Thursday, May 19, 2016

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Starship Troopers (1997)

For the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we decided to watch the 1997 Paul Verhoeven film Starship Troopers, an adaptation of the Robert Heinlein novel. Nick had intended for the podcast to be split up between himself and Daniel, who loved the movie, and a friend of ours and I, who didn't like what Verhoeven did with the movie. Sufficient to say, real-life intervened, but we still managed to get four people on-panel. You can listen to the podcast here.

And now for the review...

The Plot

In the 23rd Century, humans have begun colonizing other worlds under the auspices of the Federation, a rather strict government in which the right to vote and other rights are dependent on serving in the military. The humans encounter another race, the insect-like Arachnids, and soon war breaks out. A group of friends from Buenos Aires--Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), and Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris)--enlist in the military and soon join the fight.

The Good

*The movie has a great soundtrack. I was not allowed to see the movie in theaters when it came out, but I did get the soundtrack for Christmas that year. I particularly like Klendathu Drop.

*Although I complain mightily about Verhoeven mocking the book's ideas (at least some of my complaints might have been edited out at my request to avoid being too rant-y), the movie was far more faithful to the book than I remember. The novel starts out with Rico and his comrades dropping into battle before beginning his story in Buenos Aires and the film starts out with the rout on Klendathu before shifting "one year earlier" to Rico and his friends in high school. Also, Rico's dad is an egregious pill in the film, just like in the book, while his mother is more reasonable.

*There are some decent character arcs. Johnny begins the film as not really believing in the Federation's ideology of citizenship--his teacher even points out that he's repeating the textbook verbatim when he's asked what differentiates a citizen from a civilian--but by halfway through the film, when a character close to him dies, he's coming to believe in civic virtue, sacrifice, etc. wholeheartedly. Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon), who starts out the film a rival for Carmen's affections and is kind of an a-hole, informs her that Johnny actually did survive Klendathu, gets both of them to safety during the attack on Planet P, and goes out defiant before nothing less than a tractor-trailer-sized swarm-leading Brain Bug.

*Some characterization is done very subtly. Dizzy has a crush on Rico from the beginning, which is exposited via some long glances and rather catty, high-school-girl type behavior toward his then-girlfriend Carmen. And we see shades of Barney from How I Met Your Mother in Carl when he dances with Dizzy when Johnny rejects her. For a gay guy, Mr. Harris is really good at playing heterosexual womanizers for some reason.

*The film has some well-done battle sequences. Although a lot of the film is rather dull (more on that later), the fight scenes aren't.

*One of the great writing maxims is, "Show, don't tell," and Verhoeven illustrates the ugly side of the Federation without explicitly saying "THIS IS BAD! THIS IS BAD!" A criminal is tried and sentenced to death far too fast for a proper investigation to take place (and I say this as a supporter of the death penalty) with the execution being televised for good measure, the government is obviously spinning a natural disaster to justify a war, one character openly admits she's serving so she can get permission to have children, there's some incredibly goofy propaganda involving children, etc.

*Verhoeven does retain the multinational/multiracial character of the Federation from the novel. In the book the protagonist is Filipino, he has Turkish and even Japanese comrades (the book wasn't written long after WWII so this is especially significant), etc. With a downright alien foe like the Bugs, prejudice-prone humans have a more other-y "Other" to hate on and stuff like racism, sexism, etc. seem really petty. The film's main cast is entirely too Anglo for people who live in Buenos Aires, but there a fair number of background characters (fellow high-school students, various soldiers) who aren't white.

*Although in the book the Bugs had roughly the same technology humans had, including energy weapons, the Bug designs are generally pretty cool. I especially liked the warrior bugs with their coloration and sharp edges. Slap some laser cannons on them and they'd be perfect. I'm glad the television series Starship Troopers: Roughnecks retained the design, even if they skipped out on the "Bugs have guns" stuff too.

*Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers in the post-WWII era and although the war saw women serving in military roles like the WACS, WAVES, etc. I don't think the idea of women in combat would have occurred to most Americans. Verhoeven depicts the sporty Dizzy Flores as a capable fighter and Carmen, despite not being a trained infantryman, can hold her own even while wounded. I'll give him points for that.

*The scene where the telepathic Carl prompts his ferret to harass his mother was pretty funny. So is a scene where Rico is handing Carmen dissected Bug organ after dissected Bug organ, oblivious to her growing disgust, until things get a little crazy.

