Starship Troopers (1997): “Why I Need to Stop Worrying about the Poor Portrayal of Women in Space Flicks and Just Love This Movie”

Author’s Note: Please note this is a film review that addresses the creative art of filmmaking only, which attempts to help the viewer reach an understanding regarding the creative development of its subject-film genre. This review is not a political dissertation in support of or in contradiction of any sociopolitical belief system (we get into Fascism and Nazism, here) and is not intended to incense any reader regarding social or free speech/opinion issues. This review was written as an affectionate tribute to our “Space Week” theme of films set in outer space.

Yes, we know this film is loved in some quarters. . . .

Ode to Battlestar Beverly Hills, aka Melrose Place in Space, aka Space: 90210

Oh, how much do I hate ye; Starship Troopers? Let me count the ways.
For the depth and breadth and height that
I cherish Escape from New York,
My said hatred is thrust upon Escape from LA;
That is how much I hate ye.
Oh, ye wooden, California pretty girls and fancy boys in space;
For how much I love Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm
Is how much I also hate Phantasm II;
For that is how much I hate you, ye faux-fascist star troopers
In your hockey-plastic, Buck Rogers wears.

Is it your driftwood acting?
Is it your unconvincing CGI on a multi-million budget?
Is it Casper Van Diem’s soap opera sheen;
For did he think he’d get a Tom-like cruise,
Onward to A-List stardom in his feature film debut?
Is it that the sheer force of Michael Ironside
And the amazing-in-every-film Clancy Brown
Can’t erase the perpetual goofy-gaze of Denise Richards (“I want to be a pilot!”)
Or the macho, toothy-mugging of Jake Busey?
And forget not the thespin’ boondoggles of Dr. Doogie.

Frack! This movie sucks the feldercarb off Doc Brown’s flux capacitor. I need a shot of tranya, Commader Balok. Fesarius-me the hell out of this mess of Klendathuian space crap.

Well, looks like we’ve got a Battlefield Earth II sequel.

I love how the Wikipage on Starship Troopers—as with the Wikipage for Alien that tries, and fails, to hide the multiple film and literary plagiarism lawsuits against that film—tries to hides the fact (via multiple edits) that Melrose Place in Space began its production history as a totally unrelated, outright ripoff of Robert A. Heinlein’s late ‘50s classic novel, Starship Troopers, known as Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine. Now, the updated Wikipage tells us that the film adaptation of Heinlein’s novel jettisoned his superior (common sense) title for the dumb, exploitive-cum-ripoff title of Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine.

(That’s as awful a title as Dan O’Bannon’s original title for Alien: Star Beast; a title that he blindly fought to keep (he thought “Alien” was stupid) for his remake (no, it wasn’t, he claims) of It! The Terror from Beyond Space and ripoff (no, it wasn’t; he never saw it, he claims) of Planet of the Vampires. Right, Dan. And Sam Raimi never saw Equinox, either. And even O’Bannon’s title was a clip: it was the title of a 1954 Heinlein novel.)

Uh, wrong, A-List studio digital content managers stacking the digital Wiki-decks.

The script for Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine was already in the production cue, and then—when the similarities to Heinlein’s book came to light, a rush was made (probably to stave off the eventual, Harlan Ellison-inspired lawsuit against James Cameron’s The Terminator, natch) to license Heinlein’s novel—purely for the title, while pinching some character and location names from the book, so as to make us think we were getting a Heinlein adaption (another Heinlein book-to-film was 1953’s Project Moonbase). (Man, this is as awful as all of those bogus Philip K. Dick adaptations that don’t resemble his books.)

Paul Verhoeven—who wowed us with RoboCop and Total Recall (speaking of Phil K.), shocked us with Basic Instinct, and made us groan with Showgirls—was certainly well-intentioned with Starship Troopers. He is, in fact, a superior filmmaker, and his pre-stardom films Soldier of Orange, The Fourth Man and Flesh and Blood are proof of that fact (see all three, do it). But then he had to go and toss out Heinlein’s novel and stick to the inane Bughunt script: Starship Troopers is Starship Trooper in name only.

