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Paul Verhoeven Slams ‘Starship Troopers’ Remake, Says It’ll Be a Fascist Update Perfect for a Trump Presidency

In looking back at the 1997 cult classic that explored the potential of American fascism, Verhoeven discussed filmmaking in the era of Trump.

Starship Troopers

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

One week after the election of Donald Trump, Paul Verhoeven was at the Film Society of Lincoln Center presenting “Starship Troopers,” a 1997 film that highlighted the fascist possibilities of American society.  It was a connection that wasn’t lost on the provocative 77 year-old filmmaker, who the Film Society is honoring this month with a two-week retrospective.

In discussing the recent news that Sony and producer Neal H. Moritz (“Fast & Furious” franchise) were going to reboot “Starship Troopers,” Verhoeven didn’t pull any punches during a Q&A.

READ MORE: ‘Starship Troopers’ Reboot in Development at Columbia Pictures

According to the Dutch filmmaker, the reason Hollywood’s remakes (“Total Recall,” “Robocop”) and sequels (“Basic Instinct,” “Robocop,” “Starship Troopers) of his films fail is “the studios always wanted not to have a layer of lightness, a layer of irony, sarcasm, satire.”

Referring to the announcement that the new “Starship Troopers” reboot would go back to science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein’s original novel was particularly troubling to Verhoeven.

“It said in the article [that] the production team of that movie of the remake, that they would go back more and more towards the novel. And of course, we really, really tried to get away from the novel, because we felt that the novel was fascistic and militaristic,” said Verhoeven.  “You feel that going back to the novel would fit very much in a Trump Presidency.”

Lincoln Center's Dennis Lim, Paul Verhoeven, actor Casper Van Dien ("Johnny Rico") discuss "Starship Trooper"

Lincoln Center’s Dennis Lim, Paul Verhoeven, actor Casper Van Dien (“Johnny Rico”) discuss “Starship Troopers”

Chris O'Falt

Verhoeven added that Heinlein’s philosophy was fascistic; for the director, as well as screenwriter Ed Neumeier, their film was having an open fight with the novel.  The idea behind “Troopers,” according to Verhoeven, was to create a story that “seduced the audience” on one level, but then make it clear to the audience what they were admiring was actually evil.

“Our philosophy was really different [from Heinlein’s book],we wanted to do a double story, a really wonderful adventure story about these young boys and girls fighting, but we also wanted to show that these people are really, in their heart, without knowing it, are on their way to fascism,” Verhoeven said.

READ MORE: Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast – Paul Verhoeven Refuses to Let Himself Be Censored By Critics (Episode 12)

The film was widely rejected in 1997. At the time, critics didn’t see the double narrative and panned the film for advocating the very the neo-Nazi tendencies Verhoeven and Neumeier were actively trying to skewer. Watching the film today, 19 years removed, it is hard to understand how people missed Verhoeven’s obvious satiric perspective, with its heightened artifice, campy performances, propaganda newsreels and clear references to Nazi flags and uniforms.

Verhoeven says the only reason he was able to get away with making the “most expensive art movie ever made,” was that during the two years he was making it Sony was going through tremendous turmoil in their executive ranks — constantly switching studio bosses, having gone from Marc Platt, to Mark Canton, to Bob Cooper to John Calley and Amy Pascal in a very short period.

“We succeeded to do this movie, that is so subversive, and politically incorrect [because] Sony changed [leadership] every three, four months,” said Verhoeven. “Nobody looked at the rushes [dailies] because they had no time because they were fired every three, four months.  So we got away with it because nobody saw it.” Verhoeven added that once a Sony executive saw the film, she said to him, “but these are Nazi flags.”  Verhoeven laughed, “I remember saying, ‘Yeah, but they are a different color, really.'”

When asked about the movie’s prescience, especially in light of responses to Trump’s victory, Verhoeven made it clear that the film was based on what he and Neumeier were observing in American politics at the time. (In particular, they were inspired by the climate in Texas during the 1990’s under then-Governor George W. Bush.)

Moderator Dennis Lim, the Film Society’s head programmer, suggested that now might be the perfect time for Verhoeven to return to American filmmaking. While the director still lives in Los Angeles, his last films were European (“Elle” and “Black Book”), said they he’d been trying to return to American filmmaking, but only if he could do something innovative enough to justify it. But he did have some thoughts on filmmaking in the Trump era.

“We are living in a very interesting, or you can call it scary times, and of course you would like to do something about it, too,” said Verhoeven. “But I think if you go to directly into the now you have no distance… you need to have a certain distance as an artist to the project and not be in the middle of it. So [with] all [that] started to happen lately, I started to read about Hitler and studying 1933 and 1934 in Germany, [which] could be a metaphor that you could use to talk about now.”

