I had a birthday the other week.
Seeing as I quite enjoy celebrating my birthday, particularly in the company of friends, I decided that a great activity which would offer the opportunity to hang out with people I like and do something that I love (rip apart movies that are less than perfect) would be to have a Rifftrax party with the classically bad Paul Verhoeven film Starship Troopers.
Some background: when I was in graduate school, I came across a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers at a used book sale and bought it on a whim for a quarter. I had seen the movie a few times before at that point, and I was vaguely aware that it had a significantly different tone from its source even though the core concept and plot was essentially the same. Verhoeven is known for his unsubtle satire of right wing political ideology in his films, and Heinlein is famous for embodying a form of libertarianism that still holds significant sway among a certain subset of science fiction fans.
Long story short, I read Heinlein’s novel and enjoyed it for what it was. I’m not particularly well-versed in military sci-fi, but this book was a fun read, and because I was still pretty far from my progressive, feminist Christian awakening, I didn’t have any real hang ups with the ideology of the book. That it’s an unironic exploration of military fascism as a viable form of government was not something that struck me as problematic back then.
To be trite, it was good; I liked it.
Of course, I also really liked Verhoeven’s film. Revisiting it when I was older after reading the novel, I finally saw it for what it was (a campy satire of military action flicks that refuses to take any of Heinlein’s premises seriously). This familiarity with the source enriched my experience in a way that just wasn’t possible during my first encounter with the movie (which I watched with my parents when I was 14; let’s just say the shower and sex scenes were extremely awkward viewing), and both works now have positive associations in my mind. I don’t own that old copy of the book anymore, and even if I did, I’d feel hesitant to revisit it now, since I’d probably get bogged down with all the things that I would now recognize as problematic. It’s better that I don’t go back to that work right now, as a second reading would undoubtedly lower my opinion of it. Instead, I’m content to have vaguely fond memories that stand in juxtaposition with Verhoeven’s movie, which nicely does the job of deflating some of Heinlein’s more preposterous ideas in a way that’s fun.
I think what I’m trying to get at is that I unironically enjoy two ideologically opposed works of fiction, and that’s a rare thing.
Beyond that, I also have some issues with Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Though it’s a satire, and a pretty liberal one at that, Verhoeven’s movie still falls short on a few progressive metrics.
The big obvious one has to do with the initial setting on Earth. The protagonist of both versions is Johnny Rico, a native of Buenos Aires, Argentina. In Heinlein’s version, it’s easy to imagine Rico as Latino (he’s in fact noted as Filipino in the book’s final chapter). The fact that it’s a story set in military culture, which tends to homogenize the social habits of soldiers so that ethnic cultural markers become de-emphasized, creates a believable situation where Rico, who doesn’t bear any markers that I can remember at this remove, is believably Latino. In Verhoeven’s movie, Johnny Rico is played by Casper Van Dien, whose name alone should signal that this guy is really white. His high school sweetheart, Carmen Ibanez, is played by Denise Richards, and his best friend from school, Carl, is Neil Patrick Harris. All of these characters are supposed to be natives of Argentina, but they are overwhelmingly white. Really, every character who would conceivably be Latino/a is played by a white actor. The only Hispanic actor my friends and I noticed in the movie was playing a Japanese guy.
To recapitulate a refrain for the evening’s viewing, the racial politics of this movie are screwed up.
Now, to be fair, Starship Troopers is set at least a couple centuries in the future, so it is conceivable that the demographics of Buenos Aires shift in that time to include a significantly larger Anglo-Saxon population, but explaining away the nearly all-white cast from Argentina (unless we’re going with the assumption that the world government in Verhoeven’s movie is actually a resurgence of Nazi sympathizers who took over the world) ignores the whitewashing problem. It’s like Verhoeven, in his rush to show as much disdain for his source material as possible, overlooked the fact that Heinlein did in fact have a non-white protagonist.
Beyond that one major complaint, there are other nitpicks related to the fact that the cast really is underwhelming in their performances (except for Neil Patrick Harris, who is underutilized, and Dina Meyer, who plays Dizzy Flores, the girl with a near-psychotic crush on Rico who follows him into the military; we all agreed by the time her character met her grizzly end that she had the murder/love death gaze down in all of her scenes). It’s pretty clear that most of the actors were cast for how they looked on camera rather than their performances, but given the nature of the film, this really is more of a neutral fact. If you like high camp, the bad acting can enhance the film; if you really want to take the story seriously, it’s a huge detractor.
All of this is to say that while Starship Troopers is not a perfect movie, it does a terrific job of being something fun to enjoy with friends whether you want to do so ironically or sincerely.