Starship Troopers (1997) analysis and comparison to the novel (1959)

Film Rated: 3.5 / 5

Book Rated: 3.5 / 5

The film isn’t very much like the novel itself. Both were made for entirely different reasons. In fact, one could argue that the film was made for the purpose of critiquing just about everything the novel stands for, and doing it in a way that misrepresents and strawmans the source material itself. All to make a point that, in all honesty, I can’t say is entirely misguided. But some of it is.

The film begins in typical Verhoeven style, with a satirical advertisement. On the surface, it’s a military advertisement. Join the military, do your part, protect the Earth, etc. But if you put any amount of effort looking at it, it becomes apparent that it’s a little too flamboyant, a little too happy with itself. Like it’s a self-parody. Basically like those advertisements shown in his earlier film Robocop, and to a more subtle extent practically the entire Total Recall film. That there’s something off with the reality being shown/advertised. That basically goes hand-in-hand with the form of acting that’s somewhat similar in style to the advertisements, except that requires some “outside the box” thinking in order to “get it.” As if the whole thing is a façade, a prank being pulled on the audience.

Doing My Part GIF

For those who watch this in their teens, pretty much all of this tends to fly over their heads (as it did mine back in the day). Back in our teenage years, all there was to the movie for us was the surface level entertainment, with a pro-military stance, gun-ho attitude, and shoot-em-up action (with some tits here and there). On the surface, this is a film made by teenagers for their hormones.

But then you get older, and usually more critical of film. You’ve seen things. You’ve been through some things. You’re about recovered from the shellshock of seeing that one movie as a kid you were too young to see. You become a bit jaded. Then you rewatch this movie, and see it as something completely different. It’s not pro-military at all, but more anti-military. Because anything it shows regarding a pro-military state/nation/world, it does so tongue-in-cheek, fingers-crossed, with hippie clothing underneath the uniform. Then you realize the entire film is meant to be a joke, and the militaristic society depicted being the point of the joke, meaning that it’s anti-military. With plenty of symbolism to indicate this by having certain members dress up in SS-style uniforms, implying it’s a fascist world government in charge of Earth.

It gets easier to laugh at the joke when you really analyze how pathetic their military is. They have nuclear capabilities, and have mastered space travel and planetary colonization. Yet their troops are primarily equipped with assault rifles that fire bullets against enemies that are resistant to a respectable amount of bullet damage. And their tactics are terrible, with the most obvious example being that one moment where they all made a circle and are firing within it, where literally everyone can get caught in the crossfire. Not to mention how easy it is to get demoted, promoted, killed, replaced, etc. To the extent where it’s like they don’t value the most talented individuals as much as they should, and actively encourage frequent replacement. My thoughts on that being the implication that this is a glorified method of population control, where they need to ween the population numbers of Earth every so often by having a war to fight so they can drastically drop those numbers. Either that, or the way a militaristic society functions does in fact make people that stupid and that inefficient. It could go either way.

#starship troopers from do bears bear?

This is in stark contrast to the novel, which depicts a militaristic society that actually has good tactics, can’t afford to lose much of its talent (which is why they make damn sure someone has the talent and the merit and the will and capability to stand in those ranks), and runs itself very efficiently. And while the methods they utilize to make this society function the way it does (even outside of military service) is in a manner some would deem questionable at best, there’s no arguing with the results and the overall contentment to be found within it. They even go so far as to mention that, back in the 20th century, you couldn’t walk around alone at night due to how dangerous it would get, while as in the present day now you could. It’s like this predicted the societal decay that took place between the 60s and 80s before they really happened (it reached a point where it was undeniable by the late 80s).

I think the biggest complain fans of the novel make towards the film is how much the film dumbs down down the soldiers. Not just in terms of weaponry and tactics, but also in terms of suits. Suits that are borderline mecha-anime type suits (nothing gigantic, just something human-sized, but big enough for a human to fit into), with mechanical parts that give them a stronger grip, allow them to leap over buildings in a single bound, rocket attachments, H-bombs, etc. Not to mention the pod drops. It’s the sort of stuff that made this 1959 novel not just ahead of its time, but also inspired various franchises like Halo and Warhammer 40K. And the film does away with virtually all of it for the sake of being a satire of the military. Stuff like that makes it clear why fans of the book were so outraged at the film. It’s worse than if Disney made a film version of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas (I’d like to see them do a remake of that, see what happens if they put black people in those roles).

Believe it or not, there was an (unfinished) anime. I’ve seen an episode of it, and I don’t think it’s very good. But hey, this is how I pictured the suits.

