Sunday, January 8, 2012

BOOK / MOVIE: Starship Troopers

     “Starship Troopers" is set in the future when planet Earth (called “Terra”) is at war with a planet of badass arachnids from the planet Klendathu. The “Bug War” is the big picture, but the story concentrates on the soldier level. The novel is by Robert Heinlein and was published in 1959. The movie came out in 1997 and was directed by Paul Verhoeven. The book and movie differ greatly. Let’s find out which is better.

       The novel concentrates on one character – Juan Rico. In fact, the story is told in first person by him. It opens with a raid by the Mobile Infantry on a planet allied to the “bugs”. Heinlein’s imagination has conjured up remarkable “power armor” suits which makes these modern grunts really armies of one. They can leap tall buildings, etc. After a brief taste of combat (a foreshadowing of the teasing to come), the book flashes back to enlistment and basic training. A recruiter tries to discourage Rico from enlisting. It seems that being soldier is a privilege, but necessary if you want full political rights.

        Rico’s high school “History and Moral Philosophy” teacher Mr. Dubois (a veteran) channels Heinlein by preaching that only people who have served in the military deserve to be full citizens. He also argues that violence solves problems. In a later chapter, we are updated on how “Terra” got to this state. To simplify, juvenile delinquents were roaming the parks terrorizing society because their parents refused to spank them. The militarization of society was a necessary solution to the chaos. You would swear the book was written in the sixties and Heinlein was ranting at the hippies.  He was a prophet!

      The book traces Rico’s career. He is a survivor and thus rises through the ranks. He participates in a disastrous invasion of Klendathu. Heinlein (thinking of Korea?) opines that “the trouble with lessons from history is that we usually read them best after falling flat on our chins”. He goes to officer training school which gives Heinlein a second opportunity to give his political views in another History and Moral Philosophy class. Only soldiers should vote. The views may be fascist, but they make sense.

      The book concludes with the implementation of a new strategy of getting to the brains of the bug world. Rico is wounded in his last battle and ends the book in the hospital. There is no reason to believe the war is close to ending.

      The book is highly regarded, if controversial. It won the Hugo Award as best science fiction novel. More amazingly, it is on the reading list for Marine officers. It is very pro-military and all the officers are positive role models. As a predictor of future war, it could very well be prescient. The power armor is certainly in the early stages today. It does a good job in the evolution of the warrior Rico. The boot camp and OCS chapters are well done, but there is not much on soldier recreation. Heinlein is stronger on the science part of future war than on the human dimension.

     I enjoyed the numerous references to past history, especially military history. Heinlein throws in references to Carthage, Napoleon, Horatius, the Bonhomme Richard, and Sargon the Great. Even two poems by Kipling – “Danny Deever” and “Gentlemen-Rankers”.

     The book has weaknesses that made it a disappointing read for me. There is shockingly little actual combat and what there is is usually inconclusive. Two of the potential main characters, Rico’s high school friends Carl and Deladier are dropped from the narrative early. The first person narrative leaves us with only Rico as a fleshed out character. The book is also very male. Heinlein’s future does not include women in the infantry (although they make the best pilots). Another flaw is it is hard to know what is happening in the war. He is purposely (?) vague on the big picture.

      The movie opens with a commercial for the army and news about the bug war. (In a bit of unorthodoxy, the movie has no opening credits.) These satirical commercials and news reels will reappear throughout the movie. They harken back to propaganda films of WWII like the “Why We Fight Series”. The commercials strengthen the theme of a fascist society and the news reels give a clearer view of the war than you get in the book. Like the book, the movie thrusts us into battle early, but in this case it is the disastrous invasion of Klendathu (which will be returned to later in the movie). We are quickly immersed in graphic violence well beyond what the book posited. The bugs (malevolent spiders) are awesomely rendered by the CGI. They are not easily killed. This movie expends a lot of bullets.

     We flash back to Rico (hunky Casper Van Dien) and his high school friends and follow their paths into the military. One armed vet Mr. Rasczak (a well-cast Michael Ironsides) effectively emotes the books preachings on violence and the primacy of the military caste in his History and Moral Philosophy class. Several characters briefly mentioned in the book get full billing in the movie and it strengthens the story. This is especially true for the two main females. Carmen (Deladier in the book, portrayed by the acting-challenged Denise Richards) is made Rico’s girlfriend who becomes a pilot and jilts him for another pilot. The love triangle is trite but gives the movie a dimension the book lacks. The other female, Dizzy (Dina Meyer), was a male in the book and died early. In the movie she has a crush on Rico and follows him into the infantry which is coed so Ver Hoeven can have a shower scene (the actors insisted he direct in the nude, which he did). Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) goes into military intelligence.

