RE:View Starship Troopers

RE:View Starship Troopers

I always get the shakes before a drop. I’ve had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can’t really be afraid. The ship’s psychiatrist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me that it isn’t fear, it isn’t anything important — it’s just like the trembling of an eager race horse in the starting gate. I couldn’t say about that; I’ve never been a race horse. But the fact is: I’m scared silly, every time. 

— Juan Rico

That is one of the greatest lines in all of military science fiction.

As a former career Marine, I know the truth of it, and you will find it nowhere in the film adaption of Starship Troopers.

This gigantic heap of schlock is coming up on the quarter century mark and sucks even more now than it did then.

Almost no one got out of this movie with their careers intact.  This flick was an impressive resume stain for everyone attached to it.  The only one who finally managed to put it behind him was Neil Patrick Harris.  Denise Richards flamed out early due to a lack of talent.  Dina Meyer still gets work, but she never went as far as she should have.  Casper Van Dien was a headliner in three major theatrical releases in two years and has worked on TV ever since.  He has repeatedly returned to the role of Johnny Rico, god knows why.

But the guy who seems to have suffered the most career damage was the one who deserved it the most.  Director Paul Verhoeven.  After Robocop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct, Verhoeven was dancing on top of the highest skyscraper in Hollywood.

Which collapsed beneath him when Showgirls came out.  Basic Instinct had given him a certain level of respect.   He wanted to build on that, and he just couldn’t.  He was suddenly in the market for another science-fiction property he could turn into a tits and gore fest.  And tragically a treatment for Starship Troopers crossed his desk.

I know what you are thinking.  None of Robert A. Heinlein’s works have ever transferred well to the big or even the little screen and you’re right they haven’t.  All of the pictures that have been made from them have been bad in their own way.    Destination Moon was in no way even close to Rocket Ship Galileo and Heinlein himself worked on the script.  The Puppet Masters was dull and badly paced.   Predestination, came the closest but again kinda boring and they ruined the ending. None of them are much good.

But here is the thing, while none of them ever felt like a Heinlein book, there was at least respect for the works they were based on, even if they couldn’t get the vibe right in the film adaptation.

Starship Troopers’ open hatred of its source material stands in stark contrast.  This is a film version of a book that appears to have been put together by its most virulent critics. Every single groundless criticism ever leveled at the novel was painted in great big sweeping brush strokes on the big screen. (With the exception of it being a paean to male homosexuality, they did somehow miss that one.)

In some ways it is more timely today than it was twenty years ago, mostly because it painted the Starship Troopers universe as one dedicated to the glory of fascism.  Yet the story was never about fascism.  In truth it was pretty far from it.  None the less, Lefties have always accused it of that.

The original novel, Starship Troopers was a song sung to the glory of the PBI (the Poor, Bloody Infantry).  The movie makes the story sound like it approves of hardcore statism.

The novel was told in the first-person perspective of Juan Rico, a native(?) Tagalog speaker raised in Argentina. (The Dark Herald shrugs.  Heinlein liked to obscure details of a race when it came to his protagonists.)  It followed his adventures in the Bug War.

The book opened with an attack on the Bug’s ally race, “the Skinnies”.  It’s a good exciting first chapter.  Then in the next chapter it backtracks to Rico being in High School. A little background information is provided about the world he lives in and his mentor, Mister Dubois is introduced:  When a student points out that his mother said, “violence never solves anything.”  Dubois replied that violence has solved more problems than anything else in history:

” … I was not making fun of you personally; I was heaping scorn on an inexcusably silly idea — a practice I shall always follow. Anyone who clings to the historically untrue and thoroughly immoral doctrine that violence never settles anything I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.”

He sighed. “Another year, another class — and for me another failure. One can lead a child to knowledge but one cannot make him think.” Suddenly he pointed his stump at me. “You. What is the moral difference, if any, between the soldier and the civilian?”

