Film review: Starship Troopers (1997)

I watched this film, based on a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, a few months ago but did not bother to write a review about it because I thought it was a gore-filled silly film with lousy acting that I could not recommend or thought was even worth writing about. But then I came across this article that describes it as some kind of powerful satire of militarism.

Over the years, early critical opinion that Starship Troopers was simply a knuckle-headed space flick has largely been reversed. It’s remarkable that it took this long: Verhoeven is clearly satirising the rightwing militarism of his source material, the 1959 novel by Robert A Heinlein, with propaganda sequences that are straight out of the Leni Riefenstahl playbook.

Yet it is Verhoeven’s razor-sharp mockery of the hawkish rightwing military mindset – that the enemy is always inhuman, that its destruction has no moral fallout, and that the only thing that ever really matters is endless, relentless, crushing victory – that makes Starship Troopers worth watching in the first place. Otherwise, Hollywood really might as well just be remaking Triumph of the Will with space bugs.

Although I am a fan of satirical films, the danger of satire is always that people might take it at face value and that is what happened with me in this case. The satire in this film must have been too subtle because I have to admit that I did not get this film at all. I just saw it as a particularly silly science-fiction action film with plenty of blood and gore. And I was clearly not alone because the film failed at the box office, failing to even recoup the cost of production.

Here’s the trailer.

After I read this review, I can understand watching it again with a different perspective but in the first viewing the only satirical element I got was when a TV news crew is filming a battle scene with the bugs and the cameraman keeps filming the live action shot even as the reporter is captured and dismembered.

The above-linked article by Ben Child says that there are rumors of a remake of the film and he thinks it is a bad idea, not because the original was a bad film but because he thinks it was so good as a satire of militarism. If the new proposed director Joseph Kosinski sticks close to the book, then it would be just a violent and militaristic space film.


  1. Sam N says

    I’ll admit to having a soft spot for that film. Haven’t seen it since I was in the theater, a teenager. I clearly saw the satire, probably related to how I quickly converted from a soft republican supporter to a progressive disgusted by both parties. I had help. In grad school, Martha, fellow grad, challenged me regularly. Some people called her a bitch. I just think she was sharp and insightful.

    You’re not wrong. It is a silly sci-fi flick.

  2. Dunc says

    I have to admit that I never considered the satire in this film to be particularly subtle. Maybe modern American culture has caught up with it to such an extent that it seems subtle now…

  3. says

    The satire in this film must have been too subtle because I have to admit that I did not get this film at all. I just saw it as a particularly silly science-fiction action film with plenty of blood and gore. And I was clearly not alone because the film failed at the box office, failing to even recoup the cost of production.

    I first discovered the Heinlein juveniles when I was in the 5th grade. “Starship Troopers” was the last of these books. The novel failed in the category and was rejected by the publisher. It also failed as serious SF. Heinlein went on to become one of Science Fiction’s Grand Masters. He would have been better served to have let “Troopers” die and gotten on with his masterworks like “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” and, of course, “Stranger In A Strange Land.”

    The satire in the film was not too subtle, but rather too ham-handed, barely earning the moniker “farce.” I’ve often wondered how Neil Patrick Harris felt about his role in the movie. Heinlein, who died in 1988, would never have approved the script.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    hyphenman @ # 3: He would have been better served to have let “Troopers” die and gotten on with his masterworks like “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” and, of course, “Stranger In A Strange Land.”

    I was gobsmacked to read (in the Locus Heinlein obituary, iirc) that he wrote Starship Troopers, his most militaristic novel, and Stranger in a Strange Land, his most hippie novel, at the same time, alternating between manuscripts.

  5. fentex says

    Starship Troopers has always been a book argued over by people and used as an example/topic in the debate over how divorced from an author is their work?

    Lots of people think the book is a rah rah celebration of the military and therefore it’s near-fascist society something Heinlein promoted (obvious nonsense) and Verhoeven approached that by parodying it -- but I’ve always thought it’s a pretty simple story that just took it’s premises at face value.

