Starship Troopers is an award-winning military science fiction novel that was written by author Robert A. Heinlein in 1959. A heavily political and subsequently controversial book for its time, it was nevertheless an extremely successful piece of work and would ultimately prove itself to be extremely influential on the genre at large.
The plot is simple. Far into the future, mankind is engaged in a bloody interstellar war with an arachnid-like species referred to only as “the Bugs”.
With their advanced weaponry and mechanical exoskeleton suits of powered armour, key protagonist Johnnie Rico and the rest of his fellow ‘Mobile Infantry’, recount their experiences becoming ‘capsule troopers’ amidst a future world where federal service is a mandatory element in becoming an integral member of society.
A straightforward and yet exciting premise for any story, Starship Troopers has been adapted many times over the years and has thus spawned numerous movies, comics, games and even essays in the process.
I’ve always connected really well with Starship Troopers as a franchise, hence the slice of encomium you’re now reading. But as well as simply being a fun setup for both fiction and games, I find the property can also be tremendously intelligent (if done right) and has created one of those settings that can be enjoyed on many different levels.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the original novel where Heinlein expertly crafts a relatively short, but gripping tale of one man coming to terms with his life in the Mobile Infantry and what it really means to fight for your country and people.
Heinlein was never coy concerning his right-wing political beliefs though and there will be many people who struggle to read the novel as a result. The author was frequently condemned and critically ripped to pieces over this highly controversial work; perhaps the potent element that would guarantee its relative infamy in the years since its first printing.
In the world of the Starship Troopers novel, it’s made quite clear that only those who have earned citizenship have earned the right to guide the future of society. Citizenship is earned primarily through federal service and it’s clearly stated that a person’s full sense of social responsibility is only truly appreciated when that person suffers through the hardships and self-sacrifices involved in both military service and war itself.
In fact, many of the book’s passages are written as if they were intended for a political essay more than a work of fiction, most notably the rather infamous line:
“Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.”
Violence is always a hot topic throughout the book, whether it’s talk of killing, how to kill, or in the vivid descriptions of boot camp recruits passing out after witnessing one of their number being brutally whipped as public punishment for both their crimes and failures as soldiers.
Contrary to its adaptions though, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is mostly a political piece with only one brief chapter of the book dealing with direct combat between the Mobile Infantry and their alien targets. The bulk of the novel is in fact spent at Camp Arther Currie where we follow Jonnie Rico on his military journey from lowly head-in-the-clouds recruit to the more responsible officer and squad commander that he eventually molds into.
I read the novel years after seeing the Hollywood adaption multiple times, so at first I fully expected the relative lack of action in the book to be a major frustration that might affect my enjoyment of Heinlein’s original vision. Surprisingly, this didn’t turn out to be the case as I found something different in the book that grew my appreciation for the property even more.
The sentiments found in Heinlein’s work are more than a bit radical, but I still appreciate the man for laying his viewpoint down in such an unadulterated and ultimately entertaining manner. Some will view Starship Troopers as nothing more than a glorified recruitment poster and perhaps in someways that’s actually true, but it never compromises the compelling story that’s being told alongside it.
Many of the plot details in the book are clearly based on Heinlein’s own experience in the U.S. Navy and for better or worse, Johnnie Rico’s division feels breathlessly hard-hitting and authentic because of the author’s firsthand exposure to exactly that sort of environment.
Whether the somewhat abrupt ending to the book leaves you satisfied, puzzled or downright outraged though, it’s difficult to deny that Starship Troopers is a novel that has given many critics a lot to chew on and debate as the years have gone by.
In terms of cultural influence, you can find numerous nods to its setting, phrases and power-armoured troopers in all sorts of modern media including the Alien films, the Halo video games and even the Mobile Suit Gundam animated television series.
When most people hear the name though, they’re probably going to first think of the 1997 film adaption directed by sci-fi specialist Paul Verhoevan.
