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Starship Troopers: Film and Heinlein's Vision

By Robert Peterson
Special to
posted: 04:12 pm ET
09 June 2000

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In adapting Robert Heinlein's Starship 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 Dirty Harry.

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 society.

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, real. Verhoeven 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.

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