is a seminal science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein
. First published in 1959, it is one of Heinlein’s most popular and widely analysed books, successfully combining a strong military
action motif with lengthy discussion of political and ethical principles. The actual plot is extremely simple: Juan Rico, a wealthy young man from the Philippines1
, joins the Federal army and becomes a member of the “Mobile Infantry
”, rising through the ranks and fighting insectoid and humanoid aliens in numerous battles on distant worlds, until he finally decides to become a career soldier
. Most of the story is actually about Rico’s training. However, the plot is only half of the book, and in fact serves only to illustrate the political and ethical commentary
which is far closer to Heinlein’s heart.
In fact, Heinlein originally planned for Troopers to be a juvenile adventure story, driven entirely by plot. But he apparently realised midway through writing it that Rico’s adventures would be the perfect device to bring life to the ethical issues he wanted to write about.
Starship Troopers is also a 1997 movie directed by Paul Verhoeven, purportedly based on the Heinlein novel. This movie is quite simply an abomination, failing on so many levels it’s hard to even know where to start dissecting it. While the general outline of the plot is true to the book’s core plot, everything else has changed. Almost all of the science fiction elements have been removed, leaving us with a thinly plotted war story with giant crustaceans as the foul, vaguely Communist enemy. As a war movie, however, it’s one of the worst since Rambo 3, utterly lacking any sense of strategy, tactics or authenticity. Most of the political-ethical dialogues of the book have also been removed, forcing the movie to rely on the strength of a nauseatingly cute love triangle, tremendous amounts of gore, and some admittedly cool animated bugs.
“WHAT ARE WE DOING, RICO?”
“KILL THEM. KILL THEM ALL”
- actual quote from the movie, I kid you not.
It has been suggested that Verhoeven’s version of “Troopers” was meant to be a parody of some sort. However, this idea is not supported by Verhoeven’s previous work, nor was it ever suggested in the initial publicity campaign for the movie. The trailers for the movie and published interviews with members of the crew all suggest a very serious work that was supposedly meant to be truly faithful to Heinlein’s vision, with minor modifications to bring the forty-year-old text up to date.2 Many fans of Heinlein’s masterpiece were eagerly anticipating the movie from the moment they heard that it was going to be done by the director of “Robocop” and “Total Recall” - surely a man with at least a working idea how to present SF action on the big screen. What we all forgot was that this was also the man who directed “Showgirls”.
In his infinite wisdom, Paul Verhoeven decided to turn “Troopers” into a straight war movie. My impression is that he wanted to remake James Cameron’s “Aliens” with supposedly cooler creature models. So why didn’t he get a decent technical advisor for the military issues? James Cameron may not have actually been in the military - for all I know, he may have just watched a lot of Vietnam movies - but at least his “Colonial Marines” had some basis in reality. They were organised into squads, with appropriate weaponry and equipment. They had support vehicles, a proper chain of command, and they used something approximating proper skirmishing tactics - all things that were also used by Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry.
Verhoeven’s Mobile Infantry have none of these things. They run around like a mob of co-ed Scouts, literally charging up hillsides in packs like six-year-olds playing World War II games. A bunch of Indiana paintballers would have done better than these guys. They were so pathetic, I wanted the Bugs to eat them all and make room for a better species. Preferably starting with the so-called “heroes” - a team of idiots who never would have survived Basic in the real world.
Observe the following problems with the military aspects of the movie, but be warned - if you have any military experience, you may hurt yourself laughing:
I’m not sure of the size of the “Roughnecks” unit in the movie, but it looks like a regiment at least. So why do they have only one radio? This is, of course, a plot device, designed to create suspense in the climactic battle scene, in which our brave yanqui protagonists must fix the radio in the empty outpost before they can call for a pickup. In reality, modern infantry carry at least one high-powered radio per squad, and usually more than that. Tanks usually have two or three radios each, and command tanks can have four or five. Not to mention auxiliary vehicles dedicated exclusively to communications.
