Johnny Rico Casper Van Dien
Dizzy Flores Dina Meyer
Carmen Ibanez Denise Richards
Jean Rasczak Michael Ironside
Ace Levy Jake Busey
Carl Jenkins Neil Patrick Harris
Sgt. Zim Clancy Brown

Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Written by Ed Neumeier (based on the novel by Robert A. Heinlein). 1997. Running time: 129 Minutes.

sept98a.jpg (11367 bytes)Let me say this first: I have a love/hate relationship with Robert Heinlein's work.

Sure, he's a definite sci-fi Master with a capital M. His name isn't usually mentioned in the same breath as those of Asimov's and Arthur C. Clarke's for no reason. He is a great writer. But in a recent discussion in the Sci-Fi Movie Page's Discussion Boardroom, someone neatly pointed out the difference between Great and Good.

What it boils to is basically that while a composer like John Cage may be considered as Great, his stuff isn't actually Good by the same implication. (To be honest, while Cage is often considered a major influence on the direction of 20th century classical music, his stuff is unlistenable though.) I suppose the difference is between what you're supposed to like (Shakespeare because everybody says you should) or what you do like in the end (Kingpin - which no one really admitted to having liked, but probably secretly did).

So is Heinlein a Great as opposed to Good writer? I don't know to be honest. I few years ago I was heavily into his novels and maybe I read one too many of his novels because in the end I wound up disliking his work. No wait, disliking is too strong a word. Let's just say that I began to notice his literary 'tics'.

His biggest tic is usually plonking a "knowledgeable" character in the midst of his novels. This character (usually male) is a "know-it-all" smart ass who the reader immediately knows is meant to represent Heinlein and his own opinions. The character (usually chauvinist) is usually never wrong and drones on in long didactic soliloquies. To be honest, they remind me of the drunk in a pub who's trying to get a conversation going with somebody (anybody!) and everybody's avoiding him because usually he'll drone on endlessly on some topic nobody else is interested in. While this person may be buying drinks - everybody still avoids him.

Now Heinlein reminds me of drunks like that: he is a pub philosopher. However, like sci-fi writer Pat Cadigan once remarked: "Real philosophers buy their booze in bottles and drink it alone at home." Heinlein's ideas and beliefs don't necessarily rise above the level of the lone drunk who wants to pin you down for a conversation.

For this I'm sure the so-called Church of Heinlein will surely crucify me - but the basic premise behind Starship Troopers (that people shouldn't be able to attain the vote without having completed military service first) I have actually heard from such a drunk once (he wasn't buying I'm afraid). In fact, it is an argument I have often heard from Apartheid supporters here in South Africa. "Well", the persons in question would boom dramatically, "if they want to vote, then they must first go to the Army!" They, of course, being the disenfranchised Black majority in this country . . .

sept98c.jpg (11121 bytes)So I don't like Heinlein's ideas then? I can hear you ask. No, I don't. That doesn't make his books bad. In fact, they are often well researched, entertaining and intellectually challenging. I just don't agree with his ideas. So why choose Starship Troopers as this movie of the month then? Because I really liked the movie. Because I have a suspicion that the people who were involved in making the movie probably feels the same way about Heinlein as I do.

Audience members who vocally complained about the movie advocating fascism were clearly missing the point I think. They simply couldn't see the ironic commentary on the material that the film-makers kept on smuggling into the movie. I didn't for one moment feel that director Verhoeven meant for us to take it all seriously.

Heinlein fans complained about how the movie skirted the most controversial aspects of the movie, but the truth is that a very faithful adaptation of the novel wouldn't have made for a very good movie. In fact, about a month or so after seeing Starship Troopers I made a point of reading the old 1950s novel on which it is "based." Some controversial bits (like a speech given by the lead character's teacher) and the infamous "whipping" scene did make it to the film. But if the film had been a word-for-word adaptation, audiences would have found themselves listening to several "talking heads" extolling the virtues of military life.

In other words, they would have found themselves in the company of that drunk I was telling you about. Not exactly a pleasurable way to spend time at the cinema. Don't believe me? There is very little action in the Heinlein novel and rather a lot of speeching by various characters all agreeing on various topics (are all the characters actually Heinlein?). Go read the book again if you don't believe me. So the movie gave instead gave us some controversial bits from the novel, fantastic special effects by Phil Tippett, the kind of comic book ultraviolence that director Paul (RoboCop, Total Recall) Verhoeven specialises in and a screenplay knowing that it is all hokum . . . a much better proposition in the end . . .


Copyright © September 1998 James O'Ehley/The Sci-Fi Movie Page



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