''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.

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. In fact, he looks like he could have been taken from an idealized military recruiting poster.
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, personable, and smart enough to be a spaceship pilot.
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, 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.