Films, like novels, are subjective. And many read Heinlein’s novel as racist-offensive; that it was pro-fascism and pro-militarism, with a desire that the world should supplant democracy for nationalism; that the only way to solve the world’s problems—real or imagined, or to institute your version of “right”—is by dispensing a large-scaled Wehrmacht. And to that end: Verhoeven decided to infuse a blatantly exaggerated anti-propaganda and anti-conformist message, which, again, was the point of his extraterrestrial “big bug movie’: a critique of America’s military. (Yeah, right. America’s military is the force that needs to be taken to critique-task. Insert my eye-roll, here.)

My read—big surprise—of Heinlein’s novel is different: I don’t see it as “pro” anything: I read it as anti-everything. In my read—wholly against Verhoeven’s tongue-in-cheek celluloid interpretation—is that Heinlein’s point is that a fascist way of doing things doesn’t work. Nationalism will not work. In fact, I read Starship Troopers as a novelistic precursor to ‘70s nazisploitation: films misconstrued as glorying Nazism (and a mere post-review of one of those films gets you suspended-to-banned from social media platforms). To say that Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is pro-fascism is to say Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom is pro-fascism and glorifies Nazism.

And that assumption on Pasolini’s masterpiece couldn’t be more wrong.

Yeah. I’d rather jump aboard this starship.

Uh, no thanks: deboarding.

As we discussed in our review of Naomi Holwill’s Fascism on a Thread: The Strange Story of Nazisploitation Cinema (2020), a brilliant document on that unpleasant genre of film, Pasolini’s wasn’t (as was Verhoeven, in my opinion) using Nazism or Fascism as theatrical window dressing (do un-dumb the fact that ST was just a stupid f’in, big alien bugs movie). Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom was a societal mirror forced into our face. American comedian Lenny Bruce wasn’t “filthy” for the sake of filth: the ‘60s world was smut-ridden; he simply made us—forced us—to look at society in its true form, as a warning for us to change the err of our ways before society was lost (and the ways we behave on social media these days, we’re already lost). And Pasolini’s film was, too, a horrifying lesson of the absolute corruption of power, a power-corruption in the same vein that Otakar Vavra’s Witchhammer (1970) addressed the issue.

And that’s what Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is to me: a lesson on the absolute corruption of power; that man, unchecked, would be so maniacal in his dominance that—when of Oliver Cromwell runs out of witches, Hernán Cortés runs out of Aztecs, the Mayans are wiped off the Earth, the last and American Indians are reservation-stockpiled, and when there is no gold at the end of Gonzalo Pizarro’s El Dorado-rainbow (a crazed dominance explored in Werner Herzog’s 1972 film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God)—man will conquer bugs . . . and squash them, well, like bugs, for domain and wealth.

No. Heinlein (IMO) is not comparing Jews or Negros to bugs; saying those peoples are lower than bugs and need to be exterminated like bugs (dear lord, don’t people read?). Heinlein’s pondering: When does it end. When is enough, enough. Is there an end to all your survey. What will man do when there is no one left to conquer and to subjugate?

Heinlein’s books were, in fact, an education on the value of racial equality and the importance of racial tolerance—not stamping out other races and religions for the superiority of another race or political system. It’s a book against what we know today as “cancel culture.”

How can Michael Ironside read the book and be a fan of the book, and then, reportedly, chastise Verhoeven for “making a fascist film” while on set? Maybe if Verhoeven actually read the book that he, reportedly, disliked, he would have realized the book was already a parody; that a biting sociopolitical statement laid inside its pages. So, Paul, we didn’t need a cast of thirty-something, shiny, happy pretty teenagers, along with bogus internet-social media feed inserts (based on Nazi propaganda films, ugh, who cares), to tell me: fascism: bad. The message was already there inside the book, Hollywood.

