Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Melrose Space to Marauder: The Starship Troopers Film Trilogy

By Nader Elhefnawy


In the classic Robert Heinlein novel Starship Troopers, Juan "Johnny" Rico, the son of a wealthy Filipino businessman living in Buenos Aires, enlists in the Terran Mobile Infantry after high school, against his father's wishes. Through his training, and his service in the war that subsequently begins (when the alien arachnids attack his hometown of B.A.), Johnny goes from being a callow child of privilege to a responsible leader of men as an Infantry officer, and citizen of the Federation.

The famous 1997 film retains the basic outline of the book, as well as many of the characters and incidents, but as one might expect from a movie designed as a Hollywood summer blockbuster, there are some significant changes.1 Not the least of these is the shift in emphasis from Johnny's development in Heinlein's futuristic bildungsroman, to action-adventure and spectacle. (It has to be admitted that the novel is a bit of a disappointment for readers looking for a thrill ride. After the adrenaline rush of the opening raid against the Skinnies, the book offers very little action, and that written more with an eye to realistically providing a sense of the confusion of battle rather than visceral excitement.)

The film also has a broader scope than the novel, which is narrated by Johnny in the first person. It gives rather more time to other characters, particularly those who came with Johnny (played by Casper Van Dien) from school, like Carmen Benes (a pre-Wild Things Denise Richards), and in this case, Dizzy Flores, who in the film is a young woman (Dina Meyer) serving with Johnny in the Infantry. (In the book there were women starship pilots, like Carmen, but in the film the Infantry is fully coed.) They brought their emotional baggage from high school with them, the new circumstances facilitating the carrying over of two interconnected love triangles, one between Johnny, Carmen (now Johnny's high school girlfriend, whom he basically followed into the service) and Dizzy (who followed Johnny in her turn, even requesting and getting a transfer to his platoon); and another between Johnny, Carmen and her fellow starship pilot, Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon).

Of course, viewers had plenty to say about those changes, not all of it positive (apart from the Oscar-nominated special effects, which drew almost universal acclaim, and still hold up very well a decade later). The casting dismayed some, who felt that the principal characters were insufficiently diverse in a story where racial harmony and gender equality were supposed to have been perfectly realized (in particular displeased by the decision to cast Van Dien as Rico).

Along with the romantic entanglements, and the other trappings of American high school life (a slice of Americana, down to the high school football game and the prom), that aspect of it led some to derisively joke about the film being "Beverly Hills 90210 in space" (Van Dien and Meyer having both appeared on that show prior to this movie), or "Melrose Space." Other fans of the book were dismayed at not seeing the powered armor widely remembered as a hallmark of the story, an absence justified by producer Jon Davison on budgetary grounds (in particular the cost and time wire-work on that scale would have absorbed) and dramatic ones (as the sight of the soldiers "bouncing" about the field would easily have looked very silly).2

The big controversy, however, really centered on the portrayal of the social order in the film, which is not surprising given that it had been controversial among the novel's readers from the time of the book's first appearance. In Heinlein's future, the Federation is run solely by military veterans, who alone enjoy the full rights of citizenship--the franchise, and candidacy for high office.3 This, and other aspects of the future in the book, led some to see Heinlein's story as fascistic. Indeed, the book became so closely identified with such tendencies in the genre that Michael Moorcock titled his famous 1978 essay about the subject "Starship Stormtroopers."4

Of Starship Stormtroopers
Of course, many of Heinlein's fans have flatly rejected such a reading of the story.5They can and do legitimately point out that the Federation was not established in the name of traditional values or institutions (like the family, organized religion, the martial spirit, or anything else), and nor does it seem to take much interest in upholding their status. The military may enjoy a privileged place in the political system as the sole gateway to full political rights (the franchise, and public office), but serving soldiers are subordinate to those who have returned to civilian life, not a word is breathed about military rule per se, and criticism of the military is freely expressed by civilians, including the very physician examining Johnny when he applies.6

Additionally, Heinlein repeatedly stresses that the Federation represents a historical maximum in the personal freedom its citizens enjoy. (Indeed, even those serving in the military enjoy far more freedom in some ways than those serving in any existing military today, free to put in their resignation at any time outside of actual combat.) There is no mention of corporatist economics, which the Heinlein of the 1950s (any interest in alternatives to the free market by this point long behind him) would in any case be expected to strongly disapprove of. And of course, this society boasted perfect, matter-of-fact racial and national equality.7

