If they do it right, Starship Troopers will be
The Greatest Science Fiction Film of All Time
by David Lee Beowulf
About two years ago, that's what I posted to the Robert A. Heinlein "folder" in America Online's Science Fiction Forum after hearing that Hollywood was making a serious movie based upon Heinlein's novel.¤¤¤
The importance of "doing it right" cannot be stressed more in the case of Starship Troopers or any other motion picture taken from the greatest of great science fiction. More often than not, science fiction films are little more than thinly disguised Westerns1 or tales of Knights in Shining Armor. Granted, those films are enormously popular and quite successful and even get themselves nominated for all sorts of prestigious awards, but the essential elements of science fiction, the absolute fantasy of possibility, the effect of something yet to come -if things go on as they are..., the challenge to our definitions of reality, and speculation on future science and philosophy and its affects on humanity are left to another film some other time.2
Until this point the greatest Science Fiction Film of All Time was 2001: a Space Odyssey, a 1969 movie most people I've spoken with over the years "...didn't understand3 ..." In 2001 the characters are brilliant, well-trained scientists who confront a mind-boggling enigma appropriately - but not without some unforeseen consequences (a HAL 9000 computer transcends "user unfriendly"). A serious list of good, near-great and great4 science fiction films would include The Day the Earth Stood Still, the Hammer Quatermass films, Planet of the Apes (the first two only), Fantastic Voyage, Solaris, A Clockwork Orange5, The Andromeda Strain, Logan's Run, Blade Runner, Prince of Darkness, 12 Monkeys and others.6
And now we have Starship Troopers. Over the last year I've observed a tremendous "buzz" on the World-Wide Web concerning Starship Troopers, most of which made me uneasy, hastily concluding that 1) this movie would be an insult to the entire world of science fiction and 2) I would not want to waste my money or time with it. In September 19977 , the Web buzz expanded to include a large collection of still photographs, trailers and other promotional information. Unfortunately my general impression from all this information categorized Starship Troopers as "really cool" and "awesome" as opposed to great. I will not fault Hollywood for making "really cool" movies. But I was irked by the deluge of Web postings from the mobs of inarticulate morons8 who seem to start their "posts" with "...I haven't read the book..." or "...the book was kinda boring..." but add "...THE EFECTS [sic] wer awsum! Go Troopers! Kick bugz ass!" Or worse "...[pick an actor] iz cuter than Brad Pitt..." Again, convict me of snobbery, but losing the intellectual element of the story in favor of satisfying the homecoming football crowd results in zero interest on my part in seeing the film.
Luckily, some enterprising young "netizen" posted the entire film's script. After the first page I realized that Starship Troopers was staying with the novel. They were doing it right! And, by all that is correct in the modern world, on opening weekend I recognized Starship Troopers, the novel, on the big screen. Bravo!
And doing it right meant that the film makers were presenting Robert A. Heinlein's future world where there the earth was free of war, free of hatred, free of racism; all those things that affect our daily lives (if you read the papers, that is) are pretty much wiped out. How? Are people beating their swords into plowshares? Peace in our time? Of course not! To make sure the peace was kept, those with a real appreciation for what war does to people took over the planet to make sure mankind wouldn't do what it seems programmed by nature to do: destroy itself in the name of one greedy purpose or another.9
At the heart of Starship Troopers is a great story and great storytelling. At the heart of the film, it seems, was a production team dedicated to giving Heinlein's masterpiece its due. And I am sure Paul Verhoeven and crew realized there were about three generations who've read and enjoyed Starship Troopers who would descend upon Hollywood, demanding the heads of those responsible, had the film not met expectations.10
Happily, the film surpassed all my expectations (I'm a strict "purist"). To be sure, the writers took liberties. But I would argue 1) the novel has openings for such liberties and 2) the writers took meticulous care in giving their story a Heinleinian11 texture, in effect making the script more of a posthumous collaboration rather than an adaptation (indeed, Heinlein's gifted wife - biochemist, historian, speaker of seven languages, etc., and staunch supporter of the integrity of her late husband's work- was apparently quite involved in the production).
The illiterati comprising the critical elite (i.e., those who are published in major newspapers, seen on national television, etc.), however, have done the film, the novel, the author, the loyal fans, and most of all, the public at large who should see this movie an appalling disservice.
I call attention to those reviewers of consequence who've applied adjectives such as "militaristic," "fascist," "gung-ho" and drawn parallels to Nazi Germany when describing Starship Troopers. Why, I witnessed a CNN critic declaring scenes in the film were "...straight out of [Leni Riefenstahl's Hitler-sponsored Nazi propaganda film] Triumph of the Will12 ." These critics are not only flat-out wrong, but are also exposing their gross ignorance of everything Starship Troopers stands for.
The background to Starship Troopers is a military World Government. What does that mean? Well, it means that the "civilian" governments of the world proved their weakness for starting wars over silly things like [tariffs? human rights violations? oil? being of an inferior race? religion?], and the military, tired of dying for greedy civilians staged a coup and took over the world, thus ensuring "peace." The military government of Starship Troopers is not a police state, which is extremely important to the story's theme. One can still make a million dollars, may still study anything one wants to (going to Harvard is a serious goal of two young troopers), may worship as one so desires, may still do whatever he or she wants - the private individual has not vanished. There is no racism or sexism (indeed, I might point out that the protagonist of Starship Troopers, as written, is Argentine of Philippine descent) - in fact, the leader of the World government (known as the "Sky Marshall") is a black woman13 whose orders are taken very seriously. Crime is at a minimum -why wouldn't it be with the punishment for something like drunk driving being a good public flogging? However, only those persons who choose to serve in the all-volunteer military service are awarded citizenship. That is, in order to participate in government14 , one must earn the right. And "all" that means is that one serves a minimum two-year hitch.
