Bloody Hell! This is the last frigging’ day in June… already?!? January was only yesterday, wasn’t it? I distinctly remember it raining and the power went out in the house for four hours somewhere during that cool month. We actually got out the candles (something my wife collects in droves). I think I read a portion of a book by candlelight then, in point of fact. Who knew those candles could be so handy. Now, a heat wave is pending for the Fourth of July weekend — along with the monsoonal flow we get this time of year. If I think about it too much, I might surmise I’m getting older by minute. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants.
So once again, it’s time for the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I to add another of our duo posts in the series we started in 2010. For this one, we took on a novel/film pairing that for many packs a strong reaction, no matter the media one partakes. As usual, the wordy one will look at the text of a famed novel later adapted to film, which I will review. In this case, she’ll be looking at the 1959 source sci-fi novel from the “dean of science fiction writers”, Robert Heinlein, that served the 1997 film adaptation of the same name, Starship Troopers. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: In the future, the planet Earth has ended its long-suffering inter-nation/state squabbles and human beings live under one common federacy. Everything just works. That is not to say hominid life has given up entirely on warfare. Far from it. In this day, the human race is competing to rid themselves of their interstellar rivals, the Arachnids of Klendathu. Into this reality, Johnny Rico and his graduating high school compadres feel the cultural and gravitational pull to join the armed forces of the Terran Federation. In plain fact, they seek glory like any youth would, along with the desire to attain citizenship. Oh, did I forget to mention that to vote and have full opportunities in this society one must be an armed services veteran? The world operates in this age as a military meritocracy. What follows will cover Rico’s indoctrination, maturation, and achievements as a member in the Mobile Infantry.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
“Come on you apes. You want to live forever?”
There’s no way someone seeing this film adaptation for the first time doesn’t experience a strong reaction to the piece. Love it or hate it, few have “Eh” in their arsenal of observations and remarks toward this feature flick. Given an R rating by our autocratic friends at the Motion Picture of America when it debuted for the gore, sex, and nudity on widescreen display, it was going to attract a vast discussion no matter what. Director Paul Verhoeven (no stranger to pushing limits in such areas with his films) and screenwriter Edward Neumeier effectively saw to that. Though, it should be said, Robert Heinlein’s seminal book would have drawn attention even with a more straight-up adaptation regardless. Subtle the novel is not.
Starship Troopers plays simultaneously as a war film, a hard-edged sci-fi conjecture, and special effects summer movie (though, it was released in the Fall of 1997). It is also one of the more subversive cinematic takes of a source novel (one that was controversial then and as well as now). Its reworking to film offered a sly, yet insightful, criticism toward those (certainly the author of said work) who see a military styled government as a cure-all for its denizens. The quality and nobility of purpose for the warrior class in such a state in both the film and book is exalted, however… well, except maybe for one general in a scene Verhoeven made sure to add.
“These are the rules. Everybody fights, nobody quits. If you don’t do your job I’ll kill you myself. Welcome to the Roughnecks.”
Like the book, the film follows Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien, whose jaw-line has to be a recruiter’s poster-child dream) as he follows his schoolmates (Denise Richards as Carmen Ibanez and Neil Patrick Harris as Carl Jenkins) into the service to help the ongoing campaign against the bugs. At first, it’s more for the girl than him, believe me. Please don’t get the wrong idea, the filmmakers play the tale straight-faced, and in a manner similar to what was presented in the novel (though changes to characters and storyline were made).
It’s not camp nor does it wink its intentions to the audience. Still, the satire is there nonetheless in its depiction of what commonly would have been seen as propaganda film, circa-World War II (U.S., German… take your pick). Quentin Tarantino’s film-within-a-film, Nation’s Pride, for his 2009 film Inglourious Basterds would be an excellent primer for such.
In that same keeping, the late-90s film made a conscious decision of casting the ‘young and beautiful’ for the new recruits in the story’s depiction. Harkening back to the director’s groundbreaking film in 1987, Robocop, the filmmakers included a heathy dose of online commercials to introduce the greenhorns, and us, to this new world order and the enemy. The methods of derogatory information dissemination are on full display throughout the film.