Consequently, the Federation is very far from fitting the description of any fascist state in history, or any other kind of "totalitarian" state for that matter, and Heinlein's defenders are absolutely right to point this out. And yet—-it is not so simple a matter as that to dismiss the claims, especially when one distinguishes between the culture of the Federation as a whole, and the book actually depicting this world. The story's marginalization of social and economic questions in this "society that works"; the emphasis on punitive discipline, corporal punishment, and the echo of 1950s-era hysteria about "kids out of control"; the gleeful contempt for liberal sensibilities expressed by Johnny's educators--all of these at the very least identify the story with a fairly harsh brand of conservatism, while offering abundant material to those looking to identify the film with fascist ideas, to see in the vigilante vets who founded the Federation, and their political heirs, something of the post-World War I Freikorps.8

The conception of the enemy as mindless, sub-human, literally insectoid (and the not unreasonable tendency of some readers to see them as stand-ins for human opponents) also echoes the crudest sorts of nationalist and racialist propaganda, and Johnny himself embraces the rooting of morality in a harshly socio-biological view of life, reminiscent of nineteenth century Social Darwinism and rhetoric about a growing nation's need for "breathing room." While it is difficult to pin any particular political label on Heinlein, many aspects of Heinlein's politics as the author himself openly expressed them at the time (his defense of McCarthyism, his hard line in the Cold War), do not exactly discourage such perceptions.

In short, while the Federation is quite different from fascist states like Mussolini's Italy or Hitler's Germany, one can see something of fascism's spirit in it. And to the chagrin of quite a few fans of the book, it is this view of the book that the film's creators embraced, using the material furnished by Heinlein's novel as a launch pad for a satire of fascism and militarism, a decision perhaps not all that surprising given the creative team in charge: director Paul Verhoeven, working with screenwriter Ed Neumeier, the duo who gave the world the original Robocop (certainly one of the sharpest satires to come out of Hollywood in the 1980s).

Their touch is evident throughout, in the small details (like the zany commercials and news programs), and the large. In this vision of a futuristic "good society," society's less seemly aspects (and one must assume they still exist, given the lack of evidence to the contrary) are tucked out of sight, unmentioned--or normalized, like the live, televised executions that air on every channel. The same goes for the complexities of political history. (There is a quick reference to "Mormon extremists" who have intruded into Bug territory, which Verhoeven has pointed out is a reminder that, contrary to how the Federation would have it, the conflict with the Bugs did not precisely begin with the attack on B.A..9)

Instead, the sanitized, carefully controlled media speaks in a single voice reminiscent of '40s-era newsreels in its complacent authority, simplicity of outlook and uncomplicated aggressiveness, no trace of skepticism, cynicism, doubt, difference or dissent ever intruding. No one on screen dares (or at least, thinks) to utter the kind of anti-military sentiment that was unsurprising in the book, any more than these things would have turned up in the World War II films that inspired the product.10 Johnny and friends are as vacuous as they are eager, earnest and enthusiastic, a "right-wing group of beautiful, empty-headed people doing exactly what they're told to do" as science fiction historian Paul Sammon puts it.11 From beginning to end they never do a double-take at the state worship and state violence drenching their culture, and increasingly their lives--even after Johnny (barely) gets through the bloody, bungled mess that is the Battle of Klendathu (which evokes argument only over tactics, not strategy, policy or general goals in the press). Their recruiting poster looks and recruiting poster flatness makes them come across as idealized, mindless figures out of propaganda--and indeed, the film closes with a recruiting commercial featuring Johnny and Carmen.

Given this vision of the nation-in-arms at its most ridiculous, the acting and casting are actually perfect, especially when one considers that the aesthetic is not solely derived from that of Anglo-American wartime film.12 Indeed, it fits in neatly with the considerable borrowing from Nazi aesthetic expressions, ranging from the uniforms (particularly the one worn by Neil Patrick Harris in the role of Colonel Carl Jenkins) and other regalia, to the staging and cinematography of the crowd scenes, reminiscent of Nazi rallies.

