Sunday, March 28, 2021

How I Would Have Done STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997)

As those of you who’ve listened to the merry crew of misfits we call Myopia Movies for awhile know, an early episode covered the controversial 1997 film Starship Troopers. Opinions on that one were mixed — Nicolas and Daniel liked it for its antiwar satire, while I very much disliked its deliberate mockery of the source material. I hesitate to go any further lest we get political (you want that, go here) and again, anybody can complain.

 So here’s how I would have done it:

In General

*The original novel refers to protagonist Johnny Rico as “Juan” and it’s referenced that he speaks Tagalog at home. Though they live in Buenos Aires, the Rico family are Filipino. Ergo, to be faithful to the novel, they should have cast an Asian or Hispanic lead if a specifically Filipino one isn’t available. The Filipino actor and later politician Alfred Vargas would’ve been a little young (16 in 1997), but given how Johnny is graduating high school when the book begins, that’s not impossible. Given the prevalence of Dawson Casting in Hollywood, Antonio Aquitania would’ve probably been better given he’d be in his early 20s in 1997. If that’s something Hollywood at the time thought too risky (see what happened with the all-black movie Eve’s Bayou, where the suits were so desperate to have a white character they even suggested a white racist villain), an American Hispanic actor like Carlos Ponce (25 in 1997) or Michael Peña (21 in 1997 and acting since 1994) might have worked too.  Although casting a non-white actor goes against the point Verhoeven was trying to make with all the Nazi imagery, screw him it’s me adapting Starship Troopers this time. J

*The rest of the casting is fine, or at least tolerable. The book is a bit of a boys’ club (for starters, Dizzy Flores is male), so I’d keep Carmen’s larger role and keep Dizzy female. From a Hollywood perceived risk/money perspective, if you’re going to take a “risk” with a foreign and/or non-white lead, bringing in more well-known white American actors like Denise Richards, Neil Patrick Harris, etc. for the rest of the cast is probably necessary.

*The Bug designs are pretty cool, but in the book the Pseudo-Arachnids (that’s what they’re called, with “Bug” being the soldier-slang for them like “Kraut” for Germans) have advanced technology. I would keep the design of the warrior bugs, but attach weapons. Perhaps the Plasma Bugs could stay for Rule of Cool purposes (or as some kind of backup in the event technological weapons fail), but the Bugs will be a technological civilization with their own spacecraft.

*The film looks to only cover a year or so, while the book covers a longer time span and features Johnny going to Officer Candidate School. Given how this is a movie and not a TV show, I’d keep the film’s relatively compressed timeframe. Plus one of the book’s flaws was just how much talking and how little action there was and I’d like to avoid that.

*I’d definitely keep the Basil Poledouris soundtrack. Even though I wasn’t allowed to see the movie when it came out, I did receive the soundtrack CD for Christmas and for a long time it was one of my favorite things to listen to. Check out “Klendathu Drop,” for example.

Act I

*The canonical film starts with the Federation’s invasion of Klendathu going to crap and then cuts to a year-ish earlier with everybody finishing up high school. I’d start with a Federation spacecraft exploring a new section of space when it’s set upon by unknown foes. In the book it’s not clear who actually started the war and this new opening could play on that — the Federation might’ve been trespassing in Bug territory, but it was accidental and the Bugs overreacted by attacking and destroying the ship without warning.

*Then we jump to the high-school stuff. My main issue was that it went on too long, so I’d tighten it up. I’d also make the History and Moral Philosophy class (the one with all the “violence is the ultimate authority” stuff) less unsubtle and ham-handed. Finally, I’d make Xander Barcalow, instead of being the same age as everybody, somewhat older. He’s the brother of one of Carmen’s friends who joined the military a few years back and is home on leave, giving Carmen a serious case of hots for the man in uniform and making Johnny rather jealous. He’s also the bearer of bad news — there’ve been skirmishes with an unknown alien force and the Federation is going to war footing. Being young and naive, at least some of our heroes take this as a sign they should enlist in the military as soon as they graduate high school. Although Johnny is rather cynical toward the Federation’s form of government (in which one has to serve in the military or some other sufficiently dangerous federal service in order to vote and hold office), he signs up to follow Carmen and perhaps win brownie points with possible future in-laws (in a deleted scene she reveals her parents don’t like him because they earned their citizenship and his parents haven’t). This is something his parents, being older and wiser and in the case of Johnny’s father, an ideological pacifist, find absolutely horrifying, so we keep some of the family drama. Although Carmen qualifies for pilot training and Carl’s psychic abilities get him a spot in military intelligence, Johnny finds himself assigned to what Heinlein called “the poor bloody infantry.”

