Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris, Clancy Brown, Michael Ironside
US theatrical: 7 Nov 1997
UK theatrical: 2 Jan 1998
The fact that Hollywood has recently been in a rush to remake all of Paul Verhoeven’s films seems to suggest less about the director himself and more about the material from which many of them derive. And if the recent remakes of Total Recall and Robocop are any indication, Sony’s new version of Starship Troopers will be a tremendous disappointment. The 1997 film was widely panned by fans of the novel, who argued that Verhoeven’s signature flippancy was a complete departure from Robert A. Heinlein’s 1958 sci-fi classic. Fortunately for them, producer Toby Jaffe has assured audiences that this time the film will avoid the violence of Verhoeven’s vision in favor of a grittiness more characteristic of the book.
This is a very bad idea.
While many regard Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers as nothing more than a cheesy blood-and-guts-filled military romp, it is arguably one of the most poignant combat satires in cinema history. The campy aesthetic and over-the-top violence are both criticisms of fascism and, by extension, the West’s fetishization of war. But Starship Troopers doesn’t stop there: it goes so far as to satirize the very book from which it was adapted. Unlike the film, whose approach to brutality is so cavalier as to be comical, Heinlein’s novel espouses a straight-faced libertarian ethos that evinces the xenophobia of the Cold War era. I don’t know of another film that does this, at least not in such a brazen fashion—although Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a good contender.
The problem isn’t just that a remake is gratuitous, but that it misses the point of the 1997 film altogether, not to mention the entire science fiction genre.
As a number of scholars have demonstrated, science fiction has always provided a suitable space for us to decontextualize our real-world fears, making them easier to manage. Classics like War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and “I, Robot” capitalized on the West’s growing anxieties over science and technology. During the genre’s Golden Age in the mid-1900s, space aliens and irradiated monsters became proxies for the “Others” we’d been conditioned to despise. This trend worked out well for Heinlein who, as LA Times writer Scott Timberg points out, was an aggressively right-wing ideologue whose work helped to inspire Reagan’s outlandish missile defense strategy. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that Heinlein portrays our evil extraterrestrial adversaries as giant insects, a device that continues to this day in books such as Ender’s Game and in movies like those of the Alien franchise: insects, particularly the eusocial species seen in such works, represent a values system that flies in the face of American individualism.
Set in the distant future, Starship Troopers tells the story of Johnny Rico (originally named Juan in the book), a recent high school grad who enlists in an intergalactic military organization known as the Mobile Infantry, or M.I. For many of the soldiers, military service is the easiest path to citizenship, which grants one the rights to vote and have children, among others; as such, it’s a term that the characters toss around with the same grandeur as “Jedi knight.” Juan, having worked his way up through the ranks, soon finds himself part of a unit battling a race of giant alien arachnids whose ability to launch their spore into space like rockets results in the destruction of several Earth cities. This includes his home city of Buenos Aires.
The battle scenes are bloody and chaotic, dismembered bodies littering the shots like tasteless Halloween props. However, there’s one shot in particular that I think best illustrates the movie’s focus. You might recall it from the trailers: our platoon of space marines is investigating the remains of an outpost on the creatures’ home planet, when suddenly one of the men screams, “Bugs! Bugs!” As the grunts rush to their positions, the camera pans up over the wall of the fortress to reveal a sea of tank-sized arachnids surging across the craggy desert. The sound alone is terrifying, a chorus of snarls and roars and thousands of stampeding legs—those National Geographic specials about herd animals moving as one across an African plain come to mind. This, of course, isn’t incidental. Nor is the fact that the Bugs are never given a species name, or that they live underground and are virtually indistinguishable from each other. Historically, these are the same kinds of characteristics that Americans have attributed to its wartime enemies.
In the first half of the 20th century, communism was depicted as a savage, hive-minded system of government, not unlike an ant colony. In fact, over 500 sci-fi movies were released in the U.S. between 1948 and 1962, according to Slate columnist Katy Waldman, almost all of them a response to our growing fear of nuclear war. One of the most notable was Them!, in which a horde of monstrous mutant ants terrorize a New Mexico town after atomic testing has irradiated the region.
Of course, science fiction monsters come in countless forms, and Heinlein could have just as easily modeled his space monsters on, say, wolves, alligators, or bears. But there’s something vastly different about the way we fear insects. They are small and often hard to detect, some of them sting, and many species are poisonous. In the right numbers, they can be deadly. Physiologically, they are about as far removed from us as possible, which—unlike wolves and alligators and bears—makes understanding them in anthropomorphic terms almost impossible. As human societies grow more urbanized, we encounter insects far less frequently, making them seem increasingly alien to us.
