At some point after Stargate but before the Star Wars prequels came Starship Troopers. The most underrated science fiction film of the 1990s made landfall across Earth in 1998. Would you like to know more? Join Chris Hallam as he goes on a bug hunt…
A war correspondent in full futuristic military uniform reports straight to camera from a battle scene. His location is on one of the bug meteors in the Klendathu system, whose deadly inhabitants, the giant insectoid Arachnids have been launching a series of devastating attacks on the Earth.
“It is an ugly planet! A Bug Planet! A planet hostile to life…” he states before he is brutally attacked mid-rant by one of the Arachnids. He does not last long. As if personally insulted by his harsh words about its home world, the monster proceeds to tear him apart in full view of the camera
“Keep moving! Get out of here NOW!” a passing mobile infantryman – in fact, our hero Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) warns the cameraman – and thus in true B-movie style, us. Soon afterwards, another soldier and the cameraman are also attacked by the same creature. So, begins 1997’s science fiction romp, Starship Troopers, directed by Paul Verhoeven and based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel of the same name.
MAN VS BROOD
It’s a familiar story. Boy meets girl. Boy joins the Federal Service, where despite the opposition of his wealthy parents, he becomes a ‘Roughneck’ i.e. an infantry man. The girl becomes an ace space pilot, but living an entirely separate life, soon breaks up with the boy.
Okay: admittedly this isn’t a familiar story. It doesn’t really matter. For this is just the beginning. Soon the lives of Johnny and Carmen (Denise Richards) are transformed by the devastating war which erupts between the humans and the Arachnids. The various entanglements between, say, Johnny and fellow Roughneck “Dizzy” (Dina Meyer) soon fade into insignificance as the film becomes increasingly focused on the devastating physical confrontations between man and alien.
Or perhaps we should say “person vs alien”? For despite being directed by Paul Verhoeven, the man who brought the world Basic Instinct and Showgirls, the society in Starship Troopers is refreshingly lacking in prejudice based on gender or, indeed, race. Only the fictional species of giant killer insectoid aliens are treated badly. And criminals. And cows.
This liberal attitude extends to a scene in which many of the cast (including Dina Meyer) stripped off in front of the camera, for a unisex shower scene. Somewhat apprehensive, the young cast reportedly only agreed to this, if director Paul Verhoeven agreed to get naked himself while filming. Verhoeven, then overweight and fast approaching sixty was happy to do so. Thankfully, no images recording Verhoeven’s gesture seem to exist.
Actress Denise Richards who played Johnny’s initial love interest Carmen was crucially absent from this scene: in fact, her character was elsewhere, and it would have made no sense for her to have been involved. This did not stop the film and others such as Wild Things (1998), Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) and the Bond film, The World Is Not Enough (1999) launching Richards’ career as a major film star and sex symbol of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Neil Patrick Harris – then, best known for his early 90s teenage TV role as Doogie Hauser MD – plays Carl, the gang’s slightly geeky friend, who ultimately turns out to be psychic. Harris would achieve stardom only later. Today, it is he and Richards not Van Dien, Meyer or even established characters like the late Rue ‘Blanche from Golden Girls’ McClanahan and Michael Ironside, who are easily the most famous people in the entire film.
Has Starship Troopers dated? “Hell! Yes Sir!” Some of the CGI inevitably looks less impressive now than it did at the time. And while fighting aliens in space is still very much the stuff of science fiction, a viewer today in the ae of Zoom, would be forgiven for not noticing that Carmen’s electronic conversations with her long distance boyfriend, Johnny, were anything unusual when the film was made in the 1990s.
None of these things matter. For at the end of the day, watching Starship Troopers remains an enjoyable experience. The scenes of warriors doing battle as vast hordes of Arachnids can be seen teeming over the horizon remain exhilarating, exciting, gory and fun.
The film is also immeasurably boosted by the series of short, sombrely narrated state propaganda films supposedly created by the ruling regime which appear throughout. Presented in the style of Allied Second World War newsreels, while also attempting to deploy internet type technology (the web was still young in 1997), these somehow manage to seem both old-fashioned and futuristic at the same time.