“The difference, I said carefully, “lies in the field of civic virtue. A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life. The civilian does not.”

“The exact words of the book,” he said scornfully. “But do you understand it? Do you believe it?”

This was the beginning of Juan Rico learning to think for himself. and it was severely edited in the movie to came across as an exercise in brainwashing by the State.  When Rico replies to the Dubois’ question with an “I don’t know.”  It comes across as the last dying embers of his humanity about to be snuffed out.

The movie does this constantly. It kind of sort of but doesn’t really follow the outline of the book.

The film begins with a propaganda streaming video reminiscent of WWII (and I have to give props to Verhoven for predicting the existence of YouTube and for that matter the iPad nearly ten years before they existed. Its purpose is to fill you in on the ST universe and set up the first action scene. The First Battle of Klendathau.

Now this was its own chapter in the book, and it was Rico’s first combat drop

Operation Bughouse should have been called “Operation Madhouse.” Everything went wrong. It had been planned as an all-out move to bring the enemy to their knees, occupy their capital and the key points of their home planet, and end the war. Instead it darn near lost the war. I am not criticizing General Diennes. I don’t know whether it’s true that he demanded more troops and more support and allowed himself to be overruled by the Sky Marshal-in-Chief—or not. Nor was it any of my business. Furthermore I doubt if some of the smart second-guessers know all the facts. What I do know is that the General dropped with us and commanded us on the ground and, when the situation became impossible, he personally led the diversionary attack that allowed quite a few of us (including me) to be retrieved—and, in so doing, bought his farm. He’s radioactive debris on Klendathu and it’s much too late to court-martial him, so why talk about it?

And that was about it.  Rico himself didn’t do much until he suddenly got a retreat order.  Then he found a drop-ship and escaped.

In the film version, you see a very large, expensive-looking battle that looked like it came from a film during the war years.  It ends with Rico being severely injured before the flashback to high school.

I will grant that this is an acceptable variation even though they left out Rico’s opening dialog.  What wasn’t acceptable was the creepy vibe the propaganda video gave you.  It didn’t feel like American WWII propaganda at all. It felt like something from 1940s UFA-Film GbmH.  It felt like something Goebbels had greenlit.  This was intentional.  The uniforms for an outstanding example closely resembled Wehrmacht field gray right down to the cappe with an eagle on them.

Look everybody! It’s Sturmbannführer Hauser!

Then the high school scenes began, and holy crap was that awful.  It felt like Starship 90210.  A lot of the characters from the book were present.  Rico’s best friend Carl Jenkins was there.  His beta mooning obsession love interest Carmen Ibanez was also there.  An odd addition was Dizzy Flores who was in love with Rico.  There was a Dizzy Flores in the novel, but he was a man who died at the end of the first chapter and had no dialog at all.  In fact, in the book all of the ground pounders were men, the women ran the navy.

Carmen was a semi-love interest in the story. She only showed up a few times and she was the one who had decided to pursue Rico.  In the movie, she had Rico completely friend-zoned. Johnny was a total high school, Beta-Orbiter and he was never going to be allowed to come in for a landing.  Carmen herself was much more interested in Rico’s Alpha rival  Whatshisname, who wasn’t in the book in any form.

None of the characters in the novel resembled any of the loathsome characters on screen.

Okay, one of them came close.

But even Sergeant Zim was turned into a caricature of the character who in response to a question during his knife throwing class had said, “If you wanted to teach a baby a lesson, would you cut its head off? Of course not. You’d paddle it. There can be circumstances when it’s just as foolish to hit an enemy city with an H-bomb as it would be to spank a baby with an axe. War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, for a purpose. The purpose of war is to support your government’s decisions by force. The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him…but to make him do what you want to do. Not killing…but controlled and purposeful violence. But it’s not your business or mine to decide the purpose of the control. It’s never a soldier’s business to decide when or where or how—or why—he fights; that belongs to the statesmen and the generals. The statesmen decide why and how much; the generals take it from there and tell us where and when and how. We supply the violence; other people—’older and wiser heads,’ as they say—supply the control. Which is as it should be.”

