Starship Troopers (1997)
Robert A. Heinlein was in many ways the Ernest Hemingway of science fiction. Indeed, there is no comparison in their writing styles, but it was rather how they inserted themselves into their stories. The inner thoughts and dialogue of their protagonists were such that you could see the author getting up on a soapbox to speak to the masses. They also both had ideas of what it meant to be a man and a stubborn idea of what society should be.
It makes them both men out of time in today's world. The only reason one gets taught over another is that Hemingway didn't write science fiction, which at the time Heinlein was writing largely put a stamp on an author that they were not to be bothered with by "real" critics or lovers of literature. Even so, Heinlein began to change this, breaking the barrier into mainstream publication, and was also one of the first to try and apply real science in his speculative fiction; in fact, he was the one who created the term speculative fiction.
A major problem with having the author's voice and views echoed throughout is that one is always dangerously close to becoming out of step with future readers. Hemingway is beyond worry on this since he is in the canon of important American authors, and since many of his novels and stories take place in times contemporary with him. If it seems old fashioned, it is, and its a snapshot of the world he was living in at the time and often of his life. Heinlein, in contrast, was writing about a future - often a future in which we now find ourselves, one that was supposed to be more fantastic than it is. For that future he had an idea of what humanity should evolve into - and his combination of libertarianism, statism and sexual freedom is as confusing as it is jarring.
Director Paul Verhoeven barely read any of the novel Starship Troopers, putting it down after finding it too fascistic for his taste. However, he did like Edward Neumeier's script, which was a completely unrelated work that was similar in style to the general plot of Heinlein's book. The book itself was a juvenile science fiction novel (what would now be considered Young Adult literature), thus many of his more controversial views on racial, gender and sexual relations were absent. That left the politics which, to Verhoeven, who was born in 1938 and had memories of living in the occupied Netherlands, were abhorrent. By applying Neumeier's script, however, he found it ripe for a satire of fascistic tendencies and beliefs, as well as the perfect vehicle in which to do a send-up of old war movies.
Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is a high school senior in Buenos Aires who decides to join the Federal Service, largely to impress his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), who herself is going into the service to be a pilot. Rico's talents lie elsewhere, and he finds himself joining the Mobile Infantry over the objection of his parents. Coming from a rich family, the benefits of serving, which mainly mean becoming a citizen and earning the right to vote in 22nd century society, are little to none. For everyone else he knows it means that - if they live - they get free college and a better chance of reproducing, among many other benefits of being a citizen of the Federation.
The chances of making it through alive are minimal, as at the time a war is ramping up with a race of aliens known simply as Bugs. After Buenos Aires is destroyed by an asteroid sent by the Bugs, Rico and the rest of his new squadron, which includes his classmate Dizzy (Dina Meyer), are sent to the Bug homeworld of Klendathu to deal with the problem. They quickly realize that this is not just going to be a job exterminating a bunch of dumb insects. It soon becomes apparent that the different types of creatures that make up the Bug hierarchy are controlled by specific ones that do the thinking, and military intelligence, led by Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), another of Rico's former classmates, is anxious to get their hands on one in order to turn the tide of the war.
The style of the movie is like war movies of the past, with numerous characters being introduced and a number of them dying in ways that help promote ideals of sacrifice and friendship in the face of death. What we are given little of is the reason why there is a war in the first place - one correspondent brings up that there are some that think humans provoked it, but his views are shut down rather quickly. We are given a faceless, inhuman enemy that is trying to destroy us, and the government of Earth intends to completely eradicate the species.
The government of the Federation falls right in line with other fascist societies in making their citizens feel like they have a choice and place in the way things work. The major difference is that, rather than just mouthing that people have a choice in the society, they do. Gender lines have largely disappeared, as have most racial distinctions. By and large the society of the Federation is one that controls its populace, but also gives the population choices in how they live their lives, thus leaving civilians and citizens to make up their mind how much control they want exerted. It is just that the more free you are, the less say you have in what your society becomes. In many ways it is a society that would be attractive to many sides of the political spectrum - a fact that I am sure Verhoeven and Neumeier felt even more frightened by.
This idea of an erasure of gender and racial biases are right in line with Heinlein's views. As the movie Starship Troopers is not made for a young adult audience, it also allows for some of his milder ideas of sexual freedom to creep in. Still, it is not a free society; the abundance of propaganda on their web service (keep in mind this movie came out as the World Wide Web was starting to break out of colleges and go mainstream) and the uniforms (particularly those worn by military intelligence) attest to ties to older militaristic societies. Almost anyone who can call themselves a citizen carries battle scars and, even though on the surface much ado is made about encouraging people not to join the Federal Service, it's a thin veneer. It is also telling how, even though many people are critical of certain aspects of life, there is no outright opposition to the government that is in charge.
The satire would not work if there wasn't a good movie around it, and Verhoeven is more than happy to provide one. On the surface the plot is rather simple, following four friends as they become adults in different branches of the service. Of course the four friends are perfect aspects of what the government would want on display - Johnny Rico is a square-jawed football champion, Dizzy Flores his tough but beautiful best friend, Carmen Ibanez the forever-smiling and amazingly skilled pilot and Carl Jenkins, a psychic devoting his life to protecting humanity. In true war-story style, it really doesn't go beyond this, although I still think Denise Richards is the one casting problem. She has always been pretty in the plastic, Hollywood kind of way. This does make sense in the context of this being a futuristic propaganda film, but she is as unbelievable as a starship pilot as she is a nuclear physicist. Her acting career was based around her looks, not her skills, and it shows even when she is given a non-challenging role such as this.
Given the age of the movie, and the fact that computer effects don't always age well, the visual effects hold up. It was 1997, so CGI was used for a number of ships and for the Bugs, but there were still a number of practical effects used. The combination works, even if some of the starship exteriors look a bit flat and less detailed when it gets close up. Still, after revisiting a number of movies that I saw years ago, I am shocked at how much many of them tend to stand up better than things released less than a decade ago. The effects were used to try and make things look more real instead of just providing spectacle.
Robert A. Heinlein himself was quite liberal for most of his life, and I doubt that he would have openly admitted that his views of a militaristic utopia were at all fascist; he saw the domination of ideologies and religions, and the full revocation of personal liberties, to be much worse. While this is in no way a faithful adaptation of his novel, I am sure if he had been alive he would have still seen many of his core beliefs included, and would have been amused at how many of them were presented.
Starship Troopers (1997)
Time: 129 minutes
Starring: Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Neil Patrick Harris
Director: Paul Verhoeven