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Fifty Ways (roughly)

Posted by Dirck on 13 August, 2013

In my previous excursion into responding to a film review, I expressed my deep appreciation of El Santo’s powers.  I therefore surprise myself as much as anyone when I say that he’s dead wrong in his review of Starship Troopers.

Well… that’s too sweeping a statement.  In the course of examination of Starship Troopers, he gets something wrong.  This one wrong item doesn’t have any real bearing on the general conclusions he reaches, and in that respect the only complaint I can think to make is that he’s a little to generous in giving the thing a rating of ½– this in the full knowledge of his inverted bell-curve of ratings which allows a stupendously bad film a high negative rank for the unintended entertainment value.  Zero, and the half-stars to either side of it, indicate a film which is a failure in terms of its own intentions and in terms of that failure to provide any joy to the viewer.

Back when this thing came out, or rather just before it appeared in the theatres, I watched an ad and said to myself, “Aw, damn.  This is going to suck, and I can’t not want to go see it.”  I told my wife about this crippling disability, and promised to arrange the viewing so that she could avoid being dragged along.  She was at that time some months away from the title of Wife and thus suffering her own crippling disability– Besotted Girlfriendhood.  She threatened me with terrible consequences if I thought to go to a movie without her, even one which promised to be as bad as the Jurassic Park sequel which our combined problems had landed us at not long before, and would not be reasoned out of it.

However, since she is not entirely without wisdom, she brought a book.  About half-way through, we were both reading The Haunting of Hill House and trying to ignore the terrible thing happening on the screen above us.  On the drive home, we began to formulate a list of the diverse ways in which it was a bad movie.  The list grew to include forty-three separate heads; lost now, alas, and I’m not willing to subject myself to a re-watching of it to attempt a reconstruction.  But I will cast what aspersions I’m able to recall from that single, long-ago exposure.

I should mention that I intend to quote El Santo pretty liberally throughout.  Let’s start with what was for me was the only real disturbing element:

     The general consensus on the part of its defenders is that Starship Troopers is a satire on modern American militarism of the Gulf War variety, or on the propagandistic war movies of the 1940’s, or even on the Nazis’ notorious propaganda machine. And for my part, I’m going to assume this to be true, on the grounds that the idea of a Dutch director growing up in the 40’s, only to film a ringing endorsement of fascist militarism 50 years later is too disturbing to contemplate.

Exactly my thought.  The high SS-flavouring of the officers’ uniforms certainly suggests a specific point of reference, and it almost has to be an ironic reference… but Verhoven was playing it even more deadpan than he did with Robocop‘s initial ED-209 deployment if that’s the case.  It’s so deadpan that in fact I think it’s almost a case of the director pointing a finger right at the people who were gearing up to elect George W. Bush and shouting “You guys are idiots!”  The final line in the film, if I remember correctly, is spoken of an unarmed alien surrounded by armed humans– “It’s afraid!” is greeted by a whoop of joy, as if this state of affairs guarantees inevitable human victory in a conflict which is manifestly not running very well for us.  If you joined in that whoop from your seat in the audience, I think you’re the very person Paul Verhoven is snickering at.

Which gets us to one of the more common complaints about this film, which even its defenders generally admit as a problem.  Unlike El Santo, I read the book, and re-read it not long before seeing the movie.  Heinlein was modelling the war on the “island-hopping” Pacific campaign of the Second World War, so like the US Marines his Mobile Infantry had very limited reserves.  However, those limited reserves were the orders of magnitude more destructive than the 20th century model had available, as befits a society capable of summoning the energies needed to move between star systems in conveniently short times.  The movie version of the same force has… a bunch of riflemen.  Heavy weapons?  Mechanized units?  Air support?  None of the above, and as El Santo points out these defects combine an almost psychotic unwillingness to learn any tactical lessons from previous encounters.  There is an animated series founded upon the film, aimed at kids, and it does a much better job on these points.  Once again, if Verhoven is actually using Starship Troopers as a means of rubbing its primary audience’s nose in its own stupidity, this makes sense, but it’s being done in awfully broad strokes.

