Starship Troopers, The Movie: A Review

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.

Starship Troopers
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.

38 thoughts on “Starship Troopers, The Movie: A Review

  1. Starship troopers is an awful movie – no doubt about that. But, BUT it is also one of my favorites. I saw the movie before I read the book, but I quickly corrected that mistake and found one of my favorite books out of it. It’s hard to imagine a worse actor than Casper van dien, but dammit – it’s still a fun movie to watch!

    I think my head a ‘splodes from the conflict!

  2. Starship Troopers is a classic book and a great movie, unfortunately thety share a title and little else. Both creators – Heinlein and Verhoeven – achieved their goals; radically different though those goals may have been. No need to rehash RAH, but as for PV, he has stated time and again in interviews and repeatedly on the DVD commentary that the style of the film is completely intentional, apple cheeked kids on a rah-rah jaunt to save the universe in a stylistic homage to the propaganda films of the early 40’s (both German and US) Would you like to know more? I know I did, so I dug up what PV had to say on the matter – straight to the sources mouth as it were – and encourtage all of you to do so as well.

    Additionally, on the point of enjoying both PV’s deriviative or ‘inspired by’ film and RAH’s original – How would Dickens react to “Scrooged”? or Shakespeare to “10 things I hate about you”?
    Alan Moore complains about his corrupted work all the time but still sells the film rights. At least some peolpe like the filmed version of Starship Troopers and might be inclined to read the book if they have not done so yet., I’m pretty sure there were no good reviews of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or V for Vendetta and the films aren’t helping graphic noel sales much.

    Apologies in advance for disjointed-ness scattering of thought and shotgunned ideas.

  3. I’ve read both the book and saw the movie. I’ve separated the two entirely so I can enjoy both.

    I enjoyed the movie as it was; a campy Friday night type of movie to watch to purge the workweek.

    I’ve read Heinlein’s works ever since I found his books in 1964 as a 10 year old. IMHO, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land both need to be made into movies only if they can be done as serious films. Unfortunately, Stranger would probably end up like Starship Troopers and Moon wouldn’t be understood by todays audiences.

  4. Actually, V For Vendetta got largely positive reviews. Metacritic rates it as a 62, the reviews running the full scale from full marks to bottom of the barrel.

  5. What we see on the screen in Verhoeven’s movie isn’t what Heinlein intended–but I do think it’s a lot closer to what you’d get if the system Heinlein described in Starship Troopers were actually implemented. Much as I love the book, I love the movie, too, for exactly that reason.

    Heinlein did say later that he wrote the book in a “white-hot rage” or words roughly to that effect. It’s quite possible that he didn’t put everything on the page that he intended to, or thought he had (cf. his later claims that 95% of Federal Service was civilian, vs. what we actually see in the book, where even non-combat jobs that unambiguously should be Federal Service are explicitly stated to be civilian.) What’s actually on the page glorifies the military, and devalues all other forms of public service, in a way that I truly don’t think that Heinlein intended, but nevertheless that’s what the text of the book does. And Spider Robinson and some others get all bent out of shape over people judging the book by its own text, rather than by explanatory essays Heinlein wrote decades after the fact, in which he makes statements contradicted by the text of the book–what’s a reader to do? The book stands on its own, or it doesn’t.

    Now, in this case, Heinlein being the great writer that he was, ST is still a great read, and even though RAH was writing in SEND A MESSAGE mode about an all too time-specific political issue, a half-century later we still care enough to argue about what he said, and what he meant, adn the distance between the two.

    And that’s what drives people crazy about Verhoeven’s movie–it’s an exercise in literary criticism by one of the readers deeply frustrated by Heinlein’s book. This one just happened to be a movie director, and so his literary criticism is on the big screen

  6. I did not have high expectations when I first saw the movie. I expected a fun ride, with all the substance stripped out. What I couldn’t believe was that PV took out all the guns, too. As a kid, that was all I remembered about the book—getting shot out of spaceships, jumping around cities, blasting huge bugs, and launching tactical nukes off your back. COOL!
    Over the years I have grown to appreciate the movie for the fun that it offers, but still can’t get over the lack of guns.