The Sequels: Starship Troopers 2 and 3
Predictably, much of the audience didn't get the joke, the critical elite included. Being a satirist always means running the risk of being misunderstood, and especially being thought to promote what you are actually criticizing.13 However, the controversy did not result in a blockbuster. When all was said and done Starship Troopers took in about $55 million in the U.S., and another $66 million overseas, making for a global total of $121 million. Given that it cost $105 million to make, these earnings had to be considered a significant disappointment.14

Nonetheless, box office failure has never stopped Hollywood from trying to milk a potentially profitable franchise, and in 1999 a spin-off television series hit the airwaves (executive produced by Verhoeven himself), Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, but it proved short-lived. There were distribution problems, of course, not least of them the destruction of the story arcs when they were aired out of order, but there was a more fundamental issue; the show was clearly an uneasy cross of kid's weekday morning cartoon with the very adult vision of the film. While more successful on that level than one might expect, the result was a military procedural somewhat more mature than what one expected in that time slot, but much tamer in its depiction of the still-abundant action (and other things), the social comment toned down, the plot considerably simplified.

Instead the series continued in live-action format, specifically the straight-to-video sequel format, with the first of these appearing in 2004, Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation. Once again Ed Neumeier penned the script, with acclaimed special effects artist Phil Tippett (who supervised the creature effects in the original) helming.

The movie was, of course, shot on only a fraction of the first film's budget (perhaps less than ten percent of it), and it shows. Hero of the Federation is shot on video, with low light levels, to make it look like film, and perhaps also to compensate for the limited F/X resources. The recycled image of the air strike from the original film apart, in the battles we typically get a few, usually close-in shots of bugs interspersed among a lot more shots of harried humans shouting and shooting their guns at targets off screen, all in the dark and during a storm. Following that the soldiers whose story we follow are trapped by the Bug assault in an abandoned outpost on a forbidding planet, where they stumble upon a fallen war hero (Richard Burgi's Captain Dax).

Additionally, none of the characters from the original return, and only one of the cast members does so, Brenda Strong, who had a minor supporting role as Carmen and Zander's commanding officer, Captain Deladier. Deladier having died in the original, she appears as a totally new character, "Sergeant Dede Rake," a larger but less glamorous part consistent with the film's new tone.

The satirical parody that characterized the first movie is confined to brief bits at the beginning and end. In between, we get a straight war drama which after the first half hour or so starts to shade over into horror movie territory as all the characters begin to act very strangely. During it we get the darker, grimmer, more ambivalent look and feel of cinematic recollections of the Korean conflict, and to the credit of the film's makers, this is not just an excuse for the lower production values.15 The grizzled, tired quality of the Troopers we see this time around (so different in that from the fresh-faced and gung-ho Rico, Flores and Benes), and especially Dax's cynicism, are strikingly juxtaposed with the government's upbeat official line, the comic bits about them played rather more broadly than in the original film to heighten the contrast with what is really happening "over there" (and perhaps because the writer wanted to make sure the audience "got it" this time around). The unseen menace that drives our heroes to turn on each other, while admittedly cliché today, is appropriate in its evocativeness of Heinlein's work (not least, his 1951 classic The Puppet Masters), the fears in the background to this chapter of film history, and the insanity swallowing everyone up by this point.

The response to the movie was on the whole unfavorable, and I have to admit that I shared that opinion when I first saw it. However, my opinion of it improved when I recently watched it again for this review. As one might expect given Tippett's storied technical career, the filmmakers' get the most out of their resources, certainly not matching the spectacle of the first movie, but nonetheless doing better than might be expected (the action scenes have punch, and all things considered the Bugs look as good this time as in the last), and certainly well enough to tell this particular story. While presenting Rico, Benes and company seeming worn-out and war-weary might have made the film more effective, as well as giving the series greater continuity, the casting works here, not just Burgi (and more surprisingly, Strong), but also Ed Lauter as Jack Shepherd, Colleen Porch as Lei Sahara and Kelly Carlson as Charlie Soda. The result is on the whole more watchable than most straight-to-video genre film, even if lacking in many of the things (the epic battles, the humor and parody throughout) that fans liked about the original.

Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, which came out last September (and also marks screenwriter Neumeier's directorial debut), is something of a return to the roots of the series. Casper Van Dien returns as Johnny Rico, who is a colonel now, and in the first few minutes of the film ends up on death row when he strikes a superior officer, his old friend General Dix Hauser (Boris Kodjoe), who had been about to shoot a farmer in a bar fight that got out of hand.

However, his neck is saved by Dix at the last second (literally) so that they can send him on a secret mission--to rescue Sky Marshal Omar Anoke (Stephen Hogan). Stranded on planet OM-1 after a visit to the front lines with only a handful of troopers and crew, he is in danger of being captured and compromising crucial military secrets, in particular the location of the planet Sanctuary, site of an important fleet base. Compounding the problem, the Sky Marshal (a flamboyant figure to begin with, with a successful second career as a singer that has increased his popularity) has been acting erratically for some time now, a fact that his second-in-command, Admiral Enolo Phid (Amanda Donohoe), has been keeping quiet.