Moreover, eusocial insects like ants, bees, and termites exist in cooperative societies, in which all members work exclusively toward the reproductive benefit of the others. While labor division in these societies is highly specialized and reproduction is reserved for specific members, caring for offspring is a cooperative endeavor among all. Self-sacrifice is necessary for the wellbeing of the colony, and as such many of these species function collectively as what English philosopher Herbert Spencer dubbed a “superorganism”.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because we come across the same terminology in communist and socialist literature. Marx’ characterization of the “species-being” in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, for instance, which conflated both the individual and humanity itself, bears a striking similarity to Spencer’s description. Or consider Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson’s claim after his extensive study of ant behaviors: “Karl Marx was right, socialism works; it is just that he had the wrong species.” Of course, Wilson recognized that for insects these behaviors were a matter of biology, not choice; ants, and most other eusocial species, just aren’t capable of individuation. But this is precisely the point: in an era when collectivism was synonymous with the threat of nuclear destruction, what was more frightening to readers than an adversary that was biologically hardwired for such values? In fact, Heinlein even makes this explicit in the book in Juan’s characterization of the enemy:
It takes a minimum of a year to train a private to fight and to mesh his fighting in with his mates; a Bug warrior is hatched able to do this… Every time we killed a thousand Bugs at a cost of one M.I. it was a net victory for the Bugs. We were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution; the Bug commissars didn’t care any more about expending soldiers than we cared about expending ammo.
And then later in the book, as Juan is listening to a lecture about governmental structures in his History of Moral Philosophy class: “[M]ankind has tried thousands of ways and many more have been proposed, some weird in the extreme such as the antlike communism urged by Plato under the misleading title The Republic.”
Yet, there was another reason that Heinlein believed the Bugs to be the ideal adversary: insects are incredibly easy to kill. Of course, the futuristic soldiers in these sorts of tales are rarely ever short on firepower. Indeed, Starship Troopers, and films like it, present us with the enemies we wish we had. We know we’re supposed to be terrified of Verhoeven’s race of mindless spiderthings because they attack with such uncoordinated savagery, but in fact this is exactly why they are so nonthreatening. The Bugs don’t plan or strategize or train; they don’t exhibit any empathetic traits. They announce themselves as enemies, virtually offering themselves up for destruction and, in so doing, indirectly reinforce the West’s self-perceived greatness.
This behavior is not like our real-world enemies, who we’d like very much to forget are actual people with their own complexities and desires and fears. They are us, only Over There. As such, we dehumanize them by turning them into blood-thirsty monstrosities, one-dimensional representations of who we believe they should be, because then we feel no compunction about destroying them onscreen.
So, filmmakers really have just two options: they can remake Verhoeven’s version, or they can craft an entirely new version that adheres much more closely to the book. Either seems to be founded on a misconception about what really good science fiction is supposed to do. It isn’t just about spaceships or lasers or aliens: it’s about what it means to be human in an increasingly inhuman world. This is how Gavin Hood managed to turn Ender’s Game, one of the most thought-provoking sci-fi novels of the past hundred years, into another flat, emotionless exercise in CGI. Unless Sony wants to reproduce these same mistakes, this rules out the latter option.
As for the former, one need only take a look at 2014’s Robocop reboot to see the futility here. Setting aside the film’s poor direction, director Jose Padhila completely missed the point of Verhoeven’s original; he attempted to turn a farcical jab at capitalism into a conventional action flick. The result? Well, just read the reviews.
None of this is to suggest that satire is an inherently greater-making quality—it isn’t. Nor am I arguing that Starship Troopers is a Great Movie; in a lot of ways, it’s not even a very good movie. I do, however, think it is an important movie in that it represents something significant about the science fiction genre. The critics who slammed it as “brainless” and “devoid of logic” were actually correct, but for the wrong reasons.
Verhoeven took to heart Kurt Vonnegut’s claim that there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Rather than temper the Cold War-inspired Otherness that Heinlein ascribed to the Bugs, he exaggerated it to such a degree that the absurdity of it is impossible to ignore. And while the Avatars and Inceptions that Hollywood continues to clunk out every year manage to pass themselves off as profound by offering up the same tired tropes in increasingly glitzy packaging, Starship Troopers reminds us that science fiction doesn’t have to aspire for profundity at all. Sometimes it’s about scoffing at the idea that such a thing is even possible.
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