  7. bensdad00 said:

    How would Dickens react to “Scrooged”? or Shakespeare to “10 things I hate about you”?

    This has always been my thought about RAH and Starship Troopers, the movie:

    He might have asked for his name to be removed from the film’s title, the film bearing as little as it does to his novel. Nevertheless, I’m quite certain that at the film’s premier, he would have been in the audience, leaning forward in his seat, breathing shallowly through his mouth, and hoping he wouldn’t have to stand up too fast.

    K

  8. Art, Eye, Beholder….

    In terms of film adaptations, I know that Stephen King has remarked several times that one of his least favorite films was “The Shining”.

    On the other hand, Kubrick fans would probably place that film in his top five.

    Go figure.

  9. I agree with you on most of the points on Paul Verhoeven and the movie Starship Troopers. The whole “Heinlein fascist” thing is the science fiction equivalent of playing Led Zeppelin records backwards to find hidden Satanic messages. If you over-analyze and misuse enough, you’ll find anything.

    In my opinion, the movie took the ginger ale of the book Starship Troopers and made it into stale seltzer water. A shame, but an easily corrected one.

  10. The movie was a fun thing to watch.

    The book was really cool, though I sort of skimmed past a lot of the philosophical rantings so I could get back to the story.

    I’ve also heard it said that Starcraft was loosely based on the same book. There are certainly a number of similarities between the game and the book’s setting, but overall I’d say all three (book, movie, game) are equidistant. I enjoy them all as separate entities.

  11. I utterly detest the Verhoeven movie, IMHO the only thing that it’s got going for it is that it is NOT Battlefield Earth (Okay, and Dina Meyer’s nude scene, but I digress…). Probably the reason I feel so strongly about it, is that Starship Troopers is one of my absolute favorite novels by any author. I guess I love the novel because it so closely parallels my own military experience (without the Dina Meyer nude scene, but again I digress…). No, I never fought giant bugs on some far away world (damn the luck) and my dad isn’t my sergeant, but I did join up two decades ago for all the wrong reasons (yes, a girl was involved) and bootcamp changed me in ways I still barely understand, and yet, strangely enough, somewhere along the line all those things Heinlein talked so much about – things like Honor, Duty, Courage, Commitment, Service above Self, Sacrifice, Leading by Example – those things ended up meaning more to me than anything else. I’ve been in nearly every conflict the US has been involved in for the last twenty-four years and I’ve led men in combat, both as a NCO and as an Officer (Mustang type, no academy for me) and I strongly identify with Juan Rico’s journey from callow youth to combat officer, Heinlein got that exactly right, I know, I’ve been there. There’s a good reason why SST is on the recommended reading list for the US military academies. I laugh when I read opinions that call RAH a fascist; he was a graduate of the USNA and US Navy Officer. He fought the USN Medical Review Board to return to active duty during WWII to fight AGAINST fascism. I laugh when I read reviews that call SST militaristic, no shit, you think? It a novel about coming of age in the friggin’ military told from the main character’s viewpoint. I laugh when I read opinions that claim SST glorifies war; wrong, Heinlein never says whether war is horrible or glorious, only that it is a fact, and beyond the average grunt’s control, what matters is your own personal conduct, to “Place yourself between your home and war desolation.” Rico is terrified before every drop, he gets the shakes, but he drops every time and does his duty to the best of his ability. No glory, just a soldier doing his job because he gave his word. And his word is good. Period. In the end, his word in the only thing he has. Verhoeven missed every single thing that truly matters in the novel – and so did Sribner’s – the values that Rico develops, honor, duty, commitment, service, are precisely the reasons people make a life in the military (no matter why they joined) and they are exactly the messages that belong in a juvenile novel – as a side note, I wonder what would happen if video games today required the player to demonstrate these types of values to win, vice just blasting the crap out of everything with the BFG? HOW you do that, I leave as a thought exercise for the reader.

  12. Verhoeven grew up during the Nazi invasion (and subsequent Allied bombing) of Holland and he’s said many times that his memories of that time have affected much of his life and work. Verhoeven-dismissers really need to see Soldier Of Orange.

    I wish he’d hurry up with a new movie. Hollow Man was the only movie of his that I truly couldn’t find anything worthwhile about.