Aside from sharing a few key character names and plot details, Starship Troopers the movie is idealistically opposed to the novel because of how profoundly director Paul Verhoevan and scriptwriter Ed Neumeier disagreed with Heinlein’s right-wing beliefs.
Whereas the novel posits “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as an unrealistic dream of democracy, the movie instead seeks to highlight the flagrant misuse of (primarily American) power and the fetishization of the military.
In fact, the film holds an almost unique distinction for being just as controversial as the book it’s based on despite not even sharing the very elements that made it controversial in the first place! Of course the biggest reason for this has to do with its critical reception during release; sentiments that were not exactly sparkling…
Starship Troopers is without question one of the most misunderstood Hollywood films that I’ve ever seen. I’m frequently insulted when declaring it as one of my favorite films; hearing it decried as a mindless cinematic shoot ’em up full of excessive violence and very little plot.
When you look at the film in the proper context though, you should clearly see that this is not the case and that’s completely irrespective of whether you ultimately enjoyed watching the flick or not.
The chance of such harsh criticism was high with this one though and that’s because, like Verhoevan’s first Hollywood success RoboCop (also written by Neumeier), the film adaption of Starship Troopers is built as a satire; always a risky proposition if the audience doesn’t end up properly catching onto that fact.
Judging by the almost 50-50 split in critical opinion during the film’s release, it’s safe to say that a lot of people “didn’t get” what the film was about, but is that the fault of the film or a vapid audience and judgmental critics that take everything at face value?
You could go back and forth on that particular point forever, but the notion that Starship Troopers is merely some juvenile spectacle “pitched at 11-year-old science-fiction fans” (as Ebert once lazily put it), is patently ludicrous.
The Starship Troopers movie is completely different from the novel as it’s an attack on fascism; not a glorification of military aggression like some believe. Although this message is conveyed through usually subtle satire, I’ve always thought it to be a blatantly obvious message by virtue of the over-the-top humour that the movie adopts over the novel.
The script is dripping with irony and each scene is packed with hyperbolic imagery and mock propaganda to clue you into the ridicule it makes of such fascist thinking.
Consider the hilarious line spoken by Sky Marshal Dienes as he addresses the masses with his hateful message: “We must meet this threat with our courage, our valor, indeed with our very lives to ensure that human civilization, not insect, dominates this galaxy now and always!”
Verhoevan, who experienced much of World War II firsthand as a child, rarely shies away from Nazi imagery in his films either and here he presents his shots of suspiciously lined up MI troopers and the Nazi-esque SICON logo alongside more overt references like the reminiscently-Hitler speech (mentioned above) and the ridiculously heavy-handed SS uniforms worn by the film’s military strategists.
Somehow confusing this nonsense as a sincere glorification of war is just funny, especially when you consider the even more humourous scenes and propaganda shorts featuring announcements of public executions, farcical debates on the intelligence of the Arachnid enemy (“I find the idea of a bug that thinks, offensive!”) and the videos of troopers handing out bullets to small children at a school meet and greet.
The characters themselves are purposefully made to look very similar too- like a bunch of super-people clones; all blonde hair and beautiful blue eyes in an alternate vision of what might have happened if WWII went the opposite way…
It should also become clear about half way through the film that the humans are quite frankly the aggressors in their violent campaign against the “Bugs”. Humans are hinted at encroaching on the Arachnid’s intergalactic territory more than once and when the Bugs fire a plasma-fueled asteroid at Earth in retaliation, there’s two-faced outrage from the human populace.
The dehumanization of the enemy as a justification for genocide is both present and correct both in the figurative and literal sense. The Arachnids are not physically human for one, but everything from their pejorative designation as “Bugs”, to their hideous dissection and outright murder during federal-controlled television is even more telling.
In some ways people confuse the film’s message because of the sincerity in which it’s all portrayed. None of the characters really question this horrific false utopia in the film (or if they do they are very quickly silenced) and that’s the most scary thing about it all; this is a vision of government taken to an extreme that we find extremely off-putting as an audience and the stoic belief that “this could never happen today” is perhaps what catches people out.
