In adapting Robert Heinlein's
Troopers to the screen, director Paul Verhoeven faced a daunting challenge
in making the author's heavily politicized (and politically sensitive)
imagery palatable to modern audiences.
I say that Verhoeven's twisted,
satirical take was just what Heinlein's novel needed to work on film. Satire
and comedy can be better vehicles for social commentary than straight-faced,
serious drama. Many critics consider M*A*S*H a better anti-war movie
than Platoon, or Blazing Saddles a more cutting indictment
of racism than Mississippi Burning.
So, if you have to show an
audience a "good" militaristic
society, why not preempt their potential anger with laughter?
Verhoeven has a strong satirical
background. The "Federal Network" broadcasts recall the TV news briefs
in his film RoboCop, another ultraviolent, funny movie. The FedNet
broadcasts establish the energetic, borderline-psychotic tone of the film.
In the opening seconds we're
told, "Young people from all over the globe are joining up to fight for
the future." Then we see three soldiers say, "I'm doing my part!" followed
by a 10-year-old boy who says the same. The crowd of adult soldiers benevolently
chuckles at the kid's enthusiasm. The voice-over continues, "Join the Mobile
Infantry and save the world. Service guarantees citizenship"
Verhoeven has already disarmed
us with this lunatic joke about a kid in the army when he slips in the
main tenet of Heinlein's novel: "Service guarantees citizenship." Not only
is that slick exposition, but also it couches an militaristic idea in something
that reminds us of a World War Two newsreel.
Shortly thereafter, a passage
from the beginning of the book makes it into the film almost verbatim:
the scene in Rico's high school History and Moral Philosophy class. Not
only does Verhoeven include this important discussion of the difference
between citizens and civilians in his film, he echoes it in a speech Rico
(Casper Van Dien) gives after the death of Dizzy Flores (made a female
love interest in the film):
"Once someone asked me if
I knew the difference between a citizen and a civilian. I can tell you
now. A citizen has the courage to make the safety of the human race their
personal responsibility." Van Dien's acting is often lame, but he at least
delivers these lines honestly.
The warrior philosopher
Verhoeven and screenwriter
Ed Neumeier combine two of the book's minor but key characters, civics
teacher Mr. Dubois and Lieutenant Rasczak.
Michael Ironside, a familiar
player from other Verhoeven films (Robocop, Total Recall) gives
an uneven performance as this amalgam character. As the Lieutenant, Ironside
growls with hammy gusto such corkers as "First fleet glasses the planet,
then M.I. mahps up," and "They sucked his brains out."
But he's much stronger as
the teacher, delivering this key speech:
"Naked force has resolved
more issues throughout history than any other factor. The contrary opinion,
that violence never solves anything, is wishful thinking at its worst."
This aggressive, militaristic
quote is not only cobbled together straight from the book, but Ironside
delivers it with straight-faced, honest conviction while Rico, Ibanez (Denise
Richards) and Flores (Dina Meyer) cut up in his class -- while the audience
swoons over the staggeringly attractive characters (or, less likely, laughs
at their shenanigans), Ironside plants more of the novel's political ideas.
Utopia goes armed
And immediately after he
tells us that the veterans brought order from the chaos of democracy, Verhoeven
hits us with images of beautiful, clean cities populated by ridiculously
beautiful people. Rico's home looks like a mansion and everyone at the
prom look like Barbie and Ken dolls.
If anything it feels like
the only subjugated group are the unattractive. With its sleek technology
and perfect weather, this world reminds us of the utopia that earth becomes
in Star Trek, except, of course, that the veterans are in charge.
Meanwhile, the FedNet broadcasts
continue to strategically disperse Heinlein's ideas. The broadcast that
announces the destruction of Buenos Aires and the start of the war with
the insects is especially compelling. We see Sky Marshal Dienes (Bruce
Gray) address the Federal Council in Geneva:
"We must meet the threat
with our valor, our blood, even our very lives to ensure that human civilization,
not insect, dominates this galaxy now and always."
This address is another instance
where honest acting powers one of Heinlein's key ideas through the satire.
There's nothing funny about Gray's intense delivery, which echoes the passage
from the novel about humanity's "right" to spread across the universe and
wipe out the bugs.
This sober take also shows
us the honor in being a citizen as the Sky Marshal admonishes us to call
on our "valor" for the good of humanity. Here Verhoeven slips in more of
the novel's militaristic, nationalistic and anti-bug racist ideas -- all
consistent with the book.