  13. Chris Barrus,
    I used to play it all the time. It’s a favorite of my father, and he’d rope me into playing. I thought it captured the sense of the military scenes from the book well – Small groups of powerful human soldiers, overwhelming numbers of weaker alien units. A fun game, for those who like their hex-style strategy games.

    K

  14. Lis Carey – What we see on the screen in Verhoeven’s movie isn’t what Heinlein intended–but I do think it’s a lot closer to what you’d get if the system Heinlein described in Starship Troopers were actually implemented.

    I’m curious, what system would that be? Because it’s interesting – Heinlein never actually described the system, other than, to vote, you had to had completed a term of public service. That’s it.

    The political system in Starship Toppers is a lot like the shower scene in “Psycho” – it makes people think they’re seeing something, but really, all there is is shadows and creepy music.

    What’s actually on the page glorifies the military, and devalues all other forms of public service

    Really? Where? I must have missed that.

  15. Still my favorite book of all time, I reread it at least once per year. The movie was ridiculous, but I’ll watch it if there’s nothing else on. There are just way too many “COME ON!!!” moments, the biggest of which is an advanced starfaring race (humans) using 20th century machine guns to try and destroy armored insects in close combat. Ugh.

  16. I’m curious, what system would that be? Because it’s interesting – Heinlein never actually described the system, other than, to vote, you had to had completed a term of public service. That’s it.

    Only veterans can vote–and certain jobs are reserved for veterans. Most obviously teaching the History & Moral Philosophy course, but also, IIRC, police officer, and it’s implied there are others. Also, if only veterans can vote, can non-veterans run for or serve in elected office, or higher-level appointed offices?

    This is portrayed as producing a society where civil rights and civil liberties are completely safe, and capitalism and free enterprise flourish. I’m certain that’s the society Heinlein wanted to see; I’m somewhat more skeptical that it would be the result of a political system created by disgruntled ex-soldiers who decided that the only way to avoid anarchy was to limit the franchise, and other attendant political rights, to ex-soldiers.

    (me)
    What’s actually on the page glorifies the military, and devalues all other forms of public service, in a way that I truly don’t think that Heinlein intended,

    (Josh)
    Really? Where? I must have missed that.

    A)Anyone who doesn’t enlist in Federal Service is enjoying the benefits of the society without accepting its responsibilities; they’re essentially spongers. Often productive, useful spongers, but spongers nevertheless; they are defined by the philosophy of the book as not accepting the fundamental responsiblity of adults in a free society.

    B)Despite Heinlein’s later comments, the Federal Service is entirely military. It’s not just that Juan is infantry, Carmen’s a Navy pilot, and even Carl is in military intelligence. Every individual we encounter who might logically be part of the mythical non-military part of the Federal Services, we’re explicitly told is not Federal Service, but civilian. Even the police are not Federal Service, but rather a reserved position for ex-Federal Service veterans. Be willing to go out on the streets of your city and do a job that, in peacetime, is a lot more dangerous than military service (and remember, when Johnny and his friends first enlist, it is peacetime, or they think it is) is not Federal Service; in fact being allowed to do it is a privilege of being a veteran of Federal Service.

    Leading to the conclusion C) Only military service counts as “public service” for the purposes of true citizenship and the right to have a say in the government of your own society. Only veterans can make the laws (voters and politicians) and only veterans can enforce the laws (police). And the veterans are all military veterans, because there isn’t anything else that counts as Federal Service.

    If that’s not privileging military service and devaluing all other forms of public service in comparison to it, I’m not sure what else you’d call it.

  17. Only veterans can vote–and certain jobs are reserved for veterans.

    By which you mean, people who’ve completed a term of government service. not solodersMost obviously teaching the History & Moral Philosophy course, but also, IIRC, police officer, and it’s implied there are others. Also, if only veterans can vote, can non-veterans run for or serve in elected office, or higher-level appointed offices?

    See, that’s never answered. Which is why it’s hard to make claims about what the society *would* look like. You imagin it one way, but even your use of the term “veteran” implies a militarism that isn’t neccesarily there.

    I’m somewhat more skeptical that it would be the result of a political system created by disgruntled ex-soldiers who decided that the only way to avoid anarchy was to limit the franchise, and other attendant political rights, to ex-soldiers.

