The NYT Times piece on me and my books has tangentially re-ignited the “was Heinlein a fascist” thing yet again (the latest entrant: Brad DeLong), and the additional discussion of whether the question of whether the reputation of Starship Troopers the book has been damaged by Paul Verhoeven’s movie of the same name. So I thought it might be interesting to exhume a review of the movie I wrote when it came out, back in ’97. It offers some insight into what I think of the Heinlein = fascist thing (not much), and of course my thoughts about the movie, which I enjoy, actually, but which I don’t think has all that much to do with the book.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven is a director who can give you everything you want in a movie, as long as you want too much of it. He’s made five films in English, not one of which could remotely be described as “restrained”: Robocop and Total Recall spilled more of the red stuff than a bloodmobile in a four-car pile-up, and Showgirls gave viewers as much sex as it was possible to have without actually doing it onscreen. Basic Instinct, of course, was a whole lot of both — kiss kiss bang bang ad infinitem.
This isn’t a criticism of Verhoeven. It’s just a fact. Paul Verhoeven makes movies like tuberculosis patients make fever dreams: vivid, disjointed, with all the human emotions pumped up so far that they bleed into each other like a swirl. A lot of people confuse it for camp, but Verhoeven isn’t out there, winking to the audience. He’s as serious as a heart attack. It’s what makes him unstoppable — if Verhoeven had actually tried to camp up, say, Showgirls, his head might have exploded right then and there.
Starship Troopers is more of the same, for Verhoeven and for his audience. It’s one-half cornball teen drama, one-half unspeakably violent science-fiction action film. Verhoeven treats both halves of the film equally importantly, which is bound to be profoundly irritating for the folks who have come to see guys with guns shoot up some bugs. But that’s what you get with this director. It’s not all or nothing — it’s just all, period, end of sentence.
The movie is based loosely on the Robert Heinlein novel of the same name, and follows the same general plotline. Spoiled rich kid Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is finishing high school and rather aimlessly drifting into Harvard, when he gets sidetracked by his best friend Carl and girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards) who are joining the Federal Service. The service is futuristic armed force, which is occupying its time battling The Bugs, a semi-sentient race of giant insects. The bugs want the same real estate humans want, and are either not programmed or not inclined to be nice and share.
When the insects get mad, they hurl asteroids towards earth with the hope of splattering a major city or two; the humans retaliate by shipping a couple hundred thousand troopers to a Bug planet and shooting everything with more than two legs. As the movie begins, the bugs are having more success with their formula than the humans are having with theirs. We follow Johnny and his pals through the last days of high school and then boot camp training, after which we transfer to the battle zone, where bugs abound and humans have a tendency to lose their heads (and arms, and legs) in the heat of battle.
Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier, his screenwriter (with whom he also did Robocop) kept the structure of the book, but they didn’t bother dealing much with the book’s intent, to which the structure was tied. The book was a cover for Heinlein, a proto-libertarian, to lecture personal and political responsibility to his clutch of young, fervent readers. The movie doesn’t have much time for that — it pays the mildest of lip service to the concepts of the book and then covers for the rest of it by envisioning the future as pop culture fascism, complete with newsreel-type government infomercials, which look something like Nike ads done by Leni Riefenstahl.
It’s in line with Verhoeven’s other glimpses of the future; you could plot a direct line between the fascistic corporations of Robocop and Total Recall to the planetary government in Troopers — and no doubt some desperate film student will, one day, for a thesis. But it’s likely to annoy true Heinlein fans. Heinlein was occasionally confused with being a fascist, just like Ayn Rand, a writer who Heinlein, for better or worse, shares much of his reading audience with. He wasn’t (neither was she, for that matter, though sometimes you have to wonder) but this film isn’t going to help his reputation much on that score.
Without Heinlein’s political noodlings, there’s not much call for the high school and boot camp half of the story (where, in the book, Heinlein did most of his philosophizing). But Verhoeven leaves it in anyway. You have to figure Verhoeven wanted to leave the scenes in to give the audience time to get into the character’s heads — and indeed we get a lot of that, particularly through Johnny and Carmen, who break up, find new lovers, lose friends and grow up, all at typically high Verhoeven volume. But all this does is give the audience time to think about how shallow these people really are. Verhoeven has populated his movie with kids who are fun to look at but who don’t appear ever to have had a thought in their pretty heads — either the characters or the actors who play them. Everybody looks perfect, and perfect people don’t have to think. Why go for the A+ when you get the A? (This, by the way, would have sent Heinlein into a tizzy.)
Only two characters appear to have anything above rudimentary thinking skills at all. One is Dizzy (Dina Meyer), who has a crush on Johnny and follows him into the federal service; She’s not thinking well — one has to wonder what she sees in Johnny other than his hunky, square jaw — but at least she’s making the attempt. The other is Carl (Neil Patrick Harris, looking like a fresh-scrubbed Quentin Tarantino), who is psychic and who gets a job reading the minds of the aliens. In the late part of the film, when the film really overloads on the fascistic imagery, Carl wanders around in a getup that makes him look like a SS officer — Dr. Doogie Mengele, M.D.
The reason for having such a good looking cast becomes clear in the second half, when Verhoeven takes all these perfectly sculpted, achingly desirable kids and feeds them to the vast army of 30-foot bugs, who gleefully rip their beautiful bodies into kibble. Verhoeven finds more ways to dismember the cast than you would have thought humanly possible (which is why, perhaps, he has the bugs do it). To be fair, the Bugs are beautiful too (credit special effects wizard Phil Tippet, who makes the Bugs the most believable computer-generated creatures to date — they look real enough to make people afraid of spiders twitchy for a month), and they get blown apart just as frequently.
The battle scenes are marvelously violent, action-packed and actually arousing — the sort of scenes where most guys end up leaning slightly forward in their seats, breathing shallowly through the mouth and hoping they don’t have a reason to suddenly stand up. But more than most, they’re scenes where it doesn’t pay to bring your brain along for the ride. This is the sort of film where they go after two-story high insects with rifles that hardly look powerful enough to bring down a bunny at 30 yards. It makes for fun battle scenes, but you have to think that after the first encounter with the Bugs, someone would have had the same sort of epiphany that Chief Brodie had in Jaws, when he saw the great white for the first time and said, “We need a bigger boat.”
But let’s remember: this isn’t really a movie, it’s a fever dream. As fever dreams go, this one fits the bill — it’ll stick to your brain long after you drag yourself, dazed, out of the theater. That’s the sort of impact Paul Verhoeven seems to like making on his audiences. No one would say he isn’t doing just that.