Starship Troopers (film)
|Directed by||Paul Verhoeven|
|Screenplay by||Edward Neumeier|
|Based on||Starship Troopers|
by Robert A. Heinlein
|Music by||Basil Poledouris|
|Box office||$121.2 million|
Starship Troopers is a 1997 American military science fiction action film directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumeier, based on Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 novel of the same name. The story follows a young soldier named Johnny Rico and his exploits in the Mobile Infantry, a futuristic military unit. Rico's military career progresses from recruit, to non-commissioned officer, and finally to officer, against the backdrop of an interstellar war between mankind and an insectoid species known as Arachnids.
The only theatrically released film in the Starship Troopers franchise, it received mostly negative reviews from critics upon release; however, in retrospect, reviews have become more positive, with many critics highlighting the film's political satire. It grossed $54.5 million in the U.S., and a total of $121.2 million worldwide, against a budget of $105 million. In 1998, the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects at the 70th Academy Awards, but lost to Titanic. In 2012, Slant Magazine ranked the film #20 on its list of "The 100 Best Films of the 1990s".
The film has spawned several sequels – two live-action films, Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004) and Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008), and two computer-animated films, Starship Troopers: Invasion (2012) and Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars (2017).
In the 23rd century, humankind has become a space-faring, planet colonizing people under the Federation, a militaristic, neo-fascist body of government which rewards it's people with greater benefits as "Citizens"; granted through military service as opposed to "Civilians", which do not. Whilst having surpassed the known solar system, the humans encounter the Arachnids, an alien species hostile to the human presence in the galaxy.
John "Johnny" Rico, his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez, best friend Carl Jenkins graduate from high school, Carl and Carmen both possessing strong intellectual skills which puts Carmen's interest in pursuing a career as a spaceship pilot, and psychic Carl into Military Intelligence. Rico, who does not possess any such skills enrolls into the Mobile Infantry, the land branch of the Federation's military but only to be nearer to Carmen. Rico is disappointed when Isabelle "Dizzy" Flores, a classmate who has strong romantic feelings for him enlists and transfers into the same squad as he.
During basic training, Rico excels as a soldier and is given Squad Leader, though his friendship with Dizzy is strained as a consequence of her being near him. Furthermore, Carmen also breaks up with Rico, knowing that the distance between the two of them, as well as her aspirations will make the relationship redundant. During a subsequent live fire exercise, Rico unintentionally gets one of his squad members killed, another quits out of guilt. Rico is relieved of command and is flogged as punishment. Rico however, resigns from his service and intends to go home. However his hometown of Buenos Aires is destroyed by an Arachnid meteor, killing millions including his parents. Rico rescinds his resignation, re-enlisting as a Private.
The Federation unanimously votes to go to war with the Arachnids in response and launches a full invasion of Klendathu, the Arachnid home planet. However, the Federation grossly underestimates the Arachnids and the invasion is reduced to a rout; with immense casualties. Rico himself is wounded in action, but is mistakenly placed on the KIA list, which Carmen sees and is left heartbroken. Rico eventually recovers, and is assigned with Dizzy and survivors of his squad to the "Roughnecks" a special unit under the command of Lt. Jean Rasczak, his former teacher. Rico quickly rises in the ranks to Sergeant, also rekindling Dizzy's feelings for him culminating in the two having sex, where Dizzy confesses her love for Rico.
The Roughnecks are deployed to Planet "P" in response to a distress call from a Federation outpost. On arrival however, the Roughnecks realize that the Arachnids have set them into a trap, who then swarm their position. Dizzy calls for a retrieval, which arrives just as the Arachnids breach the perimeter. By chance, the retrieval ship happens to be piloted by Carmen. During the retreat, Rasczak is mortally wounded, Rico delivers a mercy killing, who then assumes command. Dizzy is also wounded, and later dies in Rico's arms. During a reunion with Carl and Carmen, Rico discovers his unit were deliberately sent to "P" to assess the possibility of a "Brain Bug" on the planet, directing the Arachnids and learning how to defeat the humans. The Fleet ultimately intends on returning to "P", but midway through the drop, Carmen's ship is destroyed by Arachnid plasma but manages to escape with Zander, but crash lands into a bug tunnel network where they encounter the "Brain Bug". The Brain Bug uses it's proboscis to pierce Zander's skull and eat his brain, before doing the same to Carmen, she cuts it off with a hidden knife just as Rico and the Roughnecks arrive. With an armed nuclear grenade in hand, Rico rescues Carmen but they are soon pursued by the Arachnids. Watkins, a Roughneck veteran is wounded in the skirmish and sacrifices himself with the nuke as a bait whilst the rest get away.
Emerging on the surface, Rico discovers that Private Zim; his former Drill Instructor captured the Brain Bug, Carl surmising through his psychic ability that it is afraid, causing celebration amongst the troops. A propaganda clip then plays, highlighting Lieutenant Rico and Captain Ibanez as model servicemen, encouraging it's viewers to enlist.