As the premise implies, Marauder has a brighter, flashier look and feel, and a broader scope, which serve it well in its return to the propaganda movie parody approach of the original. Fans who wondered where the powered armor was during the first film will be happy to see that, as the title hints, it is featured prominently here.16 The satire also touches on some issues the previous two films did not explore, like the attitude of wartime states toward dissent (visible and growing at this point in the conflict, despite the execution of protestors); the games that go along with state secrecy, covert military and intelligence operations, and the management of the media; and the Federation's treatment of religion, which it goes from suppressing to mobilizing as a resource in the war--much of it with an eye to the conflict the U.S. is currently embroiled in.

The film suffers somewhat from its slender budget (the constraints of which are more obvious here than in the second film, on account of the bigger scale of the story), and the less polished feel of the production. However, viewers who liked the first film are likely to find it more satisfying than the 2004 sequel, and perhaps even look forward to a fourth installment.

Looking Back
The trio of Starship Troopers movies made to date certainly do not comprise the most successful trilogy in science fiction history. Nonetheless, the first film, and to a lesser extent, the whole set, are something unique in genre cinema. Despite George Lucas, big-budget space opera (indeed, even just space opera-ish material) has been a screen rarity, the few examples outside his six famous films rarely getting made, and even more rarely capturing much audience interest, even when done well. In recent years the highly praised Firefly spin-off Serenity flopped, while The Chronicles of Riddick failed to get the reception that would have warranted the big-budget trilogy originally anticipated (though apparently there is still buzz about more modestly budgeted, independently produced sequels).

In retrospect a big-budget satirical space war movie is even less likely than any of those other concepts was, but Starship Troopers delivered exactly that, and the result actually seems to have become more relevant with time. Ironically, just after the film satirized World War II-vintage militarism, the United States descended into a manic celebration of exactly that, Stephen Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan hitting theaters and Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation hitting shelves the year after.17 After the September 11 terrorist attacks, it was to the memory of World War II to which pundits and politicians turned for precedents, for analogies, for inspiration.18 Verhoeven himself drew parallels between the film and the War on Terror in the interviews since that time, like this one with Ain't It Cool News:
The whole situation in Afghanistan is almost an exact copy of STARSHIP TROOPERS; the whole gung ho-mentality of bombing everything, blasting the Taliban-forces out of the caves. I put all that in STARSHIP TROOPERS! The corrupted atmosphere of propaganda, once invented by Goebbels, has now taken over the United States as well. It's extremely interesting to see how the media can besiege an entire nation with propaganda.
Verhoeven's unabashed expression of such views likely did not help his Hollywood career in that rally-round-the-flag moment, and neither did the projects he had planned. (Discussed here in another interview with the British newspaper, The Independent , they included a film about the Medieval crusades.).

The war remains a problematic subject for Hollywood, as the troubled release of Uwe Boll's Postal (about which I interviewed the director of that film for Strange Horizons earlier this year) demonstrated.19 Nonetheless, in the most recent twist to that particular story, Hollywood recently announced plans to film Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, a book often seen as a foil to Heinlein's novel. I won't hazard a guess as to what will actually come of the project, science fiction movies based on well-known books all too often ending up in production hell. Yet, assuming the film based on Haldeman's book actually gets made and proves to be a success, it's easy to picture viewers looking back at Verhoeven's movie as an important precursor.

