I will first review Starship Troopers directed by Paul Verhoeven as a movie, then compare how it stands up against the novel of the same name by Robert A. Heinlein. The Hollywood movie opens up with some political propaganda films trying to get the public to join the Mobile Infantry, saying “Service guarantees citizenship.” Various soldiers are shown saying “I’m doing my part!” then the camera zooms in on a little kid in uniform saying “I’m doing my part too!” The only way to earn the right to vote and become a full citizen is to join the military for a term of service.
The movie’s premise is that Earth is under attack by aliens from Klendathu. This is described through a series of TV style news clips. The “Bugs,” or “Arachnids,” are hurling meteors at Earth, which have been intercepted for the most part by the space Navy. The obvious solution to Earth’s survival is the extermination of the aliens. The scene jumps to some news coverage on the Arachnid home world of Klendathu during a huge battle.
The troopers are overcome by aliens and the camera man is killed, dropping his camera for us to see a trooper get stabbed in the leg by a Warrior Bug just before the camera is destroyed. The movie flashes back to a year before, with Johnny Rico (the soldier that was stabbed in the leg) goofing off in his History and Moral Philosophy class. What follows is a brief introduction to the main characters as everyone is preparing to graduate high school.
Everyone seems to want to join up to get their citizenship, and the only varying factor is what type of service they move into. Johnny Rico’s girlfriend Carmen is determined to become a Navy Pilot. He doesn’t have the math scores to be a pilot, so joins the Mobile Infantry instead, partially to impress Carmen. A girl named Dizzy during the graduation dance asks Johnny why they never hooked up. Johnny is obviously not interested in her, but she joins the Mobile Infantry in order to be close to him. Carl joins up and gets selected for “Games and Theory,” essentially command school.
If I had to describe Starship Troopers in just a few words, I would say that it is a mix between Sci-Fi, horror, and comedy. The main plot covers four high school graduates on their journey through the military. Everyone goes their own separate ways; Johnny and Dizzy end up in boot camp, Carmen to the naval academy, and Carl disappears into command school. Eventually everyone, well almost everyone, ends up together on a special mission to capture a Brain Bug which controls the warrior drones.
The special effects are very good for a 1997 movie, and even hold up well 10 years later. The main focus is on the massive amount of Arachnids which swarm the Mobile Infantry. The sliced and diced dead bodies of the soldiers look a bit cheesy, but the feel of this movie is more like a comic book than real life anyway. The humorous news broadcasts spread throughout the movie adds to this feeling. As an action flick this movie does a decent job, but the bumbling style of the Mobile Infantry seems a bit out of place.
(spoiler alert for this paragraph) The cheese factor goes up a notch with the love triangle between Johnny, his girlfriend Carmen, and the jealous Dizzy. Of course things just don’t work out between Johnny and Carmen, as what happens with most long term relationship in movies like this. Dizzy is there to pick up the pieces, but Johnny wants nothing of it. Slowly Johnny starts to warm up to Dizzy until they finally hook up, after which she gets killed in combat, her last words being “Johnny don’t let me go! *gasp* *gasp* *croak*.” (end spoiler alert)
The one thing that offsets the bumbling Mobile Infantry and the cheesy acting is the humorous TV coverage. Director Paul Verhoeven seems to embrace the B-Movie type feel and runs with it. I think that this approach is one of the reasons that Starship Troopers is a movie worth watching. Had the movie lacked this element, the other parts would just look like poor film-making.
With all of that said, I’ll move on to comparing this movie to the novel by Robert A. Heinlein. On the surface the main elements are there; the Arachnids are attacking earth, there are drones controlled by a Brain Bug, and “service guarantees citizenship”. Many of the main characters are relatively intact, but the roles shift around a bit.
My biggest disappointment was that the Mobile Infantry was turned from awesome elite troopers in mechanical power armor to mindless idiots with machine guns. I’ve read that this was due to budget issues. It is a shame this aspect was left out, I think that the mechanical armor would have been awesome on the big screen. Unfortunately, having the mechanical armor would have greatly affected the dynamic of the fighting scenes as the ones in the novel took place in areas many square miles in size.
The character switching was another disappointment. Carmen was never Johnny’s girlfriend, although she did play a small part in him deciding to join the MI in the novel. Johhny’s History and Moral Philosophy teacher is now Lieutenant Jean Rasczak as well, instead of a separate character, Mr. Dubois. This doesn’t really affect the flow of the movie too much, but for anyone that has read the book it will be a bit confusing. A lot of the minor characters are there in some form or another.
Johnny is also not a strong character in the movie. He comes off as a stereotypical Ken doll jock. In the novel he strongly considered resigning from the MI, but never went through with it. In the movie he resigns and is just about to walk out of boot camp when he finds out his parents were killed in an asteroid attack. Only after this does he beg for reinstatement. This radically affects the character of Johnny Rico.
Two of the main themes which stand out in the novel are missing in the movie. The philosophy of “leave no man behind” is very prevalent in Heinlein’s writing, but completely absent in the movie. The whole motivation in attacking Klendathu is to exterminate the Bugs rather than save their comrades which are prisoners of war. Also, the focus on behavior and discipline is barely touched on in the movie. The whole boot camp section of the book, which comprises about 50%, is squeezed into less than 25 minutes. Much of the political commentary is touched upon, but only briefly in hammed up TV news clips.
The movie and the book should both be enjoyed separately. I wouldn’t recommend trying to reconcile the differences between the two, as I have, unless you want a big headache. If gratuitous violence and humor is your thing, this movie is for you. If you’d like to think a bit more and are willing to spend time on an interesting read, check out the novel.