*Next comes boot camp. Johnny meets new friends, including the sort of people he’d have never met in his privileged life in Buenos Aires, and learns how to a be soldier. This was one of the slower parts of the movie even though it’s necessary for Johnny’s character arc, so I’d tighten it up a bit. None of the stupid crap like coed showers or sergeants deliberately injuring recruits to make points (the knife scene comes to mind). However, when Johnny is placed in charge of some recruits and makes a mistake that leads to a man’s death in a live-fire exercise, he still gets flogged. The novel’s Federation, although not the fascist dystopia Verhoeven tried to make it, is still a much rougher society than our own. Wracked by guilt for his role in the other soldier’s death and thinking the whipping insufficient punishment (growing up in Latin America maybe we can get some Catholic guilt going), Johnny decides he’s going to resign.

(This is something that’s allowed because the Federation only wants the most willing soldiers/citizens and the situation hasn’t reached the sort of emergency levels where no manpower leakage can be tolerated. Yet.)

*Just as Johnny is bringing his resignation papers to the camp office, the war with the Bugs takes a severe turn for the worse. Rather than the frontier skirmishes escalating like the undeclared naval war with Germany before the US formally entered World War II, the Bugs have done something as unexpected as Admiral Yamamoto’s attack on Pearl Harbor. They’ve launched a naval assault on Earth itself. The unsuspecting Federal Navy is hit hard. Johnny and his boot-camp friends can see the battle unfolding from the ground, while Xander and Carmen, despite the latter being in roughly the same place in training herself, are rushed into an increasingly-desperate fight in space. The Bugs eventually retreat, but Johnny trashes his resignation papers when he learns that Buenos Aires was nuked. His parents and friends who stayed home are dead. Now it’s personal.

Act II

*With the public in a frenzy after the destruction of Buenos Aires and heavy military losses in the home system, the Federation prepares a rapid counterstrike — an attack on the alien homeworld of Klendathu. To this end, everybody’s training is rushed, something the more experienced soldiers don’t like. Preliminary reconnaissance of Klendathu sees the system is relatively empty — perhaps like the Federation did earlier most of the Bug forces are deployed to the frontiers. Johnny, Dizzy, Ace, and a few other boot-camp characters are placed in a company named Rasczak’s Roughnecks after their commander Jean Rasczak, played once more by genre staple Michael Ironside. Our heroes, like many new soldiers who haven’t “seen the elephant” and in this case have lost people to the Bug attack on Earth, are eager for combat. Despite the misgivings of the more experienced, the assault on the Bug home system is launched…

*And turns into a complete disaster. The Bugs had considered the possibility their assault would be replied to in-kind and allowed the Federation to think that Klendathu’s defenses had been depleted for the frontier conflict. Instead the Federal Navy runs into a massive ambush, the kind of home-court “decisive battle” the Japanese were planning to fight during WWII. Despite this failure, the Federation manages to bash through Klendathu’s orbital defenses and land troops on the planetary surface. Unfortunately they run into massively heavier-than-anticipated enemy numbers on the ground and have to be almost immediately recalled when the Bugs threaten to reclaim orbital control. The campaign intended to win the Federation the war, like in the book, nearly loses the Federation the war instead. Casualties are enormous, including many human prisoners taken by the Bugs. Johnny is badly injured and Carmen gets the false report that he’s been killed.

Although like in the canonical film the Klendathu assault is a massive screw-up on the Federation’s part, the soldiers actually fight competently. They’ll have combined arms — armor, aircraft, artillery, etc. —  supported by orbital bombardment (when available) instead of guys (and girls) in flak jackets bumbling around trying to win a battle of attrition against an enemy that vastly outnumbers them on unknown ground, surrounding a single Bug and emptying their guns into it (how they didn’t all kill each other in that one scene I don’t know), ships colliding like demolition derby, and various other exercises in stupidity. The mission fails due to Bug strategic deception, home-field advantage, and vastly superior numbers, not poor human equipment and (likely racist) arrogance.

The book references the Federation’s Sky Marshal — a sort of combined general and admiral—commanding the rear-guard and giving his life to allow the human forces to evacuate, so I would depict this on-screen, with one of the soldiers he saves being Johnny himself. Given how I’m not planning on introducing the powered armor until later, perhaps he’s flying spacecraft into the teeth of a combined space-air-ground Bug assault until the last possible second and his ship gets destroyed holding the line for the final transports.

*In the aftermath of the disaster, Johnny and Dizzy enter into a romantic relationship largely prompted by how glad both of them are to be alive. They’re both the same rank at this point—in the film they start sleeping together after he is promoted to corporal, something that would be a real issue given that he’s her legal superior. Perhaps with Rasczak killed in the battle his subordinate Jelal becomes the new commanding officer and Johnny and Dizzy become non-commissioned (corporals or sergeants) officers?