The link between Trump’s victory to 1930’s Nazis brought a distinct chill to the room.

“I said something terrible I think,” said Verhoeven, who backtracked. “Of course, nothing is the same.  Nothing will happen in the United States like what happened in Germany in 1933, 1934, clearly not.”

He then referenced “Friendly Fascism,” a controversial book from the 1980’s that discussed how current political trends in the U.S. could lead to the possibility of a totalitarian government, as being more in line with his current political fears.

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Comments

Paul Cook-Giles

It is clear that Mr. Verhoeven got no more from Heinlein’s novel than the title and the character names. “…of course, we really, really tried to get away from the novel, because we felt that the novel was fascistic and militaristic”. If he had spent the two or three hours necessary to actually read the novel, it would be clear that RAH wanted to discuss the duty of citizens, the willingess to serve before having the priviledge of voting, and the difference between the (mindless, fascistic) culture of the Bugs and the responsible, mature human society of Earth. Heinlein also managed to slip in more than a few plot points (“Johnny”, the POV character, is actually Juan Rico, a native of Buenos Aires; he wears his grandfather’s ruby earrings; the fighter pilots are female) that were more than a little subversive of the young male adolescent market for which RAH was writing.

Let us hope that the remake actually gets it right, and that Verhoeven’s pathetic attempt is recognized as the monstrosity that it is.

    Aaron

    You really don’t know what fascism is, mate.

    EJ

    Verhoeven and Neumeier did read the novel, though Verhoeven admits he never finished it.

    The story goes that they were both big fans of “Aliens” and wanted to make their own “Space Marines vs. Monsters” – type action flick, without any heavy political content. When they showed their screenplay, provisionally called something like “Bug Hunt at Outpost 9” to their friends, people started pointing out that the story was very similar to “Starship Troopers.” They found that they could buy the rights for not too much money, so they did, to avoid getting sued. When they sat down to read the thing they’d bought (why didn’t they read it first? who knows, Hollywood people are weird), they hated its politics so much they re-worked their screenplay to be much more satirical.

    Now, Heinlein’s actual political beliefs are notoriously difficult to pin down, and I say that as a fan of his work. But it’s quite clear that he was fanatically anti-communist, even more than was typical for Americans of his time, and that attitude can shade into militarism, so I think Verhoeven’s critique is at least valid.

    I mean, Radchack’s big speech to his class in the film, that’s played for laughs, is pretty much just condensed from a whole chapter in the novel, where it’s played seriously (although delivered by a different character – Johnny’s teacher and his CO are different characters in the book). And Verhoeven grew up in Nazi-occupied Holland, so you can hardly accuse him of misunderstanding fascism and militarism.

      Boyce Tumen

      > it’s quite clear that he was fanatically anti-communist

      I take it that you’ve never read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress then. :)

Michael

In Heinlein’s novel and Trump’s America, the government uses an all volunteer military, there is not conscription or draft, which means that people can’t be forced to serve in the military. So yeah, there are some similarities between Heinlein’s novel and the Trump administration. But I think that’s a positive, because I would not serve in the military while Trump is president, or hell, if Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee were president, I wouldn’t serve in the military. Anyway, people who hate Heinlein’s novel should take some comfort, that if Sony does stay more faithful to the book, the reboot is going to fail.

Here’s another similarity between the novel, film and Trump’s America: The glorification of the military. Even Heinlein admits in his book, Expanded Universe, that his novel does glorify war and the military, which is a common trait of fascism and nazism. So yes, Verhoevan’s Starship Troopers did predict an America under Trump. Hell, in the novel, America and Russia team up and go to war with the Chinese, and Trump is very friendly towards Putin and Putin’s Russia and antagonistic towards the Chinese.

I should also be thankful that America relies on an all volunteer military force, since they don’t take in people who’ve committed crimes. So even if conscription returns, I can’t be forced into the military. I don’t have to go to war and get killed.

Michael

I want to add some other stuff. There are many things in the novel that differ greatly from Verhoeven’s film. Verhoeven says that he was slamming Heinlein’s novel for being too fascistic and pro-Nazi which is why he satirizes the novel in his film.

Anyway, where the Verhoeven film casts white people in the lead, the novel’s protagonists and his friends appear to be Hispanic, although towards the end of the novel, it turns out that the protagonist speaks tagalog as his native language and speaks standard English to communicate with everyone else. Another thing about the people’s of the Terran Federation was that it seemed multiethnic, multicultural and multi-religious. I can’t remember if skin color was mentioned in the book, but judging from the names of many of the characters in the novel, it seems the people hail from a wide range of ethnicities and nationalities. Some examples of diversity in the book would be one of the protagonist’s superiors being a Finno-Turk from Iskander, whatever that means, there is a Japanese recruit named Shujumi or Shizumi, I can’t remember, and another recruit happens to be a German who can’t speak English. At least the movie gets diversity right since many secondary characters appear diverse. I suppose diversity is a facet of fascism as depicted in the novel and the movie. Here’s an article about the white nationalists who are supporting Trump, even though I haven’t finished reading it yet: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-white-supremacists_us_55dce43ee4b08cd3359dc41a. So yeah, the movie predicts a Trump presidency.

