LIKE MANY OTHER readers, I first encountered Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel "Starship Troopers" as a young boy in the 1960s. In those days, Vietnam had made it quite clear, at least to me and the people whose views influenced me, that war was an awful thing, and military service was something to be undertaken only when a war was totally necessary -- which, I was led to understand, hadn't happened since Hitler's defeat.
In this climate, Heinlein's arguments in "Starship Troopers" came as a nasty provocation. Here, the libertarian author of the counterculture classic "Stranger in a Strange Land" instead offered up a heady brew of Clausewitz, Ayn Rand, Mussolini and G.I. Joe, spiced with World War II slang and attitude. "Starship Troopers" portrays a world where, following the "decadence and collapse of the democracies of the 20th century," the veterans took over. They built a global society in which all military service is voluntary -- but only those who've served can vote or hold office, since only they have shown that they can "place the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage."
I can't say that Heinlein's vision of war as the best crucible for the formation of good character ever persuaded me, but it was sobering, powerful, consistent and impossible to dismiss -- and it made "Starship Troopers" memorable to this day. The author's twists on old military-adventure-tale clichis were merely imaginative; the severity and anger behind the book's ideas were, in the field of science fiction, unique.
I know how tiresome it can be for critics to compare movies unfavorably to the books they're based upon. But in this case it's essential for an understanding of what goes wrong with Paul Verhoeven's new movie of "Starship Troopers." In this bizarrely discordant mixture of ultraviolent action footage, bad acting, crisp special effects and futuristic camp, the remnants of Heinlein's rhetoric of military pride stick out like a grimy Marine uniform at a high-toned Hollywood party.
"Starship Troopers" follows Mobile Infantry volunteer Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) from basic training through harrowing combat experiences to officerhood. The human race is hunkering down for a Darwinian galactic struggle against a vicious enemy race known only as the Bugs -- hive-mind horrors that, like the recent alien foes in "Independence Day," leave no room for negotiation, only extermination.
The way to win such a war is to get tough. More than half of the original "Starship Troopers" is devoted to accounts of Johnny's training -- first in a brutal boot camp that takes in soft kids and turns out killing machines, and later in an officers' program that teaches him how to be a leader of men. It's the kind of total character transformation portrayed in the stunning first half-hour of Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" -- sadism, all right, but carefully controlled sadism, with a point.
In Verhoeven's film, boot camp feels more like summer camp: These volunteers play pool in their spare time, cavort in co-ed showers and never stop beaming incandescent smiles. By the time the movie tries to turn more serious -- as, for instance, in a sequence where Johnny is flogged for carelessness that led to a comrade's death during an exercise -- the sadism just feels gratuitous and dirty, thrown in for sheer sensational effect.
The "Starship Troopers" screenwriter, Ed Neumeier, who also collaborated with Verhoeven on "Robocop," rewrites Heinlein's spare, male-dominated story, embedding an unabashedly formulaic romantic plot in the story's brutal heart: Ace fighter Dizzy (Dina Meyer) loves Johnny, but Johnny loves crack pilot Carmen (Denise Richards), but Carmen's kinda more into her co-pilot, Zander (Patrick Muldoon). Since none of these young actors shows much talent, none of this much matters, but it does help explain why the film is so confused; it's trying to be "Melrose Place" and "Paths of Glory" at the same time.
Heinlein's writing sneered at the soft, easily deluded civilians and celebrated the male-bonded esprit de corps of his futuristic Mobile Infantry -- Green Berets of the future who dropped, paratrooper-style, onto enemy planets in powered suits, kept to tight formations, rained destruction on their foes and returned to their spaceships, all in a matter of minutes. Verhoeven's contempt draws no such distinctions; everyone in the movie is kind of dumb -- not least the Mobile Infantry themselves. Far from an elite, they come off as hapless, ill-disciplined grunts who can't wait for the battle to end so they can discard their machine-guns-on-steroids, roll out some beers and hop in the sack with their svelte comrades. (For a far more imaginative vision of a gender-blind military, see "Aliens.")
Most likely, Verhoeven and his team blanched at the proto-fascist sheen of "Starship Troopers" and felt a need to distance themselves from it with the kind of tongue-in-cheek humor that has marked his previous science-fiction films, "Robocop" and "Total Recall." And there's some wit in their parody of an interactive TV system of the future, the Federal Network, which ends every broadcast with the same teaser: "Join up now! Would you like to know more?" "Execution broadcast live on all channels. Would you like to know more?"
There's nothing wrong with good satire -- but it's self-defeatingly stupid to inject it into any story that expects us to care what happens to the characters. The creators of successful latter-day space operas, from "Star Wars" to "Independence Day," have always understood this. Nothing in "Starship Troopers" carries the conviction of the Force or even "Independence Day's" rah-rah-for-mankind idealism; the movie can't commit to the militarism it inherited from Heinlein, and it never finds a different ideal to substitute.
Except, maybe, a belief in special effects. There are some good ones here: When Rico's starship gets bisected by enemy fire, you see its levels in cutaway as its contents spill terrifyingly into cold space. The Bugs swarm impressively -- their warriors have heavy, scimitarlike legs that can mutilate the human form in a trice; there are also pterodactyl-like flying Bugs and tanklike giants with flame-thrower mouths.
Bug-fighting gets monotonous fast, though. Even with their broad spectrum of depredations, from limb-hacking to decapitation to brain-sucking, there are too many Bugs on screen with too little personality. And Verhoeven stages the battles with more attention to epic scale and grandeur than to psychology and moment-by-moment suspense.
In the film's final section, the M.I. fulfill their mission of capturing a Brain Bug, which looks like the pulsating posterior of an elephantine warthog. When a psychic officer touches this captive brain and reports that the monster is "afraid," there's no sympathy for the vanquished; instead, cheers go up from the ranks. Then, I guess, it's time to tap a keg for a tailgate party.
Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game" -- a science-fiction classic that is in part a rebuttal to "Starship Troopers" -- envisioned a war of extermination against another bug race, and ended with a similar breakthrough of psychological contact with the inhuman enemy. In "Ender's Game," it's a moment of colossally tragic empathy, and it transforms the hero's (and the reader's) understanding of all the preceding slaughter.
Such a humane insight never takes place in Heinlein's "Starship Troopers," of course, thanks to its distasteful but at least rigorous rejection of humanism. You won't find such a moment in Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers," either -- but this time it's the simple result of incoherence.