''Starship Troopers'' (1997 film)

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The 1997 film, Starship Troopers, had great special effects.

That's about the only positive thing I can say about it.

If one has never read the novel that it is very loosely based on, one might be tempted to give it a rating of 2 or 3 out of 5. If, having read the novel, one can somehow forget that this is an adaptation of the novel, one might be able to watch it without feeling nauseated. This is because the director, Paul Verhoeven, produced a film that is more an anti-American polemic than anything else. I gather that Verhoeven hates militarism, and this hatred leads him down certain paths. Fair enough. But he never read past the first chapter of the novel. It is as if he had only read the first chapter of Austen's Pride and Prejudice and somehow imagined that having done this, he could produce a film accurately depicting 19th century English society. Verhoeven's Starship Troopers is even less true to Heinlein's original novel than the film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is to Jane Austen's masterpiece of English literature.

Verhoeven never read the novel's backstory, and thus never knew that Heinlein had devised a complex fictional "future history" that involved a devastating worldwide war in the far future. 700 years hence, in fact. And that the events that followed that war produced a world society significantly different from our modern times — one that had changed enormously from what we know today. And those events led to a form of government that were the results of the terrible experiences of that future war and its aftermath. If Dutchman Verhoeven had been born in 1330, growing up under the sway of various Habsburg dukes and emperors, and was then sent forward 700 years in time to modern Netherlands, he would have had a coronary at the shape of society. Among other things, he would be wondering whatever happened to all the royalty, nobility, the serfs, the horses, and the horse dung! And what about those dikes!? Thus, Verhoeven, unable to see the far future that the novel depicts, assumes that it is to be understood as he understands his own time. Verhoeven, in other words, is a hopelessly lost presentist. To be fair, Verhoeven's goal with this film was definitely not to make a more-or-less faithful film version of the novel. Verhoeven was using the film to advance and portray his own political/cultural viewpoints.

Militarism and Fascism

Some critics have accused the novel of promoting militarism, fascism, and military rule. Which the film satirizes by featuring bombastic displays of nationalism and propagandizing. The film does this, among other ways, by giving soldiers military uniforms that closely resemble those of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Verhoeven stated in 1997 that the first scene of the film — which is an advertisement for the Mobile Infantry — was modelled shot-for-shot from a scene in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935), a propaganda piece created for Nazi Germany by Hitler's favorite film director.

But the society that Heinlein invented for Starship Troopers is most decidedly not fascist. Robert Heinlein was an unapologetic enthusiast for democratic principles. His posthumously published book, Take Back Your Government!: A Practical Handbook for the Private Citizen Who Wants Democracy to Work, makes that very clear. The society written of in Starship Troopers is a democratic republic, wherein citizens vote and can hold elected public office all the way up to the highest levels — it is by no means a dictatorship. He never describes the government in detail, but he makes it clear that all adults have the same basic freedoms (of speech, religion, ownership of property and so on) that we know and love in the 21st century.

The only glaring difference between the requirements for full citizenship in that fictional future society and ours is that merely being born does not qualify one to vote. One must instead, successfully complete a term of government service, usually but not necessarily in the military. The reason for this restriction is explained in one chapter when the protagonist, Johnny Rico, goes to officer candidate school. The reason turns out to be a result of how society reformed, basically from scratch, after a particularly devastating world war. One of his instructors posits that rule by military veterans is the ideal form of government, because they are likely among the few who understand how to put collective well-being above the individual. But that instructor also makes clear that the main justification for their form of government is that "it works."

Was Heinlein advocating for the political society he described in the novel? Others may differ, but I don't believe he was. He was simply illustrating one way in which society could successfully restructure itself after a disaster. Heinlein, a medically-retired US Navy officer, had always had an appreciation of the military and its role in society. In an essay written in 1980, published posthumously in the volume Expanded Universe, Heinlein agreed that Starship Troopers "glorifies the military ... Specifically the P.B.I., the Poor Bloody Infantry, the mudfoot who places his frail body between his loved home and the war's desolation — but is rarely appreciated... he has the toughest job of all and should be honored." This sentiment echoes the words of Rudyard Kipling, who describes the misappreciation of the soldier by his country:

For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an` "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's " Saviour of 'is country " when the guns begin to shoot;
— From the poem Tommy by Rudyard Kipling

In the matter at hand, then, Paul Verhoeven is the one who shouts "Chuck him out, the brute!" Though he lived through it in his childhood, he has completely forgotten the British and American soldiers who freed his country from Nazi tyranny during World War II.

A Proposed Remake

On Wikipedia they note:

In December 2011, film producer Neal Moritz announced plans to remake the film[1]. In November 2016, Columbia and Moritz announced the writing team of Mark Swift and Damian Shannon had been signed to pen the screenplay[2]. Verhoeven has expressed skepticism at the proposed remake, citing reports that it draws heavily from the original "fascistic and militaristic" 1959 novel[3].

