Last week Calum Marsh wrote a piece in The Atlantic praising the film Starship Troopers as “a ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism.” He dismissed the classic SF novel of the same name by Robert A. Heinlein, calling it “old-fashioned science-fiction…notoriously militaristic novel” and even criticized Rifftrax for not understanding “that Starship Troopers already is funny—and smart” (I actually saw the live show and noticed several references by the riffers to the film’s attempt at satire so I am not sure if Calum missed the references or else did not see the show). He finished by saying “[g]iven enough distance even the most fervently reviled movie may one day find its legacy resuscitated, earning decades later its long overdue acclaim.”
Now, I saw the original film on my 13th birthday with my friends. For a group of teenage boys, the nudes scenes, humor and gore quickly made this one of our favorites. But I grew up, matured and eventually read the book it was based on (actually the film was well into pre-production before the book was optioned and the director admits to never finishing the novel). I do understand the points Marsh is trying to get across. The film is a satire of militarism, fascism and any other isms you can find. Nothing stopped, however, the creators from making the movie they wanted. What must be considered is the fact that they chose to include the name of a book from what appears to have been done only out of the interest in the name recognition (much like World War Z). What Marsh fails to realize is that the film will now forever be associated with the name of book and forever color people perceptions about it, especially those who never read or understood the novel.
For those who haven’t read the book, it is a first person narrative told from the perspective of Filipino Juan “Johnnie” Rico (the Rico in the film is played by someone of European descent) and his time in the Federal Service with the Mobile Infantry. In Rico’s world the Terran Federation is a limited democracy where only those who enter the Federal Service are allowed to vote. Although decried as a fascist state by some critics, the Federal Service is not strictly military and anyone regardless of race, creed or physical fitness can join as long as they show a willingness to put themselves in harm’s way for the rest of humanity. Essentially, Heinlein was arguing that democracy would be better served by those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice instead of those who have reached an arbitrary age limit.
You don’t have to agree with Heinlein’s vision (I certainly don’t because I would be disenfranchised in the Federation) but to dismiss it as right-wing fascism is like saying 1984 should be banned because it promotes communism (and some have tried to make that argument). George Orwell (a.k.a. Eric Blair) actually was a socialist and used his famous dystopian novel as an attack against the Stalinist Communism that spread across Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. Orwell was differentiating between good and bad versions of socialism, just as Heinlein was giving his opinion on versions of democracy based on who got the franchise.
From the scenes in the classrooms where characters discuss the morality of the Federation with the teachers standing in for Heinlein, we learn a little bit about his values. He believed in social responsibility, was strongly anti-communist and critical, from references in the novel, of the handling of the Korean War. That last bit doesn’t make him that much different from the commentators who criticized the American government for the handling of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus the continuing War on Terror. Critics have also accused Heinlein of glorifying the war, but I would argue at the very least that as a veteran he glorified military service, something that we do see today as recently as last Sunday with football teams decked out in camouflaged uniforms to support the troops. Plus, this Monday is Veterans Day in America.
The book does have it flaws (we don’t exactly know if there are any other rights, besides voting, civilians are denied), but if this book had been made into a film it would have been a cross between Iron Man (Mobile Infantry fight in heavily armed and armored exoskeletons in the books, not the bulky plastic body armor of the film’s soldiers) and Full Metal Jacket (at least the first half of the film). Instead, however, we got a silly satire on easy targets (anyone can make fascists look bad, they did it with Hogan’s Heroes in the 60s) and ignored good source material. If this film has one legacy is that it represents the last gasp of an old Hollywood assumption that the audience will never take genre fiction seriously unless it is satirized (Scary Movie, The Big Bang Theory, etc.). Avatar, the Marvel film series, the Harry Potter franchise, the Lord of the Rings and Nolan’s Batman series (all on the list of highest-grossing films) should have dissuaded them of this, but we have to keep vigilant against the use of name recognition to drive in a crowd (again World War Z).
I will give Calum this: Starship Troopers the film would have made a great political satire…if they kept the name Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine, but they got lazy. They didn’t make the best film they could make or the best adaptation of a book, they just made a film and used cheap trick to draw attention to their project. In the future, read the book you optioned so at least you understand what you are talking about. If you don’t like it, however, or even understand it, then don’t make a freaking film about it. Or else, make a film about a book that disagrees with Heinlein’s beliefs in Starship Troopers, like The Forever War.
And don’t call it a “smart” satire. A smart satire would at least have the decency of picking a different name. Those critics who lampooned the film were right in the end and there views are more likely to stand the test of time.