    Except Heinlein didn’t say it wa ex-soldiers. He implicitly stated that the serices were not limited to soldiers. It’s jsut that they time line of the book made soldiers massivley important. It’s *hinted* at that the armed forces were pretty much obsolete if you know what you’re looking for.

    A)Anyone who doesn’t enlist in Federal Service is enjoying the benefits of the society without accepting its responsibilities; they’re essentially spongers. Often productive, useful spongers, but spongers nevertheless; they are defined by the philosophy of the book as not accepting the fundamental responsiblity of adults in a free society.

    Intersting. Juan Rico’s father was a wealthy industrialist who frequently mentioned political connections. Rico’s father never served. The book specifically mentions that non-voters ahve distinct and clear rights.

    B)Despite Heinlein’s later comments, the Federal Service is entirely military. It’s not just that Juan is infantry, Carmen’s a Navy pilot, and even Carl is in military intelligence.

    And the book specicically mentions that *anyone* can get into the civl service, even if they’re physically incapable of fighting, *and* it mentions a nonmilitary research station getting destroyed in an attack. The book clearly shows that you can be non-military and get voting rights.

    Try re-reading the book and look at the exact destriptions of the federal service. There’s not much on it. But what there is is 100% clear.

    And OH GOD don’t get me started on the lack of military tactics in the movie.

  18. I always refer to it as “Starship Poopers” to the hub, whenever he quips that my fav movie is on the telly. (not) The cartoon version that ran for a short time was soooo much better. Unbelievable as that may sound.

  19. A perfect example in the essay to which Jacob linked:

    “We ensure that all who wield [sovereign franchise] accept the ultimate in social responsibility — we require each person who wishes to exert control over the state to wager his own life — and lose it, if need be — to save the life of the state.” [Ch. XII, p.146]

    Sounds like military service to me – how many ‘civil service’ jobs require someone to ‘wager his own life, and lose it if need be’?

    Also, with regard to the movie, it seems apparent to me from several of his movies that Paul Verhoeven is decidedly anti-fascist and is using his adaptation of ST to mock what he sees as pro-fascist sentiments in the book. Seen in that light it was probably intentional that he left out any of the philosophical explanations that he perhaps felt were excuses for the fascist agenda Heinlein was espousing. Supposing that it was meant as mockery of the book would also explain the campy feel of the movie.

    Pure speculation on my part, but plausible…

  20. John H said:

    Sounds like military service to me – how many ‘civil service’ jobs require someone to ‘wager his own life, and lose it if need be’?

    Hopefully none, but in a wartime situation, anyone can be in danger. Being in a life-theatening situation wasn’t required, but if one happened to find onself in such a situation while performing public duties, the expectation is that one would perform bravely and honorably.

    Um, this is what I would hope people would naturally do in wartime, but history has taught us that when people are threatened, they often devolve into selfishness and do stupid things whick sink their society.

    There are many examples of non-military types who saved the day by sticking to their jobs and doing seemingly insignificant tasks.

    For every soldier on the front line, there are countless people behind him in support. And, unfortunately, sometimes these people get sucked into combat situations even though they’re not trained for it.

    It just boggles my mind that people are still arguing about this. Heinlein basically said that in this society you can vote if you’re not a selfish self-centered asshole and are willing to demonstrate that claim.

    I want to vote.
    Okay, prove you can think outside of yourself. Do you want to serve our society?
    Yes.
    Fine, here’s what we need you to do.
    I won’t do that.
    Okay, no problem, but you can’t vote until you do.

    It’s not like most people vote in our society anyway…

    Thank you, Jim Wright, that was well put.

  21. As others have mentioned, the military tactics in the movie were just awful. The ground soldiers were hopelessly outmatched. I do remember there was that one scene of the fighters firebombing the canyon — my friend Sam, a big fan of the book who was already pretty irritated about the lack of powered armor suits, exclaimed, “Geez, where were those guys the whole damn movie?”

