Here we have yet another example of a sci-fi book adapted to film, with significant changes being made! And, much like with Blade Runner and 2001: Space Odyssey, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Whereas the novel was an in-depth look at the timeless nature of military service with some rather interesting social commentary thrown in, the movie was all about a war with a hostile alien species. In the book, there really wasn’t much about the Bugs or humanity’s fight with them by comparison. Rather than being the focal point of the story, it operated as a sort of background to the main premise, which was the armed forces and their role in society. So its not surprising that in adapting the book to the big screen, they chose to focus on the war stuff and gloss over the rest. While this allowed for a more entertaining movie, it didn’t come without its share of consequences.
Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, the movie was to have a polarizing effect on audiences and critics, much like the original novel. Though Heinlein was a gifted author and one of the “Big Three” of science fiction (along with Asimov and Clarke) I can honestly say that Starship Troopers was not his best work. But it was the themes and the central message of the book that seemed to divide the critical and the general reception it got. Was he advocating violence without a second thought and a quasi-fascist social code, or simply depicting a future society in which these things came to be? Was he serious when he said that how violence had solved more problems in history than any other means? Or was he being cynical or facetious? Who knows? In fact, Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers largely to explain and defend his feelings about the military and nuclear policy. Much like his feelings, the book was nuanced, and was therefore likely to elicit mixed reactions.
In any case, the movie had the same effect on audiences. Some were mad that it wasn’t faithful to the original novel – no doubt because of all the pretty actors and actresses and all that love triangle crap – while others were happy for the changes, hailing it for its action, costumes, settings and the way it expanded on the Bug War. Me? I kind of fall in the middle camp. While I appreciate the acting and the fact that we actually got to see much of what was explained being acted out, I didn’t much care for the cast or the teenage-type drama. I felt that it was a good effort, and a fitting addition to Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi lineup (director of such movies as Robocop and Total Recall). Still, it would have benefited from a different cast and some script changes, though it would have definitely done less well as the box office as a result. In the end, its best when filed under guilty pleasures; kind of like Independence Day, but with way less cheese!
Oh, and for the record, I will NOT be getting into this movie’s sequels! Far as I’m concerned, the less said about them the better! I’ve caught snippets and what I saw was so demoralizing, I knew I couldn’t sit through the whole thing. I can’t even begin to wonder what the hell the producers were thinking there! So… avoiding those, let’s get into the first and, as far as I’m concerned, only Starship Troopers movie worth mentioning!
So this bad boy opens with a scene from Klendathu, the battle scene on the Bug homeworld that’s pretty important later on in the movie. This set up does much to establish tension and give us a preview of the movie’s later carnage. Then, cut to the comparatively domestic scene of Johnny Rico (played by Casper Van Dien) in his high school History and Moral Philosophy class. Here, we get a watered down version of what Heinlein said in the original book, emphasizing the quasi-fascist morality of voting and violence, and sans the moral responsibility stuff. But what are you gonna do? This movie is an action film, talking about the legitimacy of violence can only be seen as a set-up for how they plan to deal with a hostile alien species, one that does not understand mercy, coexistence or peace. And of course, that annoying triangle I mentioned is clear even at this point. Johnny loves Carmen (Denise Richards), Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) loves Johnny, and Carmen… she wants to be a pilot. We get an earful on the Federation and how service entitles one to basic rights – like voting – something civilians don’t enjoy, and in the course of a futuristic football scene, we see Carmen get all gaga for some dude who is a naval pilot.