The situation with the bugs starts off different in the film and novel. In the novel, they don’t really make any major contact with the bugs until they attack Buenos Ares (even then, the novel doesn’t divulge the details, though I think it’s safe to say it didn’t involve hitting the Earth with an asteroid as depicted in the movie, considering the bugs actually build their own spaceships, in addition to their own weaponry, in addition to being deadly arachnids on their own without the tech). Up until then it was a small skirmish or two with patrols and outposts that the military kept on the down-low so as not to panic the general populace. While as in the movie, they were well-acquainted with the bugs. Enough to where they were doing dissections in their schools. In the novel, they didn’t have that privilege until after the first major skirmish when they were officially at war.

#1997 from ULTRAKiLLBLAST

The purpose for this being that, in the movie, the government had things well under control in the beginning. They had planetary defense systems in space capable of shooting down asteroids. They had bug carcasses to work with to understand the enemy beforehand. They had a decent idea of what they were getting into. Thus implying that the asteroid “attack” that happened in the film was allowed to happen for the sake of allowing for war (similar to how some believe Peal Harbor, and 9/11, was allowed to happen so that war could happen). For any of the reasons previously mentioned.

But that’s all just regarding the purely warfare aspects of the story. There’s another major aspect to dig into. Such as the political/philosophical aspects.

This year we explored the failure of democracy. How our social scientists brought our world to the brink of chaos. We talked about the veterans, how they took control and established the stability that has lasted for generations since.

[…]

Something given has no value. When you vote, you are exercising political authority, you’re using force. And force my friends is violence. The supreme authority from which all other authorities are derived.

[…]

Naked force has resolved more issues throughout history than any other factor. The contrary opinion, that violence doesn’t solve anything, is wishful thinking at its worst. People who forget that always pay.

Jean Rasczak, from the movie, representing the teacher named Mr. Dubois in the novel who taught History & Moral Philosophy, all one class.

The above quote is given with the context of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, likely intended to imply the horror and brutality of “violence” utilized to resolve an issue. Yet it’s rather difficult to disagree, given how quickly the war with Japan and the U.S. ended soon after that.

Starship Troopers GIF

In the novel, Mr. Dubois (as he’s called in the novel instead of Rasczak) responds to the answer, “My mother says violence never solves anything,” with, “I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that.” He brings up other examples to make the point, but also has this to say regarding the lessons history can teach:

I was not making fun of you personally. I was heaping scorn on an inexcusably silly idea — a practice I shall always follow.

Mr. Dubois, novel Ch. 2 p.25-6

The film’s excuse in this case is implying that the bugs were attacked by humans first, and showcasing an intelligent bug that’s capable of thinking and communicating. Plus the human psychics who can read minds (they weren’t in the book). Thus indicating communication could have been done to avoid conflict, and possibly even allow for peaceful coexistence in spite of how the bugs look. In the novel, the bugs are clearly the aggressors who attacked first. And from the perspective of Rico, the soldier, the bugs made no attempt to contact the humans, or respond to any attempts at contact made by the humans. It was just a flat out war started by the bugs who were winning at the start of it. Thus violent retaliation was the only logical option on the table, going along with the theme that violence does resolve conflict faster than any other method. I mean, even if we are to go along with the implication that the humans unjustly started the war, are the bugs not justly defending themselves with violence?

The only other real aspect of the novel’s philosophy that made it into the film was the concept of a civilian vs. a citizen. The film implies its significance rather than gets into the details of what it entails. The book definitely gets more into it, indicating that citizenship allows for the right to vote, and having the right to vote entails a lot of responsibility. Which is why the society in the book ensures that only responsible people can become citizens. They ensure responsibilities through military service, of course, but it’s not that easy (in the book). In the book, they can’t vote while actively serving in the military. They have to complete their service, and be out of the military before they can vote. Which means there’s a decent chance they could get killed before that happens, or they may opt to remain in the military for a longer duration not caring to much if they end up voting or not (they have other priorities on their mind, such as caring more for the squad they serve with). Plus the book makes it clear that military service isn’t the only way to become a citizen. There are plenty of non-military jobs they could take in order to become a citizen, such as digging tunnels (forms of manual labor involving construction), being a voluntary test subject (for science experiments), among other things. Any federal position that puts them in a career that demands responsibilities from them for a respectable amount of time.

Sci-Fi Film GIF

In other words, you don’t gain the right to vote just for turning 18, you have to earn it by doing something useful for the government. Which makes sense to me. While the film portrays citizenship as something primarily gained from grunts who have been through the military. Just anyone who manages to get through their service, which given the high number of civilians who manage that, is basically what leads to this piss-poor way in which things are run. From combat tactics to equipment to recruitment and government running things, etc.