*After recovering from his wounds, the Roughnecks are deployed in various raiding missions to keep the Bugs off-balance and on the defensive so they don’t launch another attack on Earth, an attack that (in the book) the Federation’s leaders thought would succeed. This is analogous to the naval raids the US launched against the Japanese after Pearl Harbor with broadly the same goal — bleed the enemy while buying time for the Federation to replenish its forces. Here we see the Federal military functioning like it should, although the Bugs’ technological parity and superior numbers makes each battle a near-run thing. During this part of the storyline, Carmen learns that Johnny is still alive — but he’s in relationship with Dizzy and she’s in a relationship with Xander despite his being her superior officer. Owing to the urgencies of the manpower situation their superiors are turning a blind eye rather than booting one (probably Xander, as he should really know better) or both out, but this is clearly awkward and a bit shameful for all involved. There’s no unprofessional bullshit like Xander disregarding his rank to challenge Johnny to a fistfight, especially since in my version Xander is more experienced and mature even if he’s sleeping with a subordinate and kind of a prick.

Over the course of the campaign, Johnny’s unit is chosen to test out new powered armor intended to counterbalance the Bugs’ superior numbers. Although they’re much more successful wearing armor the book describes as allowing one infantryman to kill multiple tanks, on one of these raids Dizzy is killed. I would depict her death somewhat less stupidly. In the movie Johnny pulls shrapnel from her wound and makes the situation worse rather than bandaging it up and waiting for an actual doctor. Instead play it for horror — they’re retreating after another hit-and-run, she’s the last one on the shuttle ramp, and some dying Bug spears her or kills her with a laser. Dizzy’s funeral scene goes as canon — as much as I disliked the film, Johnny’s speech at Dizzy’s funeral shows he’s grown from the privileged teenager who sneered at the Federal values of service and sacrifice to someone who believes in these values wholeheartedly.

*Then Carl arrives, bringing word that the Roughnecks are needed, pronto. A Federal cruiser has been shot down reconnoitering a possible Bug POW camp on Planet P and the crew, including Xander and Carmen, is in extreme danger. Owing to their ranks, Xander and Carmen in particular need to be kept out of the Bugs’ hands (claws?) lest they get squeezed for information. Carl goes along for the ride — military intelligence reports that one of the higher-caste commander bugs is there and they want to capture it for its intelligence value and possible use as a bargaining chip.


*On Planet P, Xander and Carmen and some survivors of the crashed ship are being hunted by Bugs. We get some good action sequences, but they end up being captured and brought to cavernous POW camps where human prisoners are being kept in deplorable conditions. Xander and Carmen are recognized as officers by the Bugs and taken away for special attention.

*The Navy launches a diversionary raid on nearby Bug targets, allowing the Roughnecks to land on Planet P itself. Using the powered armor, they go through the Bugs like a chainsaw and blast their way into the prison camps. They learn from the prisoners that Xander and Carmen are being taken deep underground where captured officers go and don’t come back.

*Xander is confronted by one of the Arachnid hive-queens. Although he goes out defiant (however much a tool he is in the canonical film he dies well), the supreme Bug uses the psychic abilities the high-caste bugs use to command lesser bugs across vast distances to straight-up mind-rape him, leaving him dead. None of that brain-eating stuff here — that was just shock value for the sake of shock value and doesn’t even really make sense scientifically. The hive queen turns her attention to Carmen when…

The Roughnecks and some of the more functional POWs they’d armed up blast their way in. A burly brawl breaks out between the human attackers and the hive-queen and her praetorian guard. We can even have cool stuff that’s kind of touched on in the later animated film Starship Troopers: Invasion, like Carl using his own telepathic abilities to set the Bugs against each other and even have a Jedi-like psychic duel with the hive-queen. Things start to go against the humans even with their powered armor when…

*Reinforcements arrive led by Johnny’s old boot-camp Sergeant Zim, who was sent to frontline duty and ended up getting a battlefield commission to command his own unit. The Bugs are shredded and Carl manages to telepathically subdue the queen. And serving as Zim’s chief sergeant is none other than Johnny’s father. Although Johnny heard he was missing and presumed dead in Buenos Aires, it turned out he survived and, realizing that unlike past wars this one is morally justifiable, enlisted himself. This was in the book and although I initially thought this kind of disconnect wouldn’t happen in a society as advanced as the Federation, there were people missing and presumed dead after 9/11 and other mass-casualty events later found alive. If Johnny is deployed far from Earth (and thinks his parents are dead, so he doesn’t bother trying to contact them) and Mr. Rico is isolated in military training and later deployed in a separate unit, it’s possible he simply never learned his father had survived.

*At the end, there’s a ceremony on Earth. Everybody gets medals and perhaps Johnny gets commissioned an officer like in the book, making the unit “Rico’s Roughnecks.” The capture of the Bug queen is celebrated as a major victory, but the war is far from over. Sequel Hook!

In conclusion, although the movie was often entertaining in its own right, it doesn’t sit right with me to have someone who hates a book adapt it for the explicit purpose of mocking it (and his mockery shows he doesn’t understand the message of the book in the first place). My version includes the areas where the film was better (more women, a more compressed time-scale, more exciting), but at the same time isn’t so schmucky.

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