher command is even watching their progress from orbit? Would it have broken the Federal budget to give the troops a couple of air units to help them out, or a couple of tanks, or some suppressing fire from an orbiting cruiser? In Heinlein’s book, the Mobile Infantry didn’t need such things, but that was because every single soldier wore powered armour that turned him into a combination sniper, tank, Harrier jumpjet, and stealth bomber - a literal “Army of One”. Even that wasn’t entirely realistic, but as military science fiction, it worked great.

Of course, it wouldn’t have worked at all if Heinlein hadn’t been such a stickler for tactics. In the book, the soldiers advanced across the battlefield in carefully described open skirmishing order. Timing and spacing were vital issues - as they are in real warfare. But Verhoeven’s Scouts just charge around in a mob. Only once, on the third planet, do they enter some kind of orderly double file - but even this simple formation is ruined by the fact that they have nobody on the flanks and no advance scouts, and they are grouped tightly enough for the Bugs to take out the entire unit with one flame-throwing beetle. (This is the same scene where the supposedly ultra-experienced lieutenant sees rocks falling down the walls of the canyon, but doesn’t even suspect there might be some sort of ambush ahead - how the hell did this guy survive long enough to retire to that cushy teaching job?)

The same thing keeps happening with the starships in the movie. These crates are flying in groups of a few dozen, with about five meters of space between them. Every time one of them gets hit with a plasma burst, it careens out of control, ripping open another ship, which slams into another, which blows up. Setting another two or three ships afire as it disintegrates. Is this standard procedure? Somehow I doubt that Heinlein, a proud veteran of the US Navy, would have approved.

To sum up, let’s look at a passage from the book, just to show the difference: “You’re supposed to know the plan, but some of you ain’t got any minds to hypnotize so I’ll sketch it out. You’ll be dropped in two skirmish lines, calculated two-thousand-yard intervals. Get your bearing on me as soon as you hit, get your bearing and distance on your squad mates, both sides, while you take cover. You’ve wasted ten seconds already, so you smash-and-destroy whatever’s at hand until the flankers hit dirt.... Once they hit - Straighten out those lines! - equalize those intervals! Drop what you’re doing and do it! Twelve seconds. Then advance by leapfrog, odd and even, assistant section leaders minding the count and guiding the envelopment. If you’ve done this properly - which I doubt - the flanks will make contact as recall sounds... at which time, home you go. Any questions?”

Now, this isn’t some brilliant, inventive tactic. It isn’t meant to be. Just standard drill, which the soldiers are supposed to know by heart. And what’s Rico’s winning strategy in the film version? “Kill them. Kill them all!” Now please excuse me while I vomit.



PAUL VERHOEVEN - REMOVING THE SCIENCE FROM SCIENCE FICTION

None of these things would really have mattered so much if the director hadn’t removed the core element of the novel’s action - the powered armour suit. This suit is what made Starship Troopers so popular as a novel, and kept it in constant reprints for over forty years. It’s probably one of two things that most people remember from the book ten or twenty years after they first read it (the other one being the first History and Moral Philosophy class). Powered armour is every teenaged geek’s wet dream.

Think of an extremely heavy exoskeleton that makes you invulnerable to almost all attacks. Arm it with everything you can imagine - knives, flamethrowers, grenade launchers, heat-seeking missiles, smart bombs and nuclear weapons, for starters. Put in an excellent visor-mounted display that gives you every piece of tactical information you might need. And equip the whole thing with jump jets and amplifying servos, so that you can leap tall buildings in a single bound or run straight through them if you want. That’s what every man in the Mobile Infantry wears in Heinlein’s “Troopers”.

Realistic? Maybe not. But it was a reasonable concept for 1959, and it was still a decent concept when Joe Haldeman revamped it in 1974's “The Forever War”. Hell, it might actually work one day, although Haldeman himself has since realised that it would be more practical to turn the suit into a remote-controlled drone3. One way or the other, the powered armour made some very exciting reading, and it would have looked superb on film.

