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Movies Kelly Parks Review by
Kelly Parks
Starship Troopers
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SHOULD YOU?
TIP JAR
STARSHIP TROOPERS - 1997
Tri-Star Pictures
Rating: USA - R

Robert Heinlein. The mention of the name makes some of you smile and nod. You know what a great writer he was. Like me, you had your mind expanded by his stories: science fiction that contained radical new ideas. And of those stories, the Hugo Award winning STARSHIP TROOPERS is one of the most memorable. It contains original concepts, hard science, unusual politics and great adventure. Ah, yes.

And then I heard Paul Verhoven (ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL, HOLLOW MAN) was making it into a movie. I had . . . mixed feelings.

STARSHIP TROOPERS was directed by Mr. Verhoven and written by Edward Neumeier (ROBOCOP, ROBOCOP [TV]). It begins with a recruiting commercial for Federal Service (done in a newsreel / government propaganda / internet style) that establishes that the story is in the future and that Earth is involved in an interstellar war. The commercial ends with the promise that "service guarantees citizenship." What does that mean? Excellent, intriguing opening! I was only a minute into the movie and I was feeling pretty good.

I should have savored that good feeling because it was all downhill from there. The next segment discusses a "bug meteor" attack on Earth. I'll resist the temptation to give you an extended astronomy lecture about all the things the movie gets wrong and just leave it at this: it's all wrong. Clearly Verhoven and Neumeier don't have the first clue about what space travel, stars, solar systems, you name it are actually like. Even Star Wars had better science and Star Wars seriously sucked in the science department.

The reason this is important (aside from the fact that it makes Verhoven look like an uneducated moron) is what a genuine insult this movie is to the memory of Robert Heinlein. Heinlein was well known as one of the first "hard core" science fiction writers: he went to great efforts to GET THE SCIENCE RIGHT. I am truly amazed that Heinlein didn't rise from the dead and strangle Verhoven with his cold, lifeless hands (talk about poor science! -feo).

So, okay, I thought. The science is going to suck. But STARSHIP TROOPERS was also about some fairly radical political ideas. Let's see if Verhoven can at least get that part right.

The final segment in the introductory news cast shows a reporter accompanying an invasion force landing on the enemy home world: Klendathu. This invasion turns out to be a big mistake and the enemy quickly turns the tables on the human invaders, resulting in one dead reporter. The actual bugs are very cool and genuinely scary and Verhoven's trademark gore is splattered everywhere.

We jump back to one year earlier. The hero of the book and the movie is young Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien: SLEEPY HOLLOW, THE OMEGA CODE), high school student. He's sitting in his philosophy class where the failure of democracy is the topic of discussion. The teacher. Mr. Rasczak (Michael Ironside: SCANNERS, TOTAL RECALL, HEAVY METAL 2000) is a veteran of some previous conflict and is missing an arm as a result.

Rasczak tries to explain why the nations of the Earth collapsed and ended up under one federal government, but raging hormones keeps most of the kids from paying attention. Johnny stares longingly at Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards: VALENTINE) and sends her a computer message on a surprisingly primitive computer, given that this is supposed to be at least a century in the future. Another poor choice on Verhoven's part.

Class lets out and we learn that the story is taking place in Buenos Aires. That is where Rico lived in the novel, but I'm not sure why Verhoven bothered. Other than a few character last names there's not a remotely Spanish feel to the people or the settings. Perhaps in 100 years Buenos Aires becomes indistinguishable from Southern California.

Rico is desperately in love with Carmen but her attachment to Rico is far less permanent. At the same time a girl named Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer: BATS, STAR TREK: NEMESIS, SAW) is madly in love with Johnny and the triangle is complete. A friend of the group, Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris: THE MESMERIST), seems above the emotional fray and is gifted with psychic powers.

