I herewith present my case for inducting Starship Troopers in to the Sci-Fi Cinema Hall of Fame (if such a thing were to exist). It may not wash with everyone (or indeed anyone), but dammit, that doesn’t mean I won’t try.
Directed by Dutch lunatic Paul Verhoeven, ST was released in November 1997 in the States, and 2nd January 1998 here in the UK. Verhoeven had of course been responsible for two earlier sci-fi greats, Robocop and Total Recall, so a third effort in the genre was always going to be welcome. I had read some reports about its filming on ye olde internette prior to its release, and thought it sounded a bit like Aliens, which naturally got my immediate interest. When the adverts and posters started to appear at bus stops, I was even more intrigued (as I recall, the now-iconic image on some of the posters plastered all over London was the bug pincer sticking through an unfortunate trooper’s helmet – now used on the cover of the Troopers blu-ray trilogy boxset). I certainly hadn’t read the novel in advance, so I was going in pretty much blind, except for some reasonable advance reviews.
I came out of the cinema completely blown away – it was such a rush. I don’t think I’ve had a movie experience to match it since. To be fair, I had only been going to the cinema regularly for 3 or 4 years at that point, so it didn’t have great competition, but even so, it was a memorably thrilling experience. Driving home with that much adrenaline pumping around inside you is probably not a wise move. Actor Michael Ironside appeared to agree; he commented in an interview around the time of the film’s release that (I’m paraphrasing here) he drove home after seeing it for the first time and failed to realise for some time that he was breaking the speed limit by a considerable margin.
Verhoeven’s talent at directing action set pieces reached new heights here. Best of all is the Zulu-like battle at Whiskey Outpost, as hundreds of arachnids surge in to a military compound defended by a dozen or so troopers, guns blazing away, backed by Basil Poledouris’ pulsating score.
Taken on this purely superficial level, ST excels as a sci-fi action movie. The $100m budget is all up on the screen, amid some of the finest special effects work I’ve ever seen. They certainly stand up just as well today. The bug battles are stupendous (Johnny Rico single-handedly taking down a rather large tanker bug is especially exhilarating), but so too are the starships themselves, floating like massive warships through space; the destruction of the Rodger Young and the rest of the fleet above Klendathu and Planet P is fairly jaw-dropping stuff.
Comic-book sci-fi par excellence it may be, but on that level alone it wouldn’t rate as a classic. The satirical subtext that Verhoeven layers beneath the surface (none too subtly at times, it has to be said) adds a wicked streak of black humour to proceedings which gives the film an extra punch throughout. The director makes abundantly clear in his dvd commentary that the film takes a swipe at fascism and the role governments play in manipulating their people for their own ends. I read somewhere that the film has been interpreted as a celebration of fascism; the mind boggles at how it might be seen in this way. Short of unfolding an enormous sign at the end saying “This film loathes and rejects fascism in every conceivable way”, one wonders how much more explicitly its political views could be expressed.
The tone is set right from the first scene, as we are introduced to the Mobile Infantry via a TV recruitment advert that looks suspiciously like a World War II propaganda short (the first of several references to WW2 – the Nazi-style uniforms worn throughout being another). This tongue-in-cheek announcements service, called FedNet, crops up at various points throughout the film, offering us snapshots of life under what is clearly a dictatorship, dressed up as an honest and just government. Televised hangings of “criminals”, interviews with “experts”, news reports with “eye witnesses” who always tow the party line – we’ve seen it all before, and we still do in certain parts of the globe.
The political segregation of citizens from civilians is perhaps the most powerful tool the Federation has. In their world, only citizens are allowed to vote, go in to politics, get the best education, even have children. Civilians are therefore an underclass, allowed to live but otherwise not an active part of this society, so any dissenters can either safely be ignored or hauled out and made an example of. And how does one become a citizen? By signing up to do military service for the Federation. Presumably there are other ways, probably involving large piles of cash, though the film sadly doesn’t elaborate any further on this.