1 Readers should note that this was not the first screen version of Heinlein's book, that distinction going to a short-run animated Japanese series in 1989. Incidentally, I have been unable to find it on DVD, at least in North America.
2 "Death From Above: The Making of Starship Troopers," in Starship Troopers (Special Edition), dir. Jeffrey Schwarz, writ. Tyler Hubby, DVD, Sony, 2002. This DVD extra is far better than the usual expressions of mutual admiration and shots of actors in front of green screens that tend to accompany films like this one. The writer, director and producer discuss the film's writing, casting, theme and overall aesthetic, and it is strongly recommended to readers interested in those aspects of the film.
3 Heinlein famously responded to his attackers by saying that the word "veteran" in the book only meant something analogous to "civil servant," but the text offers little evidence for this reading. (This was in the afterword to his 1958 "Who Are The Heirs of Patrick Henry?" which readers can find reprinted in Expanded Universe (Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 2003). Those looking for a close reading of the book with attention to that question can check out James Gifford's essay on the subject, "The Nature of 'Federal Service' in Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers," Site:RAH: The Robert Heinlein Homepage. Accessed at
4 Michael Moorcock, "Starship Stormtroopers," Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review 4, pp. 42-4. Accessed at
5 It is worth noting that Heinlein's fans can be astonishingly combative, even against each other, as I learned the hard way after penning a small article commemorating the "Heinlein Centennial" for Tangent Online last summer.
6 These sentiments, also expressed by Johnny's father, make clear that, at least in peacetime, the culture of the Federation is not militaristic. However, as Heinlein acknowledged himself, the book was intended to glorify the "poor, bloody infantry." Such glorification of the military, especially in a story where military service is seen as proof of civic fitness, may reasonably be considered to qualify the book as militaristic.
7 Even as his economics shifted rightward, Heinlein remained a progressive on race and gender (though his image in this regard has been tarnished by changing expectations, and of course, his publication of Farnham's Freehold), a resolute atheist, an opponent of government regulation of the moral sphere, and not least of all, a writer willing to experiment with unconventional ideas--enough so that he could produce Strangers in a Strange Land, a book near and dear to many in the counterculture of the 1960s.
8 From that standpoint, it may also be relevant that the Federation originated in a revolt of disgruntled veterans whose goal is "law and order," pure and simple. Indeed, in this regard the Federation's founding (and possibly aspects of its governance) come quite close to the understanding of fascism Wilhelm Reich offered as "a mixture of rebellious emotions and reactionary social ideas." See Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, trans. Theodore P. Wolfe (New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1946), p. 7. Accessed at However, I should make clear that I believe any such resemblance to be unintentional on Heinlein's part.
9 Schwarz, 2002.
10 The citizens also tolerate a great deal more control over their personal lives, as with the requirement that they get a government license before they can have children--and the favoritism the government shows to fully franchised citizens, which has the effect of compelling some would-be mothers to perform military service. (In the third film in the series, viewers also learn that the Federation has long suppressed religious freedom as well.) The film also offers a number of subtle reminders that the Federation is not an egalitarian place. While socially and economically privileged Johnny can take his place at Harvard for granted, Shujimi (Anthony Ruivivar), who earned his way in, had to enlist in the military to pay for it. Additionally, in a deleted scene included on the Special Edition of the DVD, Carmen tells Johnny's parents, unlike hers, "have money, so they don't need to be citizens," raising the relationship between economic and political power that Heinlein's book glossed over.
11 Screenwriter Ed Neumeier mentions in the documentary "Death From Above: The Making of Starship Troopers" that the image in his head when he was developing the screenplay was "Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue go to outer space and fight giant bugs and become Nazis." Schwarz, 2002.
12 The replacement of the drop capsules with the drop ships, which look like World War II landing craft, is one example of this. Schwarz, 2002.
13 There were many accusations that the film was fascistic, the most famous of them an editorial that ran in the Washington Post shortly after the movie's release. Stephen Hunter, "Goosestepping at the Movies: Starship Troopers and the Nazi Aesthetic," Washington Post, 11 Nov. 1997.
14 One should keep in mind that of a film's total gross, usually just 40-50 percent goes to the studio, so that to make back its budget at the box office, a $100 million movie would need to earn $200 million or more. Of course, no film depends on ticket sales for its entire income, video, television rights, merchandising and the complexities of subsidies playing very large roles, but this nonetheless goes a long way to defining expectations, and the revenue from those other income streams.
15 In the "Inside the Federation" extra on the special edition DVD, screenwriter Neumeier acknowledges the influence of Sam Fuller, the director of films like The Steel Helmet.
16 The "Marauder" powered armor is not the only new reference to the book. This film also marks the first reference to the planet Sanctuary (prominently featured in the book) in the series.
17 Interestingly enough, another, major space war film appearing at this time, 1999's Wing Commander, drew heavily on the imagery and history of the Second World War, the basic plot a refight of the Battle of Midway.
18 Watching the film since then, one can be struck by how easily one can turn the film's script into the rhetoric of FOX News and company simply by scratching out the word "Bug" and replacing it with one referring to the ethno-religious bogeymen of our time.
19 It may also be telling that the third installment was a German-South African co-production, rather than one financed by an American company.

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