The Plots

I confess that Verhoeven does manage to track the plot of the novel to a good extent. Many things that happen in the book do happen in the film. A major difference is that while Heinlein made fairly liberal use of flashbacks, Verhoeven understandably goes with a strictly linear plot. So far so good. But if there is a way to mangle, twist and misconstrue what the novel is trying to say, Verhoeven finds it. Starship Troopers (the film) is a drunkwalking straw man of what Heinlein wrote.

Characters and Settings

Most of Heinlein's characters and settings can be found in the film. But they are mixed up in strange ways.


Main Characters

The film follows the careers of three of Heinlein's characters: Juan Rico; Carmen Ibáñez; and Carl Jenkins. Juan, more often called "Johnny", is the primary viewpoint character in both the novel and the film. Carmen and Carl appear in many important scenes throughout the film, but not in the novel. In the novel, Carl appears only in the opening chapters, especially for the scene of the three friends enlisting in Federal Service, but he doesn't appear any time thereafter, and is only mentioned once, as having been killed in a Bug raid on a research station on Pluto. Carmen is mentioned as having written letters to Juan while she was in pilot training, but appears only once more when she visits Juan during his officer training.

Character Heinlein Verhoeven
Juan Rico Johnny is Filipino (implied by his mother tongue, which is Tagalog). He is intelligent enough, but doesn't apply himself particularly well, having completed high school as a very average student. Played by Casper Van Dien, he is as European as can be. Van Dien is a descendant of the old Dutch settlers who founded New York City (then called New Amsterdam) and looks nothing like a Filipino.
Carmen Ibáñez Carmen is a schoolmate of Juan Rico, and by her name and location is probably also Filipina. Carmen is intelligent, pretty, and very personable. Played by Denise Richards, a European super-model type. Definitely pretty, and she plays the character very personably and intelligently.
Carl Jenkins Carl is a schoolmate of Juan and Carmen, and is a particular buddy of Juan's. With this name he might not be of Filipino descent, but the novel occurs 700 years in the future, so surnames and ethnicity may not mean much any longer. He is portrayed as highly intelligent, and knowledgeable in mathematics and physics. Played by Neil Patrick Harris, and this casting, at least, seems to correspond with how he is written in the novel. But he clearly possesses the ability to communicate mentally with animals, to the extent of being able to implant simple ideas in their minds. This is used later in the film, but Heinlein stopped well short of anyone in the novel having such abilities.

While the casting leaves much to be desired, as far as ethnicity is concerned, I gladly concede that Van Dien, Richards and Harris do excellent work with the material they were given. I know some critics wrote of "wooden" performances, but I have to roll my eyes over their opinions. None of the actors in this film do poor jobs in their performances.

Subsidiary Characters

Character Heinlein Verhoeven
Lieutenant Rasczak / Jean V. Dubois The commander of the Mobile Infantry platoon called "Rasczak's Roughnecks". He is later killed in action during a raid, while attempting to make recovery of one of his wounded platoon members. In the book, Dubois appears in flashbacks as Juan Rico's high school teacher and a letter from him is instrumental in Juan's decision not to resign from the service. Dubois was a retired lieutenant colonel in the Mobile Infantry. Verhoeven combines these two characters into one, played by Michael Ironside. We see him first at events at the school, and later, after the Bug War starts, he goes back on active duty. Juan, now assigned to his platoon, later euthanizes him at his own request after he loses his legs in a battle.
Fleet Sergeant Zim He is Juan's basic training drill sergeant, but later, having been transferred from training back to the fleet, serves under officer cadet "temporary third-lieutenant" Juan Rico as his platoon sergeant. He is instrumental in capturing a brain Bug, which ultimately does not survive. Played by Clancy Brown, he is Juan's drill sergeant, but towards the end of the film he is a private, having requested demotion in order to serve in combat. He captures a brain Bug, and Neil Patrick Harris's character, Colonel Jenkins, reads its mind to announce that it is afraid. It apparently survives to be experimented upon.
"Dizzy" Flores This character appears as a male, a fellow member of "Rasczak's Roughnecks" who is killed in action in the first chapter. Played by Dina Myers, the character is female and a love interest of Juan Rico. She appears in the first part of the film as a schoolmate of Juan's, and joins the service in order to be with him. She is killed in action towards the latter part of the film.
"Emilio Rico / Bill Rico Emilio Rico is Juan Rico's father, a very wealthy businessman. Juan comments to himself that his father is rich enough to buy the school and give it to him as a birthday present. He opposes Juan's enlistment, and tries to bribe him away from the idea with a vacation to Mars. After Juan's mother is killed in a Bug attack while visiting relatives in Buenos Aires, Emilio joins the Mobile Infantry (unbeknownst to Juan, who assumes both his parents were killed), and eventually ends up as his platoon sergeant when Juan becomes the commander of "Rico's Roughnecks." Played by Christopher Curry, the character's name is Bill. He and Juan's mother are both killed in Buenos Aires when the Bugs destroy it with a meteorite. Juan was about to resign from the service, and this event makes him change his mind.

Turning novels into films always involves compromises. Sometimes the compromises are sensible, but other times they are not. Characters are combined, left out entirely, or are used in entirely different (and surprising) ways. I suppose I shouldn't complain too much about the character changes in this film. But I do anyway.