      The movie jumps back and forth between Carmen and Rico’s training. She is a hot shot pilot trainee and he is part of a heterogeneous group of recruits. The contrast of the pristine pilot atmosphere and the rollicking soldier barracks is cool. The movie does not avoid clichés. For example, Rico and Zander (Patrick Muldoon) meet in a bar and being from different branches and romantic rivals at that, guess what breaks out? Rico wants to wash out after a training accident, but stays on when his home town of Buenos Aires is destroyed. (In the book, his pacifist, disapproving dad survives, enlists, and encounters him later.)

       The rest of the movie is basically battles interspersed with breathing spells. The invasion of Klendathu is spectacularly rendered including the destruction of the fleet from bug flak. Another planet witnesses a Fort Apache type defense of an outpost against a horde of bugs. The action is so intense the grunts have no time to reload. Now the bugs have a flying variety and giant tank-like beetles! Major characters are killed. Later, the fleet gets hit again. It’s scary to realize that in the future our military leaders still don’t learn from their mistakes (close formations do lead to cool collisions, however). Guess what couple survives and crash lands on the bug planet where Rico’s unit is hunting a “brain bug”? It’s a small universe, apparently. Moreso because Carl makes an appearance, too. Insert traditional happy ending.

       The film is popcorn entertainment of an incredibly gory variety. The action is spectacular. The special effects are extraordinary. The bugs do not look fake. The CGI is flawless. The weaknesses include the predictable plot (albeit with some surprise deaths). There are a lot of coincidences. The acting is spotty. Casper Van Dien is surprisingly good and Dina Meyer belts it out. Michael Ironsides dominates his scenes. However, Denise Richards is cardboard.

       Verhoeven claimed he did not finish the book because he was “bored and depressed”. It shows in that the movie differs radically from the book. This includes the overall political theme. Where Heinlein takes a sympathetic view toward a fascist solution to society’s problems, Verhoeven fills the movies with anti-fascist satire. He is pretty heavy-handed with his Nazi style uniforms. We get it, Paul.

        The movie should not be on the Marine Corps watch list. The tactics are unrealistic. There is no recon. There are no flankers even when marching through a canyon. There are frontal assaults against a more numerous enemy. Pre-assault bombardment is too brief. A more acceptable flaw is the movie cannot duplicate the futuristic weaponry and equipment of the book. The budget did not allow for “power armor” so the soldiers are still very much “foot soldiers”. I would think that in the distant future we would be beyond souped-up machine guns firing bullets.

      Which is better? Definitely the movie. It improves on the book which is what you want from a movie based on a book. The book did not have enough action – mission accomplished! The book concentrated too much on one character – mission accomplished. The book is too preachy – mission accomplished. With that said, I will say that the book and movie are a good pairing because if you read the book first you get more background about how Earth got to the way it is and you follow Rico’s career. The movie then fleshes it out and adds action.


  1. This is one of those books I will most certainly never read but I would like to watch the movie at some point.
    I find it very strange though that Verhoeven didn't finish it. I find this inacceptable.

  2. I do not think you will like the movie or book. I agree on Verhoeven. He should have read the whole book regardless of whether he liked it or not. He may have not been telling the truth with that statement, I suppose. My thesis of him improving on the plot relies on him having read the book.

  3. Starship Troopers! Been a long time since I read that one. But I'm glad to see you have mellowed abit and read a fiction book. As I recall I think I preferred The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Heinlein's short fiction to it. He did have a strong vision of the future that is certain. Not a future for weaklings. The armored suits in avatar are a direct steal from ST. So he was prophetic in a way.
    The movie: very entertaining and in a number of scenes (the outpost battle and the outerspace shots of the ships being bombarded from the planet)some of the best SF ever filmed. Though I like it, the movie is too Verhoeven. Shallow characters and graphic violence. This guy has no low setting. Not being much of a fan of CGI I have to say this is also some of the most realistic put on film. The bugs are beautifully done. The bootcamp scenes, the rollerball (or whatever it was called) scene and the love triangle business are weak. You are correct a director should finish his source material, but I have a distinct feeling Verhoeven could give a shit what his audience thinks in that regard. You can sum up Verhoeven: graphically entertaining. Ala Tarrintino. ST is at the opposite end of the spectrum from 2001. One can put you to sleep, the other you are afraid to sleep since your body might be ripped in two. You can try reading "Bring the Jubilee" by Ward Moore. An alternative history tale about the civil war and gettysburg in particular. You know to keep the SF ball rolling.