So why didn’t Verhoeven use the armour in his movie? My best guess is that he was afraid it would look like he was remaking “Robocop”. Which strikes me as funny, given the number of motifs that Verhoeven does allow himself to repeat in every single movie4.

Verhoeven also didn’t see fit to endow the Bugs with the technology and intelligence that they have in the book. His Bugs fight with their mandibles and spiky body parts only, while Heinlein’s Bugs are known to use blasters and other weapons. By making the Bugs so completely primitive, Verhoeven makes the racism of the original material even more repelling. In the novel, Rico points out that the Bugs, while inhuman, are intelligent and have a society of sorts. In a few passages, Heinlein even raises the possibility of negotiating with the Bugs and possibly coming to some sort of agreement. These ideas are quickly dismissed as being unrealistic, but at least they are briefly entertained. In the movie, the concept of negotiation is used only as a very brief joke, for the Bugs of the movie are obviously just a bunch of clever, vicious animals that need to be exterminated.



”PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE SAFETY OF THE BODY POLITIC, ETCETERA, ETCETERA, ETCETERA.”

This brings us full circle to the political content of the two works. While both versions of Troopers present the same basic political message, it is presented in two very different ways. The difference in presentation is so extreme that the message itself seems to have changed. While Heinlein gave us a seductive and solidly built argument for militarism and the fitness of the military to rule society, all Verhoeven offers is some kinky uniforms and some of the most extreme xenophobia ever seen in a big-budget movie.

The militarism of the novel can be summed up in one basic idea: only veterans have the right to rule human society. Risking his life to protect humanity is both the proof of the veteran’s fitness to rule and the way that fitness is produced. Any inquiry into the possible failings of such a system is summarily quashed. Heinlein is extremely selective about the facts he presents in the novel, choosing only the historical examples that suit his agenda.

Let me take a moment to finally address the Heinlein fans and military readers who are probably getting their guns off the rack right now: First of all, we don’t actually know that negotiation with the Bugs wouldn’t have worked. The option was never even attempted, in either version of “Troopers”. Heinlein tells us, through Rico, that it would never work because the Bugs were too alien and both species were too greedy - “we both want the same real estate.” When I read things like this, I’m kind of glad Heinlein’s abortive attempt at California politics got shot down as quickly as it did. We also have no guarantee that the Federation is, in fact, ruled fairly by the military. It certainly seems like it is, at least when seen through the eyes of Rico and his family. But do we know that for a fact? Or has the information been carefully controlled to make it seem that way? As I said before, Heinlein allows no cross examination - he just rolls on and on with his argument. At one point he offers us this key statement:

Violence, naked force, has resolved more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst.”

While the first part of the sentence is certainly true, it is completely meaningless. It’s like saying Agriculture, raw edible foodstuffs, has kept more people alive than any soldier ever did, and the contrary opinion is starvation at its hungriest.” Note that this is as true if not more true than Heinlein’s version, but I don’t see Heinlein writing books proposing that only farmers should be allowed to vote. And we don’t even know for sure what he means by the second half of his statement. “The contrary opinion” - does this refer to people who deny the role of violence in our history, or to those who would prefer to believe that the human species is getting smarter, and may someday outgrow the need to make all its points with gunboat diplomacy? We can’t tell for sure, because the teacher in the book has already squashed the one student who dared to question him, and moved on with an unrelated question addressed to a different student.

But whether you accept his views or not, at least Heinlein actually had a point to make, and an extremely well-written manner of preaching. Not to mention a simply superb description of authentic-feeling military training. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” was and remains a classic work of science fiction, and a perfect use of the genre to argue a point that would have been difficult to make with mainstream fiction. Ultimately, the reader is swept along with Rico and his platoon, regardless of personal political opinion.

This is a lot more than I can say about Verhoeven’s version, to which my strongest reaction was disgust at having lost $8.50 and two hours. Do I need to mention the all-blonde cast, or the fact that Rico’s legal name gets changed from the book’s “Juan Rico” to “Johnny D. Rico”, or the dominance of American football in Buenos Aires high schools, or the completely gratuitous sex scenes? No, I don’t think so.