- Casper Van Dien as Johnny Rico
- Dina Meyer as Dizzy Flores
- Denise Richards as Carmen Ibanez
- Jake Busey as Ace Levy
- Neil Patrick Harris as Carl Jenkins
- Clancy Brown as Sgt. Zim
- Seth Gilliam as Sugar Watkins
- Patrick Muldoon as Zander Barcalow
- Michael Ironside as Jean Rasczak
- Rue McClanahan as Biology Teacher
- Marshall Bell as General Owen
- Eric Bruskotter as Breckinridge
- Matt Levin as Kitten Smith
- Anthony Ruivivar as Shujumi
- Brenda Strong as Captain Deladier
- Dean Norris as Commanding Officer
- Christopher Curry as Mr. Rico
- Lenore Kasdorf as Mrs. Rico
- Bruce Gray as Sky Marshal Dienes
- Denise Dowse as Sky Marshal Meru
- Robert David Hall as Recruiting Sergeant
- Amy Smart as Pilot Cadet
- Dale A. Dye as General
- Timothy Omundson as Psychic
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Development and writing
Script writer Ed Neumeier had been a fan of the novel since his childhood. Paul Verhoeven on the other hand had never read the book and attempted to read it for the film but it made him "bored and depressed", so he read only a few chapters:
I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring … It is really quite a bad book. I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn't read the thing. It's a very right-wing book.
Neumeier had previously worked with Verhoeven as a writer on RoboCop (1987).
Two nude scenes were kept in the original version (the co-ed shower and a bedroom scene with Rico and Dizzy), although these were modified in the broadcast version. The cast agreed to do the co-ed shower scene only if Verhoeven agreed to direct the scene naked, which he did. Verhoeven found it strange "Americans get more upset about nudity than ultra-violence. I am constantly amazed about that. I mean, I haven't seen any sex scenes in American film that are anything other than completely boring. A bare breast is more difficult to get through the censors than a body riddled with bullets."
In the audio commentary on the DVD or Blu-ray release, Verhoeven remarks that he had hoped to cast actors whose age more closely matched that of the characters, but that the producers felt such actors would look too young. The teacher and leader of the "Roughnecks" in the novel are combined into one role played by Ironside.
Test audience reactions led to several minor changes before the film was released. Originally, it was clear that Carmen was torn between Rico and Zander. Test audiences, regardless of gender, strongly felt that a woman could not love two men at once, so scenes which portrayed this were cut. These audiences also felt it was immoral for Carmen to choose a career ahead of being loyal to Rico, to the extent that many commented that, in so doing, Carmen should have been the one to die instead of Dizzy. While admitting it may have been a bad commercial decision not to change the film to accommodate this, the producer and director did cut a scene from after Zander's death in which Carmen and Rico kiss, which the audience believed made the previous betrayal even more immoral.
Relationship to novel
There are many differences between the film and Heinlein's 1959 novel. While the novel has been accused of promoting militarism, fascism, and military rule, the film satirizes these concepts by featuring bombastic displays of nationalism as well as news reports that are intensely xenophobic and propagandistic.
Verhoeven stated in 1997 that the first scene of the film—an advertisement for the Mobile Infantry—was adapted shot-for-shot from a scene in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935), specifically an outdoor rally for the Reich Labour Service. Other allusions to Nazism include the Wehrmacht-inspired uniforms and insignia of field grade officers, Military Intelligence working uniforms reminiscent of Mussolini's Blackshirts, Albert Speer's style of architecture and its propagandistic dialogue ("Violence is the supreme authority!").
In a 2014 interview on The Adam Carolla Show, the actor Michael Ironside, who read the novel as a youth, said that he asked Verhoeven, who grew up in the German-occupied Netherlands, "Why are you doing a right-wing fascist movie?" Verhoeven replied, "If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn't work, no one will listen to me. So I'm going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships but it's only good for killing fucking Bugs!"
The film includes visual allusions to propaganda films such as Why We Fight, Triumph of the Will and wartime newsreels, and the symbols and certain clothing styles of the Federation are modeled on those of the Nazis (e.g., windbreakers, suits, caps, etc. Furthermore, the military intelligence officer's uniforms bear a striking similarity to those of the Allgemeine-SS). The use of Nazi imagery for the film's Americanized heroes occasioned comment. At the time of the film's theatrical release, the filmmakers did not explain their reasons for this choice. Some viewers interpreted it as a satirical takedown of fascism, while others saw a celebration of it.
In his DVD commentary, Verhoeven said that the film's message is that "War makes fascists of us all". He evoked Nazi Germany's fashion, iconography and propaganda because he saw it as a natural evolution of the United States after World War II and especially after the Korean War. "I've heard this film nicknamed All Quiet on the Final Frontier", he said, "which is actually not far from the truth." Screenwriter Edward Neumeier broadly concurs, although he sees a satire on human history rather than solely the United States. Verhoeven says his satirical use of irony and hyperbole is "playing with fascism or fascist imagery to point out certain aspects of American society... of course, the movie is about 'Let's all go to war and let's all die.'"