Which brings us to the next point - where is the damned support for these guys? The MI gets sent down to a planet to root out the elusive brain bug, something that might be called a mission of vital importance - and no one in the higher command is even watching their progress from orbit? Would it have broken the Federal budget to give the troops a couple of air units to help them out, or a couple of tanks, or some suppressing fire from an orbiting cruiser? In Heinlein’s book, the Mobile Infantry didn’t need such things, but that was because every single soldier wore powered armour that turned him into a combination sniper, tank, Harrier jumpjet, and stealth bomber - a literal “Army of One”. Even that wasn’t entirely realistic, but as military science fiction, it worked great.
Of course, it wouldn’t have worked at all if Heinlein hadn’t been such a stickler for tactics. In the book, the soldiers advanced across the battlefield in carefully described open skirmishing order. Timing and spacing were vital issues - as they are in real warfare. But Verhoeven’s Scouts just charge around in a mob. Only once, on the third planet, do they enter some kind of orderly double file - but even this simple formation is ruined by the fact that they have nobody on the flanks and no advance scouts, and they are grouped tightly enough for the Bugs to take out the entire unit with one flame-throwing beetle. (This is the same scene where the supposedly ultra-experienced lieutenant sees rocks falling down the walls of the canyon, but doesn’t even suspect there might be some sort of ambush ahead - how the hell did this guy survive long enough to retire to that cushy teaching job?)
The same thing keeps happening with the starships in the movie. These crates are flying in groups of a few dozen, with about five meters of space between them. Every time one of them gets hit with a plasma burst, it careens out of control, ripping open another ship, which slams into another, which blows up. Setting another two or three ships afire as it disintegrates. Is this standard procedure? Somehow I doubt that Heinlein, a proud veteran of the US Navy, would have approved.
To sum up, let’s look at a passage from the book, just to show the difference: “You’re supposed to know the plan, but some of you ain’t got any minds to hypnotize so I’ll sketch it out. You’ll be dropped in two skirmish lines, calculated two-thousand-yard intervals. Get your bearing on me as soon as you hit, get your bearing and distance on your squad mates, both sides, while you take cover. You’ve wasted ten seconds already, so you smash-and-destroy whatever’s at hand until the flankers hit dirt.... Once they hit - Straighten out those lines! - equalize those intervals! Drop what you’re doing and do it! Twelve seconds. Then advance by leapfrog, odd and even, assistant section leaders minding the count and guiding the envelopment. If you’ve done this properly - which I doubt - the flanks will make contact as recall sounds... at which time, home you go. Any questions?”
Now, this isn’t some brilliant, inventive tactic. It isn’t meant to be. Just standard drill, which the soldiers are supposed to know by heart. And what’s Rico’s winning strategy in the film version? “Kill them. Kill them all!” Now please excuse me while I vomit.
PAUL VERHOEVEN - REMOVING THE SCIENCE FROM SCIENCE FICTION
None of these things would really have mattered so much if the director hadn’t removed the core element of the novel’s action - the powered armour suit. This suit is what made Starship Troopers so popular as a novel, and kept it in constant reprints for over forty years. It’s probably one of two things that most people remember from the book ten or twenty years after they first read it (the other one being the first History and Moral Philosophy class). Powered armour is every teenaged geek’s wet dream.
Think of an extremely heavy exoskeleton that makes you invulnerable to almost all attacks. Arm it with everything you can imagine - knives, flamethrowers, grenade launchers, heat-seeking missiles, smart bombs and nuclear weapons, for starters. Put in an excellent visor-mounted display that gives you every piece of tactical information you might need. And equip the whole thing with jump jets and amplifying servos, so that you can leap tall buildings in a single bound or run straight through them if you want. That’s what every man in the Mobile Infantry wears in Heinlein’s “Troopers”.
Realistic? Maybe not. But it was a reasonable concept for 1959, and it was still a decent concept when Joe Haldeman revamped it in 1974's “The Forever War”. Hell, it might actually work one day, although Haldeman himself has since realised that it would be more practical to turn the suit into a remote-controlled drone3. One way or the other, the powered armour made some very exciting reading, and it would have looked superb on film.
So why didn’t Verhoeven use the armour in his movie? My best guess is that he was afraid it would look like he was remaking “Robocop”. Which strikes me as funny, given the number of motifs that Verhoeven does allow himself to repeat in every single movie4.