#Starship Troopers from MOVIE SLUDGE

Despite how this comes off, I do view this as two plausible outcomes for a militaristic government. One that can be run very efficiently and make citizen and civilian life great. One that makes it run inefficiently and makes civilian and citizen life questionable at times (given the implication that the government is willing to have a city destroyed in order to start a war for reasons not necessarily relevant to the betterment of humanity). If there’s any fault to be had with the book for the case it makes, its that the threat of corruption doesn’t really come up all that much, which is a threat that every government in history has always faced, and usually what ends up causing a nation to collapse (depending on the form of corruption and what consequences they entail). Though personally, I think one of the reasons some of this corruption/inefficiencies came to be in the film version is because women can be grunts alongside the men (including in the showers). As if they can be expected to keep up with the physical demands of that role, especially by the standards in the book. Though that being said, the book acknowledges that women on-average make better pilots than men, so they have that going for them when it comes to military service (hope they can fly better than they can drive).

#Starship Troopers from The Film Vault

As I said earlier, the novel delves far deeper into philosophy than the film does, with the first 10-15 minutes being about as far as it goes. The film goes deeper into concepts, such as the purpose of war.

“If you wanted to teach a baby a lesson, would you cut its head off?”

“Why . . . no, sir!”

“Of course not. You’d paddle it. There can be circumstances when it’s just as foolish to hit an enemy city with an H-bomb as it would be to spank a baby with an ax. War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, for a purpose. The purpose of war is to support your government’s decisions by force. The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him . . . but to make him do what you want him to do. Not killing . . . but controlled and purposeful violence. But it’s not your business or mine to decide the purpose of the control. It’s never a soldier’s business to decide when or where or how–or why–he fights; that belongs to the statesmen and the generals. […] We supply the violence; other people […] supply the control. Which is as it should be.

p.62-63

The film counters this position with the notion that the “statesmen” who supply the control could do so for reasons that are generally unfavorable. The novel is of the notion that those who could go on to obtain a statesmen position are far less likely to become corrupted due to what they have to go through, learn, and experience on the way there, as you can’t just buy yourself into that position, or be born into a privileged family that will allow you to inherit that position. Everyone has to become a citizen by shouldering the responsibilities of a federal position for a time, without exception. While this may not eliminate the possibility of corruption, it does make it less likely. Whether it’s soldiering, being a blue-collar worker, or something equivalent.

would you like to know more starship troopers GIF

But that’s still just covering the nature of war and citizenry. One of the more insightful moments of the book comes where it decimates Marxism.

“Of course, the Marxian definition of value is ridiculous. All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into an apple tart; it remains a mud pie, value zero. By corollary, unskillful work can easily subtract value; an untalented cook can turn wholesome dough and fresh green apples, valuable already, into an inedible mess, value zero. Conversely, a great chef can fashion of those same materials a confection of greater value than a commonplace apple tart, with no more effort than an ordinary cook uses to prepare an ordinary sweet.

“These kitchen illustrations demolish the Marxian theory of value–the fallacy from which the entire magnificent fraud of communism derives–and illustrate the truth of the common-sense definition as measured in terms of use.”

[…]

” ‘Value’ has no meaning other than in relation to living beings. The value of a thing is always relative to a particular person, is completely personal and different in quantity for each living human–‘market value’ is a fiction, merely a rough guess at the average personal values, all of which must be quantitatively different or trade would be impossible.”

[…]

“This very personal relationship, ‘value,’ has two factors for a human being: first, what he can do with a thing, its use to him . . . and second, what he must do to get it, its cost to him. There is an old song which asserts that ‘the best things in life are free.’ Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted . . . and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.

“Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain. […] If you boys and girls had to sweat for your toys the way a newly born baby has to struggle to live you would be happier . . . and much richer. As it is, with some of you, I pity the poverty of your wealth. You! I’ve just awarded you the prize for the hundred-meter-dash. Does it make you happy?”

[…]

“It doesn’t make you happy?”

“You know darn well I placed fourth!”

Exactly! The prize for first place is worthless to you . . . because you haven’t earned it. But you enjoy a modest satisfaction in placing fourth; you earned it. […] I fancy the poet who wrote that song meant to imply that the best things in life must be purchased other than with money–which is true–just as the literal meaning of his words is false. The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion . . . and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself–ultimate cost for perfect value.”

p.92-4

That whole section is worth the price of the book alone. That the film didn’t have some form of acknowledgement of this line is unforgivable in the eyes of the book’s fans. A sentiment I can’t disagree with. Of course, the film substitutes philosophical depth with action, having more battles and training action than the novel did. In fact, the novel only has 3 action bits in its entire length. The very first chapter, a brief segment in the middle when Rico engages the bugs for the first time, and near the ending when they attempt to capture a brain bug. And that’s it. Everything else is primarily training, speeches, and adjustment to military life. It does get a bit dull during the 3rd quarter of the book, but I managed to push through to the action-packed finale that rewarded patience. The film, on the other hand, got a bit dull after the bug siege at the fort. They couldn’t really make the action more interesting after that sequence, and it got rather monotonous after that. Which reminds me of how I view Gareth Edward’s Godzilla film from 2014 as opposed to the 2019 King of the Monsters movie. How one film intentionally holds back on the monster action, leaving you salivating for it until the end, while the other overloads you with it until it makes you sick.