Verhoeven also compared the film to previous creature features from the 1950s, such as Them! (1954) and The Deadly Mantis (1957). Speaking about these films, he said they "expressed the fear about the nuclear threat at the time and the feelings of helplessness and despair it caused", while Starship Troopers (which was filmed in a post-Cold War United States) was about "having no more enemies." He also discussed how making movies of the sort are difficult due to political correctness but "if it's big insects that you can shoot to pieces, nobody cares." Tying this into the theme of the film, he said the statement of the film is that "we like enemies."
On release, Starship Troopers received negative reviews from American critics. In a 2017 retrospective round-up of the best films of 1997, The A.V. Club critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky called the film "too damn well-made for its own good" and said that it confused audiences and critics. On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, which collects both contemporaneous and modern reviews, it has a 65% approval rating based on 65 reviews, with an average rating of 6.2/10. The site's consensus is: "A fun movie...if you can accept the excessive gore and wooden acting." On Metacritic, it has a rating of 51 out of 100 based on 20 reviews, indicating mixed or average reviews. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "C+" on an A+ to F scale.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times panned the "crazed, lurid spectacle". Jeff Vice of the Deseret News called it "a nonstop splatterfest so devoid of taste and logic that it makes even the most brainless summer blockbuster look intelligent." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times also called it shallow and oriented toward teenage, male science fiction fans but nonetheless said Verhoeven managed some "sly satire" by maintaining a visual style reminiscent of the 1950s when the book was first published: "the sets and costumes look like a cross between Buck Rogers and the Archie comic books". Gene Siskel gave the film a marginal recommendation, praising the satire that "exposed the kick of killing" and the "technical computer artistry" of the bug effects, but saying the film got "repetitive" and "could've been cut by 20 minutes."
Starship Troopers was nominated for a number of awards in 1998, including the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects; the film won Saturn Awards for Best Costumes and Best Special Effects at the 1998 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, USA Awards. It was also nominated for Worst Picture at the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards but lost to Batman and Robin.
More positive retrospectives of the film began to appear in the 2010s. These retrospectives generally de-emphasize the film's action elements and instead analyze it as an indictment of fascism and jingoism. In his 2013 retrospective, Calum Marsh of The Atlantic called the film a "...satire, a ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism...[that] critiques the military–industrial complex, the jingoism of American foreign policy, and a culture that privileges reactionary violence over sensitivity and reason." This type of appraisal of the film, although extant since at least the early 2010s, was only more broadly popularized in the latter part of the decade, after it was endorsed by internet celebrities such as PewDiePie and Macaulay Culkin.
These reappraisals often view the film's basic structure as essential to the success of its satire. In 2017, Ned Carter Miles of Little White Lies argued that the film's lack of internal self-awareness eliminates critical distance between the viewer and the in-universe propaganda presented on screen, creating an alienating effect. According to Miles, the film "exposes the suspect events and philosophy of Heinlein's fictional universe on their own terms, without guiding our interpretation. Just like any other echo chamber, the film offers a singular message." Similarly, in 2021, Ben Sherlock of Game Rant claimed that the film's use of a non-human opponent allows it fundamentally to satirize the nature of war and fighting, something he argues that war films featuring human adversaries are unable fully to accomplish.
In a slide show accompanying a 2012 article for Salon by comedian and writer Aasif Mandvi, Max Rivlin-Nadler criticized Casper Van Dien's casting as an example of whitewashing compared to the character's Filipino origins in the book.
In 1997 Avalon Hill released Starship Troopers: Prepare for Battle!, a board game based on the film version rather than Heinlein's book. Its gameplay focused on limited skirmishes rather than larger battles. Avalon Hill had previously released a game called Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers in 1976.
A real-time tactics video game titled Starship Troopers: Terran Ascendancy was released in 2000. This game also incorporated the powered suits in Heinlein's novel into the Verhoeven version of the Mobile Infantry. It was developed by Australian software company Blue Tongue Entertainment.
A first-person shooter game also titled Starship Troopers was released November 15, 2005. This version was developed by Strangelite Studios and published by Empire Interactive. Set five years after the events of the film, the game also featured Van Dien voicing the in-game version of Johnny Rico.
Sequels and proposed remake
The film has spawned four sequels, including two live-action films, Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004) and Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008), as well as two animated films, Starship Troopers: Invasion (2012) and Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars (2017).
There was also a 1999 spin-off CGI animated half-hour television series entitled Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, which ran for eight-story arcs (49 episodes, four of them being "clip shows") and ending on an unresolved cliffhanger.
In December 2011, film producer Neal Moritz announced plans to remake the film. In November 2016, Columbia and Moritz announced the writing team of Mark Swift and Damian Shannon had been signed to pen the screenplay. Verhoeven has expressed skepticism at the proposed remake, citing reports that it draws heavily from the original "fascistic and militaristic" 1959 novel.
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