Verhoeven also didn’t see fit to endow the Bugs with the technology and intelligence that they have in the book. His Bugs fight with their mandibles and spiky body parts only, while Heinlein’s Bugs are known to use blasters and other weapons. By making the Bugs so completely primitive, Verhoeven makes the racism of the original material even more repelling. In the novel, Rico points out that the Bugs, while inhuman, are intelligent and have a society of sorts. In a few passages, Heinlein even raises the possibility of negotiating with the Bugs and possibly coming to some sort of agreement. These ideas are quickly dismissed as being unrealistic, but at least they are briefly entertained. In the movie, the concept of negotiation is used only as a very brief joke, for the Bugs of the movie are obviously just a bunch of clever, vicious animals that need to be exterminated.
”PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE SAFETY OF THE BODY POLITIC, ETCETERA, ETCETERA, ETCETERA.”
This brings us full circle to the political content of the two works. While both versions of Troopers present the same basic political message, it is presented in two very different ways. The difference in presentation is so extreme that the message itself seems to have changed. While Heinlein gave us a seductive and solidly built argument for militarism and the fitness of the military to rule society, all Verhoeven offers is some kinky uniforms and some of the most extreme xenophobia ever seen in a big-budget movie.
The militarism of the novel can be summed up in one basic idea: only veterans have the right to rule human society. Risking his life to protect humanity is both the proof of the veteran’s fitness to rule and the way that fitness is produced. Any inquiry into the possible failings of such a system is summarily quashed. Heinlein is extremely selective about the facts he presents in the novel, choosing only the historical examples that suit his agenda.
Let me take a moment to finally address the Heinlein fans and military readers who are probably getting their guns off the rack right now: First of all, we don’t actually know that negotiation with the Bugs wouldn’t have worked. The option was never even attempted, in either version of “Troopers”. Heinlein tells us, through Rico, that it would never work because the Bugs were too alien and both species were too greedy - “we both want the same real estate.” When I read things like this, I’m kind of glad Heinlein’s abortive attempt at California politics got shot down as quickly as it did. We also have no guarantee that the Federation is, in fact, ruled fairly by the military. It certainly seems like it is, at least when seen through the eyes of Rico and his family. But do we know that for a fact? Or has the information been carefully controlled to make it seem that way? As I said before, Heinlein allows no cross examination - he just rolls on and on with his argument. At one point he offers us this key statement:
“Violence, naked force, has resolved more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst.”
While the first part of the sentence is certainly true, it is completely meaningless. It’s like saying “Agriculture, raw edible foodstuffs, has kept more people alive than any soldier ever did, and the contrary opinion is starvation at its hungriest.” Note that this is as true if not more true than Heinlein’s version, but I don’t see Heinlein writing books proposing that only farmers should be allowed to vote. And we don’t even know for sure what he means by the second half of his statement. “The contrary opinion” - does this refer to people who deny the role of violence in our history, or to those who would prefer to believe that the human species is getting smarter, and may someday outgrow the need to make all its points with gunboat diplomacy? We can’t tell for sure, because the teacher in the book has already squashed the one student who dared to question him, and moved on with an unrelated question addressed to a different student.
But whether you accept his views or not, at least Heinlein actually had a point to make, and an extremely well-written manner of preaching. Not to mention a simply superb description of authentic-feeling military training. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” was and remains a classic work of science fiction, and a perfect use of the genre to argue a point that would have been difficult to make with mainstream fiction. Ultimately, the reader is swept along with Rico and his platoon, regardless of personal political opinion.
This is a lot more than I can say about Verhoeven’s version, to which my strongest reaction was disgust at having lost $8.50 and two hours. Do I need to mention the all-blonde cast, or the fact that Rico’s legal name gets changed from the book’s “Juan Rico” to “Johnny D. Rico”, or the dominance of American football in Buenos Aires high schools, or the completely gratuitous sex scenes? No, I don’t think so.
