Photo: ‘Starship Troopers’
An Irreverent Adaptation and a Return to Form
As far as mainstream Hollywood directors go, Paul Verhoeven must surely be one of the odder ones — if one can even call him a “Hollywood” director. Verhoeven is a Dutch filmmaker who had been making films in his native Holland, such as ‘Turkish Delight’ and ‘The Fourth Man’, before hitting the American scene with ‘RoboCop’ in 1987. ‘RoboCop’ was exceptionally violent and seemingly mindless, even in as action-saturated an era like the ‘80s, but it was also deceptively smart in its depiction of a corporate-run Detroit. In 1990, Verhoeven would follow up his previous success with another blend of mindless action and cerebral observations: ‘Total Recall’, this time with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the leading man.
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Verhoeven’s biggest moment in the Hollywood spotlight came, however, with ‘Basic Instinct’ in 1992, a film that (unlike Verhoeven’s previous two ventures) was neither action nor science fiction, but an erotic film noir. ‘Basic Instinct’ was divisive, critically, but it was a massive commercial success, and all but launched Sharon Stone’s career. Unfortunately, Verhoeven’s next film, ‘Showgirls’ in 1995, proved to be a disaster, both critically and commercially — although it does enjoy a cult following as a kind of so-bad-it’s-good movie these days.
With his career as a big-time director in jeopardy, Verhoeven returned to an old collaborator: screenwriter Ed Neumeier, who had co-written the screenplay for ‘RoboCop.’ This project, however, would not be an original property, but an adaptation of a famous (and controversial) science fiction novel: Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which had already been used as a reference point for James Cameron’s ‘Aliens.’ To say that Verhoeven’s ‘Starship Troopers’ is a loose adaptation of the novel would be an understatement, though; indeed, while Neumeier was a fan of the source material, Verhoeven himself couldn’t stand it. In an interview with Empire circa 2012, Verhoeven said, “I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring. It is really quite a bad book.
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I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn’t read the thing. It’s a very right-wing book. And with the movie we tried, and I think at least partially succeeded, in commenting on that at the same time.” As such, there are fundamental differences between the book and film that make the latter more over-the-top, more violent, more focused on actual military action, and seemingly more pro-military — except it isn’t. ‘Starship Troopers’ is undoubtedly a super-violent action movie, but it’s also a pretty astute commentary on American militarism, and it’s these two halves (dumb action and smart commentary) that make it, as a whole, a film very much worth remembering.
This article contains plot spoilers for ‘Starship Troopers’, both the film and the novel.
A B-Movie with a Big Budget and Beautiful Actors
Time to ask a difficult question: Is ‘Starship Troopers’ a “good” movie? This is difficult to answer, because it’s quite easy to write off ‘Starship Troopers’ as a bunch of campy nonsense; it’s part of my artistic philosophy, though, that a movie being campy does not necessarily make the movie “bad.” ‘Starship Troopers’ aims for the moon, and possibly overshoots it, but I imagine it would be hard to have a bad time with a movie as overblown as this one. For starters, ‘Starship Troopers’ is basically a B-movie that was accidentally given a major blockbuster budget (roughly $100 million, which even today would be a decent amount), and a cast full of B- and C-listers who help contribute to the fun. The movie follows Johnny Rico (played by Casper Van Dien) and his two best friends (played by Denise Richards and a young Neil Patrick Harris) as they navigate through different branches of a futuristic military.
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Humanity has come into contact with an aggressive and highly organized race of insect-like aliens, colloquially known as the Bugs, and it doesn’t take long for sparks to fly. In the novel, the Bugs are the invading force (as far as we know), but in the film, it’s implied that the Bugs were provoked into attacking by human colonizers. The novel follows Rico on his own as he goes through training as an infantryman, while the movie provides a — love triangle? Square? Pentagon? Regardless, military action and (possibly deliberately) wooden romance drama ensue.
I want to take a long moment to talk about the cast of ‘Starship Troopers’, because it’s a perfect storm of ham and cheese that most blockbusters (in either 1997 or 2022) wouldn’t dare to indulge in. Aside from the trio, we have smaller but not-insignificant roles from Michael Ironside (who had previously starred in Verhoeven’s ‘Total Recall’), Jake Busey (son of Gary Busey), Dina Meyer (who had just come off of ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’), Clancy Brown (most famous as the voice of Mr. Krabs), and Dean Norris (now recognizable for playing Walter White’s brother-in-law in ‘Breaking Bad’). Are the performances often stilted? Absolutely. We haven’t even brought up the propaganda segments within the movie, where we are treated to some wildly outlandish pro-war pieces, along with a look behind the curtain as to the mechanics of this future Earth government.