High school is coming to an end and the topic of discussion is whether or not to join the Federal Service. The Federated nations of Earth are a type of limited democracy. What that means is the only people who have the right to vote are those that complete a two-year term in the all volunteer military. You're allowed to quit at any time (except during combat) but if you do you can never vote. If you stay in the military (go "career") you also can't vote. Only if you join, finish and become a civilian again does the franchise fall upon you. Heinlein's idea here was that a democracy where the electorate consisted of people who wanted to vote bad enough to go through two years of hell would be more responsible than our anybody-who's-18-and-has-a-pulse system. Plus the gist of their military experience, sacrificing yourself for the good of your fellow troopers, further instills good decision makers.

Starship Troopers
DENISE RIACHARDS AND CASPER VAN DIEN STARE AT A BUG OVER NEIL PATRICK HARRIS' SHOULDER.

That was Heinlein's theory, anyway. Over the years (the book was written in 1959) Heinlein was accused of a variety of political evils (including being called an elitist and a fascist) for the political ideas expressed here, and sadly Verhoven deliberately adds to that insult by giving the valiantly struggling humans a Nazi twist. The character Carl Jenkins ends up in military intelligence and is shown wearing a black Nazi S.S. uniform.

Rico's wealthy parents are horrified that their precious son would risk death and dismemberment for something as unimportant as the right to vote, especially when he's just doing it because his girlfriend Carmen joined. Johnny denies it but it couldn't be more obvious. He ignores his parents' wishes and joins the mobile infantry.

Starships
A WHOLE PLANET TO SURROUND AND FIGHT AND ALL THE SPACESHIPS CROWD TOGETHER OVER ONE SMALL AREA: TOO CLOSE TO EVEN GET OUT OF EACH OTHER'S WAY!
Another missed opportunity comes at boot camp. A big part of the novel centered on the powered armor mobile troops used in combat. It made each man a walking tank* and, although I've never made a movie, I feel certain it was within the special effects budget Verhoven had here to at least try. But no, the troops use weapons found on today's battlefields. The only sci-fi aspect (actually fantasy not science) is a magical supply of ammunition that never runs out.

Boot camp is purposely made as difficult as possible in order to weed out the quitters. The new recruits learn that right away when drill sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown: THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION) challenges them to hand-to-hand and isn't shy about breaking bones. Rico gets a Dear John from Carmen and makes a bad mistake on the training field that results in the death of a fellow recruit and lashes in the public square. He decides it's time to quit, but then the bugs attack Earth by dropping a meteorite on Buenos Aires, killing millions including his parents. Now, it's personal. What follows is a mixture of cool bug effects and stunningly bad science, which leads me to a

Starship Pilots
THEN THE HUMANS ARE SUPRISED WHEN A SINGLE BUG BUTTBOMB TAKES OUT SEVERAL OF THEIR CRAFT WITH ONE SHOT. AND WE'RE DEBATING WHETHER OR NOT THE INSECTS ARE INTELLIGENT?

!!!SCIENCE MOMENT!!!:
Or maybe just a logic moment, since my main complaint (there are many more) here is an inconsistency within the movie's pathetic attempt at real science. At one point characters begin debating whether or not the bugs are "smart." This literally happens at one point, as two "experts" debate the idea of bug intelligence on a FedNet TV show. In other words these people weren't sure if the bugs were a sentient species. Morons! The bugs have interstellar space travel, are able to attack space ships in orbit, and can target asteroids at Earth cities. They're so obviously a sentient species that the very idea of a debate is stupid even within the movie's other stupidities.

A big part of the problem here, aside from Verhoven and Neumeier's 4th grade education, is a failure to decide what kind of movie this is supposed to be. Sometimes it tries to be very serious and other times it's cartoonishly over the top. The two styles don't mix and if Verhoven had just picked one and went with it he'd have earned an extra shriek girl. The one positive thing I can say about Verhoven is to thank him for keeping his creative hands off the cartoon TV series ROUGHNECKS: The Starship Troopers Chronicles. It's loosely based on Verhoven's movie but is much closer to the novel. Verhoven is listed as the executive-producer and I know he mostly kept his hands off the TV series because it's actually good. STARSHIP TROOPERS has a few cool scenes but otherwise it's a mess and a cinematic insult to Robert Heinlein's legacy^. I give it one negative shriek girl.

