One of the great things about having a QFlicks
subscription is that it gives me the chance to catch up with all those films I've intended to watch at some point but never got round to. Today, I finally got to see Paul Verhoeven's version of Starship Troopers
. Actually, I watched it twice - one time for the regular version and then again with the commentary from Verhoeven and writer Ed Neumeier. The commentary is one of the best I've heard on a DVD - a lot of the time Verhoeven and Neumeier forget the film entirely and start discussing politics, the editorial policy of the Washington Post
and Chomsky, among other subjects.
If you don't know the full background, a little enlightenment. Starship Troopers
was originally a novel by Roberth Heinlein published in 1959 and to quote Nick Lowe's Interzone
review (from issue 129, sadly not available online that I can see) it 'was the signal that first alerted the world to the disquieting possibility that the most influential figure in sf was completely off his trolley.' It would have been easy, as Lowe suggests, for Neumeier and Verhoeven to do what happens in most sf adaptations (and as Verhoeven had done before in turning Dick's We Can Remember It For You Wholesale
into Total Recall
) and throw out all but the bare man vs bugs themes of the novel and turn it into a generic sf movie.
Instead, they took the far riskier course of confronting the source material head on, keeping the whole structure of Heinlein's militaristic libertarian future and then running with it right through to the end, no matter how strange it gets. In what's perhaps their bravest move, they don't really tip the wink to the viewer that the central message of the film is 'war makes fascists of all of us' (though the Federal Network broadcasts are a bit of a hint) until about twenty minutes before the end when Neil Patrick Harris (aka Doogie Howser MD
) arrives on board ship wearing what's basically a Gestapo uniform. It's Verhoeven's way of reminding you that propaganda's very good at making you cheer for the 'good guys', whoever they may be. It's worth remembering that, as a child, Verhoeven experienced the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and, as he discusses in his commentary, being bombed by the Allies during the liberation.
It reminded me of something I read in a discussion a couple of years ago, about comparisons between Star Trek
and Blake's Seven
- they complement each other very well when you see Trek
as a product of the Federation's propaganda section and Blake
as samizdat from the resistance. To quote Lowe again: 'peel away the transhumanist slogans (of Star Trek
) and you'll find the same slyly-sexualized Riefenstahlian fetish for uniforms, authority, and good old service discipline.'
Verhoeven makes a sly point with the casting as well, making use of actors who are Hollywood-'young', but clearly much older than the 18 year olds they're supposed to be, all looking recruiting poster-perfect as they're steadily groomed into accepting their place in the line for the meat grinder. But he also uses Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside, two actors who were born to appear in a film based on Heinlein. As Lowe says of the latter:
And not only is a crazed Heinlein mouthpiece the character Ironside was put on this earth to play, but he gets to do it under the director who understands better than anyone else why Ironside is a star in a firmament all to himself, and with dialogue by the one writer in Hollywood who understands why this stuff is so funny and scary to need sending for Ironside in the first place. Just to hear this man deliver the line "They sucked his brains out!" is worth sneaking in through the fire doors to see again.
Verhoeven understood that the only way to make this film was with an entirely straight face while putting tongue firmly in cheek. (Coincidentally, Con Air
, the only other recent Hollywood movie to try this style that I can think of tips a wink to the audience - "Nobody moves or the bunny gets it." - at almost exactly the same point in the movie) As Michael Brooke wrote
: 'Starship Troopers
is one of the great anti-American political satires of recent years' (see The Voice Of The Turtle
for more) and it really is worth watching if you haven't seen it before - and watching with the commentary if you have.