  4. Very interesting. I had not made the connection with the suits in Avatar. Nice catch. I agree with everything you say.

    Sorry, but I do not read alternative history.

  5. Warmoviebuff

    This is not alternative history.

    It is set in future. [not 'if the nazis have superpanthers in '44, as in Pzkw V with L71]

    'what if' [those dangerous words]

    in 2018 the US military in conjunction with Europa.
    Take the world by force. [to stop the chinese?]

    possible .. not alternate.



    1. When I said alternative history, I was talking about "Bring the Jubilee" not "Starship Troopers".

  6. Give me the resources of NOW. 3 x phalanx systems with comp autonomy conrol. An the gugs go by by.

    8 7.62 and 4 20mm phalanx guns should remove any threat to horizon in 30 seconds.

  7. Great review and comparison between the book and the movie. I read the book quite a few years ago and enjoyed it. I also thought that the movie was a lot of fun,although I got the impression that the director spent more time thinking about the bugs than the humans. It paid off, the bugs are beautiful, and the action scenes are amazing. I listened to the commentary, and Verhoeven spent a lot of time talking about his research into military propaganda, but never actually mentioned the book.

  8. Thanks. I enjoyed comparing them. I was surprised I did not like the book. It did cause me to develop my theory that a movie about a book should be better than the book.

  9. I disliked the book's gung-ho Sergeant-Fury-and-his-Howling-Commandos attitude, along with its simplistic portrayal of all officers and NCO's as competent and conscientious. Joe Haldeman's The Forever War was more realistic. I did like the idea of a society in which citizenship, including the right to vote, must be earned by serving a term of public service. Heinlein later said in an essay that the service required in ST was not necessarily military (although the volunteer is not given a choice) and that 95% of the "veterans" are former civil servants. But the novel, IMHO, did not make that clear. I hated the movie. The characters were more like Beverly Hills 90210 than a military unit.

  10. You're fucking stupid. Book > Movie by a god damn mile.

    1. That is such a strong argument! Unfortunately, it confirms my opinion about people who like the book.

  11. The book was for a long time the best selling novel at the West Point book store. I agree that the "only soldiers can vote" was disturbing as well as the interludes to lectures. (Not boring. Heinlien hadn't devolved to that...but still bugged me.) The training is idealized but pretty obviously a version of USMC boot camp. The first chapter is an amazing start to a novel and the ideas about the power suits were prescient.

    I also find the book clearly superior to the movie, on many levels, despite the issues with it. I would say most military officers and science fiction fans agree. I don't think it is such a strange view at all. More the norm, really.

    1. Little more:

      1. One interesting idea in the novel is that all officers must have started as enlisted men. (There is a school to jump them up after a while, so it is not like all officers would be old men...but they would all have experience as enlisted men...very different vibe from the sort of class difference in the military...most strong and remaining in the USN.)

      2. Another minor one in same vein is that the unit chaplain serves in combat. This is actually not so strange as I was in a unit too small for a chaplain so we had a lay minister, who of course had a normal job in the unit.

      3. The other thing to realize about the novel is that it was a reaction of Heinlein against Eisenhower signing some sort of Test Ban Treaty. Not excusing it. Just good to know the historical rationale for the late 50s politics that creeps in.

  12. Sketching out the results of a hypothetical premise, like "what if only military veterans could vote?" is one of the great story hooks in the science fiction genre as long as the author is not so in love with the concept that he fails to consider the drawbacks - or at least recognize that people, being people, would find a way to complain in any society.

    A veteran-only electorate is not impossible to imagine - in some of the older democracies the set of people who met property qualifications to vote and the set of people who had served in war probably lined up pretty closely - but in our modern era it would be vulnerable to corruption (for instance, an ambitious politician might move for the creation of a special army corps which mainly served to put sympathetic voters on the rolls). I like the movie and credit it for making a sound-bite argument for the system during the High School segment but it doesn't do much to explore the idea, other than suggest that such a government would be vaguely fascist.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.