They are undeniably intentionally funny but also give us a taste of the kind of society, Johnny Rico and his friends have grown up in. It is a society which is comfortable with child soldiers and which (like the modern USA) is perhaps a little bit too relaxed about preventing its children from getting their hands on guns. It is a society in which criminals are flogged and executed not just publicly, but on live TV. It is a society in which children are urged to stamp on harmless domestic spiders by war-mad teachers driven into a frenzy by government propaganda. And as we learn early on in Johnny’s civics class, it is a society where citizenship and the right to vote are not awarded automatically, but have to be earned.
The human society in the film, Starship Troopers live in an Americanised fascist state.
The question is, is this what creator Robert A Heinlein would have wanted, either for a film based on one of his books or for human society itself?
THE STATE THEY’RE IN
One day, in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands of the early 1940s, one member of the occupying forces decided to play a cruel game to pass the time. He pointed his gun at a small boy. The boy was naturally terrified and had wet himself publicly before the Nazi stopped.
The boy was Paul Verhoeven. And he never forgot it.
More than fifty years later, he directed Starship Troopers, a film which seemed to confuse many reviewers. Some (for example, the late Jeff Vice) seemed to miss the fact that it was set in a fascist state completely. Others did recognise this, but assumed Verhoeven was endorsing fascism.
The celebrated critic Roger Ebert gave the film two out five. “Starship Troopers” is the most violent kiddie movie ever made. I call it a kiddie movie not to be insulting, but to be accurate,” he wrote, clearly deliberately insulting it. “(Verhoeven) wants to depict the world of the future as it might have been visualized in the mind of a kid reading Heinlein in 1956.” The book was actually first published in 1959. Scott Rosenberg, writing in Salon was disappointed for different reasons. It “lacks the courage of the book’s fascist conclusions.”
Let us be clear: there is no doubt whatsoever about Verhoeven’s anti-fascist intentions in the film. Nor is there any doubt that the society he and screenwriter Edward Neumeier conceived is sufficiently right-wing to be considered fascist. The military are completely dominant. There is little evidence of democracy. Corporal and capital punishment are in use. The characters’ uniforms sometimes look fascistic in design too. By the end of the film, Neil Patrick Harris practically looks like a member of the Gestapo.
The satirical elements in the film are intended to give the viewer pause for thought, drawing attention to similarities between the US and this ultra-right-wing state.
On the other hand, it is easy to see how some people might get confused regarding the film’s attitudes to fascism. For one thing, as mentioned, the very worst aspects of fascism: the extreme racism and persecution of minority groups do not seem to exist here. Unlike every other Far Right state everyone seems refreshingly progressive when it comes to gender and race. The girls and boys fight … and shower… side by side. Even though many of the girls suffer excruciating deaths as they are impaled by Arachnids at least, as they do so they can take comfort from the fact that they are doing so on equal terms with the chaps.
It also must be said that things do seem to function pretty well in the world of Starship Troopers. Everything seems to be almost perfectly set up to counter the Arachnid threat. One wonders if a more democratic, less military society would be so well prepared to combat an alien menace, particularly if they were more constrained by inhibitions over gender and race.
Actor Michael Ironside, played high school teacher turned Roughneck unit commander, Jean Rasczak recalls being puzzled by Verhoeven’s attitude.
“Why are you doing a right-wing fascist movie?” He asked. Verhoeven replied: “If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn’t work, no one will listen to me.” He continued: “So, I’m going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it’s only good for killing fucking Bugs!”
Many fans of the book had another objection to the film. They didn’t appreciate the implication that Heinlein was a fascist at all. It seems unlikely Heinlein would have appreciated that label either. However, he had died in 1988.
If the novel and film of Starship Troopers are very different, it is perhaps not surprising. The director hadn’t read the book.
“I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring,” Verhoeven admits. “It is really quiet a bad book. I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn’t read the thing.”
