Adapted from: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Starring: Casper van Dien, Denise Richards, Neil Patrick Harris, Dina Meyer, Jake Busey
Written by: Ed Neumeier
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven's adaptation of Starship Troopers is a cult movie classic as well as standing as perhaps one of the best examples of an adaptation drastically transformed from the intentions of its original author. Robert A. Heinlein's novel was published in 1959 and stands as both a political essay and thumping sci-fi narrative. Verhoeven's film, rather than a conventional adaptation, works almost as a response to Heinlein's militaristic attitudes, but the differences in both tone and attitude also produce some interesting common ground.
Written five years after the Korean War and into the developing Cold War, the politics of the military is woven into the very fabric of Heinlein's novel. Heinlein diverts from the main story to have his narrator, Rico, debate political and military theory with himself or with characters around him, chiefly in the classrooms of his various History and Moral Philosophy classes. Given Heinlein's own views (support for nuclear testing in particular) were under scrutiny from his fellow science fiction writers, the novel is part story, part defence of them. The chapter epigraphs are often about war or, at the very least, communal masculinity, a key foundation of the Mobile Infantry that Rico is recruited into. Even the various places Rico visits or ships he serves on, down to the road names, are references to famous battles or military/wartime leaders.
The book is often dismissed because of its fascist tone and Heinlein is playing with a lot of ideas at once here, to sometimes obtuse levels, but it's hard to escape. The democracy of the 20th century is dismissed as weak and its citizens naive in thinking that a simple vote can change matters. Military service is the only way to achieve a vote in Heinlein's world, but it's an all-inclusive, but meritocratic institution; if you apply, they'll find a job for you to do, no matter your ability. The whole novel may as well come with a 'high level of testosterone' warning too. Heinlein's military is explicitly and overwhelmingly male, with women relegated to pilots because they are apparently biologically more suited to it, whatever that means.
Its influence as a work on science fiction is undeniable and we're still seeing many hallmarks of Heinlein's ideas filtering through into the genre. Super-soldier exo-skeletons are seen all the time now (though not in the novel's own adaptation) and alien races determined to exterminate the human race are par for the course. In terms of war though, science fiction has never quite seen eye to eye with Heinlein. Our own hefty experience of war has shifted it to something to be avoided at all costs. Just look at Star Trek, arriving only seven years after Starship Troopers. Starfleet isn't an organisation of war, but of exploration and discovery, its goal collaboration rather than conquest. Overly militaristic societies are now more of a negative, the setting of dystopias rather than the Federal utopia that Heinlein conceives. So when adapting Starship Troopers, how do you escape the heavy-handed glorification of war at the heart of it? Well, you take the piss.
Initially, the film was to be based on a script called Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine, but the similarities to Heinlein's novel were many and so the rights were bought, the story tweaked and Starship Troopers reborn. That first title is pure B-movie fodder and rather than change that alignment, the new film runs with it, adding in a healthy dollop of satire. It is Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier after all. Famously, Verhoeven only read a few chapters of Heinlein's work, describing it as "really quite a bad book" and stated that it made him both "bored and depressed." The cavalier approach to the material isn't something I would normally advocate, but in this case, it feels both perfect and necessary.
Whilst the main cast is white (a big shift from the diversity of the novel), the film does undercut the overt masculinity of the Mobile Infantry by filling it with women too, gender-swapping the minor character of Dizzy Flores and boosting her role. We also get to see far more of Carmen's story as a pilot in the Fleet, relegated to turning up and snogging Rico occasionally in Heinlein's narrative. In this change, not only does the film temper down some of the more objectionable gender politics (though perhaps not the testosterone poisoning) but it also promotes this kind of federalism as an equal society, one in which men and women compete alongside each other in all forms of sport and war. There's a compelling kind of unity to it, but Starship Troopers is always keen to point out that this way of living is no picnic.
Verhoeven notes his personal experience of fascism during the Second World War is an influence over the imagery used in the film. Carl's uniform may as well have come from the Waffen SS, the belief that the human race is greater than anything in the galaxy is right out of the fascist handbook and the propaganda films are deliberately constructed with films like Triumph of the Will in mind. That Nazi imagery still remains seared on to our collective consciousness. Without tempering it with some of the more comical moments, like an animal being ripped to death by a bug covered with a 'Censored' sticker that hides absolutely nothing, the iconography would be too much. And, to a certain extent, it still is.
Because it plays so close to that satirical edge, it's easy to see why many think that it becomes a celebration of fascism, rather than a criticism of it. In fact, on my first watch, I thought so too. I didn't get it. It was loud, dumb, shiny and one-dimensional. It was only once a wise friend advised me to look a little deeper that I realised that yes, it's loud, dumb, shiny and one-dimensional, but that's actually the point. Heinlein's novel is never dumb, but it does feel ideologically naive in places, the work of a man trying to figure out his own views on this kind of thing with a sense of distance that undermines it. Verhoeven's personal experience of fascism allows him to push Heinlein's vision to the nth degree and bitingly critique it from just about every angle. A fascist military society would make us dumb. It would make us shiny and uniform (note the shift from a Hispanic lead to a decidedly Teutonic one) and one-dimensional because that's exactly the point.
It's also quite scary how relevant it still is. You laugh as you watch kids handle guns and fight over bullets, but that kind of stuff is in the news now with alarming regularity. When you see them stamping on bugs and spouting xenophobic slurs, you could be watching a campaign video for a presidential candidate talking about an immigration problem... We live in a world where we seem to be perpetually on the verge of war and certain sections of society are demonised as a result. The implication is that humans encroached on to bug space first, attempting to colonise it and finding resistance instead, a very Western world habit. The entire bug race is here dismissed as inferior because they look completely different to humans, because they function differently as a society and because they are believed to be inferior to humans. The Battle of Klendathu is a perfect example of human arrogance leading to disaster: "Frankly, I find the idea of a bug that thinks offensive!". For a ridiculous B-movie, sort-of adapted from an equally (in its own way) ridiculous novel, there's a fair bit underneath that brash exterior.
Despite their vastly different viewpoints and motivations, there's a piece of common ground for the novel and the film; the importance of engagement and analysis, something especially necessary in today's world of soundbites and clickbait. Throughout his journey to becoming an officer, Rico is constantly questioned on his thoughts and views of the world around him. He's asked to assess, deliberate and respond, never taking anything at face value. It allows him to understand the world in which he lives and his place in it. For Verhoeven, his film can be taken at face value, but both he and Neumeier are asking the audience to look a little deeper, to see the satire beneath the veneer. A refusal to engage with Starship Troopers is detrimental to a viewer's experience of the film. It's a big, dumb sci-fi film with something to say for itself, but it's something the viewer must question, process and analyse for themselves. After all, fascism is about a collective unity, but individual thinking can break it apart.