"Starship Troopers" may be the most misunderstood Hollywood action epic of the last two decades.
When the adaptation of Robert Heinlein's beloved sci-fi novel was released 20 years ago this week, on November 7, 1997, it did just so-so at the box office -- since it looked like just a dumb, militaristic, vapidly-acted, humans-vs.-aliens thriller. In fact, it was a satire on militarism and fascism, disguised as a $105 million Hollywood blockbuster (director Paul Verhoeven called it "the most expensive art movie ever made"), and few viewers or critics got the joke.
Two decades later, "Starship Troopers" is remembered for jump-starting the then-movie careers of Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards, for its still-impressive special effects, and for launching a franchise that's included several sequels and TV episodes -- not to mention a possible future reboot. Plus, it has a cult of fans who do recognize the movie's sharp, bitter satire.
As eerily prescient as "Starship Troopers" turned out to be -- it seemed to predict Surface tablets, online news video, and the entire War on Terror -- the movie still has some secrets. Would you like to know more?1. Heinlein's 1959 novel was a straight-up pro-militarism, pro-authoritarianism tract, without any satirical subtext. Its portrayal of a war between humans and giant, insect-like extraterrestrials was such a huge influence on James Cameron's "Aliens" that he made his cast read the book.
2. Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier didn't want to retell Heinlein's narrative without adding a layer of irony, as they had a decade earlier when they made "RoboCop." Verhoeven, who grew up in Nazi-occupied Holland, had vivid memories of life under fascism during World War II. (He also had vivid memories of the classic 1954 version of alien-invasion thriller "War of the Worlds.") In fact, Verhoeven so disliked Heinlein's novel that he read only a couple of chapters and then made Neumeier tell him the rest of the story.
3. The filmmakers made their satirical intent clearest in the movie's interactive newsreel propaganda segments. These included slogans and images of military pageantry inspired by Leni Riefenstahl's notorious pro-Hitler documentary "Triumph of the Will," as well as Nazi-style uniforms and architecture.
4.Mark Wahlberg and James Marsden were both up for the lead role of Johnny Rico, but Verhoeven ultimately picked relative unknown Van Dien, in part because he looked like he could have starred in a German war propaganda film. (It's not clear why everyone in the movie's Buenos Aires looks so Nordic, but that may be another of Verhoeven's subtle gags, a reference to Argentina's reputation as a haven for fugitive Nazis.)
5. Van Dien and several other cast members, including Richards and Patrick Muldoon, were best known for small roles on primetime soaps like "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place," which proved apt training for the campy acting style Verhoeven was going for.
6. The most famous cast member at the time may have been Neil Patrick Harris, known then for starring on TV's "Doogie Howser, M.D.", and still years away from being known better for his comedic and song-and-dance talents. When Harris' Carl showed up late in the film as an officer wearing an SS-style topcoat, the filmmakers reportedly nicknamed him "Doogie Himmler."
7. One of the film's most notorious moments is the naked co-ed shower scene in the barracks. Verhoeven shot it matter-of-factly, to show that the army of the future is completely gender-neutral, and that everyone in it is too fixated on war to be thinking about sex.
8. Still, at least one actor reportedly balked at doing the scene unless Verhoeven and his cameraman, Jost Vacano, went naked as well. Both men complied. As Verhoeven explained later, "My cinematographer was born in a nudist colony, and I have no problem with taking my clothes off."
9. Playing the planet Klendathu was Hell's Half Acre, an area of desolate desert canyons in central Wyoming.
10. Phil Tippett, who'd worked as an effects artist on the original "Star Wars" trilogy and "Jurassic Park," supervised the effects for "Starship Troopers." As in "Jurassic Park," the creature effects were a blend of CGI, stop-motion-animated models, and for close-ups, large animatronic insect limbs.
11. Most of the time, the actors playing the troops were fighting against nothing, with the bugs to be added in post-production. Verhoeven himself would stand in for the marauding insects, waving a pole or a bullhorn and shouting, "I'm a big f**king bug! I'll kill you!"
12. For the space battle cruisers, the effects team built a fleet of models, some of them 18 feet long. Animators added explosions and laser fire in post-production. For the scene with the spectacular collision, the filmmakers actually rammed two of the models into each other.
13. One reason the effects still look good today may be that they were used sparingly. Tippett has said there were just 200 effects shots in the movie, a small number by the standards of today's effects-driven blockbusters.
14. The filmmakers also reportedly used 17 gallons of fake blood; given the movie's extreme carnage, that number also seems unbelievably low. No word on how many gallons of green and orange goo were used to simulate the splattered guts of slain bugs.
15. As progressive as the movie's sexual politics may have been, test audiences weren't ready for the independence shown by Richards's Carmen Ibanez. Early viewers said they disapproved of her tossing Johnny over for Zander (Muldoon) and a career as a pilot, and they found it hypocritical that Johnny and Carmen would get back together so soon after their respective love interests die. So Verhoeven cut much of Richards's performance in order to downplay her romance with Zander.
16. The $105 million production earned back just $55 million in North America and a total of $121 million worldwide. The tepid response came about in part because of negative reviews, some of which misperceived the movie as rooting for the Nazi-like tendencies it was spoofing.
17. "Starship Troopers" was nominated for one Oscar, for its visual effects.
18. Despite the movie's weak box office, there have been four straight-to-video sequels, including one just this year, as well as a spinoff animated TV series.
19. A year ago, Columbia Pictures announced plans for a remake of "Starship Troopers" that would be more faithful to Heinlein's novel. Judging by the Twitter response, fans thought this was a bad idea.