In that scene, Zim did not nail Ted Hendricks’s hand to the wall as a fucking exclamation point.

But that scene is this movie in a nutshell.  Something that vaguely resembled something from the novel would happen on screen but it was like the screenwriter had only heard about it third hand from someone who hated the book.

Was there anything I liked about it?

A few things.

The special effects have held up over time.  This was probably the last time real models were used instead of CGI.  The limitations of technology made for a better film so, I was even able to forgive it for not having Powered Armor, (which was the coolest thing in the book).

The supporting cast was rock solid.  In fact, Clancy Brown being cast as Zim was the only reason I gave this movie a chance in the first place.  The Kurgan delivered his character to the screen even if no one else did.

Michael Ironside did a good enough job with the composite character of “Jean Rasczak.” The character was a bit cardboard but he didn’t need to be anything else.  And combining Dubois and Rasczak made sense in a screen adaptation.

I’ll also give Dina Meyer credit.  She did a good job as Dizzy.  She was probably the best-developed character in the movie.  Dizzy was status-conscious, Carmen was higher on the high school totem pole than she was, and Dizzy clearly felt insecure about it.  Worse so in that she wanted Rico desperately and Carmen just didn’t.  She wanted Carmen’s cast off, and the cast-off didn’t want her.  Finally, Rico falls for her because she was meant to be his True Love.  So, when she dies it’s affecting.

And that was about the only on-screen death that was affecting.  I laughed out loud when Carmen’s True Love, Whatshisname died by alien brain vacuuming.  At the end of the movie, you are left with the impression that Rico and Carmen will hook up but only because they have no one else left.  Their relationship has all the driving passion of an arranged marriage.

The big reason this picture failed was because of the vision of its director.  Verhoeven couldn’t figure out if he was trying to make a war movie, a teen romance, or a gory comedic satire. This movie was so bad it became a cult classic.

The novel was none of those things.

Ultimately the problem with Verhoeven’s vision was that he was presented with a pro-military story and in his standard-issue Lefty fever dream, that is inextricably tied to fascism.

One of the guys on Red Letter Media asked, “How do you explain to your actors when you are casting them, that you are essentially casting them as a joke?”

Clearly and obviously, neither of them ever read the book.  That gives them a viewpoint that I just don’t have.  Starship Troopers was a book that influenced a very important decision in my life.  Maybe I would have joined the Marine Corps anyway if I hadn’t read it, or maybe I wouldn’t have gone near the military.  I’ll never know because I can’t picture how my mind would have developed without reading this book. What I do know is that it gave me a philosophical basis for life in the military and a moral framework for what I had to do there.

I should say that with the fullness of time, I have come to find fault with Heinlein’s book.  In the ST universe that he created, there was a global military that functioned at American standards.  This is impossible.  Soldiers are the end result of the society that produces them.  You can’t change that by wishing real hard.  An Arab officer will steal from his troops as instinctively as a beaver builds a dam.  The Chinese won’t think twice about burning soldiers like joss sticks. And your average trooper from the third world will drop his rifle and run the first time he gets shot at.  The Starship Troopers federation was a globalist one where everyone spoke different languages but were basically still Americans.

One thing that Mike came up with is that Starship Troopers is the mirror darkly version of the Star Trek episode titled: Arena (AKA the Gorn episode).  He points out that at the end of the Gorn episode, Kirk has come to understand his enemy and refuses to kill him, thus becomes more evolved. In Starship Troopers there is never any effort to reach an understanding with the Bugs.

Of course, being good liberals; they are making the assumption that the Bugs would have something to say other than, “Well, you see the reason we are killing all of you is that we want you all to die.  We have no desire to share a universe with you whatsoever.”

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