Starship Troopers and the state of Hollywood sci-fi remakes

Is there any reason to remain optimistic about the proposed Starship Troopers remake?

Starship Troopers 1997

Last Friday, news emerged that Hollywood producer Neal Moritz is planning to create a new version of Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novel originally published in 1959.

Starship Troopers was, of course, first brought to cinemas in 1997, courtesy of director Paul Verhoeven’s characteristically violent and witty adaptation of the same name. Retaining certain plot elements and character names, Verhoeven’s film turned the subtext of the book on its head. Where Heinlein’s novel was relatively light on action, Verhoeven’s film was extraordinarily savage. Where the source was unabashedly pro-military, the 1997 movie appeared to parody the book’s right-wing views.

Scriptwriter Ed Neumeier had previously co-written RoboCop, and that earlier film’s sly humour’s equally in evidence in Starship Troopers. Like RoboCop, Starship Troopers reads as a dark satire, this time about media manipulation and military power (“War makes fascists of us all,” was how Verhoeven succinctly described it).

Depicting a spectacular war against humans and giant bugs on the planet Klendathu, the film cost more than $105 million to make, a sum it only just managed to recoup at the box-office. The sly tone and gore of Starship Troopers, it seemed, were a little too slippery for a mass audience to embrace.

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Ironically, some critics appeared to take Starship Troopers at face value. “By the end of the film, arachnid butt has been duly kicked and back-patting is in order,” a writer for the New York Times wrote. “We won’t have to worry about marauding bugs until, thanks to Hollywood, the next batch comes along.”

Box-office receipts aside, Starship Troopers instantly attained a cult status for some. For its admirers, those aspects that critics moaned about were its finest attributes. Its trashy dialogue, sensationalistic violence and plastic-looking actors, with their whitened teeth and clear skin, were all part of its pitch-black, intergalactic comedy.

Like all of Verhoeven’s Hollywood movies, from RoboCop to Hollow Man, Starship Troopers has a ferocious, almost insane air to it, as though the director’s reflecting the excess of Hollywood back on itself. (Verhoeven’s films of this period remind me of the oft-quoted line in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, where, having butchered a bunch of foes in combat, Russell Crowe barks, “Are you not entertained?”)

Given just how admired Starship Troopers is by some movie fans (including your humble writer), it’s unsurprising that reports of a remake have been met with a groan of exasperation. Surely, with Verhoeven’s film only released 14 years ago, it’s far too soon to be making another one, isn’t it?

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, perhaps we should think of the news from the perspective of someone who didn’t like the 1997 film – and looking around the various comments sections on the Internet, it’s surprising just how vocal those who don’t like Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers are. For those who dislike the tone of the 97 movie, or are hoping for an adaptation more true to Heinlein’s novel, a new version may provide what they’re looking for.

One of the most celebrated aspects of the book – its power armour, which gave its future soldiers almost superhuman powers – was missing from Verhoeven’s film. This is something that, if reintroduced in the new Starship Troopers, could automatically make for an entirely different story. New screenwriters Edward Miller and Zack Stentz may also choose to adhere more closely to the gung-ho, pro-military underpinnings of the novel, rather than invert them, as Neumeier’s script did.

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Fans hoping for a more accurate adaptation of Heinlein’s novel should be careful what they wish for, however. As I mentioned earlier, the book’s far less action-packed than Verhoeven’s film, and anyone hoping for the same level of violence may be surprised to learn that its pages are filled with philosophising rather than gore. With producer Neal Moritz behind such films as Battle: Los Angeles, Fast Five and the forthcoming Total Recall remake, it’s unlikely that the proposed Starship Troopers reboot will have much time for moral debate.

While it’s rather disquieting to learn that yet another Verhoeven classic’s about to be retooled for a post-millennial audience, we can at least hope that the new Starship Troopers will provide its own spin on the premise, just as next year’s Total Recall will, I hope, give us another interpretation of Philip K Dick’s short story rather than the 1990 Schwarzenegger vehicle.

At the same time, it’s difficult to scare up much enthusiasm for Hollywood’s continued appetite for remakes. The financial crises of recent years, it seems, have made the film producers of Tinseltown increasingly fearful of taking risks, to the point where it’s far safer to trade on old names than hunt around for the new. For the sci-fi genre, this means that some well-known stories and properties, including Starship Troopers, are repeatedly brought back from the vault, while other worthwhile novels lie undiscovered.

I’m sure we can all name at least half a dozen sci-fi stories that, so far, have never been adapted for the big-screen. And what of all those original genre scripts no doubt languishing in drawers everywhere, which will never be made because nobody’s willing to risk making them? If a respected filmmaker like David Cronenberg can’t get Fox to stump up the cash to make his script for The Fly 2, what chance does a lesser-known writer have?

Of course, remakes aren’t always a bad thing. Scarface and John Carpenter’s The Thing were remakes of earlier films. Breck Eisner’s The Crazies was unexpectedly good. For writers and filmmakers with talent and imagination, remakes, reboots and re-imaginings can result in decent films – it’s only when such a film’s lacking in ideas of its own that it becomes a mere regurgitation.

Depressing though it is, there’s the chance, then, that the next Starship Troopers movie may have something to offer, and not become just another pale imitation.

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To paraphrase Hudson from Aliens (a film that freely referenced Heinlein’s novel), I hope this Starship Troopers reboot is a stand-up film, and not just another bug hunt.