  1. Yes, he’s from the Philippines. This fact is intentionally hidden from us until the very end of the book, as is Johnny’s and every other character’s race. Finally, on pages 260-261 (in recent paperbacks), Juanito says his native language is Tagalog, and talks about Ramon Magsaysay, a Philippine hero. The race mystery is never answered in this book. Heinlein intentionally obscured the ethnicity of many of his heroes, often omitting even a basic physical description of them. If you thought Rico was black, brown or white or any other specific colour, it was purely the work of your own imagination - and if you thought he was from Buenos Aires, that’s because Rico’s mother was travelling in Buenos Aires when it got blowed up. Don’t worry, I fell for it too.
  2. I have been told that I should listen to the director’s commentary on the DVD for further enlightenment on this subject. Hah. Forgive me for being too blunt, but I don’t give a rat’s ass what Verhoeven says in a commentary recorded six months after the movie’s release, and I am getting increasingly annoyed by the phenomenon of directors who use DVD commentaries to excuse their own shoddy work. Picasso didn’t embed little explanatory notes in his paintings, alerting the viewer to the skill and symbolism in each work. Swift did not write an appendix to “Gulliver’s Travels”, telling us the whole thing was meant to be satire. Monty Python’s Flying Circus never closed with the word TWAJS. These artists did their work, released it and shut their mouths, and I would like for modern filmmakers to do the same. If you have a point to make, make it in the movie. If the movie didn’t work, it didn’t work, and that’s all there is to it. You don’t get a second chance to explain the points that should have been made clear in the movie itself. I like DVD commentary tracks on movies that were actually good - “Rushmore” and “Big Trouble in Little China” both have outstanding commentaries full of elusive little details and wonderful anecdotes, giving us personal windows into the minds of the creators like Malkovich portals. An entertaining commentary on a good movie is a wonderful bonus for film lovers. But it can’t be used to “fix” a film that went completely and horribly wrong.
  3. The Forever War” was Haldeman’s answer to Starship Troopers by way of Vietnam. I recommend reading these two books back to back, for balance. The difference between the two authors’ wars is the difference between the books. Haldeman later followed with “Forever Peace”, which introduced the drone concept and a beautiful, if slightly improbable, solution to the problem of war. I wish Joe Haldeman was in charge.
  4. Things that have appeared in every single Verhoeven movie, to the best of my knowledge: Exposed breasts. Rape. Industrial quantities of blood. Love triangles (and three-way sex, in at least three movies). White, All-American protagonists. And usually there is one black actor who will be revealed as either a mutated freak, an uncontrollable drug addict with the brains of a semi-retarded dog, or an incorrigible sleaze (or all three, if it seems at all feasible). You heard me, I said "every single movie made by Paul Verhoeven." Hey, I'm sorry. I liked Robocop too.


IN RESPONSE TO THE RESPONSES (2/18/03):

Guys, I'm not quite stupid enough to have missed the Nazi symbols and the propaganda spots. But having satirical elements does not make a movie a satire. The satire, no matter what the filmmakers say in the DVD commentary, is NOT the main point of the movie. Every one of Verhoeven's movies has had some satire in it. He is, in fact, a very good director of violent and sleazy thrillers, and he knows how to use satirical bits to make a movie more effective. But he is not an intellectual, and the satire has never been the main point. Verhoeven's Johnny Rico is no different from every single one of his other heroes: a Good Guy caught in a Bad Situation, sorting it out through the application of violence, naked force - in unprecedented bucketloads.

But just for a moment, let's pretend that Verhoeven really is the bold, intelligent, masterful satirist some people say he is. Let's say Troopers really is a satire. Okay, so what? Does that make it good? No, not at all. Not every satire is good. Some of them are, in fact, very bad. Just because you have a point to make doesn't mean you automatically did it right. Satire needs to move the audience. It also needs to carry the audience long enough to make its point. Starship Troopers doesn't do either.

A few of you seem to think that if Troopers is a satire, it's okay for it to be completely unrealistic, with characters we don't identify with, dialogue that could well have been written by five-year-olds, and huge amounts of gore. It isn't. Quite the opposite. If Verhoeven had such lofty ideas in mind for his desecration of an SF classic, he should have made even more of an effort to give us some kind of quality work.

Final analysis: as a straight war movie, Paul Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers" is terrible. As a satire, it is still every bit as terrible. As an ironic celebration of fascism, it is quite, quite bad. As a parody of science fiction, it STILL sucks. No matter how you view this movie, the fact remains that it is no damn good at all.

Released under the title Uchuu no Senshi, the material was also adapted into an Anime in the mid-eighties. The 6-part series also takes it's liberties from the original book, but stays on target more often than not. However, some scenes (especially in the basic training) have been changed to allow for a younger audience, I suppose.

However, it does a great job of portraying the mechanized infantry as they are described in the book, the "mech" design is neat. However, one does see the age of this series, the animation is stocky in places, animations are recycled quite often, and the style is very basic. I do recommend the series though.

AFAIK, it was only released in Japan, on Laserdisc and Video.

Starship Troopers - the movie - is the most brilliantly conceived, expertly executed piece of satire created in recent memory. Paul Verhoeven is one of the few modern filmmakers left who has anything of import to say. Unfortunately, his message was lost upon an audience lacking the intelligence or sophistication to grasp ambiguity.

This wu is an elaboration of Quizro's wu a few wus up, and will partly be in response to DejaMorgana's well written but utterly beside the point wu, directly above. Seeing how many people seemed to agree with the above wu, I felt a more fleshed-out defense of the movie was in order. Unlike DejaMorgana, I believe that Starship Troopers was a great, incisive work, and that the "political-ethical dialogue," far from being removed, are present and perhaps even more profound in the new medium.

Starship Troopers is a great movie because it can be appreciated on a number of levels. It is an orgiastic exercise in hedonistic spasms of gratuitous special effects. It is a self-conscious work of indulgent, glorious, camp. And most importantly, it is a disturbing, shattering commentary on the society that creates such movies.

Verhoeven's previous work, rather than dismissing the interpretation of the movie as a parody/satire, actively supports such an interpretation. Verhoeven's previous work is saturated with parody and social commentary, whether explicit (the pseudo-news program in Robocop) or implicit (Robocop's son's fascination with violent TV shows.) Verhoeven himself stated before the film was released that the Dutch(Thanks to RPGeek for pointing out my error here) director was inspired in part by Nazi propaganda. While the marketing for the film did spin it as a straight adventure story, Verhoeven likely had little creative control over that particular beast. It is clear his tongue was planted firmly in cheek.

This interpretation is supported by the movie itself. DejaMorgana's particularly choice snippets from the movie are wonderful examples of the delightful camp that romps throughout the film. Verhoeven opens the film with a propaganda broadcast, our first clue that not all is what it seems in Starship Troopers. More propaganda pieces are sprinkled throughout the rest of the film, reinforcing the motif of government indoctrination.

There are less overt hints as well. The uniforms of the officers in the Federal Army, for example, are clearly inspired by Nazi uniforms. Look at Doogie Howser's outfit, then look at some old WWII photos of German officers. Heck, watch Patton. There is a clear resemblance, from the leather trench coats and boots to the visored caps. Further, the various paraphernalia of the Federal Army are reminiscent of Nazi symbols. The eagle on the green flag of the Federals, for example, is an almost exact replica of the iron eagle symbolism employed by the Third Reich.

Verhoeven is not a neo-Nazi. In fact, his family is one that was tragically affected by Nazism. Rather, the Nazi imagery is evidence of the social commentary Verhoeven has injected into his work. It is his hint to us that the ostensible heroes of the movie, Rico and his mobile infantry pals, are not heroes at all.

DejaMorgana picks up on, but completely misinterprets, the wanton bloodlust and refusal to negotiate on the part of the earthlings. Of course it is wrong, and stupid, for the characters to do so. This is precisely Verhoeven's point. Our heroes are jingoistic, warmongering barbarians who see the "bugs" as "vicious animals that need to be exterminated," when a peaceful resolution may very well be possible.

In essence, the movie adaptation is the philosophical polar opposite of the source work. Whereas Heinlein expoused a militaristic, "might makes right" world view, Verhoeven rightly exposes this self-righteous dogma for the absurdity it is, by extending Heinlein's argument to extreme lengths. (I must admit I have never read the book, though I have read some of Heinlein's other work. I'm drawing information on the book from DejaMorgana's wu.) Verhoeven reveals the insanity and utter stupidity of Heinlein's philosophy by displaying it in naked, raw form. This is why the movie seems asinine to so many people. Verhoeven's characters certainly are asinine; there are supposed to be imbeciles, worthy of our derision. Verhoeven himself is not, if anything, he is a little too smart for his own good. To put it in terms the average E2 user can understand: Verhoeven was trolling to make a point. Judging from the overwhelmingly positive response to the above critical wu (10 C!s! I am deliriously jealous. In fact, envy may be one of the motivations behind this wu.) he was successful.

Even more disturbing, however, is what Verhoeven has to say about us, the audience. What do big-budget movies that are nothing more than the fevered ejaculate of Silicon Graphics workstations say about the economy that paid for them? What does a movie, or a book, about a vast instellar xenocide say about the audience that revels in it? Verhoeven is disgusted in us. He is disgusted that we went to see his movies because we love explosions and fighting robots and laser guns and giant spaceships blowing planets apart. He is disgusted at the few of us that read Heinlein, and agreed with the book. Verhoeven is warning us, urgently and passionately, that a culture which glorifies violence and destruction, which celebrates moral absolutism and military solutions to all conflict, is a culture that could easily degenerate into imperial Nazism.


I don't own the DVD, so this particular opinion of the movie was established independent of whatever rationalizations Verhoeven may have attempted on the commentary track. I caught the movie during one of my occassional bouts of insomnia, and laughed so hard I woke up my parents. Later, I got the DIVX from a friend. Someday I'll save up enough money to buy the DVD. (Hah!)

When Neil Patrick Harris, in full Nazi regalia, declares, "It's afraid!" to rousing, exuberant applause, you should have understood. And that fact that so few people seem to have apprehended this as wrong, that so few people understand that "killing them all" is not a reasonable solution, this is the ultimate punctuation of the profundity of Verhoeven's endeavor. Starship Troopers, beneath all of its transparent cliches and its derivative action sequences, its tepid romance and its excessive gore, is an ironic celebration of fascism. Its intent is at once to illustrate the easy fall of malleable youth into darkness, and to mock the ever-present stimulations of that "biological" precondition that draws upon us all to embrace death for "the state," for an abstraction, for some sucking nothing.

Verhoeven's astounding, masterful work of hyperbole is, sadly, wasted on the objects of his disdain, who, wholly inculcated into the insidious proto-fascism of the action genre and of, Verhoeven might say, the modern political climate in general, find something sour about what DejaMorgana understood as "a straight war movie." But I did not need Verhoeven to tell me in his own words what this movie meant, I could see that for myself. Indeed, whether or not Verhoeven himself even realized what he was saying with this work, it was still there, all of it; often enough, the writer or artist is wholly unconscious of the end message of his work, but that message remains, unrevised by the artist's explication of what he thought he was doing, what he thought he had created. In this instance, we are very fortunate: Paul Verhoeven knows damn well what he's done with this film.

Paul Verhoeven: The voice you are hearing here, now, is Paul Verhoeven, the director of Starship Troopers.

Ed Neumeier: And this is Ed Neumeier, the writer of Starship Troopers.

DejaMorgana: It has been suggested that Verhoeven's version of "Troopers" was meant to be a parody of some sort. However, this idea is not supported...

PV: And we are here in the middle of controversy, immediately. It’s interesting, I’m quoting here, an article of Richard Schickel in Time Magazine. Who said that... maybe, (Starship Troopers is) saying that war inevitably makes fascists of us all. Then of course he says that his best guess is that the filmmakers didn’t think about anything like that at all, because they were only concerned about special effects. But I can tell you that the movie is, in fact, in our opinion, stating that war makes fascists of us all.