It gets more intriguing (if only for how insulting it is to the source material) when you consider that the bugs in the book are a metaphor for communism. Not that the book completely strawmans it, as it acknowledges how effective a society based on communism can be when they are fit for it on an evolutionary standpoint. Because the arachnids function similar to bees and ants, as a hive mind, with workers always serving the purpose of the brain leader (the queen). They are built for it, which means they have no qualms at sacrificing as many of themselves as needed for the greater good of their hive, without any distinction of the individual. Yet the film doesn’t portray the human soldiers as much better, as the government seems to want the troops to get slaughtered with their inefficient weaponry and tactics. In the novel, they make it clear they can’t afford such sacrifices (if only because the equipment the soldiers are outfitted with are too valuable to be destroyed, which is why they’re never worn by incompetent soldiers who aren’t ready for combat). Arachnids are born practically ready for combat, while humans have to spend decades being raised from birth to be a capable soldier, which is something not all humans are cut out for (as opposed to arachnids where all of them are fit).

Another section worth acknowledging, which I won’t quote in its entirety here, as you should get the book yourself to read it, is from Chapter 8. Highlighting another reason why the democracies of the 20th century failed. Lack of punishing people for doing wrong, even at the level of spanking a child for a misdeed. How the well-meaning idea of not using violence of any kind, but other means, to correct the violence within a youth only led society further astray. Because the only morality they would come to know is a shaky loyalty to a group or gang. Because it was believed everyone is born with an innate instinct of moral goodness, when in reality the only instinct anyone is born with is survival. Morals must be taught and trained into individuals, and punishment must be served towards those who don’t adhere to those morals, otherwise societal downfall will happen all over again. This lesson is cemented further with lines such as:

“The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual.”

[…]

“a human being has no natural rights of any nature.”

[…]

“Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes.”

[…]

“duty is an adult virtue–indeed a juvenile becomes an adult when, and only when, he acquires a knowledge of duty and embraces it as dearer than the self-love he was born with.”

[…]

“The junior hoodlums who roamed their streets were symptoms of a greater sickness; their citizens (all of them counted as such) glorified their mythology of ‘rights’ . . . and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure.”

Chapter 8

In the end, I guess you can say both the film and the book have good points. The film portrays a corrupted militaristic society that is likely destined to collapse in the long run due to how it’s run; plus the Federation News influencing the minds of everyone with their mainstream media (ie federal) propaganda. While the book indicates that society as we’re currently living in (as it predicted back then, with the oncoming rise of the hippies, knowing the long-term repercussions their peace and love, and how it would lead to a politically correct society) is destined to fall, only to have an inevitable militaristic government take its place, changing the face of government forever. The film fears society will break down into something resembling the fascism of Nazi Germany (implying that would be bad), a more nihilistic-sided view. While the novel hopes society would break down and rebuild into something more efficient, resembling a more restrictive form of democracy where the responsibility of citizenship is more valued and promoted, and the ability to vote is more prized. Perhaps that too is destined to become corrupted, in which case, when that fails too, hopefully the next reformed government after that will learn from the mistakes of the past and shape itself into something better. Either way, the novel at least has some good life lessons to adhere by, while the film is more just, “See how ridiculous we can all become if we’re not careful?”

#roughnecks starship troopers chronicles from Here and There
Roughnecks, the CG Starship Troopers show for kids back in the day.

Though I do have to admit, in spite of how much the film disrespects the source material, I can’t help but be entertained by it. After all, it’s the only other film made besides Aliens (which the book inspired) that actually does space marines well. It may be a satire with intentionally bad tactics and outdated weaponry by future tech standards, but at least it entertains well enough. How come there’s only two movies in existence that did space marines? I’m thinking a Warhammer 40K film should’ve been done two decades ago (or earlier, somewhere between 1992 and 2010) to take advantage of this genre. Or hell, a fucking Starcraft film would’ve been nice. I mean, I guess if I wanted to be less picky about it, I could say that Halo: Forward Unto Dawn (2012) was a decent space marine film. Oh well, maybe when society collapses and rebuilds we’ll eventually get another one of those. Seriously doubt China will do it, those damn commies creating their human-animal hybrids (they may be creating an arachnid army for all we know).

David Cronenberg Horror GIF by absurdnoise

PS: Also a nice reference to Scanners, with Michael Ironside saying, “They sucked his brains out.”

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