    I personally didn’t like the movie because it was a parody and I think that was unnecessary (because the story doesn’t scare me and I don’t confuse it with any imagined polemics by Heinlein).

    A lot of authors have written variations and responses to Starship Troopers -- it has clear effects on The Forever War and Gerrold’s War Against the Chtorr (which has some clearly Starship Troopers inspired sections which might be considered a direct comment on i) among many others.

    I’d quite like to see a good movie that takes it seriously, it seems pretty inevitable with modern movie capabilities and markets.

  6. komarov says

    I considered the movie(s) a charmingly over-the-top illustration of where the permanent war mentality will take you. (Sky Marshal Trump would love to take the podium and make grand and ill-fated announcements -- he’s had practice) And a “silly sci-fi flick”, the TV equivalent of light reading. I’m not sure how a current remake would turn out, except that it would be virtually guaranteed to be a blurry, glossy CGI hell.

  7. John Morales says

    It’s one of those movies that should be called “inspired by” rather than “based on” the book, much like I, Robot. I doubt the director even read the book, it was that divergent.

    Worst bit of it for me was the elision of the powered armor suits (essentially personal tanks) worn by the infantry, which could fly and chuck nukes around. The movie basically had WW1 infantry instead. The combat scenes were really good in the book, really silly in the movie.

    Also, as fentex alluded, the militarism was more part of a civic duty aspect than a fascist society.

    Oh, and “among many others” → Bill, the Galactic Hero.

  8. John Morales says

    komarov, it doesn’t need a remake, it needs a make. As in, actually as per the book.

  9. consciousness razor says

    Maybe it helps to know that it’s directed by Paul Verhoeven…. The same guy directed two other violent, dystopian sci-fi movies: RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990). Of course, you also need to think of those as not just a bunch of silly action. But it may be a little easier to recognize in those cases, because the tone is more serious and the protagonist’s perspective is one the audience can try to adopt when interpreting the story.

    Starship Troopers definitely isn’t celebrating all the militarism, fascism, etc., that it shows. And it really wasn’t haphazardly thrown together by some hack director who doesn’t know what he’s doing, although it may look like it. With the absurd news reels and cartoonish violence, even the hammy acting and the cheap special effects, I think the movie is if anything a bit over the top at times. But pretty much everything about Heinlein’s grotesque worldview is being mocked in one way or another.

    It’s sort of understandable how some people misunderstand it, at least the first time they see it…. Since basically none of the characters ever have a good/reasonable perspective on their situation, like the audience should have, there isn’t much in the movie to guide you along. What you’re dealing with is just an unreliable narrator of sorts, but here, it involves most elements of the movie, not just what you may get from one character.

    So, Verhoeven trusts his audience enough to think “that’s ridiculous!” or “that’s awful!” whenever appropriate. But that’s not really how the characters themselves see things, because they’re real patriots who are hopelessly indoctrinated, extremely biased against the bugs, etc. So that is more or less the only thing the movie shows you, all the way to the “glorious victory” at the end, continuing on to the next generation of soldiers. But that’s not at all the frame of mind you should be in as an audience member. I don’t think you need a sympathetic character in that sense, but I guess it does sort of help some to connect the dots, because they literally see someone else doing it on the screen.

    Of course, it also doesn’t help if you’ve grown accustomed to tons of other dumb action/sci-fi movies, which aren’t expressing much of anything beyond what’s on the surface. Maybe 1997 wasn’t the best time…. I got the point just fine, but I think a lot of people were not prepared for it.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    Many years ago, I felt obliged to read some Heinlein books, given the hype they got. Don’t think I made it all the way through any of them. I found the worldview of his books deeply creepy. A common theme seemed to be an immensely rich, powerful, “superior” man intent on transforming society into something ruled by an elite whose membership would, of course, be decided by him. And there always seemed to be lots of young women keen to have sex with the bloke, including, in one book (IIRC), his own daughter.