EN: It’s true, that was the theme. And this opening was modeled on the “Why We Fight” films of WWII, in fact this whole movie is modeled on propaganda films made during WWII.

PV: Yeah, they’re propaganda films from, the, uh, American propaganda films, and of course there’s also clearly a disguised statement about... about propaganda films of the Third Reich. In fact it’s saying of course that this fascist propaganda that is kind of apparent in the movie should be really read, at least that’s how we meant it, should be read as something that is not good. So whenever you see something that you think is fascist, you should know that the makers coincide with your opinion, thinking that it is not good. That is not a good statement, this is not good politics, and if you see a black uniform you should also know BAD! BAD! BAD! You know, it’s very simple, you should not read it any differently than that: we all agree with that, it’s bad. If you see Carl later in a black uniform, and when he makes certain statements, then you know that it’s bad.

...
"Violence, naked force, has resolved more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst."
PV: At the point where we are now, where he says that violence is the supreme authority that solves everything, which is of course questioned by Dizzy but then of course not accepted by him. You could of course say that, that these kind of statements are not so much going back to the Third Reich, I would say, but they are much more statements about American politics. I mean the whole movie is about the United States, ALL statements are about the United States. It’s not... or, any superpower for that sake, you know you could say as well for Russia ten years ago, or for China in the future, or, or... or for Germany in the past. But, it’s certainly also talking about American politics now, so it is really saying that, as we have perceived in the last 20, 30 years, that there is a tendency in American politics that if people disagree that we will use power, and violence--I mean it’s very apparent now in the conflict with Iraq, but also clear in any conflict in the Middle East, especially the overthrow of Iran’s government before the Shah, or, I... There‘re multiple examples of course, if it’s Panama or Vietnam, it’s just the idea that power and violence is always used at certain moments when things take too much time to solve in a more democratic way. And I think that’s what the movie, the statements, the political statements of the movie are about.

...

EN: Although it's probably pretty good that we went on and did show a battle, because I think that the audience for this movie also desperately wants the battle to start--
PV: But that would mean that the audience is fascist, Ed. That you... you cannot presume that.
EN: But.... But these, these films always evoke that in the audience, don’t they?
PV: I don’t know, of course it plays with, what you said in the beginning, that biologically fascist elements are perhaps available in the human species.
DejaMorgana: Powered armour is every teenaged geek's wet dream.

Starship Troopers is the story of an exhilarating and entirely unnecessary war. It is an action movie, and a mockery of all action movies. Its methods are as hackneyed and hopelessly transparent as George W. Bush's declaration of the presence of some "Axis of Evil" that must be either undermined or annihilated.

Last night, I had dinner with a gentleman who works in American military intelligence. Over lasagna and asparagus he sighed about the increasing difficulty of pressuring the Iraqi government; so many protesters on so many front pages of so many newspapers, this would strengthen Saddam Hussein's resolve. A united front, he said, a united front is what we need if we are to achieve our goals. And so it is for those whose job it is to make a nation "more powerful": that iron, awesome, picturesque manifestation of democracy, a motley throng of people with voices, this is and will always be an obstacle impeding the achievement of military goals, while at the same time redeeming humanity in as much as is attainable. "War inevitably makes fascists of us all," Paul Verhoeven tells us. And it is the intoxication of war that we cannot cease to love, for some biological inclination. And once war has begun, in order for there to be any complete application of a nation to war, in order for there to be a maximization of military strength, democracy, first, must die.


Quotes from the DVD, which I highly recommend.
There have been some truly impressive writeups on these works (the book and the film). /me bows to DejaMorgana, graymocker and Jackson Mayhem. I just wanted to inject a few tidbits that rolled to the edge of the table in the critical feast above.

First, I'd like to address the point that Verhoeven's version lacks one of the central pieces of the book - namely, powered armor. DejaMorgana's well-done dissection of the military laughability of the movie serves to support the notion that this storyline in some manner rests upon the powered armor. I'd like to expand on this and tie it into the sociopolitical commentary angle.