The school we see in the beginning is also a tool of the government, indoctrinating children with the values of the Federation. Witness Ironside’s teacher extolling the virtues of a dictatorship versus a democracy:
“This year in history, we talked about the failure of democracy. How the social scientists of the 21st Century brought our world to the brink of chaos. We talked about the veterans, how they took control and imposed the stability that has lasted for generations since.”
and further on:
“When you vote, you are exercising political authority, you’re using force. And force, my friends, is violence: the supreme authority from which all other authorities are derived.”
Such apparently subversive comments surely cannot be taken in all seriousness. The fact that the Federation isn’t overthrown at the end of the film and power returned to the people in some kind of Hollywood Happy Ending is probably the reason why a few brain-deficient observers decided the film was condoning such a form of government, rather than bothering to read between the lines. I wonder if the same people voted for George W. Bush’s regime in 2004 – a regime that locked up people in Guantanamo Bay indefinitely without trial, much as the Federation might. Verhoeven himself states in his commentary that he believed “War makes fascists of us all”. The funniest thought of all is that the people living under the Federation’s rule seem to be perfectly happy with their government, apparently content at the stability it has brought.
The real subversion is saved for the end of the film, when the audience’s loyalty, having initially sided with the humans, has almost switched to the side of the Arachnids. The merciless extermination of a few surviving bugs on Tango Urilla, followed by the capture of a terrified-looking Brain bug on Planet P (what glorious names!), serves to illustrate how the humans have become quite inhuman by the end. For all mankind’s technology and firepower, the bugs have easily matched their would-be exterminators through the power of nature alone.
As an adaptation of the original novel, it is arguably less successful. Robert Heinlein’s book featured different technology, a few different characters, different events and even additional alien species. Unlike the film, it is also generally viewed as being pro-military, though it is certainly not pro-fascist. The book lacks the tongue-in-cheek approach taken by Verhoeven and Neumeier, being more focussed on what life is like being on the front line rather than the graphic bloody violence and love triangle of the film. But some of the changes were always going to be necessary in the transition to the big screen, and to be honest, I found the film’s approach of skewering fascism the more purely enjoyable one.
But for all the political satire, there is just as much pleasure in seeing the film’s cast deliver Ed Neumeier’s dialogue. The fact that the three leads – Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards and Dina Meyer – couldn’t really act their way out of a paper bag is sort of the point. Their generic good looks and blandness serve to underline the fact that the youth of the world have been successfully indoctrinated and politically neutered, and are unquestioning fodder doing what they are told because they have been told it’s right. Having said that, they aren’t necessarily bad performances: Van Dien looks appropriately chiseled, Richards looks fairly pretty and unattainable (and is much less annoying here than she was in The World Is Not Enough), and Meyer is quite adept at playing the spunky girl-next-door, even if her death scene (spoiler) is more likely to generate laughter rather than tears. The film’s pacing is taut, ensuring that any stilted acting doesn’t slow proceedings down in the slightest.
The best performances come from the veteran cast, including Clancy Brown as drill sergeant Zim, and the previously mentioned, ever-dependable Michael Ironside, who gets the single best line of dialogue, possibly from the whole of the 1990s: “They sucked his brains out!” Not only is it a classic line in what is essentially B-movie pulp sci-fi, it is delivered with such expertise, completely straight-faced and with not the slightest hint of a wink or nod, that I am left positively cheering at the screen whenever it arrives. There’s plenty of other magnificently Z-grade lines; Neil Patrick Harris gets a few good ones (“We’re going back to P to capture that Brain”), especially once he’s graduated to military intelligence and starts wearing a Gestapo outfit.
Helping everything along is a truly stirring score from Basil Poledouris. Almost the equal of his classic Conan the Barbarian score, the ST soundtrack perfectly matches the pace and tone of the film. Listening to it in isolation still manages to get the blood flowing quicker round the body.
Which brings me back to the sheer joy of seeing such an epic sci-fi spectacle delivered with such panache. Any quibbles about remaining faithful to the source material are swept aside when there is this much fun to be had with what is on show. I can quite happily sit back and enjoy a comic-book adventure about a young soldier’s rapid rise through the ranks of a futuristic intergalactic army. Or I can simply enjoy the superlative action, violence and special effects. Or I could laugh out loud at the sly digs the film makes about politics and war. Or better still, enjoy all three at the same time.