Another underlying point of the script is to show that biased and misleading information can and does sway a population, if given the correct amount of gloss and menacing threat. When the online reporter (one obviously doomed for his honesty) in the first Klendathu landing mission offers up the possibility that it could have been us that started the war on-air, he’s quickly shut down by our boy Johnny (with moral conviction, I might add, since his parents’ deaths was the direct result of a meteor attack) with a discourse ending statement:
“I’m from Buenos Aires, and I say kill ’em all!”
But as much as the audience wants to pull for the beautiful people onscreen, the filmmakers really build more of an emotional connection through its secondary players. Principally with its supporting cast of Verhoeven favorite Michael Iro… excuse me… I meant to say Michael ‘F&*^king’ Ironside (as my good friend Will has taught me) portraying the notable Lt. Jean Rasczak and Clancy Brown as Sgt. (and eventual Private) Zim. While the concept of honor is upheld with these two, for sure its heart is with Dina Meyer as the lovelorn Dizzy Flores (who was a guy in the book). Her bloody combat demise (perhaps linked to the old standby slasher movie cliché of a post-coital death) is likely the most moving (but, that might be just me).
Keenly, it is the film’s female characters which distinguishes it from the novel (to say women were minor personas in the book is an understatement). Their injection into the screenplay brought a needed attribute (ahem… and I’m not saying this because of that famous shower scene). I believe weaving them in boosted the late-50s material and made it more relevant to an 1997 audience, and even more so today (post-9/11).
I have to say at this juncture, like Jurassic Park, this was another computer special effects film that genuinely broke new ground for its time. In fact, newly engineered computer programming delivered the first en masse digital bug effects to astonished moviegoers. Similarly, there were two different SFX teams tasked with bringing this off for Starship Troopers in equal measure (unlike today’s slate of movies that are more heavily dependent upon CGI).
Model and computer teams melded their analog and digital work pretty seamlessly and accomplished some truly spectacular space and combat scenes — the latter of these helped immensely to pull off the integral homages to one of the great British war films, 1964’s Zulu, for the mass ambush sequences on Klendathu.
Paul Verhoeven’s filmography is dotted with standout films (this among them). However, he does not operate at the middle of the distribution curve where safe (read corporate studio) filmmakers tread. He can be shocking in the violence his films display, as well as titillating with the amount of sex and nudity he fearlessly exhibits in them, but almost always pertinent or stimulating [check out two differing perspectives regarding his Total Recall film by Will and Mr. Peel as evidence].
Given his Dutch childhood was spent under the German occupation of the Netherlands during WW II, it should be no surprise he interposed the veil of Nazism in Starship Troopers. If you compare the uniforms in the film with the natty ones worn by the Wehrmacht and Gestapo, you’ll get his drift. However, sometimes his insinuations in what he produces either go over people’s heads (that other end of the spectrum he works) or are stung by them. This film’s critics likely encountered both.
“Figuring things out for yourself is practically the only freedom anyone really has nowadays. Use that freedom.”
Starship Troopers was controversial the moment it hit theaters in a way that was very much tied to the filmmaker and the decade that sprung it. So much so, it usurped Heinlein’s unique hot potato of a story with its own storm. Although, the book remains eminent decades after its début — it was prerequisite reading by James Cameron for the ‘grunts’ in his Aliens cast and for the U.S. Marines today. Somehow the movie was successful enough (nonetheless, it did lose money at the box office) to reap two later direct-to-video sequels, all the while garnering its share of disapproval and polarized audiences in the bargain.
I’ll mention the DTVs came after 2001 and all were inferior in tone and the cleverness of the ’97 film. Still, since its release to DVD, the original’s standing has steadily surged (insert your Iraq or Afghanistan reference here). You can tell its critique of political and military thought was made pre-9/11. Given its dissident undertone, it’s doubtful it would be made in today’s environment. Yet, it remains a unique motion picture in that it is at once a film of its time, but one that remains relevant and to the point. Like it or not, only a few films can say that.