Starship Troopers is, in many senses, about a war that never happened. It's about a war between the 1950s Heinlein-idealized New Democratic Man and the Godless Communists, but not in the form of the Soviets - rather, in the form of the Chinese Communists, a more monolithic and 'faceless' threat than the USSR ever was. Moreover, the one resource that the PRC seemed to have in infinite numbers, the thing that gave them an 'edge' in a territorial war with the West, was population. They simply had enormous numbers of soldiers. The soldiers were poorly equipped, and not as able as their Western counterparts to wield firepower due to this. Furthermore, in the 1950s American view of communist indoctrination, blind obedience to orders was believed to be a large component of their society. This was seen as an advantage in a military environment.

A large portion of the book is concerned with the training and indoctrination of the cap trooper - in this case, Juan Rico and colleagues. Heinlein's central theme can be seen in the following quote, badly paraphrased from memory:

"It takes a minimum of eighteen months to train a human to fight as an integrated member of a team. Bug warriors are hatched able to do this. If a thousand Bugs die for every MI who falls, it's a net victory for the Bugs."

In other words, the very qualities that make the New Democratic Man so powerful in civil society - independent thought, questioning of authority (note: this is not the same as distrust of authority), and individual strength of will and mind - are all counterproductive to his acting as a member of a unit.

On top of that, it has taken eighteen years (minimum) to train said NewDem to be this Renaissance Man, capable of participating in the government and industry of his society. In other words, this individual is valuable. He or she is impossible to recreate, and difficult to replace. To protect this valuable person, and to allow them to fully exercise the advantage of their technology-rich and resource-wealthy society and industrial complex, Heinlein not only made them fight as individuals-in-a-team but gave them the powered armor. This armor is the final piece of the 'individuals are valuable' equation. Every description of the stuff harps on how it makes one person (that is, one person who is capable of using it and acting as a team member) the equivalent of dozens or hundreds of not only individual soldiers not so equipped, but even today's war machines - "It's not a tank, but a single trooper could have singlehandedly taken on and disposed of a regiment of those silly things."

So, to recap - on one side of this titanic struggle, we have the humans. They field smart, trained, strong-willed and capable warriors, seasoned with eighteen years of training in everything from how to move their limbs to History and Moral Philosophy. Their warriors carry on their backs the sum total of the technology of destruction - able to carry out immense physical feats of war. They are able to smite as Gods, and trained to decide as Gods (at least, the officers are) on the battlefield.

Against them, the Arachnids field a force of infinitely-replaceable moving parts - the Bug warriors and workers. Created 'on demand', the Bug is not so much a warrior as it is ammunition. The struggle is designed to demonstrate that the New Democratic Individualist, armed with the riches of technology, is able to defeat the Communist leader, armed with the lives of his subordinates above all else. That is, it's futile to try to send dominated slaves against the American! While you can pile up enough bodies to take down the New Dem soldier, you can't pile up enough bodies to take down their system - and their system is composed of the ideas and actions of the individuals.

This is why (in my opinion) so many feel that the powered armor is so crucial to the proper telling of the tale. It allows for a single, critical storytelling trick to take place. In almost every confrontation in the book, Mobile Infantry engage vast hordes of the enemy alone. They are working as a team, with others in their unit invisible over the horizon, or hidden behind buildings, or what-have-you, yes; however, they fight alone. They have to; in one briefing, Rico notes that his weapons choices in anything other than a carefully planned, mobile raid are severely limited, because their power means that firing at anything not close and grounded endangers cap troopers over the horizon. This reinforces the entire metaphor alone. In the opening sequence of the book, Juan Rico proves that he, alone, is equivalent to the nations of the 1950s by not only laying waste to large portions of a city using his suit's built-in weapons, but by choosing to carry out, and implementing, a nuclear strike.

Here is where Verhoeven's version departs so radically. The problem with this model, for film, is that it is boring. If most of the action involves single powered armor suited MI taking on thousands of Bugs, the simple mechanical action of killing Bugs will get boring, very quickly. Rico even tells us that it gets boring for him; he starts inventing ways to do it without wasting ammo or jet fuel, using just his hands when possible. I'm not defending Verhoeven's choices, but I can understand some of them; he's making a movie. Not just a movie, but (in his mind, at least) a satire that rests on its ability to suck its audience into an entertaining sequence of events to the point where they 'miss' the thrust of the script initially. Given this, you simply can't have powered armor; it'll ruin the film entirely no matter what you do.