In the ensuring scenes, during graduation and a whole lot of expository talk about life decisions, it becomes painfully obvious what’s going to happen. Carmen is going to join the Federation, Johnny is going to join to follow her, Dizzy is going to join to follow him, and Carmen is going to dump Rico. We also meet Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris), who is a latent psychic and is joining and getting bumped to the top because of his abilities. It’s also obvious that he’s going to develop the ability to psychically communicate with people. Why? Because he said he couldn’t… yet! And of course, Johnny and Carmen are annoying as hell. That might be prejudice on my part, but I have a hard time taking anything Denise Richards does seriously. Casper Van Diem? Can’t get past that cleft chin! And frankly, he looks the part of the clean-cut American teenager too well! And with a name like Johnny Rico, someone who’s actually Latino would have seemed like a better bet. Having these pretty cardboard cut-outs as stand-ins might have been effective as an ironic statement, pitting beauty against the ugliness of war. But that’s just not what I got from this. Seems the beauty was meant to be a box-office draw, the violence strictly for entertainment purposes. Didn’t really get the sense that there was any real meaning or depth at work there.
Quick sidenote: NONE of this happened in the novel! For starters, Johnny did have feelings for a girl named Carmen, but she was NOT his girlfriend nor even a central character, nor did she figure that prominently in his decision to join the Federation. In addition, Dizzy Flores was a MAN! Yes, in the novel this woman who was in fact a fellow grunt in the Mobile Infantry, not some love-sick girl who followed Johnny into the service (and incidentally, to her death). Oh, and the man who was Johnny’s moral philosophy teacher, Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside) was not the same man who led the Roughnecks! In the novel, it was a man named DuBois (a stand-in for Heinlein himself) who was the teacher. Rasczak was a commander he would later meet, and who would promptly die off during the Klendathu battle. This last aspect I can understand. Having his teacher return later in the book as his CO makes sense, since the teacher was a citizen in both the book and movie. And killing him off promptly wouldn’t make much sense, not if you plan on expanding on the action. But the rest… yeah, box-office draw!
Oh, and I should also mention that whereas the novel was nuanced in its approach, the movie was not. Clearly, Verhoeven chose to go with the quasi-fascist school of thought on this one. Regardless of what he thought about Heinlein message, he clearly thought the movie would be more effective if the whole issue of service and citizenship were presented in very rigid terms. Civilians have few rights, society is informed by propaganda reels instead of independent news sources, and those who serve are “meat for the grinder” (an actual line from the recruiting sergeant!). While this proved interesting at times, it was not in keeping with the message of the book. In some cases, these elements were wholesale inventions of the writers and not mere exaggerations on what was in the novel. Still, they did at times feel like a fitting commentary on the nature of war and social issues, which WAS in keeping with the spirit of the novel (if not the actual content).
Anyway, we soon get to the myriad of scenes where Rico is receiving his training at the hands Sgt. Zim (masterfully protrayed by Clancy Brown). He and his buds are run through a training regimen that is far more brutal than anything in the novel (constant cries of “medic!” demonstrate this point) but the point here is clearly to draw parallels with the kinds of brutal discipline which the Marines and other elite military units are notorious for. We also get scenes of Carmen’s comparatively cushy experiences, and in the course of her video correspondence with Rico, she of course sends him a Dear John. This, coupled with a terrible accident in which a grunt dies, causes Rico to resign. He, however, changes his mind when a sudden and unprovoked attack (echoes of Pearl Harbor) destroys his home of Beunos Aires and kills his folks. Again, not in the book people! While Rico’s training was explored at length in the novel, there was none of this high-drama stuff where he got dumped, felt responsible for getting someone killed, and took a whole bunch of whippings. Nor did he suddenly quit, only to have walk out interrupted by a declaration of war. In addition, his folks did not die in the attack. In fact, he went on to meet his father later in the novel when he himself enlisted so he could do his part for the war. This served as a resolution between Rico and his father in the novel, after the latter disowned him for joining the military against his wishes. But, like I said, high-drama! It was effective, of course; each and every one of us was probably thinking “he can’t quit now! It’s payback time!” And the news reel that followed in the wake of the attack was very effective at parodying war propaganda films, something they did often in the film. Like many elements, it gives us a sense of the timelessness of war, while at the same time highlighting the quasi-fascist nature of the Federation.
