I was six years old when I saw Starship Troopers. My parents were always lenient when it came to R-Rated movies. Intense violence and gore were passible, whereas sex and nudity were not. It is the violence of ST that I remember the most, the vivisected bodies and massacres when the Arachnids swarmed their human enemies. It was the most influential film I’ve seen.
Directed by Paul Verhoven, ST is based on Robert Heinlein’s book of the same name. It follows Johnny Rico, played by Casper Van Dean, after he joins the Mobile Infantry, while in the midst of a love triangle. In this futuristic setting, Earth is united under a centralized government and joining the military grantees citizenship.
It’s satire with a propaganda vibe–punctuated by gruesome death. A seemingly lighthearted action-adventure tale slides headfirst into a spiked-wall of people getting torn in half and pulled apart by giant alien bugs. The impact of such a shift in tone changes the movie’s meaning. It starts out corny before forcing you to come to terms with horror. The characters are brainwashed into fighting a war with no conceivable end because the state says so.
As a teenager, I did not see it that way. I remembered ST as a pretty bad movie with terrible acting but awesome violence and nudity. For a short time I did not understand the satire and neither did many critics. They could not see past its superficial qualities (like the performances) and did not bother analyzing its themes. Roger Ebert called it a “repetitious shooting gallery”. As time went on, critics and movie buffs understood what Verhoven was going for and ST widely became considered a classic.
Oddly enough, Heinlein’s book had a similar reception. After it’s release in 1959, authors like Michael Moorcock, of Elric of Melnibone fame, said the book praised the military and promoted fascism. It was considered dystopic for insinuating that humankind needed violence to achieve stability.
I never saw any of that after reading the novel at 17. I was also living on a military base, in an Army JROTC class, but I read the book on my own. Back then, I was more focused on the world around me. I saw the ST film for what it was.
What the ST book does is something science fiction should do. It presents ideas and concepts to make you think. There is an extended paragraph on the meaning of war as organized violence. Another fascist aspect many found was the insinuation that unlimited democracy leads to disaster. However, the novel argues for limited democracy by giving the franchise to those that are willing to take the full weight of responsibility. Heinlein never intended to convince his readers of anything except to open their eyes. What you do with the information is entirely up to you.
When Ed Neumeier wrote the adaptation, he saw fascism in the novel. That was how he interpreted its ideas. I may not agree with the argument, but that is all it is: an argument. The great thing about art is you can have your own interpretation about what it means. The author may have his or her reasons for making the piece, but viewers and readers will come up with their own interpretations. What matters is if the work is actually good and in terms of adaptation, the ST movie is exceptional.
In 1997 before CGI took over, it was one of the last films to utilize both practical and digital effects. The sets, guns, and costumes are exceptionally well crafted next to miniatures and visual effects that still hold up today. With such a little film, it is confounding how great everything looks. I will fight anyone who says the creatures and ships do not look better than today’s CG abominations.
In matters of adaptation, it is easy to choose one medium over the other. In the case of Starship Troopers, Heinlein’s classic and Verhoven’s adaption stand on their own. While I like the book more, both have merit, and one is no better than the other. Now, 20 years later, is the best time to check out the movie. After you watch it, the novel is well worth your time.