    What saved the movie for me, aside from the attractive nude people, was the overt mockery of fascism. Let’s leave aside Heinlein’s intentions, whatever they might have been. Most B-action movies are nihilistic, proto-fascist, or even, well, straight-up fascist. So any B-movie that even attempts to look askance at this is a cut above the rest as far as I’m concerned.

    In fact, this is a major predicament of the action movie in general. If the bad guys are all cartoons, we can sit back and enjoy the coolness of how the director shows them getting blown all to hell. But if the theme of the movie is that the bad guys are actual people, it’s much harder to simply munch our popcorn and say “SWEET” when the hero dives through the air firing two handguns at once. The Starship Troopers movie was trying to do both, and I think it would have succeeded… if the military tactics weren’t so gosh darn dumb. Sigh.

  22. My standpoint on Veerhoeven in general boils down to this:

    He’s the guy to go for, when you want sexy things that aren’t arousing (seriously, Showgirls was the least arousing movie I’ve ever seen, it’s so phenomenally unarousing it’s difficult to find normally arousing situations/materials arousing afterwards; Dina Meyer, as hot as she is, nude… but still not sexual; etc), and quite possibly the guy to go to that will make disgusting things kinda sexy.

    The man is some kind of genius, I just wonder if it’s under control and with knowledge.

  23. I’ve always considered it interesting that civilians tend to read the military life as described in Starship Troopers (the book) as brutal, but military people more often regard it as describing a world in which soldiers are treated a lot better than they really are in our world.

    I don’t know if it’s fascist but I do think Heinlein commits a fundamental error concerning the nature of democracy. He sees the vote as a privilege, and democracy as a way of getting the best people to make the rules; from that perspective it seems perfectly logical to restrict the franchise to people who have shown willingness to sacrifice for the greater good.

    But that’s not what it is at all. The reason everyone is supposed to have the vote is that everyone can see what’s going on around them, and everyone needs to be able to defend their basic rights and prevent the grossest abuses. Even the stupidest, most venal person knows what to do in the voting booth if the government is hurting them. The vote isn’t the prize you get for your service to the state, it’s part of the service.

    The interesting thing is that you can see the seeds of trouble even in the novel, in the vocal resentment of soldiers and veterans toward the comfortable civilian non-citizens who never put their lives on the line. You can’t tell me that the demonstrated selflessness of veterans is going to prevent that resentment, however justified, from leading to abuses. Heinlein seems to be putting in an additional safety mechanism, a guard against outright military government, by keeping active soldiers from voting, but in a way that’s worse–the people who can vote are people who are no longer on the front lines, are no longer taking the greatest risk, but consider themselves officially entitled to rule on the basis of their moral superiority. The sense of duty and sacrifice that originally drove them to national service (or that was inculcated in Moral and Political Philosophy class, since Heinlein is honest enough to show that they don’t all join for the highest of motives) may well persist for some time, but that sense of entitlement strikes me as placing it in peril over the long haul.

    As for the movie, it’s always struck me as an overly ham-fisted parody of the book. Defenders of the movie complain that detractors don’t get that it’s a parody, but my complaint is more that it’s an unfair attack, adding in stupidities the book never had, like the absurdly bad tactic of attacking Bug planets with mobs of lightly armed foot soldiers. A fair attack would be something more like a good movie adaptation of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, which would be a great thing on its own terms as well.

  24. There have been heaps of essays written on the book. The Wikipedia article is pretty clear on the service as well.

    Also, despite Lis Carey’s claim, Carl was not MI in the book. He was MI in the movie, as played by Neil Patrick Harris. Also, Heinlein skipped the aprt about the Telepathic ferrets. In the book, he was a researcher, a scientist. He was the one killed by the Bugs on … Pluto? I think?

    Military tactisc… Ah military tactics. Like walking single file down the middle of a steep ravine, no flankers, no maps, no air support, and nothing but assault rifles. At that point, I found myself wishing that they were all killed, because no one that stupid should live.

  25. So, what I hear you all saying is…Dina Meyer is SMOKIN’ HOT.

    That’s OK, that’s the big message I took from the movie, too. Serious girlcrush material.

    I just took the thread down a notch, didn’t I?

  26. Once I got over my intense disappointment that the movie didn’t use Heinlein’s powered armor, I was able (unlike many of my friends) to enjoy it even though it wasn’t closely tied to the book .