The ending is mildly cathartic and disappointing in the same measure. The only victory at the end of all of this mayhem is that the enemy has been made to feel “afraid” (which prompts massive cheers at the film’s climax) and more sophisticated ways of continuing the slaughter of said enemy are sure to follow.
The final third of the film can come off as somewhat futile, pointless and pretty damn incomprehensible, but that’s exactly what war is, isn’t it? Nobody in the film seems to have any coherent grasp of why they’re really killing bugs, but they’re all too happy to do it and yell their blood-thirsty war cries as they do so.It’s almost unbelievable that this film even got made considering its highly controversial content, but in a rare circumstance (where the film studio in question was going through multiple regime changes at the time) the script slipped through the usually over-cautious net and wasn’t censored in the slightest.
Starship Troopers is a profoundly intelligent satire at its core and one with elements so subtle that you might have to watch it multiple times to appreciate why it’s so damn good.
What makes it even better is that you don’t even need to buy into the satire or the hidden meanings in order to enjoy it as there are spectacular visual effects, pulse-pounding battle scenes and explicit scenes of violence to satisfy any action film fan; if that’s all you want from Starship Troopers, then it’s more than happy to entertain you on that level.
It’s such a shame then how the video game space has largely failed to utilize the Starship Troopers license in any meaningful way. In a previous article I wrote about the undiscovered potential behind a good Mobile Infantry or even a point-and-click video game based on the franchise; one that at least tries harder than the existing offerings that are nothing but mediocre at their best and shockingly bad at the their worst.
The Starship Troopers Role-Playing Game published in 2005 by Mongoose is a much better attempt at bringing the property to gaming spaces however as it combines themes from the novel, film and even the CGI TV series to create its own unique spin on the setting; one that feels decidedly comprehensive and accurate to the source material.
Here the physical aspects of the old D20 game engine work wonders in recreating the vicious nature of tactical warfare by sharply limiting player ‘health points’ and making combat feel truly tense and dangerous as a result.
There have also been multiple Starship Troopers comic books too. Mainly published under the Dark Horse label, there are some decent stories told here both on and away from the battlefield, but off-putting artwork and cameo-heavy storylines characterized much of the publication’s run and it never really stood out as anything special when compared to the dependable offerings from Marvel etc.
Starship Troopers is a unique property then, one that seems to be constantly reinventing itself as the years go by. Whilst the novel itself has remained fairly distant and unsullied, the movie has received no less than two low budget and brutally-awful direct-to-video sequels in Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation and Starship Troopers 3: Marauder and a fourth slightly more middle-of-the-road anime/CGI offering from Shinji Aramaki titled Starship Troopers: Invasion.
What these sequels all seem to miss completely though (among their many other failings) is the intelligent subtext that gives the action in their world a deeper meaning. But then trying to follow Verhoevan’s movie is horrendously ill-advised if you ask me, as the themes and messages are far too specific to his work and style to be replicated without seeming empty.
Just look at RoboCop 2; whose faux propaganda news speeches lacked any sort of meaning behind them whatsoever; yes, you can make it look the same, but can you give me a better reason for their inclusion than “they were in the first movie”? In that particular case, the answer was a resounding “no”.
And I’ll wager that a similar fate awaits any remake that tries to replicate Verhoevan’s rather small, but generally excellent catalog of science fiction films.
I didn’t watch Total Recall (2012), didn’t even entertain the notion of RoboCop (2014) and will forcibly reject the audacity behind any studio that tries to remake Starship Troopers without a firm grasp of what truly makes that film so brilliant in the first place. And so the preemptive boycott is comfortably established!
From the irresistible premise of galactic war to the greater themes of politics and leadership, the Starship Troopers franchise is certainly more accepted today than it was in years past, but for all the controversy and all the naysaying, this is still one of those properties that’s difficult to keep down for long.
But then again, who wants to live forever?