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Laramie Movie Scope:
Starship Troopers

Heinlein rolls over in his grave

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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March 2, 2004, updated April 3, 2018 -- When the movie version of “Starship Troopers” was released in 1997, I remember being so disappointed by it. I saw it in the Wyo Theatre in Laramie. What I saw on the screen seemed to me to be a mockery of the story I had loved when I first read it some 35 years earlier.

Oh, I didn't mind there were no power suits, that there was a nude shower scene, that Johnny Rico did not look anything like a Filippino, or that the recruits in his squad were not racially diverse as they are in the book. I didn't even mind that the military strategy employed in the film was downright stupid. What idiot would employ infantry assaults without at least artillery and armor support? Certainly not Heinlein, with his military background. What galled me that the film was so damned cynical, both morally and ideologically. Not only did it appeal to the audience's basest instincts in terms of sex and violence, it made a mockery of Heinlein's ideal of military service and government. It is also a movie designed to appeal to kids and teens, at least on a superficial level.

The movie follows Rico (played woodenly by Casper Van Dien) and his friends through boot camp. There is a romantic quadrangle, anchored by the drop-dead-beautiful Carmen Ibanez (played by Denise Richards). Then a typical combat film type of plot takes over as the soldiers fight giant bugs on a distant planet. That part of the movie is loaded with action and gore.

In the book, Heinlein argues that citizenship, specifically the right to vote, should not be a birthright, it should be earned through service to society. The story follows Rico and some of his friends through military training, one of the ways one could attain citizenship in Heinlein's futuristic society. In the book, this society was a democracy. In the movie, this is turned on its head. The government is fascist. The military uniforms look like World War II German SS uniforms.

In the book, military training is reserved for those who are not only physically, but mentally qualified. It is, to a certain extent, a civics course to prepare participants for citizenship. In the movie, military service is an occupation of the mentally weak, losers who are easily manipulated by propaganda to fight for the pointless aims of the all-powerful government. They are cannon fodder, to be quickly abandoned on the battlefield if they are wounded.

In the book, all efforts are made to rescue the wounded. The motto is “leave no man behind.” In the book, the training is tough, but fair. Drill instructors show some compassion for the recruits, and they encourage independent thought. In the film, the drill instructors are portrayed as sadistic and cruel.

In the book, the government is largely civilian and is not eager to fight wars. They are fought when necessary, to defend the human race against those who attack it. In the movie, the government is largely militaristic and wars are fought for mysterious, sometimes phony reasons.

The movie gives us a very cynical view of military service. Heinlein himself was a military veteran. He clearly viewed military service in a very different way than is on display in this film.

In addition, the acting is laughably bad, with the exception of veteran actor Michael Ironside. The dialog is inane. The romantic quadrangle is a waste of time in the film. It simply doesn't work. The best parts of the movie are its high-budget special effects (state-of-the-art in 1996), and its rousing combat scenes, dumb as they are. This film rates a B for youngsters, and a C for some fans of Robert Heinlein like myself.

For a much more elaborate exploration of “Starship Troopers,” including common misunderstandings of the book, and the differences between the book and film read Christopher Weuve's thorough, well-researched essay on these subjects. Here is a brief quote from it:

“The society described (in the film) bears only the most superficial resemblance to the society described by Heinlein, and philosophically it is its antithesis ... ”

Weuve's main complaint is that Verhoeven and others involved in the film have made claims that the movie is a fair representation of Heinlein's vision. He says it is not, and has the research and the footnotes to back up his views.

This is an updated review from my original 1997 work. I've written this after several lively discussions with my readers and other critics, and after having done some more research into Heinlein's book on which this film is based. My original review can be seen here.

I have also updated my original review recently. I have had to rethink my opinion about insisting that this particular movie be true to the book it is based on. I have been pilloried by readers on both sides of this viewpoint in a number of different reviews of different movies. For various reasons, practical and artistic, my view now is that me judging a movie based on its source material is not useful. In this particular case, however, Starship Troopers had only one chance at a first impression on me, and it was not a pleasant one.

There are distinctly different reactions to this film, depending on age groups, political orientations, military backgrounds, etc., of the viewer, and whether or not the viewer has read, and understood, the book. My own rating of this film, at two stars out of four, is about average among critics. At the movie review aggregation site Metacritic.com, this film is rated 51 out of 100 (this score was as of early 2018) which is mathematically the same as my own rating of this film.

Critical ratings of this film range from 100 out of 100 to zero. Some reviewers completely missed the satirical elements of the film, but liked it anyway, praising the special effects and action. Others saw the film as a brilliant and funny satire, parody or comedy. Some laughed all the way through it, viewing it as just plain silly, intentionally so or not. Others understood the satire, but felt it did not work very well on that level. I'm one of those who did not find the satire compelling or funny.

Much later update: July 29, 2013 -- For those who do regard this film as a comedy. You'll be pleased to know that NCM Fathom Events, RiffTrax and IGN is presenting the original Starship Troopers movie in a mocking way as a comedy spoof event called “RiffTrax Live: Starship Troopers” in selected theaters on August 15, 2013. It should be fun, as well as heaping more insults on the memory of the great science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein. This is also yet another blow to the status of this film as an art form, at least for those who regard it as such. Those guys from “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, will be shredding this movie just as they lampooned so many other laughably bad science fiction movies.

Here are some sample quotes from various critics: “In the hands of Verhoeven, the mammoth sci-fi battle flick is one of the most astonishingly bad films ever made, a monument to inept filmmaking on a colossal scale.” -- Edward Johnson-Ott.

“Basically, the movie breaks down like this: An hour of 'Melrose Place'. Forty-five minutes of bloodbath and shouting. Ten minutes of silly dialogue. Ten minutes of stomach-turning, gratuitous gore (brains being slowly sucked from a human head, several slow-motion impalings). Gratuitous nudity, filmed like soft-porn. And a heavy dose of comic-book style ... to make the film both nostalgic AND (more importantly) appealing to kids. (Did you know they're selling TOYS for this movie?)” -- Jeffrey Overstreet.

“A Rock 'em Sock 'em Bug blastin' blockbuster.” -- Chuck Schwartz.

“If viewed as a comedy, Starship Troopers is quite enjoyable ...” -- Carlo Cavagna.

“'Starship Troopers' is the most violent kiddie movie ever made. I call it a kiddie movie not to be insulting, but to be accurate: Its action, characters and values are pitched at 11-year-old science-fiction fans.” -- Roger Ebert

“Repulsively thrilling and often downright hilarious.” -- James Kendrick

“I don't think you'll get much bang for your money out of this sophomoric satire.” -- Dennis Schwartz.

Click for some neat photos and storyboard drawings from the Starship Troopers production. Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2004 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)