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The weakest element has to be Denise Richards, who acts as if she is blissfully unaware of the fact that she is in a movie where an extra in one of the propaganda segments actually says, “The only good Bug is a dead Bug!” Never mind that the subplot with Richards’s character is, while brief, also the least compelling part of the story; it has an insufficient amount of Bug-killing, I’ll leave it at that. Largely, though, the choice of actors here is something that you will either revel in as trashy fun, or frown upon as a mix of subpar pretty-face actors paired with “real” actors who are trying too hard.
‘Starship Troopers’ – “The Only Good Bug Is a Dead Bug!”
The world of ‘Starship Troopers’ is violent, brainless, and more than a little fascist — but this was all done intentionally, in part to give Heinlein’s novel the middle finger, and also to comment on American geo-politics. There is no conscription in the movie’s futuristic military; rather, military service will grant you “citizenship,” which gives you the privilege of voting in elections. The movie’s world-spanning government, in marked contrast to how it’s portrayed in the novel, very much plays a part in people’s lives. Heinlein’s vision of the future was certainly libertarian-influenced, in which Rico and other characters are not too concerned about the inner workings of their government, while the film’s version runs closer to neo-conservatism. In case it wasn’t clear what line the film’s government towed, though, we see higher-ups dressed similarly to Nazis; we even see, toward the film’s end, Neil Patrick Harris in a uniform that would not look out of place on an SS officer.
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Indeed, our “heroes” are a pack of gun-crazy fascists, using what was likely a provoked attack as a pretext for launching an interplanetary war, with perhaps billions of lives at stake. The final twist of the knife comes at the very end of the movie, when it turns out that not only have we been watching propaganda segments, but the entire film that we have been watching is itself a propaganda piece — an over-the-top fantasy about mankind defeating the Bugs.
Had it been released in 2007, and not 1997, ‘Starship Troopers’ would probably be immediately noted (for good or ill) by critics as a commentary on the War on Terror, which the United States government under George W. Bush had been waging for several years, in Iraq and elsewhere. Since the movie was released during the Clinton years, though, the commentary was lost on critics and viewers, who seemed eager to forget the government’s meddlings in the Middle East, as well as South America — never mind entering Vietnam on a flimsy pretext, or declaring war on Germany during World War I. Truth is, the United States has a long history of less-than-noble military conflicts, not to mention interfering in the business of foreign governments — some of which are perfectly democratic.
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Sure, ‘Starship Troopers’ could have been released in the 2000s, during a particularly hawkish period of American culture, but as a product of the ‘90s, it feels eerily prescient. Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier went out of their way to exaggerate and warp elements of the novel, in a rare case of an adaptation bastardizing the source material on purpose, and actually coming out strong for it. The film has been accused over the years of being fascist propaganda, which it is — in a sense, but Verhoeven riffing on Nazi propaganda like ‘Triumph of the Will’ is very much part of the satire.
Would You Like to Know More?
‘Starship Troopers’ is pretty gory and morally serious, in a way, but it’s also a wild ride. In a joint interview alongside Neumeier for Parade, Casper Van Dien said, “I was about 12 when I first read the book, and I loved it. Then when I went back to reread the book, I realized it’s completely different from the movie. It’s so straight. We made something different. Ed [Neumeier] has this incredible sense of humor and wit. Paul Verhoeven does, too.” The film is a 129-minute trip — a gorefest with blood and body parts flying everywhere that also feels like the ultimate satire on those gung ho military movies you see at least a few times a year; ‘Starship Troopers’ leans so hard into its pro-war aesthetics that it comes out as anti-war. When it came out in 1997, ‘Starship Troopers’ was met with middling reviews, and it did poorly on the domestic front, only barely recuperating its budget globally.
Paul Verhoeven would go on to direct more good movies, such as the award-winning ‘Elle’ in 2016, but he would never again go all-out as a director of sci-fi blockbusters. You will not, however, struggle to find video essays on YouTube about the “hidden” meaning of ‘Starship Troopers’, or think pieces like — the one you’re reading right now. Since this article is reaching its end, I recommend you trust me and find a copy (digital or physical) of ‘Starship Troopers’, and make sure to have fun with it — assuming you have the stomach for this sort of thing.
‘Starship Troopers’ is currently available to stream on Netflix and HBO Max.
By Brian Collins
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