What's wrong with that? Right now, in this country we have the Peace Corps and Americorps. A peaceful, one-world government (the U.N. being the framework) seems like an honorable goal. Robert A. Heinlein, in Starship Troopers, simply answered: what would it be like if...?
What if the earth, under one government, were attacked by a ruthless intelligence from a neighboring galaxy? Well, that's where the action comes in! And how, the action! This is war and Heinlein knew the ugliness of war. What a travesty if Paul Verhoeven and crew had opted for an antiseptic depiction of battle and the accompanying carnage.15 This is also central to why the characters act the way they do: battle-experienced professional soldiers are no strangers to the horrors of war. It also puts the enemy at an advantage if the other side is weakened by the sight of violent death (nerves of steel and icy cold discipline are necessary to win a war). Also, there can be no getting around it, but the Bugs are certainly the enemy. They struck first. The way aggressors are dealt with and the way wars are won is with dedicated armies spurred on by determined leaders. Winston Churchill's steadfast "fight them in the streets" attitude helped beat Nazi Germany better than Hitler's "we will rule the world.16 " The war in Starship Troopers is not of conquest, but of survival; and a survival not equating to a need for elbow room (no, that's what the Bugs want), but a survival depending on thwarting an enemy dedicated to eradicating the human species.17 To the bugs' credit, though, they do a great job of out-fighting, out-smarting and generally beat the heck out of the humans throughout the film/novel. The bugs also have great success at sabotaging the humans' military intelligence. They appear as overwhelmingly better-suited to conquest of the universe than we are at defending ourselves.
I've read a few reviews of Starship Troopers saying somewhat unflattering things about the film's characters18 , to wit: it's something like "Beverly Hills 90210 vs. the Giant Cockroaches from Mars." I would answer, "of course it is!" Heinlein's story had this in mind as Starship Troopers is really about a group of high school seniors coming of age under a military government.19 A time in future history where children have ambitions of greatness in science and engineering and other professions rather than rock 'n roll or creating web sites about serial killers. Imagine! A government that rewards the best students20 with free college and the chance to see the universe! (Sure beats graduating with $50,000 in student loan debt on one's back.) Also, the main characters in Starship Troopers are what's commonly known as the "popular21 " kids in school. That is, the football (it's coed in the film) players, the brains, etc. And why not? It's those types that go on to places like the United States Naval Academy (Heinlein's Alma Mater) and reach the level of competence Jose Ortega y Gasset called "the excellent man." It's also these kids22 the government wants to advertise as "being all that they can be..." My jaw gapes that a reasonable person would pooh-pooh a film portraying bright, excited, (generally) ambitious high school seniors with a sense of duty to country. I seem to recall, in the history books, something about a certain United States president saying something like "...ask not what your country can do for you..."
The film must also be complimented on its painstaking attention to detail. The soldiers are not clean in the heat of battle, as some reviewers have stated. (Did they see this movie?) Troopers are covered with Bug blood, their own blood, their comrades' blood and viscera, dirt, dust, sweat, vomit, tears, etc. You see, by reviewing what they think is on the screen, i.e., a bunch of too-clean, popular Beverly Hills 90210 kids playing army, the reviewers are irresponsible in that they have published a lie. A Robert A. Heinlein story would not stand for soldiers who didn't get dirty and, as I've stated above, the producers held true. Reviewers have a responsibility to accuracy, not to pan a strawman.
I was appalled at the New York Times' pointing out that the film contains "...a coed shower scene" and "raunchiness." Keep in mind that the movie has an R rating.23 Also, the shower scene has the entire squad taking a shower together, not something unusual for soldiers to do. The troopers are doing nothing more than taking showers (they even have separate stalls with separate showerheads) and sharing their reasons for joining the Mobile Infantry. It's a tasteful (no sexual innuendo), poignant and very important scene. Also, it is indicative of a desensitization to nudity,24 i.e., they know when to behave.25 The critics should laud this marvelous future vision!
Robert A. Heinlein will, no doubt, experience renewed interest (although none of his books has been out of print for very long) from those who read. They will discover, or recall, that he was a Naval Academy-trained professional soldier, mechanical engineer and expert swordsman. He also made not too mean an historian, constitutional scholar, legal critic, cultural anthropologist, philosopher, essayist, public speaker, world traveler, and he wrote some neat stories. He witnessed the Great Depression, World War II, Hitler, Stalin, Khrushchev, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, hippies and Richard M. Nixon, et al. He was the first recognized26 Grandmaster of Science Fiction and the film Starship Troopers does an honor both to that title as well as the genre. The reviewing community should take notice.
The film is great27 because it does not compromise the integrity of the story in favor of flash and perceived marketability. It is the Greatest because it accomplished in 1997 what last was done in 1969; it successfully married vanguard special effects with one of the best science fiction novels yet written. I raise my glass to Starship Troopers, in hopes that Hollywood will bring other great works of science fiction28 to the big screen and do them right.
Copyright © 1997 David Lee Beowulf
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