Oh, and did I mention that somewhere in between all that we got the infamous coed shower scene? Now why was it that this scene was so totally over-hyped! Are audiences really this smut-obsessed and/or puritanical? I mean really people, we saw a few breasts and Van Dien’s ass! What’s all the hubbub about? Word is that Verhoeven even got undressed while shooting just to show the actors that it wasn’t that big a deal. How’s that for irony? And considering what he got Sharon Stone and Elizabeth Berkley to do in Basic Instinct and Showgirls, this was NOTHING! Why then should this have been such a focal point when it came to the movie’s reception? But that’s Hollywood for ya. A little T&A and suddenly everybody starts going gaga and losing their minds!
Moving on, after a few minor scenes with a reunion between Rico and Carmen, Rico brawling with her new pilot boyfriend (showing the obvious conflict between the services) and the grunts getting tattoos that say “Death From Above” (a common war slogan meant to draw parallels with past wars), we cut to the battle scene at Klendathu. And as I said earlier, this first action scene was a big improvement on the book. For one, we actually get to see the fighting! Second, the Bugs are presented as a hostile swarm, not as semi-intelligent things with actual lasers mounted to their limbs (as they were in the book). I have to say I approve of this take on things, either the Bugs are an individually sentient species or a hive mind. Can’t have it both ways! Second, the scene is a faithful recreation of an invasion, reminiscent of D-Day and Iwo Jima any other “storming the beach” kind of scenario. It’s full of tension, the usual last-minute reassurances (“remember your training and you will make it back alive”), the lull as the troops hit the ground and wait for the shooting… and then, the shooting! Oh, the shooting! Yes, for the next few minutes, carnage ensues as the Bugs counter-attack, the MI get the crap kicked out of them and are forced to beat a hasty retreat. And, fulfilling the preview from the beginning, Rico gets mortally wounded, on camera no less! In orbit, the fleet does little better, getting schmucked by plasma streams – reminiscent of AAA and Flack – and are also forced to withdraw. Cue the hospital scene immediately afterwards, with all kinds of gore and a massive list full of MIA and KIA scrolling by on a huge wall screen to drive the point home. “The Bugs don’t take prisoners,” says Mr. Navy pilot man. Yeah, we get it, it was a disaster!
But of course, Rico is alive. Turns out his listing as KIA was a clerical error or something (another familiar army theme!) Another reunion follows as they get reassigned to the Rough Necks and find that their former teacher, Mr. Rasczak, is the CO. Yep, they are now part of Rasczak’s Roughnecks! WHOO! And true to form, Michael Ironside is missing a limb. That guy always seems to be losing limbs in Verhoeven’s movies! And at this point, its a clear indication of what service to the Federation means, aka. sacrifice! They take part in a new mission designed to gather intel, Rico and Flores have their hot sex scene, and then we cut to a pitch battle where they are forced to defend a fort while waiting for emergency evac. As plot contrivances would have it, their rescue just happens to be Carmen and her pilot beau! Yet another reunion! And of course, Ironside loses MORE limbs and dies as Rico is forced to kill him, Dizzy is killed too, and Rico is left crestfallen but hardened. Seems he’s finally learned what it means to be a citizen! Good for him! Too bad Dizzy had to die in order to get into Rico’s pants though. But according to her, as she said while bleeding out on the shuttle’s floor, it was worth it. And I thought guys were willing to die to get laid!