Another difference between the movie and the film was one character getting a knife thrown into his hand when asked why a knife would be needed in a nuke fight. In the novel, the recruit who asked why a knife would be needed in a fight when you could just press a button and fire a nuke, instead of getting a knife thrown into his hand he gets a lengthy answer about how the military is there for controlled violence and how older, wiser heads like the politicians make the decisions as to why the military is sent into a conflict and once ordered into a conflict the military has to use the appropriate amount of force. The officer training the recruits used some kind of analogy like why spank a baby with an axe which is stupid and is also a disproportionate amount of force when just spanking the baby with your hand is all that is needed, just like using armaments to burn down a house just to kill a single fly when you just need to use a rolled up newspaper. Anyway, Trump is going to be president and he’s going to have the nuclear codes. If Trump asks why can’t he just nuke a supposed enemy, I hope there is a military advisor to calmly tell him why he can’t or should not use nuclear weapons. However, Vox.com has said that Trump surrounds himself with sycophants, so there might be a nuclear war in the near future (http://www.vox.com/2016/9/29/13106208/donald-trump-advisors). Also, lots of nukes were used in the novel and in the movie.

In Verhoeven’s movie, Michael Ironside’s character, the Roughneck commander Raczak, kills one of his own soldiers who was captured by an aerial arachnid enemy. Rather then save the soldier by trying to kill the arachnid, Raczak shoots him dead and expects the same to be done to him if necessary. That is different than the book where at the end of the novel, the protagonist is telling his own men that they are returning to the Arachnid home planet to defeat the enemy and rescue human prisoners. So you can see the stark contrast between the novel and the movie. Hell, in the novel, the protagonist talks about the military having to execute a child murderer who was originally a military recruit but deserted. Afterwards the protagonist talks about how the human race was better than the Arachnid race since the Arachnids, or the Bugs as they are pejoratively called, would kill their own people or let their own people die versus the humans who would risk and sometimes even die to save one another. Oh yeah, does anyone remember what Donald Trump says about military servicemen or veterans who were captured and held as war prisoners (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/donald-trumps-war-with-the-us-military/2016/09/09/a6701dae-7678-11e6-8149-b8d05321db62_story.html?utm_term=.cc83def25d05).

In the movie, Rico has joined mostly everyone who wants to defeat and annihilate the Bugs, even wanting to commit genocide as evident by the Federation soldiers always saying “Kill them all.” In the novel, Juanito Rico joins the military not thinking he would actually have to fight and kill in war. Then war breaks out, the humans of Earth want the military to devote all its resources to defending planet Earth without a thought to Earth’s colonies and allies and there may even be non-human members in the Terran Federation. Also this sounds almost like Trump not wanting to come to the aid of NATO allies that might come under attack by Russia: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/21/donald-trump-america-automatically-nato-allies-under-attack. Anyway, the Federation launches an attack on the Arachnid home planet with Rico saying that a war is not won on the defensive. The Mobile Infantry and Fleet are defeated and the Federation suffers huge casualties. Rico says that guerrilla warfare is the only way to fight the Bugs since they don’t have enough military power after the Klendathu defeat and eventually Rico comes around to the idea that peace with the Bugs or even forcing them into negotiations and a peace treaty is more preferable to wiping out the Arachnid race. Also, the humans get another alien race called the Skinnies to join their their side rather than fight for the Arachnids, and they aren’t even mentioned in Verhoeven’s movie, but perhaps in another earlier draft of the movie script. So yeah, another difference between the movie and novel, the characters in the movie want to commit genocide and wipe out the Bugs and the novel’s characters talk about just defeating the bugs but not totally destroying them.

Also, at least the movie has a bit more diversity in that the film shows women fighting alongside the men in the mobile infantry and the women aren’t just pilots in the military fleet. Whereas the novel has women mostly serving in the military as pilots for the space fleet. I think there was one moment in the novel where a Major Rojas, a woman who perhaps is part of the mobile infantry, is mentioned (http://www.kentaurus.com/troopers.htm). Also, the novel has the Mobile Infantry Armor or the powered suits and the movie doesn’t. Another thing to mention, Heinlein never served in World War 2 and I don’t think he participated in active combat, but he did serve in the U.S. Navy and was discharged because he contracted tuberculosis (http://www.heinleinsociety.org/rah/FAQrah.html). He tried to reenlist in the military during World War 2, but couldn’t and just worked on some kind of diving suits as a civilian. But he did interview infantrymen about their experiences in war so that he could write the few moments of action in the Starship Troopers novel.