This military incompetence is not limited to the level of policy.  In the book, the MI was an all-male enterprise, while in the film it’s co-ed.  I don’t myself have any brief against women filling any role in the military; as with firefighting and engineering, there are some general requirements in terms of mental and physical ability, but one’s role in procreation has little bearing on those requirements.  However, in the case of this film the inclusion of both sexes is not a means of showing how the future has overcome silly modern gender prejudices of our current era; it is rather a means of servicing the lamentable soap opera aspects of the plot.  Boys and girls in a military setting?  Shenanigans!  What makes this particularly galling is the unit commander, calling out that the enemy is inbound and all the troops need to be at their positions in five minutes, looking into the flagrante tent, smiles, nods, and says, “…ten minutes.”  Because the requirements of the service and duty to humanity must take a back seat to carnal satisfaction.  Is it any wonder that the aliens are winning?

The aliens, by the way, are something most people, including El Santo, view as a mark in the plus column:

Cool as the Arachnids are (and by the standards of CGI monsters, the bigger ones at least are fantastic), their eye-candy value is nowhere near enough to make up for the stupidity, incompetence, and tedium of Starship Troopers.

I will agree that visually they are pretty cool and a pretty high-standard of CGI for their day.  I also rate the exterior bits of the space battle (I think there was only really one) as something that one can look at with some enjoyment.  However, the way the aliens are handled also left me a little angry.  They’re a space-faring race in their own right, let’s remember, which underline their powers by obliterating Buenos Aires not with a handy solar-system asteroid but with one shipped in from their own system.  All we’re shown of their technology, though, suggests that it’s based upon genetic manipulation of their own species.  Their soldiers are a specialized fighting caste.  Their rulers are a “brain” caste.  Their response to orbiting unfriendly spacecraft are colossal bombardier beetles.  This last is where my disbelief begins to slither to the floor, because the containing the kinds of energy which launching vast globes of incandescent matter into orbit within the frame of a living creature runs too far beyond my imagination’s limits.  How much farther, then, the growing of a warp-drive, or hyperengine, or whatever you what to call your Dillingham?

Even setting that aside, the aliens’ tactics are not actually any smarter than the humans’, in that the central command appears to be “crush them under mountains of our dead”.  Granted that this is an attitude honeybees will comprehend, but this, I point out once again, an advanced society.  It takes resources to grow billions of soldiers to the point that you can throw them away like human armies use bullets.  You must really want a barren, protein-free moon a lot to throw away that much of your race’s biomass to hang onto it.  Or… be really stupid.

Touching upon the acting, I bow again to El Santo:

{T}he incompetent young actors who comprise the bulk of the cast are incapable of anything but the cardboard earnestness they display here.

Yup.  For some subjective reason, I find Denise Richards authentically objectionable rather than merely uselessly cardboardish, almost as if she’s a bad actor with malice aforethought rather than a bad actor through common negligence.  This only serves to elevate her slightly above the bunch.

And at last, I come to the point at which El Santo is entirely astray in his review.  I will let him damn himself out of his own keyboard:

Major characters drop one by one (including, frustratingly enough, Rico’s commanding lieutenant, who is played by Michael Ironside of Scanners, the only decent actor in this movie), and Rico is consistently promoted to take their places, until finally defeat becomes so obviously unavoidable that the fleet airlifts the soldiers off the planet.

I give Ironside mad props (as the kids once said) for delivering that “…ten minutes” line without appearing to be dying inside, but he was not alone.  Clancy Brown suffered through rather more of this mess, and aquitted himself at least as well.  I was also going to defend Neil Patrick Harris, but casting my mind back, I think he allowed himself to drift down to the level of the leads; understandable, but it leaves him culpable.

It’s… good heavens, sixteen years since I saw this thing.  I remain angry at it.  I guess Verhoven can claim to have made an impression.  There’s one last thing to address, the departure of the film from the book.  As I mention, I had read Starship Troopers prior to seeing it, and I agree that it does step away from Heinlein’s parable about the underlying sacrifices required of a thinking citizenry.  I don’t know that this is a reason to abuse the film; I can see and even agree with some of the points Heinlein makes while finding the whole of the philosophy rather unappealing, but I don’t think a film based on the book would necessarily have to engage that same philosophy.  It could have been a rollicking space opera rather than a turgid soap opera.  It could have been an examination of the way the bonds of fellowship are refined by the forge of conflict, as more conventional war movies have previously done but in a different setting.  Not clinging to the source material is a tradition in the making of films into books, and it’s just fine if the film is a good film.   Which this is most emphatically not.

Today’s pen: Waterman Thorobred
Today’s ink: Diamine Syrah

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