After her funeral we get another (wait for it!) REUNION, as NPH walks in wearing what is clearly an SS officer’s uniform. More quasi-fascist symbolism! And just to make it clear that he’s become an unfeeling Machiavellian dick, his eyes are sunken in and he talks like a real hard-ass now. “Oh, I’m sorry, you don’t approve (of my methods). Well that’s too bad! We’re in this for the species, boys and girls! It all comes down to numbers, they have more!” And of course, he lets them in on their plan. Seems they believe there is a sort of “brain bug” on the planet below, that each colony of drones has one that runs it like a hive mind. Which means they got another mission to fly: attack, and capture the brain! Rico, having come up through the ranks, is now CO of the Roughnecks – Rico’s Roughneck! Whoo! Convenient that his name starts with an R, keeping the tradition of alliteration alive! Naturally, events conspire to place Carmen in harms way. Her ship is destroyed by that same plasma-AAA, a little reminder that the Fleet has it tough too! And she and her beau crash land on the planet and are taken prisoner by the brain. It sucks out her beau’s brains (ick!) and is about to do her in too. But luckily, Rico and his squad come to her rescue, guided by NPH’s ability to telepathically communicate with humans now (told you he’d figure it out!). And they have one final (do I even need to say it?) reunion on the field of battle. And they even bring back Sgt. Zim, seems he’s busted himself to private just so he could get into combat and capture the brain bug himself! So, with their reunion complete, the movie ends with a propaganda reel telling the people of Earth to enlist because they need more bodies! Rico, Carmen and NPH all get some screen time as examples of what to live up to, cue the war music and roll credits!
Okay, so the things I liked about this film. Yes, the propaganda reels and the familiar war themes were pretty effective. Rather than being a cheap way to elicit emotions (the way Emmerich does with landmarks), it felt like there was some genuine attempts to get into the collective unconscious and call up the memory of wars past. Ultimately, it felt like the goal here was to keep with the spirit of Heinlein’s novel and show how conflict is timeless and how our experience of it mirrors those of people in the past. Things like unprovoked attacks, military disasters, recruiting drives, propaganda and inspirational pieces… all of these are common experiences and got a pretty good treatment by Verhoeven. While Verhoeven’s interpretation of the Federation as a militarized and obviously right-wing state was also debatable, he did do a good job demonstrating just how it would look and feel for those living in it. It was done subtly, much like he had done with Robocop, the viewer is not told these things as much as shown them, giving them the freedom to figure it out on their own. And the action scenes were pretty damn good! Especially the attack on Klendathu, that one really set a good tone. You really got the rah rah tempo as the MI are hitting the ground and running into the fight, and you felt pretty let down in the aftermath when it became clear what a disaster it was. “100,000 dead in the first hour” said the propaganda reel in the very next scene. 100,000? Damn! Just like Dieppe, Omaha Beach, and Iwo Jima, only not real! Also, the one-liners that were ripped from history. Like “Death from Above”, a slogan that was coined by the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne in World War II, and popularized by the film Apocalypse Now. Or “C’mon you apes, you wanna live forever?”, a paraphrasing of Sgt Dan Daley seminal words: “C’mon you sons-of-bitches, do you want to live forever!” at the Battle of Belleau Wood in WWI. And as for “Everybody fights, nobody quits” or “Fleet does the flying, Mobile Infantry does the dying”… probably all Heinlein, but good lines nonetheless!
Also, with regards to another major difference between the novel and the movie: fans of the former could not have failed to notice that the MI were fighting in body armor and firing rifles and bazookas, whereas in the novel they were in powered armor and used all kinds of weapons. Slug throwers, flame throwers, lasers, tactical nukes. This change probably offended some, but I have to imagine the studios felt that this kind of thing wasn’t too practical. For one, its hard to create the sense of a grand battle, the kind that reminds one of D-Day, Iwo Jima and Hamburger Hill, if you’ve got small groups of soldiers in big suits jetpacking around. That kind of technology naturally calls for smaller attack squads, not a massive hoard of grunts throwing themselves into a wholesale slaughter. Second, from a strictly technical standpoint, recreating this would have meant either meant some expensive animatronics or just a whole lot of CGI. The Bugs were already being digitally added, so if they were faithful to the book, chances are they’d have gone the cheaper route and done all the action sequences on computer. That would kind of be a rip for the actors and would have made the battles look a lot less realistic. And speaking of CGI, this was yet another thing that the movie did right. I have no idea which company provided the digital effects, but they were good! Even now, the effects still stand up and look impressive. At no point do you really feel like, “holy crap, that looked totally fake!” And I’ve said as much of some of the Star Wars prequels, and that was with Lucasarts doing the effects!