Back to the laughter
But once again, Verhoeven
undercuts this moment with satire. Right after Dienes' speech, we cut to
Carl (Harris), who demonstrates the "best way to kill a bug." He guns down
the extraterrestrial creature, then turns to the camera with a furrowed
brow and set jaw. And it's hilarious because it's Doogie Howser impersonating
And right after Verhoeven
gets us laughing at that, the broadcast cuts to a suburban neighborhood
where little kids "do their part" by stomping on roaches and beetles. As
the children stomp, one of their mothers cackles like a maniac.
This FedNet broadcast also
echoes the novel's contempt for pacifism. A reporter says from an Mobile
Infantry base, "Some say the bugs were provoked by the intrusion of humans
into their natural habitat that a 'live and let live' policy is preferable
to war with the bugs."
Here Rico cuts in and says,
"Let me tell you something. I'm from Buenos Aires and I say kill 'em all!"
This scene clearly emulates
the novel's "wipe them out" mentality and intolerance for people who "ain'ta
gonna study war no more."
Militarist, not dictatorial
The next FedNet broadcast
shows us more reasons why Verhoeven proposes we should like this militaristic
After the Mobile Infantry's
failed first attack on the bugs, the director shows us there's still freedom
of speech within this society by having the Federal Network opening up
with ominous music as it announces the staggering number of casualties
("100,000 dead in one hour").
And then we're told that
Sky Marshal Dienes has "accepted responsibility" for the disaster and is
replaced by Sky Marshal Meru. Here we see Heinlein's "unlimited democracy"
as a black woman replaces a white man. What's not to like?
Many Heinlein fans were outraged
at the film's blatantly fascist imagery, particularly Carl's (played by
Neil Patrick Harris) "SS uniform." Indeed, Carl enters wearing an all-black
suit, jacket and cap straight out of the darkest excesses of the Nazi order.
Heinlein gave Verhoeven a
fascist society that works, and Verhoeven put just that on the screen.
But he lulls us to sleep with the very American green uniforms of the Federal
Council before he hits us with Carl's Nazi black uniform. He dares us
to look at Carl's uniform and keep rooting for the "good guys."
Where the movie goes wrong
But Verhoeven fails in bringing
every detail of Heinlein's vision to the screen.
First, let's consider the
omission of the book's power armor. Verhoeven said they only had enough
money to show us the bugs or the armor and they chose the bugs.
Because the bugs are so effective
in the film, I could accept that if Verhoeven hadn't robbed the Mobile
Infantry of their precision along with their armor. Instead of a perfectly-trained
group that could "go down and round up all left-handed redheads," we saw
a bunch of bumbling morons.
Heinlein scholar James Gifford
called the film "a two-hour monument to why you shouldn't bring a knife
to a gunfight."
Bill Patterson, editor of
the Heinlein Journal, agrees.
"In the movie, the Mobile
Infantry have no strategy and no tactics," he said, contrasting the film
to the novel, where "as human society progresses, we get more serious toward
using human resources in a progressive way."
Verhoeven also devotes too
much screen time to his expensive bugs. Granted, the CGI aliens are one
of the best parts of his film, but most of Heinlein's fascinating political
theory happens in Rico's officer training.
It's too bad Verhoeven couldn't
have included more scenes of Rico debating politics in the classroom. Certainly,
it would have made it a far more "talky" movie, but it might have been
more interesting -- and truer to the book's strengths.
Other flaws are minor and
relate to the lack of efficiency we see in the film. Sergeant Zim (Clancy
Brown) is all wrong. Heinlein's boot camp is tough, fair and, most importantly,
played the boot camp, and especially Zim, for psychotic laughs, as when
Zim breaks a new recruit's arm to illustrate a point.
Patterson notes that "the
arm break is nowhere in the world of the book," and I agree.
More incompetence comes with
Rasczak, who introduces himself by saying, "I have one rule. Everyone fights,
nobody quits. If you don't do your job I'll shoot you." Later, Rasczak
does in fact shoot one of his own soldiers -- being mauled by a bug.
Heinlein's Rasczak would
never say this, just as Heinlein's Mobile Infantry never leaves a man behind.
Verhoeven ignored that important point in favor of cliched macho garbage.
What do you think? Send your
comments to the editor.