    Do not, under any circumstances, watch the second movie – it’s pure dreck.

  27. I haven’t gotten around to reading Starship Troopers. I’ve always found Heinlein pretty hit and miss, actually: he’s fun when he’s not political, and abysmal when he starts philosophizing. Sorry, that’s just how I feel about it.

    As for the movie, let me join with Verhoeven’s defenders: I think it’s pretty brilliant. No, not Citizen Kane brilliant, but Verhoeven and his version of Starship Troopers are a helluva lot smarter than either are usually credited.

    What people seem to misunderstand about Verhoeven is that he’s a satirist. Sometimes he misses the target (Showgirls), but his movies tend to be wickedly funny black comedies designed to mock institutions, expectations and genres. E.g. Robocop‘s subversive take on capitalism-run-amok or Basic Instinct‘s parody of film noir.

    Starship Troopers is a lampooning of fascism and the militarism that’s crept into free societies over the past sixty years. (“Nike ads done by Leni Riefenstahl…”–have you seen TV recruitment ads for the Marines?) Unfortunately, part of the problem with Verhoeven’s subversive approach is that a movie like Troopers gets sold (and widely perceived) as an action adventure, and aspects of the movie that are deliberately ludicrous (casting Doogie Houser as a psychic Gestapo; interchangeable and vapid kids being overwhelmed by monsters because the faceless powers-that-be obviously consider them expendable and are too lazy to come up with a better strategy than swarm, swarm, swarm; a scenery-chewing Michael Ironside; etc.) tend to get taken at face value. Taken at face value, Starship Troopers isn’t particularly good in much the same way that Airplane is one of the least-suspenseful disaster movie ever made. Taken as Verhoeven intended, Troopers is pretty damn funny (and I laughed my ass off).

    Do I think Heinlein would have hated it? Yeah. Heinlein isn’t exactly someone you associate with leftist European politics to start with, and I think Troopers goes out of its way to mock almost everything Heinlein seemed to believe in.

    (An aside: Hollow Man may be the least of Verhoeven’s movies–I think he got talked into making a straight suspense film. In any case, it lacks his usual wit and isn’t very good.)

    Anyway, there’s my rant, and my advice: try watching Troopers as a comedy and see if you don’t enjoy it more!

  28. You know what I find amazing about Starship Troopers and Heinlein in general? The simple power the book and the man had, and continue to have 50 years later, to invoke thought and debate – notice I didn’t say thoughtful debate! Though this is just about the only forum where I’ve seen thoughtful and polite debate (one of the main reasons I enjoy the Whatever so damned much. You’re all a classy bunch of people). Compare SST/RAH to other military Scifi, for example David Gerrold’s Chtorr series, the protagonist, LT Jim McCarthy could be charitably described as a cowardly, fraternizing, neurotic basket-case of a pedophile and the US Government as devious and totalitarian, yet I never hear any debate (good or bad) about it. Never hear much debate about Pournelle’s Falkenburg novels (which are pretty heavy handed in favor of military solutions), Drake’s Hammers Slammers, or even Scalzi’s stuff (which is, of course, beyond reproach and I can’t wait for my 75th birthday to volunteer). Lot of talk about Haldeman’s Forever War, but mostly praising it as an anti-war statement, which of course it was. And that’s the point: anti-war is okay, pro-military is bad. I think the difference between most military scifi and SST is that SST is pro-military. Juan Rico enjoys being a soldier, he volunteered and he eventually sees the military as his calling. He’s changed by his experience in war and he’s good with that, it’s who he is – he’s not damaged by his experience, he doesn’t suffer PTSD. He likes his government; he agrees with and supports his society’s basic foundation, whereas in the other works the protagonists may be good soldiers but hate their political masters or the systems they find themselves in. I think that SST is often vilified for making the statement that the military is an honorable profession even if war itself is the most terrible of human conditions. Those that enjoy being in the military are often seen as not quite right, especially in the post-Vietnam era. I know this from personal experience, and it often makes me smile – because they may be right.