Okay, now for the bad… First up, the cast: Casper Van Dien did a reasonably good job of acting, but as I’ve said already, he simultaneously doesn’t look the part and looks it too much. He’s too clean-cut, buffed-out, and that cleft chin of his is TOTALLY DISTRACTING! At the same time, there’s no way in hell this guy’s a Johnny Rico. Rico is a Latino name, the boy’s from Buenos Aires! Much the same is true of Denise “Who did I have to screw to become a star” Richards and Dina Meyer. Whereas Meyer is a good actress and veteran of sci-fi, Richards is a one-trick pony who does nothing but smile and look wooden! More to the point, neither of them look Argentinian, and with names like Ibanez and Flores, you kind of get the impression that they should! Might seem like a minor point, but I truly felt that this clean-cut white cast was a whitewash! Did the studios think they wouldn’t be able to sell as many tickets if they used people other than these shiney-happy poster children? As I said at the beginning, this might have been a neat point if the idea was to contrast such homey looking people with the realities of war and a militarized state. It might have even been cool as a subtle parallel between the Federation and the Aryanism of the Nazis. But I mean… c’mon! I think we can all agree that Verhoeven and the producers were just hedging their bets. Some pretty faces and partial nudity to bring in the teens, some deeper themes to pacify the critics and Heinlein fans. But ultimately, the movie erred on the side of pandering and angered critics and Heinlein fans for the most part. That’s what you get when you hedge your bets. So don’t hedge em, people, place em! Even if the end products sucks, you’ll know it sucked honestly.
Also, there’s the matter of the plot being full of reunions and convenient plot twists that are simply annoying! In an entire universe full of soldiers, pilots and service people, how is it that these four friends from Buenos Aires keep meeting up? And the final scene where Rico, Carmen and Carl are all together and its like “we all knew we’d be best friends forever” is just plain dumb! For one, one of the four is dead! To boot, she’s dead because she loved Rico and followed him into the service, and hence the war. In short, Rico’s unrequited love is kinda responsible for her death, and she died saying it was worth it because she finally got to have him. Are you seriously telling me he would have absolutely no feelings about that? And of course there’s the whole love triangle thing, which in the first place is annoying and childish! I get that some drama was needed in the course of the adaptation (the novel was kinda dry!), but this was not the way to go about it. Something a little less teeny-bopper would have been just as effective, and probably way more respectable.
Aside from that, the plot is relatively solid, moving between segments that tell us about the war, the Bugs, and the Federation without getting bogged down in the myriad descriptions that Heinlein’s book focused on. This much I liked because it focused on what, for me, seemed what the book itself was supposed to be about. Aka. the Bug War, and not a detailed description of the armed services in the future. I have since learned that Heinlein had a purpose in writing this book other than just creating a fantastical story about aliens and ships, but with a name like Starship Troopers, you figure its supposed to be a war movie with an actual war. Anyone adapting this movie to film would likely be inclined to follow the same course Verhoeven did, making it a cool shoot-em up with some relatable themes about the timelessness of war.
But in the end, Verhoeven and his movie managed to succeed financially, even though he pissed off a lot of critics and Heinlein fans in the process. The movie was a big box office draw, it remains a sort of cult hit for some, and for people like me (and I do believe I am in the majority here) it’s an enduring guilty pleasure. Even though it was followed by some horrible, horrible sequels (which I will not speak of further!) and was the beginning of Denise Richard’s appalling career, the movie was still fun, enjoyable, and had just enough going on to be somewhat respectable… at times. Hell, just talking about it makes me kinda watch it again. Maybe I shall, maybe I shall…
Entertainment Value: 8/10