Starship Troopers—in all of its campy, corny glory—is a hugely enjoyable film. But most of the film’s fans are likely unaware that the novel on which it was based (Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein) has almost the literal opposite themes of the movie. Indeed, unlike the blatant anti-propaganda and anti-conformist messages of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s comedic and hyperbolic offering, Heinlein’s 1959 novel is a fascistic and militaristic critique of diplomacy, diversity, and (by extension) peace.
I would make it no secret that I find Heinlein’s novel odious. Its unjustified nationalism is at best short-sighted; its casting of enemy combatants as literal insects is both condescendingly heavy-handed and laughably repulsive; its insistence that large-scale violent armed conflict is the only and best solution to factional disagreements is a demonstrably false assertion; and its premise that only like-minded militarists and willing pawns should have the right to vote in their society is nothing short of frightening. So this article will take a close look at all of the ways that Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers acts directly against the project of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. I hope you enjoy it.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of Starship Troopers, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already seen the film (or read the book, though the two have somewhat different plots).
Verhoeven was not aware of Heinlein’s novel when he started work on the project which would eventually become Starship Troopers. Instead, he was working on a new project which also featured extraterrestrial bugs and ironic criticism of American military culture. It was pointed out to him that the project shared some details with the novel, and, after licensing the rights to the book, Verhoeven tried—unsuccessfully—to read it. He disliked the novel, gave up on reading it, and remained content with mostly mapping the details of the novel onto the surface of the film (names, institutions, places, events, etc.).
Paul Verhoeven was made cognizant of the fascist tendencies of the novel, and apparently decided to turn the work into a gory punchline. Despite holding onto a plot that differs considerably from that in the novel, the film version of Starship Troopers does more-or-less maintain the character arcs of the primary characters. As such, almost all of the scenes in the film that elicit laughter or horror have analogues that are meant to be sincerely inspiring in the book. So now let’s take a look at those scenes.
3 Tactics of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers in opposing Heinlein’s Novel:
First, a tactic of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers in dismantling the glorification of militarism is to remove all possible romance from the equation. This is done through the gratuitousness of the gore and violence. Verhoeven had already proved himself a master of flashy, ugly deaths that make their violent participants truly abhorrent in films like RoboCop and Total Recall.
In Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, people die or are injured horribly in training exercises in graphic detail; humans are ripped to shreds in immense numbers on the battlefields; whole cities are nuked from orbit; and entire fleets of ships are torn apart and destroyed. The effect of this is that the viewer raises an eyebrow higher than they thought possible when, for instance, protagonist Johnny Rico and high-ranking friend Carl Jenkins raucously celebrate the “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” approach to warfare near the climax of the film.
Second, a tactic of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers in dismantling Heinlein’s prized hegemonic cultural institutions is a criticism of propaganda through hyperbolic news cut-ins. My personal favorite among all of these is the farcical debate on the clearly organized nature of the insect race’s attacks, which cuts off when one of the participants emphatically declares that the idea of their enemies having intelligence offends him. The emotional manipulation involved in propaganda is present in full force in these scenes, with military scientists demonstrating efficient killing practices, capital punishment being broadcast live, and children stomping roaches while a chaperone applauds.
A related moment of note is when a field reporter points out that it’s possible that the bugs’ attack on Buenos Aires may have been a response to escalation by the humans, and is quickly shouted down by Johnny Rico. The “heartwarming” resolution of the movie brings this emotional context to its logical conclusion, with Carl Jenkins telepathically scanning the brain of the captured intelligent bug and then gleefully exclaiming, “It’s afraid!” to a crowd’s response of overjoyed applause.
Third, a tactic of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers in dismantling the glorification of fascism is to tie the Federal Service together with the most famous failed fascist project: Nazism. The officers and enlisted people all wear outfits reminiscent of Nazi uniforms, including one donned by intelligence officers like Jenkins that evokes that of the SS. Furthermore, many of the propaganda cut-ins mentioned above borrow shots and styles from famous Nazi propaganda, including the recruitment ad which opens the film being an exact recontextualized replica of a scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
Similarities between Verhoeven’s and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers:
In moments like the climactic escape from the insects’ caverns, as made possible by the sacrifice of a dying troop, Verhoeven retains the one aspect of Heinlein’s novel that I do not find repugnant: the responsibility to the other members of a community assumed by each member of that community. Still, Verhoeven is able to improve on this theme by playing up the absolute equality that logically results from such an emphasis on communal responsibility (as evidenced by the blatant and total gender equality at all levels of the Federal Service—even in the locker room), and then putting it in strong contrast (against the hypocritical, unwavering, and nearly universal xenophobia and cultural homogeneity of that very society).
There is one definite potential weakness of the movie with regard to all of this context, and it is one that surfaced in many of the film’s contemporary reviews as well: Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is so self-indulgently stylized and committed to its shtick that it can almost be mistaken for sincere endorsement of fascism. As much as I think that a viewer would have to be particularly dense to miss all of the clues, details, and jokes signposting the irony for them, one can never underestimate the potential for a campy approach to go over some people’s heads.
Along the lines of this same tonal concern, actor Michael Ironside reports having asked Verhoeven why he would be making a fascist film (given that Verhoeven grew up in the Netherlands—in part during the Nazi occupation), and says that 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 literal content of the response is tongue-in-cheek, but the subtext of giving a militaristic society everything it could desire and finding it laughable and deplorable is enlightening regarding his motives.
Any reader who finds the work of Ayn Rand chronically misguided should also give an honorable mention to the misguided nature of the work of Robert A. Heinlein; what Rand contends about businesspeople is similar in many philosophical respects to what Heinlein contends about soldiers. Still, I am careful to say ‘misguided’ rather than ‘ridiculous’ or ‘ignorant,’ because I know that Heinlein was an intelligent person and a gifted writer, albeit one with whom I disagree; he even attempted to retroactively downplay some of the more unabashedly militaristic and authoritarian aspects of his novel in his later years.
At any rate, although I may have given this impression at times above, Paul Verhoeven certainly did not set out to willfully overturn the Starship Troopers of Robert A. Heinlein. It would be more accurate to say that Verhoeven willfully discarded or disregarded the novel. He was more interested in telling the bombastic, entertaining, and often humorous tale of his Starship Troopers, which just happened to serve as a wonderful rebuttal to some of the exact themes of the original. It’s more than coincidence, as the film’s partial engagement with the novel’s arcs and Verhoeven’s remarks about the novel well attest, but it’s less than malice. Verhoeven famously stopped reading Heinlein’s novel because if left him “bored and depressed,” so he made a movie about similar people and similar events that left its consumers in neither of those states.
Poking Fun at Militarism: