Friday, September 17, 2010

Starship Troopers

The first movie I saw that was directed by Paul Verhoeven was Robocop, and ever since then I've pegged him as a guy who loves to fill his movies with gratuitous violence, even if just to make a point. This pattern continued with later films and I just found it annoying enough to avoid them altogether. However, in 1997, I saw a trailer for one his films called Starship Troopers that had scenes with thousands of giant CGI bug aliens marching over a desert landscape. My animation loving brother Vince and I both considered it such an awesome visual that we agreed to go see it together. There was one other draw for me and that was that it looked like an attempt to re-create the look and feel of a 1950's style sci-fi B-movie, only in color and with modern special effects. I was dying to see if it would be a tribute or a spoof.

There's not much to the story, written by Ed Neumeier who also scripted Robocop a decade before. It is basically a war movie in space, where the enemy is a race of aliens that look like giant bug like creatures. They have been somehow sending meteors toward earth which threaten to destroy major cities, so the human army decides to invade their planet and kill them off. True to Verhoeven form, any scene involving combat is loaded with gore, both on the human and alien sides. It is so over the top that it is actually funny. In fact, the entire movie is so tongue-in-cheek and overdone that I found it impossible to take any of it seriously and really thought it was just a big spoof. And it certainly has its share of poking fun at B-movie sci-fi lore. You just have to see it to believe it. The squadron arrives at an outpost where the entire army staff stationed there has been killed. The commander examines one guy with a hole in the top of his head and with a look of disgust, he exclaims "They sucked his brains out!!" I still laugh when I think about it.
The film seems to poke fun at military life, and thus at war in general, as mainly an exercise in mindless violence. The dialogue is deliberately cliché and predictable, and Verhoeven's direction is comical in many places, like when one of the main characters is talking by video phone to his parents about the situation back on earth without knowing that one of the meteors is heading toward them. Just before they sign off, the sky darkens, and the wife looks up and says, "Honey, why is it getting so dark?"

Now, it is only just recently that I have discovered that the book on which the movie was based was a famous science fiction classic (of the same title too!) by the legendary Robert Heinlein, who drew from his own experience in the military. It was written in 1959 during the cold war era and it is considered controversial because it makes a case for the necessity of a ground based military to defend a country, or world in this case, and in the distinction between what it calls a "civilian" and a "citizen", a distinction that Verhoeven pretty much makes fun of in the film. It is actually the only sci-fi novel on the official reading list of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, and I hear it bears little resemblance to the film. So although Heinlein meant to treat the topic seriously, I think Verhoeven and Neumeier tried to portray it almost as a joke, but not so much so as to allow those he was making fun of to get the joke and thus prove his point. I guess that's called a satire in disguise.

What surprised me the most was how the critics took it so seriously. I guess now that I know the history behind the novel, that probably explains the attempt to seriously analyze the film. I remember it mainly for its outrageous audacity and recommend it only to those who like that kind of thing, and can easily laugh off the graphical nature of the footage.


  1. I finally watched ST the other night because I kept hearing about it on podcasts. I had started it a time or two in the past but this time I watched it all the way through. I grew up reading Heinlein, whose books seemed aimed most at teenage boys. I sort of liked the movie but I wasn't on your wavelength at all. I didn't pick up satire/goof vibes; I picked up Verhoeven-channeling-the-true-Heinlein-Ender's-Game vibes, Orson Scott Card being a more recent arch-conservative SF writer like Heinlein was. Thanks for the good review.

  2. joem - I probably don't deserve your thanks as my write-up is more of a personal reaction than a review, but I'll take it even though our interpretation differs. I think we're both in good company. For example, here's a better review of the satire angle

    You just introduced me to this Orson Scott Card so I'll have to check him out as he seems like an interesting character. And I'll admit I've never actually read a Heinlein book, but I know he had quite a following in his day. Thanks for contributing.