*In one of the boot-camp scenes, one trainee questions why they're still training with knives. In the climax of the film, a knife comes in very handy. Chekov's Gun. :)

The Bad

*A lot of the film is really quite boring, especially the high-school and boot-camp sequences. I understand their importance for characterization, but they just were not that entertaining. And they took up a lot of the film.

*Xander is Carmen's flight instructor once she starts actually navigating capital ships, but he's around the same age as her and Johnny. He's explicitly depicted as being a football player for a rival school when Johnny and Carmen are seniors. If he were, say, the older brother of a friend of Carmen's who shipped out for the military some years before and is back in town on leave, that could explain Carmen's "man in uniform" attraction to him and how he's realistically that much more experienced.

*Carmen takes a wound that should either kill her or at least cripple the affected limb, but she's able to run around, fight, etc. not long afterward.

*It's generally a bad idea for a director who hates a book to do the adaptation. Verhoeven only read part of the novel and didn't like it. Don't take my word for it--check out the relevant Wikipedia section here. Verhoeven had his own vision--to satirize militarism, right-wing politics, etc--from the beginning and only shoved Starship Troopers in after pre-production began. He didn't like the message of the novel and deliberately mocked it by associating it with fascism, aggression, etc.

(No fascist book would pity "the poor bloody infantry" who are all that stand between home and "war's desolation" the way Heinlein's novel does. A fascist book would glorify death in battle, and the book does not. Heinlein and Verhoeven would agree that war is awful, but Heinlein would recognize that it's necessary sometimes and Verhoeven likely wouldn't. I can understand why Verhoeven would see all sides in a war as morally the same--he grew up during WWII seeing Dutch civilians killed by Allied air strikes against occupying German forces--but he had to totally warp Heinlein's Federation into a bunch of Nazis and then make them the aggressors against the Bugs in order for this to work.)

For my left-wing readers, I imagine if I produced a film adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale depicting the Republic of Gilead as a Christian utopia in which women are happy to be at home and out of the rat race, various minority groups are better off "in their place," the persecuted Quakers are dangerously naive idiots, and the Baptist guerrillas in the Appalachians and the "Libertheos" (I'm guessing some relation to Liberation Theology) fighting the regime are murderous war criminals who aren't really Christian at all. Fans would justifiably howl. That's how fans of Starship Troopers feel when faced with this "adaptation."

(For the record, I actually liked THMT, even though the idea that the U.S. military would overthrow the government to install a Christo-Taliban regime in which women are forbidden from reading and writing is ridiculous. It's well-written and far more nuanced than I'd expected when I started reading it. I still wouldn't be the best director for it, even if I wouldn't deliberately do a hatchet-job the way Verhoeven did.)

We need to move on, but I'll leave you with this criticism of the film and its differences from the book. And if you want a more overtly antiwar military sci-fi novel, check out Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. Starship Troopers is the better book, but TFW has much better characterization. I've got a spoiler-iffic review of TFW here.

*Per Verhoeven's hatchet-job, the History and Moral Philosophy class depicts the notion of voting equating to force, the idea that "violence never solves anything" as naive at best, etc. in the most vicious, bloodthirsty light possible. Funny, I remember violence solving the problem of Nazism very well, and only the most ardent "violence is wrong no matter what" pacifists would disagree with me there.

Furthermore, as has been pointed out, the boot-camp sequences are full of needless sadism--in the book, for example, when someone wonders why they're still training with knives, the sergeant explains the appropriate levels of military force for different situations instead of pinning the recruit's hand to the wall with a knife. And Johnny is flogged for something completely different in the book, not for getting a soldier under his command killed in a highly questionable live-fire exercise. The scene where Sergeant Zim breaks a soldier's arm for challenging him is much uglier than in the book--in the novel, Zim breaks his arm in the process of beating him, but in the film, Zim puts him on the ground and then breaks his arm to make a point.

*The book was notable for introducing the trope of powered armor into science fiction, but there isn't any. People are wearing what look like SWAT gear and small arms and trying to beat an enemy with inexhaustible numbers by attrition. There's air support in one scene, but no artillery or tanks. Seriously, the Federation's military tactics and equipment really suck, and this is a society that has really cool prosthetic limbs for Michael Ironside. The book depicted initial assault on Klendathu as a disaster, but it didn't fail for lack of proper equipment on the soldiers' part.

The Verdict

Daniel makes a good case that this is a great satire that was ahead of its time. However, I don't like how Verhoeven deliberately mocked the source material and a lot of the movie just isn't that entertaining. See it once. 5.5 out of 10.

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