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Starship Troopers, 1997, written by Ed Neumeier from the novel by Robert A. Heinlein, directed by Paul Verhoeven, 130 min.

Starship Troopers is a movie that wants to have it both ways and fails miserably. The movie's structure is based on conventional ways of garnering excitement, in this case danger during war for a naive young man, but the movie then turns around and claims that audience interest in these conventions is reason enough to call everyone watching a fascist. Heinlein's original novel treated these themes in a serious manner (see my review of the book), and fans of the book have every reason to feel betrayed by the utter inversion of this in the movie. I happen to dislike Heinlein's book intensely -- in my review, I argue that it posits the world of Orwell's 1984 as a good thing -- but I'm hard-pressed to think of a more disingenuous adaptation than this one. Starship Troopers the movie is actively undermining everything Starship Troopers the book stands for. Heinlein's book at least had all of its narrative points in order; Verhoeven's movie calls anyone who enjoys the surface story a moron or worse! Verhoeven himself is clearly not a militarist or a fascist, but he does have the greater handicap of bad storytelling. Later on I'll mention one or two successful examples of what he's trying to do here, just to prove that it can be done.

Johnny Rico is a rich kid growing up in Buenos Aires. He's upset that his girlfriend Carmen is holding out on him sexually, and meanwhile he's fending off the advances of another girl in his class named Diz. Carmen herself is flirting with an older guy named Xander. After graduation, Johnny, Carmen, and their friend Carl enlist in the armed services, this being a time of dangerous conflict between humans and some alien bugs. Carl joins the psychic branch of military intelligence, Carmen becomes a starship pilot, and Johnny gets stuck in mobile infantry, i.e., cannon fodder. This first section of the movie is excruciating to watch: the characters are incredibly vapid and we get the idea long before Verhoeven tires of pointing it out. This is followed by a strictly conventional trip through boot camp; the education of Johnny Rico, this at the hands of a brutal man named Sgt. Zim. Diz shows up here, having followed Johnny into the mobile infantry. The rest of the movie is a series of encounters with the bugs, the first of which goes horrendously wrong, and subsequent attacks not much better.

The characters are a severe drag on the movie. Each is as dumb as a post, all by design. They are becoming good and proper fascists, especially Carl who shows up later in jackboots and a black uniform. They come across as alternately phony, irritating, and vacuous (Carmen); sexually assertive and therefore marked for death (Diz); blankest of blank slates (Johnny); or the wrong choice and therefore also marked for death (Xander). The characters are also completely unreflective, pawns of the screenwriter and director, blanks in the service of satire when more fully realized humans would have been more helpful in not alienating the audience. If anyone is looking for a comparison on how this issue could be handled with aplomb, take a look at the recent miniseries Frank Herbert's Dune. The hero of Dune is also a dangerous antihero (the Dune saga has the advantage of subsequent books that expanded on this idea but the first entry in the series has a subtly modulated version of it); he realizes what he is becoming, tries as hard as he can to avoid it, and becomes a tragic figure as a result. Johnny, Carmen, and Carl have zero curiosity about what is happening to their humanity. Starship Troopers is an unfortunate misstep in this regard, because Verhoeven's own earlier movie, Robocop, for all its flaws, got a lot of this right.

In his commentary on the DVD, Verhoeven talks a great deal about the gender equality of the movie's future society, which is indeed interesting but is regrettably undercut by some of the character issues I've already mentioned. Early in the film, there's a famous shower scene during which the recruits are soaping up together and talking about why they joined up. I liked the equality of the shower scene but unfortunately I could still sense Verhoeven's leer behind the camera.

The excessive violence of Starship Troopers is fairly typical of Verhoeven's science-fiction films. As mentioned, the satirical aspects of the film don't work, whereas they did in Verhoeven's Robocop, a movie which is arguably even more violent than this one. Violence is only one of the gadgets in the storyteller's toolkit, and you need to know how to use it; you can't safely ignore any one gadget, and you can't safely mistake the gadget for the story itself. Verhoeven often forgets that constant violence is in fact boring, and useless as a narrative device (he makes the same mistake several times with special effects development, such as the same bug attack over and over again, and how Carmen does the same spaceship moves more than a handful of times). Robocop made us care for its main character, the tragic ex-cop Murphy, and the violence seemed to reinforce this feeling. If anything, the death and dismemberment in Starship Troopers removes us further from the story.

Starship Troopers clearly does not care for scientific rigour, and it may be somewhat pointless to examine all of the logical flaws of the movie. This critic-proofing process has happened in too many recent science fiction movies to count, but Starship Troopers is based on a book that clearly cared about this material. Verhoeven tosses out the more meticulous speculation in the military tactics Heinlein devises, and gives us nonsense instead: ground troops with not a single tank in sight, air support only once, and not a single advanced bit of weaponry. Most of the crises on the human side seem to be self-induced, such as lining up capital ships in orbit like sardines in a can and then waiting for incoming fire. The whole race of bugs in this movie raises many questions. How did they fling an asteroid across the galaxy if they don't have starflight? What did these bugs eat if they live on such gritty planets? What use would a plasma bug, capable of firing projectiles into orbit out of its rear, have in normal life? I would have forgiven the movie a great deal if genetic engineering or some similar buzzword were mentioned, but one of the first things we are told (while Johnny and friends are still in high school) is that the bugs are the product of years of evolution. If Starship Troopers is in search of spectacle, it succeeds. The movie is simply spectacular and simply dumb.

DVD Note: Starship Troopers is available in a 2-DVD Special Edition, which is a slight upgrade from a previously available double-sided DVD. For example, the original DVD has an entertaining commentary by Neumeier and Verhoeven, while the newer DVD has 3 commentary tracks. The original has an awful documentary that makes all of the same mistakes as the original marketing of the movie did, while the newer material is slightly better. On both editions, the movie suffers somewhat from the DVD format and the ability to pause and examine the special effects: the mix of model-work and CGI is painfully obvious in most cases, and the ease of skipping ahead chapter after chapter is all too tempting.


Also see the review of the book this movie is based on.


Last modified: March 15, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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