On another note, one problem with filming powered armor suits is that there is no way in hell you could have a suit that could believably do what those suits can - and still have the viewer be able to see the wearer's face. You can't in the book. While there are technological fixes for this for some forms of environmental encumbrance (see The Abyss for example) there's simply no way to do it here.

Finally, there's the simple question of budget. Each CGI powered armor suit would likely involve a budget similar to that spent on the hordes of soon-to-splat extras that swarmed across the scenes of the movie.

Moving on, I will say (with deference to DejaMorgana) that there is no excuse for the complete and utter ludicrousness of the Federation 'military' in Verhoeven's version. Once the powered armor was removed, there was no need to make the whole crew into the Keystone Kops of War in order to make their situation dire and tense! Basic training looked like a set for a Fox Reality Show: EIGHTIES SCIFI PAINTBALL SURVIVOR COMBAT! Tactics were nonexistent, decisionmaking was stupid, and even the weapons were employed poorly. We're not even going to go into the whole 'massive formations of vulnerable slowly-moving starships' routine.

So, to sum up an excessively long-winded writeup, there are reasons why Heinlein needed powered armor, and reasons why Verhoeven couldn't show it. This doesn't make the movie excusable, as I've noted; it merely illuminates the problem. Personally, I feel that if a sociopolitical satire were what Verhoeven was aiming for, then the combat scenes were almost entirely unnecessary, especially in that form - more suggestive, chaotic, personal experiences of violent dystropy serving to break up more contemplative and explicative sequences would have worked. It worked for Heinlein, after all. There isn't that much combat in Starship Troopers (the novel) - and what there is isn't described in great detail (other than the introductory 'teaser'). Sure, the methods and means are - but not the brouhaha itself.

The sole reason that the power armor was not included was because of budget. Not because it might have been a rip-off of Robocop. Not because it destroyed the supposed satire. Pure money problems. Sony decreed a budget of $95 million and put a hard cap on that, what with a no-name cast and a director whose last film was an absolute disaster. CGI tests were done to see if the suits could have worked with such a (relatively) low budget, but it proved to be completely unfeasible. Remember, this was 1997 and the cost of rendering hundreds of CG humanoid figures fighting thousands of CG bugs would have been astronomical and taken far too much time.

I really feel that the quality of a satire depends upon the ability of the audience to understand what it is. I love this book, and I saw the movie on opening weekend in a theatre packed full of teenage and college guys. It was a loud, raucous event and easily some of the most fun I have ever had in a movie. Nothing in the trailer, advertising, or pre-release press indicated that this was a satire. Everything emphasized balls-out action. None of the critics reviewing the film seemed to take notice of satire and no one I have spoken with that has seen the film has come away with that. Is everyone just an idiot in the face of Paul Verhoeven’s genius?

I don’t deny that this film contains some tiny elements of satire, as do some of Verhoeven’s other American films. The film clips are obviously a play on the “Why We Fight” propaganda films of World War II, and they are hilarious. But this doesn’t come across as the main thrust of the movie, instead just delivering on what the commercials and pre-release interviews promised us: mindless action. Verhoeven also decides to toss in reference several other violent films: The song that Ace plays on his violin at the party is also featured in The Wild Bunch and the battle in the compound is almost an exact remake of the climatic battle from Zulu.

As for the whole DVD commentary track, the key for the people taking part is to usually put the film in the best possible light. I would take anything said with a grain of salt. Does Roger Christian really think that Battlefield Earth is a beautiful, artistic film? Did Michael Lehmann have loads of fun going over budget and being pushed around by Bruce Willis on Hudson Hawk? Please!

It also looks like that a sequel is being readied that will be directed by special effects wizard Phil Tippet. Why do I get the feeling that it’s not going to be a Dogma film about man’s inhumanity to man.

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