Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Scalzi on "Troopers"

John Scalzi writes in defense of 1997's "Starship Troopers," a movie that was very loosely based on Robert Heinlein's fantastic adventure/manifesto of a novel. Scalzi's post is uproarious at times, but I was disturbed to see that he glossed over a point picked up immediately by my buddy Dr. Steve all those years ago: our young heroes all seem to be close cousins of the Nazis-- good-looking Aryan types who dress like the SS when they're not loaded for bear. (True: the troops, taken as a whole, evince some racial diversity, but all the non-white characters are minor, and "Troopers" is no exception to the "Black Guy Dies" rule of science fiction in film.)

I don't think Scalzi is unaware of this uncomfortable dimension of the movie; he's aware of Paul Verhoeven's experiences in World War II, experiences that would have led the Dutchman to a cynical interpretation of Heinlein's material (Verhoeven allegedly made the movie without reading the novel, but I doubt a reading would have made much difference). Verhoeven's agenda was subversive; for him, the protags weren't heroes so much as "heroes." Putting them in Nazi drag was a statement, a way to throw our own militaristic enthusiasm into confusion. This is why Scalzi's silence on the Nazi issue is troubling: he seems to be ignoring a major layer of subtext. His commenters, however, have picked up on it.

I loved "Starship Troopers" when it came out, although I wasn't nearly as aware of the movie's subtext as was Dr. Steve-- then a graduate student whose bread and butter was the semiotics of pop culture. The special effects were amazing for the time, and there was enough nudigore* to keep a guy like me happy. Scalzi points out that the movie falls flat on several fronts: (1) it's not a faithful adaptation of its source; (2) it makes little sense militarily (on that note: I've linked to this article on "Starship Troopers" before); (3) it makes little sense biologically. But Scalzi sees "Troopers" as a fable, and feels that the film's value lies in what it has to say about the hellish nature of war. I can see that, but I'd prefer to see a remake that's more faithful to the original, even at the risk of losing business because of Heinlein's manifestly un-PC agenda.

In 1997, the state of the art in special effects hadn't reached the point where it would be easy to create CGI battle armor such as what Heinlein describes in his novel. The suits in the novel aren't mere football pads: they're fully automated robotic suits that weigh a literal ton, which can become a dangerous liability if the suit's power plant is somehow shut down. A single soldier can lay waste to an entire city in such a suit, and troopers almost never fight shoulder-to-shoulder. In 2012, I think we've got the effects technology to create fully-realized battle suits that look the way Heinlein intended: Robert Downey's Iron Man movies show that this is possible. I'd love to see the novel done justice-- with great special effects and a stellar script-- but as Scalzi says, this isn't going to happen.

Go read his article.

*I just came up with this portmanteau, and as I usually do after coining a neologism, I Googled it to see whether anyone else had come up with it before I had. Unfortunately, the answer this time is yes, dammit.


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