Negative Shriek Girl
This review copyright 2002 E.C.McMullen Jr.

Starship Troopers (1997) on IMDb Bookmark and Share


*
An idea SO freaking cool that Japanese cartoons, Manga, and Anime have been using it for decades in movies from GHOST IN THE SHELL to AKIRA and more! Even James Cameron may have borrowed the idea for Ripley's Power Loader in ALIENS.

Too bad Verhoven and Neumeier lacked the imagination for the suit and/or the futuristic weapons that Heinlein wrote about. They seemed gifted in 1987 when studio heads could interfere with their film, ROBOCOP, and make them look talented. On their own, not so much.

This is how Robert Heinlein described the war game:

Starship Troopers Game
STARSHIP TROOPERS
Copyright 1976, The Avalon Hill Game Company

This game is based on the military axiom that final victory depends on the willingness of brave men to stand and fight and hold - or die trying - despite all fancy technology, all superweapons. In the long run the infantry is always the "Queen of Battles".

Unlike most wargames, STARSHIP TROOPERS is laid many years in the future. Some planets unknown today are the war theaters for this game. The playing units of the Terran Federation, the Mobile Infantry, are an elite corps akin to the US Marine Corps or US Army paratroopers. The M. I. humans wear powered jumpsuits that enable them to leap over obstructions such as buildings. They are armed with advanced weapons that give each infantryman firepower roughly equivalent to a platoon today.

Brought to the battlesite by spaceships, M. I. 's are ejected into space above the battle area in capsules. The capsules enter the atmosphere, the M. I. 's emerge and parachute down to form up to do battle. Casualties are always suffered - but M. I. 's do not leave injured comrades behind when their ship sends down a space boat to make a pickup. M. I. 's are versatile. They can make a quick strike, do enormous danger in a few minutes, and return to their starship. Or stay down for full battle - conquer or die.

The enemies are nonhuman aliens. One sort are the Arachnids (something like giant spiders) who live a communal life and have a social structure resembling an ant or bee colony. They have at least the following castes: Queens, Brains, Warriors, and Workers. Only the Warrior class fights, but Warriors are directed in their tactics by one or more Brains. Arachnids are underground creatures, burrowing tunnels in which they live and work. It is therefore necessary to go down and destroy (or capture) the Brains and Queens as well as the Warrior caste.

Skinnies are a humanoid race that fights the Terran Federation early in the war. At a later phase they are allied with the humans to fight the Arachnids.

I hope that this game will prove stimulating to game players. Let your imagination range as widely as possible; there are no precedents for such battles.

^
Destroying Robert Heinlein's legacy is exactly what Paul Verhoeven was going for, and he never made a secret about it. Except for when he and writer Edward Neumeier approached Robert Heinlein's widow as if they were huge fans who wanted to honor his work. Once they secured the rights, the masks were thrown off and both publicly laughed about what they had pulled. Making a movie that is the opposite of what the author intended, and then condemning the author for your work, is like book burning!

Paul Verhoeven
By Scott Tobias Apr 3, 2007
When we were working on the [Robert] Heinlein book, we felt like we had something that was pretty militaristic, pretty right-wing, and you could even say had a tendency to be fascist. We felt we should counter that with irony and other means to make it interesting to ourselves. And, of course, there was a built-in situation that we sensed at that time and that was visible. The new conservatives had already written many articles, and I think we used some of that thinking, and what we saw happening. Although this was all still during the Clinton years, of course, it was vaguely there. I think we picked it up, because we saw it and perhaps it annoyed us, but then, in a pretty playful way, we put it in the movie as a kind of second layer.

Continued at AVClub.


Pretty powerful stuff for what is considered a "Young Adult" novel.

An interesting perspective on STARSHIP TROOPERS both as a book and movie.

Kentaurus.

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