- Yes, he’s from the Philippines. This fact is intentionally hidden from us until the very end of the book, as is Johnny’s and every other character’s race. Finally, on pages 260-261 (in recent paperbacks), Juanito says his native language is Tagalog, and talks about Ramon Magsaysay, a Philippine hero. The race mystery is never answered in this book. Heinlein intentionally obscured the ethnicity of many of his heroes, often omitting even a basic physical description of them. If you thought Rico was black, brown or white or any other specific colour, it was purely the work of your own imagination - and if you thought he was from Buenos Aires, that’s because Rico’s mother was travelling in Buenos Aires when it got blowed up. Don’t worry, I fell for it too.
- I have been told that I should listen to the director’s commentary on the DVD for further enlightenment on this subject. Hah. Forgive me for being too blunt, but I don’t give a rat’s ass what Verhoeven says in a commentary recorded six months after the movie’s release, and I am getting increasingly annoyed by the phenomenon of directors who use DVD commentaries to excuse their own shoddy work. Picasso didn’t embed little explanatory notes in his paintings, alerting the viewer to the skill and symbolism in each work. Swift did not write an appendix to “Gulliver’s Travels”, telling us the whole thing was meant to be satire. Monty Python’s Flying Circus never closed with the word TWAJS. These artists did their work, released it and shut their mouths, and I would like for modern filmmakers to do the same. If you have a point to make, make it in the movie. If the movie didn’t work, it didn’t work, and that’s all there is to it. You don’t get a second chance to explain the points that should have been made clear in the movie itself. I like DVD commentary tracks on movies that were actually good - “Rushmore” and “Big Trouble in Little China” both have outstanding commentaries full of elusive little details and wonderful anecdotes, giving us personal windows into the minds of the creators like Malkovich portals. An entertaining commentary on a good movie is a wonderful bonus for film lovers. But it can’t be used to “fix” a film that went completely and horribly wrong.
- “The Forever War” was Haldeman’s answer to Starship Troopers by way of Vietnam. I recommend reading these two books back to back, for balance. The difference between the two authors’ wars is the difference between the books. Haldeman later followed with “Forever Peace”, which introduced the drone concept and a beautiful, if slightly improbable, solution to the problem of war. I wish Joe Haldeman was in charge.
- Things that have appeared in every single Verhoeven movie, to the best of my knowledge: Exposed breasts. Rape. Industrial quantities of blood. Love triangles (and three-way sex, in at least three movies). White, All-American protagonists. And usually there is one black actor who will be revealed as either a mutated freak, an uncontrollable drug addict with the brains of a semi-retarded dog, or an incorrigible sleaze (or all three, if it seems at all feasible). You heard me, I said "every single movie made by Paul Verhoeven." Hey, I'm sorry. I liked Robocop too.
IN RESPONSE TO THE RESPONSES (2/18/03):
Guys, I'm not quite stupid enough to have missed the Nazi symbols and the propaganda spots. But having satirical elements does not make a movie a satire. The satire, no matter what the filmmakers say in the DVD commentary, is NOT the main point of the movie. Every one of Verhoeven's movies has had some satire in it. He is, in fact, a very good director of violent and sleazy thrillers, and he knows how to use satirical bits to make a movie more effective. But he is not an intellectual, and the satire has never been the main point. Verhoeven's Johnny Rico is no different from every single one of his other heroes: a Good Guy caught in a Bad Situation, sorting it out through the application of violence, naked force - in unprecedented bucketloads.
But just for a moment, let's pretend that Verhoeven really is the bold, intelligent, masterful satirist some people say he is. Let's say Troopers really is a satire. Okay, so what? Does that make it good? No, not at all. Not every satire is good. Some of them are, in fact, very bad. Just because you have a point to make doesn't mean you automatically did it right. Satire needs to move the audience. It also needs to carry the audience long enough to make its point. Starship Troopers doesn't do either.
A few of you seem to think that if Troopers is a satire, it's okay for it to be completely unrealistic, with characters we don't identify with, dialogue that could well have been written by five-year-olds, and huge amounts of gore. It isn't. Quite the opposite. If Verhoeven had such lofty ideas in mind for his desecration of an SF classic, he should have made even more of an effort to give us some kind of quality work.
Final analysis: as a straight war movie, Paul Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers" is terrible. As a satire, it is still every bit as terrible. As an ironic celebration of fascism, it is quite, quite bad. As a parody of science fiction, it STILL sucks. No matter how you view this movie, the fact remains that it is no damn good at all.