Then, there’s the muddled plot—and the utterly annoying-to-wooden, perpetually goofy-toothy “I want to be a pilot” grin (all I kept thinking of was Hermey the Elf from the ‘60s TV holiday special Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, with his “I want to be a dentist” wishes) of Melrose Place tenant Lt. Carmen Ibanez. She’s in a high school (?), romance with John “Johnny” Rico. She puts military junk in his head, to the chagrin of his parents, who don’t like her, and convinces Johnny that, to impress her, he needs to join up and “be a citizen.” Then she—because he’s on the military fast track to pilot-dom (and smarter than the 35% math-scoring Johnny)—reciprocates the flirts of Lt. Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon; the only one up to the Ironside-Brown challenge) to the point the love-triangle she instigates inspires fisticuffs between her two suitors. (That’s so very Ross-teasing-Rachel Green of you, Carmen.)

Wanted: Carmen Ibanez: 12 million counts of murder.

Then, Carmen gets her “I want to be a pilot” wish! And while she’s on third shift—in lone charge of the helm of a multi-billion dollar starship and the lives of a hundreds-strong crew (and in-defense of the Earth, mind you)—Melrose-babe decides it’s proper military etiquette to have a little coffee clutch with Zander on the bridge. And while she’s hoping to have a little post-Starbucks Zander-in-the-uniform-pant, she misses the warning for a bug-asteroid coming out of Jupiter hyperspace—which was the whole point of the ship’s stationary orbit: asteroid patrol. And the asteroid rips away the ship’s communications array. And there’s no way to warn Earth. And her hometown of Buenos Aires is wiped off the face of the Earth by said bug-oid. And 12 million people are dead because Lt. Ibanez decided two-timing Johnny (who she subsequently dumps via hard-disk mail—again with the “I want to be a pilot” lamenting) with Zander over coffee-to-sex was more important than monitoring the helm. Of course, the logical thing to do is to promote Ibanez to Captain—and give her first chair, which was Xander’s old job (I think he died, or something). And, wasn’t it established that the spacecruisers have hyperdrives? So, if communications are out, why not hyperdrive back to Earth—ahead of the asteroid? And, in the opening scenes, didn’t one of the faux-propaganda films clearly show a space cannon obliterating an almost-ready-to-hit-Earth asteroid? Arrgh!

Is there a deeper message about Manifest Destiny and American Imperialism in the frames? Is this a plight of the American Indian allegory? Nope. Ol’ Capser just likes killing big creatures and blowing up stuff. There could have been a message . . . but welcome to your A-List “tent pole” summer of cinema.

Step aside, sweety. Men be killin’ intergalactic dinosaurs, here.

What is it with women-in-space flicks? It’s the ’50s Bechdel-fails all over again with the likes of Project Moonbase and Gog and King Dinosaur! Why can’t the women be smart and moral? Why must they be vapid, sex-driven, teasing jezebels? We need more Ripleys and Lamberts and less spandex-William Deerings and Lt. Ibanezes in sci-fi, I declare!

Argh! I thought the plot holes and dumb character motivations from BSG: TOS were feldegarb (more so after Lt. Sheba, daughter of Cain showed up). And I thought Wing Commander (1999)—with Freddy Prinze, Jr.’s pretty-boy-amid-the-awful-CGI-stars—was daggit dung. Low-budget epics like Convict 762 (reviewed this week, look for it) and Space Mutiny have an excuse for their bad CGI and dumb characters and Bechdel-fails, as it’s a par-for-the-course that I expect and accept. But multi-million dollar A-List films like Starship Troopers—and Escape from L.A. (don’t get me started)—do not get that pass. They just do not, as I will not accept the “nuff said” logic that Starship Troopers “is a great movie” simply because Denise Richards and Dina Meyer are board as eye candy for the hormone-infused teens in the audience (and the he-man characters in the film).

By the Kobol Lords, I hate this movie. And I could surely count more ways (like the stupid-as-ass, backflipping faux-XFL football game; recruits handover paper induction forms to a behind-the-desk clerk using a rubber-notary stamp . . . in the friggin’ 23rd century: why not have recruits micro-chipped and hand-scanned, for example) . . . but that’d be like kickin’ a sick daggit when it’s down.

And besides, it’s time for lunch . . . as I read Sam the Bossman’s love for this movie with his October 2018 review. I hope I can keep my lunch down.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.