Southern Man

Friday, October 14, 2011

Movie Review: Starship Troopers

This post is really "What Southern Man Likes About Starship Troopers" and was inspired by a comment from a friend on an earlier post. Now for fans of the book there's plenty not to like about this particular film. And eldest son still claims that it gave him nightmares as a child. But here's what good:
The frequent government news flashes scattered throughout the film (a style Verhoeven also uses to great effect in Robocop) don't pretend to be anything other than nationalistic propaganda. They are all delicious. The film score (by Basil Poledouris, who also did the music for The Hunt For Red October and the wonderful Conan scores) has echos of nationalistic marches; it's excellent.

While everyone appears to have equal rights, the franchise (that is, the right to vote) is reserved only for veterans of government service. Numerous government ads end with the words "Service guarantees citizenship!"

Justice moves swiftly. "A murderer was captured this morning and tried today. Execution tonight on all channels..." Punishment includes lashes, administered in public. In one scene Rico is sentenced to "administrative punishment" (for, among other things, "incompetence of command") and takes lashes expertly delivered by a black officer. Sergeant Zim slips Rico a handmade mouthpiece with the words "Use this, it helps. I know." indicated that Zim had also erred in the past, and in both the book and movie Rico (and, apparently, Zim) return to duty and the punishment is never mentioned again.

As noted above, competence is demanded. The only Mobile Infantry officer who is depicted as even remotely incompetent was the badly-shaken sole survivor of a Bug trap; when asked by another officer to calm himself he says "I can't! Maybe you should just shoot me!" And the other officer almost does! In one view the "shaken" officer demonstrates supreme competency by recognizing his weakness in a combat situation (there had been evidence of mind control by the Bugs) and requesting that he be eliminated for the greater good. The Bugs get him later. That second officer, who earlier shot a teammate who had been taken by a flying Bug and could not be rescued ("And I'd expect anyone here to do the same for me!") was himself killed by Rico (on his own order: "Rico, you know what to do!") when mortally injured by a Bug. Commanders are responsible for the performance of their teams. On the Navy side Zander tells trainee Carmen "don't exceed port speed...or they revoke your flight status. And mine." During the first Klendathu invasion the captain of the dropship holds course as ships are destroyed all around them until their drop is complete (in the opening chapter of the book her captain takes extreme risks and demonstrates extraordinary skill to save "her" troops during a botched retrieval). After the failure of that invasion the "Sky Marshall" who designed the battle plan voluntarily steps down, yielding her position to another.

And speaking of the Navy, all of the pilots are women (as in the book), and all of the starship and space-station FX are terrific.

The Bugs aren't just mindless monsters; they're intelligent and curious, willing to do what it takes to learn more about their opponents. In the third film it's revealed that the Brain Bug allowed itself to be captured, to that end. They managed to arrange a trap in which Rico's squad was nearly wiped out. In the book the Federation is actually able to communicate with them and negotiate a truce.

They're serious about education and reject this touchy-feely "everyone's a winner" attitude that pervades our own system. Carl mocks Rico's poor math scores in front of his friends and (more importantly) a teacher is openly derisive of another student in class when she doesn't meet expectations. Furthermore, there's a course (in the book it's called "History and Moral Philosophy") that vigorously expresses political views that are compatible with Southern Man's own (in which students clearly feel free to speak openly even when the teacher shoots their ideas down). In the novel, failure of officer candidates to pass the military version of this course results in dismissal not just from officer training but from the military itself.

That education - and everything else - is not only co-ed but both sexes are treated as equals and judged solely on ability. The quarterback of Rico's football team (and, later, his military teammate) is Dizzy Flores, a girl. In Basic Training the men and women eat together, train together, are housed together, and even shower together (a scene the cast agreed to do only if Verhoeven consented to direct in the nude, which he did). And of course men and women fight side by side as equals. But gender roles aren't entirely ignored; Rico (guided by a psychic suggestion from Carl, which he later denies with a simple "Well, that's classified") takes great risks to rescue their female friend Carmen. Of course Carl can argue that he is simply sending Rico to where the Brain Bug can be found...

The military espouses an "everyone fights" attitude. Even Navy pilots Zander and Carmen and Intelligence Officer Carl (an asset far to valuable to risk in the field) demonstrate their competence with assault rifles. Carmen turns out to be fairly handy with a knife as well.

The government doesn't pretend that service is anything other than dangerous. A recruiting officer ("The Mobile Infantry made me the man I am today!") is shown to be missing both legs and one arm. At least one recruit dies in a training accident. Both incidents are true to the novel. The training officers don't hesitate to inflict pain on the recruits, including broken bones and knives through the hand ("Pain is in your mind!") and continually urge the recruits to "take a walk down Washout Lane" if they think they don't have what it takes. (Modern SEAL training is similar; the trainees are often urged and even bribed to quit).

The Peter Principle is openly acknowledged. Field promotion is often qualified with "until you get killed or I find someone better." If a soldier's performance after promotion isn't satisfactory he (or she) is simply returned to their previous duty without penalty. Ace mentions in passing that he failed as a squad leader and was restored to his previous assignment and rank, and Sergeant Zim, by means unknown, forces his own demotion ("The only way you're gonna see combat is if you bust yourself to private!") so that he can leave the training camp and serve on the front lines.

They do what has to be done. Rico attempts to rescind his resignation after Beunos Ares is destroyed; although granting that request is illegal his commanders bend the rules to let it happen. Later in the film Rico's commander makes sure his troops have entertainment and beer in the field. Carl, as a commander in Military Intelligence, knowingly sends his friend's unit on a mission with a "very low probability of survival" because he needed the information that the mission could provide. As already mentioned, dropship captains would rather lose their ship and crew than abandon their duties to the infantry they carry.

Verhoeven claims to have not finished the novel but much of Heinlein's philosophy (while in places distorted almost beyond recognition) still made it into the script. And that is probably Southern Man's favorite aspect of the film, right there. If Verhoeven ever makes The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress Southern Man will be first in line to see it.
Makes you want to pop it in your DVD player, doesn't it? Go right ahead. Southern Man is watching it again right now. And then he's going to watch Robocop and both Conan movies. It's a popcorn movie day! And the only thing that beats a popcorn movie day is popcorn movie day with beer and hydrocodone!


At Saturday, October 15, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, your reasons for liking Starship Troopers is WAY more complicated than mine! I just like watching the bugs.

Be careful mixing alcoholic beverages and pain killers. I understand it can be dangerous.

Girl Programmer.


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