Starship Troopers represented something of a turning point for Heinlein as he moved from juvenile to adult fiction. There are quite a few differences between the book and the film: there is a lot more technical detail about the troopers’ suits and Heinlein’s years of naval experience are clearly in evidence in the text. But there’s no getting away from politics: Heinlein was, in fact, motivated to write the novel after being inspired by his anger over the moderate Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decision to suspend nuclear testing in 1959. A leftist in his earlier days, by the 1950s, he was clearly firmly on the Right with many of his characters’ words clearly reflecting his own conservative outlook.
The words, “There are no dangerous weapons; there are only dangerous men,” seems like an early formulation of the National Rifle Association’s famously inane but resonant slogan, “guns don’t kill people: people do”. Heinlein is critical of the concept of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and clearly advocates the notion of citizenry and the right to vote are earned through service and combat. He clearly advocates flogging of juvenile delinquents, using a strange analogy about a puppy to illustrate his pointy. His character, Dubois says of the 20th century: “that period was loaded with pre-scientific pseudo-psychological nonsense…half of it fuzzy-headed wishful thinking, half of it rationalized charlatanry.”
It is easy to forget he is writing in the relatively placid USA of the 1950s. Heinlein may not have literally been a fascist, but he certainly had tendencies in that direction. Had he lived to see it, he may not have liked the implication that the society in the film version was fascistic, but it seems unlikely he’d have disagreed with much about how the society functioned in the film.
On the plus side, the book shows few obvious signs of racism at all. This is reasonably unusual for an American book of the mid-20th century and very much to Robert A Heinlein’s credit.
THE RETURN OF RICO
The years rolled by. Robert Heinlein’s status as an author steadily increased. By the time of his death in 1988, the man behind Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress was regularly ranked as one of the “Big Three” of English language science fiction authors alongside Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. The year 1978, meanwhile, had seen a teenaged Sarah Brightman release the single, ‘I’m In Love With A Starship Trooper’ with Hot Gossip. The following year saw The VCs debut in British comic, 2000AD. Unlike the pop song and as he freely admitted, Gerry Finley-Day’s strip clearly owed a lot to Heinlein’s novel, Starship Troopers.
In the 1990s, a script entitled Bug Hunt At Outpost Nine began to circulate. The script was similar enough to Heinlein’s 1959 book that a decision was to buy the rights and adapt it directly. Paul Verhoeven, the man behind the original science fiction blockbusters, Robocop and Total Recall was hired to direct.
Although not a flop, Starship Troopers underperformed at the box office. Had it been a success, it might well have become a major movie franchise. This may yet happen there is serious talk of a reboot and a script has been written. As it is, there are sequels (see the box out) but none made it to US cinema screens.
As it is, 25 years on the film looks better now than it did at the time. It’s true the acting is sometimes ropey – witness Denise Richards’ sudden dramatic recovery from apparent serious injury in the film’s closing scenes – but the film’s depiction of a militaristic American national security state anticipates the struggles of the next decade (the US not fighting Arachnids but Iraqis) and the arguably fascistic tendencies of the Trump Administration (2017-21).
As Paul Verhoeven says: “It’s a very right-wing book. And with the movie we tried, and I think at least partially succeeded, in commenting on that at the same time. It would be eat your cake and have it. All the way through we were fighting with the fascism, the ultra-militarism. All the way through I wanted the audience to be asking, ‘Are these people crazy?’
BOX OUT: HEROES, MARAUDERS AND TRAITORS..
At last! All those spin-offs and sequels in full…
Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles (1998-1999): A 36-part CGI animated TV series. Paul Verhoeven was executive producer and featuring characters (although not the voices) from the film such as Johnny and Dizzy. Ended after being beset with Bugs…er… I mean production problems.
Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004). TV film sequel scripted by the original film’s screenwriter Edward Neumeier (who also wrote Robocop). Richard Burgi, later of Desperate Housewives stars as Captain V.J Dax. Two-word review: it’s bad.
Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008) Casper Van Dien returns as Rico in this straight to DVD effort directed by Neumeier. Perhaps slightly better than Hero of the Federation, but not by much.
Starship Troopers: Invasion (2012) and Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars (2017) Japanese computer animated films. Surprisingly, Van Dien and Dina Meyer both reprise their roles from the 1997 film in the second of these, Traitors of Mars.
Troopers, we salute you all!