Retro Review: It’s a Bug Hunt! Splatter Cinema Infests the Plaza Theatre with STARSHIP TROOPERS!

Splatter Cinema presents STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997); Dir. Paul Verhoeven; Starring Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer and Neil Patrick Harris; Tuesday, Mar. 12 @ 9:30 p,m.; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Splatter Cinema returns to Atlanta’s historic Plaza Theatre this month with that enduring tale of Man vs. Bug: Paul Verhoeven’s STARSHIP TROOPERS. But lurking beneath the shimmering surface of blood and insect guts is a knowingly subversive take on Robert Heinlein’s classic novel of military science fiction.

It’s safe to say that Robert A. Heinlein is one of the most influential authors to ever work within the sci-fi genre. This is not to say he’s universally loved, mind you. Certainly, the man’s got as many detractors as acolytes. But through the years, his provocative output has inspired many others to create works in response, whether furthering his themes and ideas or standing in stark contrast to them. And the novel that best exemplifies this aspect of his art is the polarizing STARSHIP TROOPERS.

First published in 1959, STARSHIP TROOPERS was written by Heinlein largely as an attempt to explain his political thinking at the time. Under attack from others within the sci-fi community for his increasingly conservative and pro-nuclear testing stances, he took time off from writing what would become STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND and sought to clarify his positions through this novel.

The book was extremely successful, winning the 1960 Hugo Award for Best Novel and continuing to sell strongly in the decades after its initial printing. It also almost single-handedly created the sub-genre of military science fiction. However, it likewise sparked a hailstorm of criticism that continues to this day. The novel’s staunchly nationalistic pro-military and pro-war stances came across as borderline fascistic to a number of people—a number that included screenwriter Ed Neumeier and director Paul Vershoeven. Reuniting 10 years after their collaboration on the similarly satirical ROBOCOP, the pair set out to not only send up the militaristic and jingoistic aspects of Heinlein’s novel (and similarly themed action films as a whole), but to make an explicitly anti-war film and—by extension—to say (as Verhoeven puts it in the film’s DVD commentary) that “war makes fascists of us all.”

A bug alien skitters behind marine hero Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) in STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997), based on the iconic 1959 Robert Heinlein novel.

Superficially, this is a glorious action film. It follows young recruit Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) as he rises through the ranks of the military during a war against the arachnid inhabitants of the desert planet Klendathu, which began when the bugs lobbed an asteroid into the city of Buenos Aires, killing millions. He initially joins to impress his girlfriend, pilot Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), but finds himself swept up into war after the destruction of his home city. The film is filled with expertly-shot and edited action sequences, as armies of humans and insects are slaughtered en masse. It’s bloody, and it’s slimy, and brains get sucked out of people’s heads and stuff blows up real good. The film’s pace never lets up once things are set into motion. It’s fast, funny, tense and terrifying. It’s practically everything an over-the-top action movie ought to be.

But it’s also peppered with shots lifted from Leni Reifenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, clothing inspired by Nazi uniforms, architecture inspired by Albert Speer and propaganda-styled military recruitment ads disguised as news items. Verhoeven, who grew up in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, cleverly appropriates these familiar elements and uses them as satirical and hyperbolic weapons in order to attack glorification of military might and nationalism. This is much along the lines of what he and Neumeier previously did in ROBOCOP, using the trappings of a conventional action picture to slyly send up commercialism, the mass media and the trend toward privatization of previously public works. Verhoeven and Neumeier reference these WWII-era touchstones in order to detail the militaristic and war-driven society that Heinlein presented in his novel as practically a utopia, and how they see that road as eventually leading to fascism.

A proto-Nazi-uniformed Neil Patrick Harris inspects a captured alien in STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997).

Of course, it’s not easy to sell a film in which your heroes end up fighting for a society that the filmmakers keep trying to depict as intrinsically evil, and in which Neil Patrick Harris, of all people, eventually winds up wearing an SS uniform. As a result, the movie wound up being nearly as polarizing as Heinlein’s novel, with many reviewers inaccurately (according to the filmmakers) reading the film as a celebration of fascism instead of the subversive critique Verhoeven and Neumeier intended. However, Verhoeven’s technical mastery has resulted in the film’s enduring legacy as one of the great contemporary action films, regardless of its political aims. Its success at the box office has resulted in three sequels, a computer-animated television series, a board game, several video games, a TROOPERS-themed pinball machine and graphic novel adaptations.

So enjoy STARSHIP TROOPERS on any of its many levels: as a straight-up no-holds-barred sci-fi action flick, as a witty take on action films, as an anti-war movie or as a subversive satire of Heinlein’s novel. Any way you take it, it’s a whole helluva lot of fun.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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