Michael

You know what, just read the novel then watch the movie and compare them. Maybe Verhoeven is right and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers novel really does support fascism and indirectly supports Donald Trump and his presidency that will soon be a reality. Verhoeven does have the experience when it comes to this popculture and politics stuff. So I guess people should read the novel then watch the movie, of course if they have any free time to do so. Sony says that they are going to go back to the novel and try and adapt it faithfully. If Verhoeven is right, Sony is going to unwittingly support Trump even if they do not want to support the demagogue. If Verhoeven is wrong, and Sony does a faithful adaptation of the novel, then maybe they may inadvertently use Heinlein’s own words to criticize Trump. Both Heinlein and Trump have never been in combat, neither have I since I’m too much a coward to join an all volunteer military, and also the military does not accept people who have committed crimes. Anyway, Heinlein did try to reenter the military during World War 2 and was turned away from serving, whereas I’ve read that Trump dodged the draft a couple of times, if draft deferments are a way to dodge the draft. It should be noted that Trump inherited lots of money and could easily afford an education at a University without going into lots of debt, you can say that the system was rigged in his favor during the Vietnam war. Also Trump has bragged about attending a military boarding school versus Heinlein who graduated from the Naval Academy. So there you could say there are some similarities between the two men, they are both Republicans after all. So maybe Verhoeven is right, and the novel is similar to what a Trump presidency will be like and what his film adaptation tried to warn the general populace about.

Jan

My dear Americans, I’m from Europe and know the history of the Third Reich and fascism in general pretty well. I followed the election very closely and especially the biased media representation of Donald Trump’s campaign. To make this perfectly clear: Mr. Trump is NOT a fascist. His policies are conservative, isolationist, traditionalist, nationalist and maybe right-wing, but that’s NOT the same as fascism (or racism, sexism, antisemitism etc.). What is fascism ? That’s not as easy to answer as many people think it is. And I’m pretty sure you people don’t know. There is no clear definition, because fascism in Europe had many faces. Fascism in Nazi Germany was not the same as in Italy, Spain or Romania. Usually there’s one leader with absolute power and no democratic system anymore. Usually there’s a glorification of the nation (‘heimat’) and the military. Usually there’s an ideology that defines clear enemies and acts against them. Usually this ideology is anti-individualistic and glorifies the ‘serving for the country’ as the greatest value. Usually there is no free press and only state-propaganda. Usually a fascist state has imperialistic ambitions, because it sees itself as superior to other nations and people. IMO the USA is not in any danger to become a fascist state, because Mr. Trump’s victory shows that the system still works! Against all odds, against a heavy media bias, against much more expensive campaigns, against the whole establishment….Mr. Trump won! If he hadn’t won, THEN you should have been worried about a hidden form of fascism, where elections are meaningless. But Mr. Trump won & the US showed the world that political change is still possible anytime. There’s nothing fascist about this. It’s a triumph of what I would call the ‘real democracy’. I see Mr. Trump as a more reasonable man as Mrs. Clinton, who loved war as a solution too much. Make business, not war. I support Mr. Trump.

Steve L.

“In looking back at the 1997 cult classic that explored the potential of American fascism”

Not once is a scene in the movie actually set in the United States. The main characters are Argentinian, fighting an extra-terrestrial alien race hell-bent on human genocide, under the banner of a world + colonies government.

The American actors and accents might throw the layman a bit, but the movie never once mentions America. Like all good pieces of art, it gives you enough rope to hang yourself, and lets you draw your own bias, prejudices and virtues from it.

    DJ

    Hmm, if you think the aliens were hell-bent on human genocide, you may not have been watching the movie very carefully.

    John Teak

    Argentina is in America. x[

Ty

In 1978 the English author Michael Moorcock wrote an short essay called Starship Stormtroopers criticizing not only the fascistic themes of Heinlein’s novel but that of other popular science fiction writers as well, as well the science fiction genera in general for embracing the sexist, racist, militarist, and elitist ideas of fascism. The essay is available for free on line just a google search away and is well worth a read. Moorcock’s essay pointed me in the direction of the truly wonderful science fiction novel The Stars My Destination which ends on a distinctly anti-elitist note.

danilo rainone

a damn movie sploot splat crash,rough & ready marines, alien bugs,a mooovvie, hollywood stands to make a lot more loot from home movie theatres popcorn cokes,,then lights out & do your other favorite things,production companies will do under trump what they always have no matter who sits at the oval office desk

Offbeatmammal

anyone who missed the sarcastic tone of the Nazi references would have failed to miss the same in things like Babylon 5 … leading us to the dystopian future we’re in today because they also took 1984 and Idiocracy as manuals, not warnings

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