Back in 1997, a movie adaption of the Robert Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers came out. I had read the book but was put off that the movie didn’t include the cool Space Armor that the book popularized. I didn’t go see it, but many friends did. They unanimously told me what a bad movie it was. The critics all agreed. So I never bothered to see the movie… until last night on a whim.
I ended up really liking the movie! In this post I’m going to briefly explain why.
So it’s well known that the movie started life as a totally unrelated property about the military hunting alien bugs. Someone noticed the similarity to Heinlein’s book and they decided to buy the rights to the book and quickly retooled the movie to be a book adaption instead. So I was surprised how spot on the book felt to the philosophical content of the book. If you’ve watched the movie, honestly, you’ve got the basics of the book’s philosophy pretty well down — namely that violence is good because all authority comes from force and (so Heinlein believes) authority is necessary and good. Heinlein runs with this idea and produces his own personal military-state utopia.
Starship Troopers as Popperian Refutation
The genius of the movie is that while it plays Heinlein’s philosophy entirely straight faced, it subtly undermines it. The end result is a significant perception gap between the characters — who with great sincerity believe in Heinlein’s views — and the audience — who is left uncomfortable and unnerved.
The Americanized cast (the book was far more diverse) is an over the top beautiful group of actors straight out of some recruiting film — with the movie actually showing them in a recruiting film by the end! The story beats and action are played as if we’re meant to sympathize with the characters right down to the music swelling as the humans start to win the war. Yet every step of the way we’re left with subtle hints as to the awful truth — the humans are the bad guys and the bugs are just defending themselves from Fascism.
The end result is that you aren’t sure if you’re supposed to be cheering for the beautiful main characters or the ugly ‘villains.’ This feeling of disquiet grows slowly throughout the movie right up to a terrifying ending where the humans celebrate that they managed to teach the bugs the true meaning of fear for daring to stand up to the humans. You’re left with the suspicion that you’ve spent the last two hours watching slick propaganda.
I can see why this approach ruined the movie for many viewers. The advertisements for the film made the humans look like the good guys. Audiences had no idea what they were getting into. They probably wanted to cheer for the attractive humans and found they couldn’t and blamed it on it being a bad movie.
As for fans of the book, they thought they were going to a movie adaption of a book and got whatever the inverse of an adaption is.
The world of Starship Troopers, as conceived by Heinlein was meant to be a utopia. But as with all utopias, it’s actually a dystopia. Consider the absurdity of the heroes killing each other if the bugs take them captive. They don’t even bother to try to save each other because the individual doesn’t matter, only the ‘body politic’ does. (Of course there was one exception to this rule: the beautiful woman. But the movie subverts this trope by having her reject the hero for her career, so audiences actually overwhelmingly wanted and expected her to die.)
Or consider the absurdity of whipping people in public as punishment. Heinlein intends these examples as serious philosophy, but the movie merely has to show it on the screen for it to immediately be seen for what it is: a poor place to live.
This whole movie was reminiscent of the joy I had watching I, Robot for the first time. Robot also started with an absurd — but intended to be serious — philosophy and took it down from the inside by simply following it to it’s logical conclusions. Likewise, Troopers steelman’s all of Heinlein’s arguments for the sake of taking the whole philosophy down by merely showing on screen how bad it actually is to live in his world. Viewed from this perspective, the movie is Popperian masterpiece.