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The Summer of Robert A. Heinlein: Starship Troopers (film)

On the heels of last summer's exploration of some of Arthur C. Clarke's greatest hits, this summer we're moving on to another of the Big Three: Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein is probably the most challenging of the three, with his brand of science-fiction unafraid to get political, satirical, and offensive. Though he studies and respects the underlying science, he is not as concerned with the details the way Clarke is, nor does he often deal with the high-flung future fantasy of Asimov. His brand of science-fiction is grittier, focused more on hard-boiled characters, wicked dialogue, and provocation. He deserves his reputation as one of science-fiction's most talented literary figures, with a bibliography that includes some of the most influential novels of the Twentieth Century (sci-fi or otherwise), and though I couldn't possibly cover all of his great writings in a single summer, I do hope to cover some of the highlights of his career, from his juvenile pulp fiction early works to the somber political meditations of his later years. I intend to reveal over the course of the season exactly what it is that makes Heinlein required reading for anybody interested in science-fiction's golden age.

Starship Troopers
If only the movie were half as cool as the poster

In the early nineties, a script was being developed called Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine, but when similarities between that script and Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers became apparent to everyone involved, it was tweaked into an adaptation of the book by Edward Neumeier and Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven, who admits to having only read the first two chapters of the novel before making up his mind that it was "very right-wing" and then having the rest of it summarized to him by Neumeier, turned it into a full-blown satire of fascism and militarism with the over-the-top sensibilities of B-movies and exploitation cinema.

This movie certainly has its fans, people who see it as a big, dumb action movie and can take joy in that. If this were a film called Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine that had nothing to do with Heinlein's novel, I might even be one of them. However, it is called Starship Troopers, purports to be an adaptation of the novel, and is directed by cinema's least subtle satirist. As such, this is a film that should be judged by how it treats the source material.

Sufficed to say, it treats it quite badly. It begins with Verhoeven completely misunderstanding the book and making broad, ridiculous assumptions about it being a "right-wing" jingoistic fairy tale about how great war is. He deserves some leniency for his sensitivity to fascism, as a man who grew up in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, but why he, specifically, was tasked with adapting a beloved and highly influential work of science-fiction is a mystery for the ages. Why hire a man who admits to hating what little of the book he bothered to read and who wants to deliberately make a movie rebutting the arguments he wrongly thinks it's making? Why not hire somebody who--oh, I don't know--actually understands and respects the source material? If Verhoeven wanted to make a film about how fascism is bad (quite the provocative statement, that), the studio should have let him come up with his own story or use something for which that theme is more appropriate. After all, Verhoeven did quite well with RoboCop, a wonderful send-up of corporatism and eighties excess.

Starship Troopers
The sets and costumes look more fake than her smile

The film Verhoeven created is like the book, if you rip out all the nuance and intellectual curiosity, ignore about ninety percent of the plot (and the mech suits), throw in a bunch of tired Hollywood tropes and one-dimensional love triangles, replace Heinlein's brilliant dialogue with simple-minded language that was already cliché by the fifties, and put it through the anger-stained lenses of someone all-too eager to believe that it's a work of propaganda that belongs on the same shelf as Mein Kampf. In other words, this isn't just a bad adaptation; it's a blatant and offensive insult to its own source material.

Even if you are capable of evaluating the film on its own merits, it's hard to see this as an objectively "good" movie. The main cast, headlined by Casper van Dien and Denise Richards, make middle school productions of Shakespeare look good, and the secondary cast consists of wonderful actors like Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside who have been directed to ham it up well past eleven into realms of overacting even Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham would find a bit silly. The music is similarly bombastic, and the editing is at migraine-inducing levels of choppiness.

Starship Troopers
Behold the acting!

Especially notable is the poor set design. Interior locations feel like overlit and hastily assembled collections of poorly sculpted fiberglass that's been spray painted silver and grey and duct taped to bargain bin heating vents and currogated sheet metal stolen from a local metalworks' dumping ground. Meanwhile, the exterior shots look like old Star Trek desert sets, full of monochromatic styrofoam rocks and unconvincing matte painting backdrops. The only things that salvage these ugly and unfinished locations are good--though obviously Nazi-inspired--costume design and special effects.

Many of the visual effects haven't aged particularly well, but as spectacle, it's far from the worst CGI that blockbusters of the time period have to offer. The ludicrous gore is pretty great, and the bugs themselves are both iconic and adeptly animated. When you get close and see it all practically, it's even better, and I daresay Starship Troopers has some of the best practical special effects of that year (1997).

Starship Troopers
Doogie Howser, psychic gestapo

But good practical effects do not a good film make. Anybody familiar with Heinlein's work knows that the novel Verhoeven is sending up is written by a straw man, not by Heinlein. Granted, I don't think Starship Troopers is a particularly wonderful novel, nor is the irony lost on me of someone trying to be offensive and provocative about Heinlein. Still, the book does not deserve this treatment, and I urge anybody who has read Heinlein to avoid this piece of cinematic garbage like the plague.

If you enjoy the film, I'm not here to tell you you're wrong. Good for you. Have fun with it. Just know that it has less than nothing to do with the book upon which it is allegedly based, and that this writer, at the very least, thinks it is one of the most misguided and poorly handled science-fiction films ever made. If I seem angry, it's because I am. I'm not one to throw around the word "hate" lightly, but I sincerely hate Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers.

-e. magill 7/25/2019

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