    Maybe I just picked the wrong books…

  11. consciousness razor says

    I shouldn’t have said it’s Heinlein’s worldview. I don’t care what that was. I meant the one the story seems to support.

  12. Sam N says

    @10, Rob, Yeah, that’s mostly what I remember about the one Heinlein book I actually read. It was creepy as fuck.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    Oh yeah, the film. It was OK. Like most of Verhoeven’s films, worth one look if you have nothing better to do and don’t mind the violence (I don’t). Nothing subtle about them, which is fine.

  14. brucegee1962 says

    If any of Heinlein’s books deserves a movie, it’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Its take on colonialism and conservative values still seems relevant today — I particularly remember how conservative America is portrayed as the primary antagonist. IMO that was the peak of his career, and everything before and after fell far short.
    Of course, the sex candy female lead would need to be rewritten. But it would be interesting if they kept the polygamy plot. (Polygamy was widespread on the moon due to a substantial gender imbalance, since it was a penal colony and earth judges disliked sending women there.)

  15. lanir says

    I think I read the book before I watched the film. Honestly it felt mostly forgettable. This isn’t a function of time and distance, I remember I was struggling to remember what the book was about while I watched the movie. I assumed the film would prompt me to recall the book but since it was so different that never happened.

    The main thing about the film that stood out to me was the messed up love subplot and the commercials. I frankly didn’t get what it was going for outside of that. The combat was a bit too bog standard for me to really think anything subversive was going on.

    You might be interested to know there were several direct to video sequels made. I watched a couple of those as well but they really just pared everything down to the action sequences, build-up for the action sequences and justification for the action sequences. They make the original film look fantastic (which it wasn’t). For example I think one stole from The Thing or maybe another Heinlein work The Puppetmasters and included bugs that could burrow in and take over a human. It wasn’t satirizing the concept, it was just… bad.

    A lot of Heinlein’s stuff has a simple problem. His characters and even their whole society believe something. And then they act on it. In the real world, that just doesn’t happen. For example in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress the whole lunar society has a thing about respect for women that superficially seems rather old school. But in reality when women are taken care of or treated differently than males, this generally means putting them in positions where it’s easier to take advantage of them. In Heinlein’s worlds societies and individuals almost always live up to what they say they believe in. The only exception is politicians. In the real world people don’t live up to their beliefs, hold conflicting beliefs and generally tend to choose what’s more convenient for them over what’s right for someone else. So I guess from Heinlein’s perspective that makes most people politicians.

  16. robert79 says

    It’s been quite a while since I watched it, but mostly what I remember was that both armies consisted of mindless drones slugging it out with each other.

    That, and the “do you want to know more?” propaganda.

  17. Ben Wright says

    If you want a book in a similar vein to Starship Troopers, except better on every possible axis, I recommend The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley.

  18. says

    I remember when I first watched the movie I was gobsmacked when I realized humanity were the villains in the story. For that alone I loved the film because of how rare that is in science fiction movies.

  19. mnb0 says

    @7 John Morales: “I doubt the director even read the book, it was that divergent.”
    Wikipedia is your friend. I quote:

    “I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring … It is really quite a bad book. I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn’t read the thing. It’s a very right-wing book.”

    Verhoeven never has been known for subtility. Again I quote:

    “Verhoeven stated in 1997 that the first scene of the film—an advertisement for the Mobile Infantry—was adapted shot-for-shot from a scene in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), specifically an outdoor rally for the Reichsarbeitsdienst.”
    Given that he spend his youth in Den Haag en thus went through the Dutch famine of 1944-45 we can be reasonably sure tried to give the story a twist. Whether he succeeded is another story.
    Anyhow, his best movie is The Fourth Man (De Vierde Man), because Verhoeven’s bluntless works optimally:

    Gay sex, straight sex, horror, a parabel about Mother Mary vs. a Femme Fatala, everything told from the perspective of an unreliable narrator -- the movie has it all and some more.
    Everything Verhoeven did after The Fourth Man is stale compared this unique movie -- there is nothing like it.

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