    As to SST’s Federal Government, I always thought that it was a reasonable construct given the back story of the novel. War destroys the world at the end of the 20th century, the only organized force (the various militaries) band together to form a new world order based on THEIR ideals of service, duty, and personal responsibility. I always saw this as a simple vehicle to tell Rico’s coming of age story, almost irrelevant to the real story. Workable in the real world or even desirable? Of course not. The comments above regarding the ex-military and their resentment of those who hadn’t served skewing the whole shebang are probably spot on, given human nature. As an aside, I’ve known people who get their back up over the novel’s trashing of the current US Bill of Rights and claim that RAH MUST HAVE BEEN A FASCIST – yet have no problem with the drill sergeant in Scalzi’s OMW trashing the USMC (just an example, John, I’m not bashing you – I loved that scene – and yes, I know it’s comparing apples and oranges).

    SCIFI is defined as the “willing suspension of disbelief,” what I’ve always found funny is that people can walk right past FTL starflight, giant sentient insects, powered armor armed with personal NUKES under the discretionary control of lowest grunt (described in detail) – but wig out over “Federal Service” which was described only vaguely and from ONLY the view point of the protagonist and the military veterans who train him. I suspect that the civilian viewpoint would be vastly different – Rico’s father gives some small insight into that – but that’s an entirely different novel.

  29. I’m no great fan of RAH, or his love of things military – hardly surprising, given his background – but he was as entitled to his view as any of us is to ours. That he chose to ignore the long, sad history of what happens when you put military men of whatever genius in charge of civil government (Wellington anyone?) probably only shows he was an incorrigible optimist. Those calling him ‘fascist’ should study some 20th Century European history to discover what a ‘fascist’ is. I might not like RAH’s work and I might excoriate what I know of his political views, but he’d never have stood side by side with the Little Corporal or Il Duce. The use of the word in such context devalues it.

    Another thing I think I know about RAH. He would never have cast Casper van Dein as Johnny Rico, for very obvious reasons to anyone reading the book.

  30. “Sounds like military service to me – how many ‘civil service’ jobs require someone to ‘wager his own life, and lose it if need be’?”

    Everyone entering Federal Service does indeed “wager his own life” when he volunteers. The book explicitly states that 95% of all Federal Service are non-military *and you don’t get a choice* where you go. You sign up, and they put you where they need you. Could be a cushy civil service type job, could be military, could be lab rat with uncertain future. You roll the dice.

  31. ajvan– Heinlein said later on that 95% of Federal Service was non-military. That statement is nowhere in the book, which show it as being explicitly military (even paramilitary organizations like Merchant Marines aren’t Federal Service).

  32. Said before, I’ll say it again: Even as we speak, Heinlein is slowly but surely gathering together his watery ashes from their briny grave. Once he has finished, his squamously rugose revenant will shamble its way to Hollywood, where he will horribly slay everyone who is even remotely connected to the making of that cinematic abortion of a movie.

  33. Starship Troopers the novel, is simply one of the better books written by an author with an unmistakable point of view, that there is a present, past, and future to all things. I believe the whole novel can be understood as an answer to the phrase: “A’int gonna study war no more”. When I read the story I was already an adult, I think this helps with perspective on why any sane person regards the military as necessary for the forseeable future. Just the same, as I read there was plenty of equilibration that took place on my part, but something else was tapped also, self-preservation can be a virtue for both a species and an individual. The Federal Service, the military, whatever, is a means to that end. We must never forget that some people are very good and/or bad at this sort of art.
    The movie is to the original novel what “Talledaga Nights” is to stock car racing; you have got to have a sense of humour about these things. I agree with Lisa back earlier in the thread one can enjoy both pieces, although the power of a director’s choices can put one off at first (hunnh, maybe it was intentional?).
    If you have read the book first you must see the movie twice: 1)to get all the wincing out of the way, 2)to get on with the “entertainment”. At the very least the movie can be a guilty pleasure.

  34. The movie was originaly concieved with Starship Troopers in mind. It was originaly shopped around as Bug Hunt, they grabbed the rights to Starship Troopers during the “are we going to make this movie or not” process. RAH’s novel was acquired to spruce up an already exsisting conception of a SF marines vs. bugs shoot ‘em up.

    But I didn’t mind that movie, I took it with a healthy grain of salt as I don’t doubt the director intended.

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