Day 11 – A movie you hated

This was a relatively easy choice for me, mainly because I don’t hate movies as a rule [1]. But there is one movie that I do loathe because it hits the trifecta of idiocy: Primus, the film was directed by one of my least favorite auteurs. Secundus, the film ruins a fairly clear satirical novel [2]. Tertius, despite being badly acted, badly directed, and having awful special effects, the movie has attracted a rabid fanbase that completely ignores the original source material in favor of the director’s fetishistic violence.

Before I tell you which film I loathe, let me explain the satire of the original material [3] so that you will understand why I loathe it so. The novel on which the loathesome film was based was written in 1959. At that time, the US was a nominal republic that had forced but limited conscription; that is, if you were a male between 18 and 30, you stood a small but real chance of being forced to join the military. If you refused to allow yourself to be drafted, then you could be convicted of a felony and lose your voting rights, thereby becoming a sort of second-class citizen [4]. If you were a pacifist, you could apply for Conscientious Objector status; that did not prevent you from being drafted but did ensure that they would use you in a non-military capacity [5]. And, during that era, the largest uniformed service in the US was the Postal Service [6, 7], with more people in uniform than the other corps combined.

What the author did was turn that society inside out by changing just one rule: instead of being granted voting rights until they were taken away by refusing to be drafted, he assumed that you had no voting rights unless you stood a term in the “Federal Service”. However, you could not vote until you had finished your term of service and the veterans overwhelmingly served in a non-military capacity (the novel mentions research, construction, and other ways to use non-fighting people). Why the change? Because the author felt that there was no difference between the draft and slavery. In both cases, your body was no longer yours to do with as you pleased and punishments for avoiding either were severe. By turning the situation inside-out, he was able to show exactly what we were doing to our best and brightest: we were taking away their rights in order to preserve their rights [8]. In addition, the author focused on the military because he was upset about the then-new trend of treating veterans with contempt instead of honor [9].

He then traced the changes in society that might happen if that were the case, and illuminated the idea through a bildungsroman centered on a spoiled upper-class youth who joins the military over his father’s objections. Set in a period analogous to the late stages of World War II [10], it includes many period touches that are lost on a modern audience [11], and follows the protagonist as he changes from a callow and egocentric youth into a mature and altruistic man. And, being a science fiction novel, it included the standard tropes of spaceships, aliens, psi forces, and mysterious new weapons, while including the new idea of a mobile fighting suit that would allow a member of the “Poor, Bloody Infantry” to carry more weapons and do more damage than any twenty tanks around [12]. As a story, it had honor, growth, and excitement – the perfect elements for a great movie [13]. So you can imagine the fan-boy excitement when we heard that Starship Troopers was being turned into a film.

And then Verhoeven happened to it. A founder of the modern ultra-violent school of directing, Verhoeven read the original novel and decided that it depicted a fascist society [14] and that he would film it in order to decry the US’ militarism [15]. And, in doing so, he revealed not just his inability to read for content but also his lack of comprehension of both why we fight and how we fight – and what makes a good movie.

So why do I loathe the movie? Let’s get the trivia out of the way first: there are no armored suits in the movie. Perhaps the single most-recognizable trope is completely left out. Verhoeven claimed that it was because the scenes would have been too expensive to film – despite the fact that Space Truckers had already filmed substantially similar scenes the year before on a much smaller budget.

But, more importantly, there is no intelligence in either the military or practical sense. Verhoeven has soldiers walking in single file on top of a ridge while “scouting”, instead of moving in groups under cover. He has them armed with paintball guns and down vests instead of using the level of armament that was available in the 1990s (much less the 2100s). He has soldiers subdue enemies by surrounding the enemy and then opening fire (a maneuver sure to kill more of your people than theirs). He has the space Navy flying in such close formation that collisions are not only inevitable but required. He has the military full of orgies and nude shower scenes [16] but lacking in discipline and forethought. In short, he has demonstrated that he hates those who have laid down their lives to allow him the freedom to spit on their sacrifice.

However, the worst part of all was what Verhoeven did to the society. Instead of being a free society being kept that way by a military (i.e., being the USA in camouflage), it was a fascist society being dominated by false wars and jingoistic slogans. Instead of having military training be a necessary instruction in survival against all odds, it became the entrance to the abattoir with sadistic sergeants lusting after the chance to mutilate their charges. And, instead of being a society of free veterans, it was a Republic of Platonic drones.

So, the result was that a paean to those who volunteered became a call for universal conscription in Verhoeven’s hands, with all that was good and true (albeit disguised under a heavy layer of satire) in the book removed and much that was trite and sadistic in Verhoeven’s life added (without the benefit of any disguise at all). And that’s why this is the only movie that I have ever loathed.

John

[1] Directors, yes [i]. Actors, yes [ii]. Movies, no.
[2] Yes, I happen to like satire, whether it be the eponymous Satyricon [iii] or the more modern Catch 22 [iv]. The only problem with satire is that, as is the case with camp, it is all too often used as a device to hide a director’s incompetence. As a result, there are a lot more films that say that they are satirical than are actually satirical, just as there are a lot more people who say that they are Constitutionalists than are actually willing to abide by than are actually willing to abide by the US Constitution.
[3] Yes, I know that (as is the case with all humor) you should never explain satire. People either get the joke or they don’t. But, given that satire is uniquely situationally-dependent, knowing the situation that inspired the satire will help you understand the rationale for it. For example, how many people know that it was England’s usurious rents that forced the Irish into monoculturalism and so brought on the “Irish potato famine” and that it was that situation that led to the most famous satire of all: Swift’s “ A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public” ? I have even met those who actually thought that Swift was advocating actual cannibalism when he was truly deploring the figurative cannibalism that England was already practicing. Similarly, how many are aware that Franklin suggested Daylight Savings Time in a satirical letter intended to chide the French for complaining about the high price of candles when all they had to do was go to bed earlier? Though the French got the joke, the US Congress did not.
[4] Since then, there have been changes tothe felony system. Now many felons regain their voting rights after some period of time, the length of which depends on the state where they reside.
[5] During World War II, Conscientious Objectors were frequently used for medical research such as developing K-rations and malaria treatments.
[6] A “uniformed service” is a branch of the government that is recognizable by its uniforms (hence the appellation), has commissioned officers, and is subject to a specific set of laws. Currently, the US has seven uniformed services: the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, the Coast Guard, the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps [v], and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps.
[7] The USPS started as a uniformed service, back in Franklin’s day. It wasn’t until 1971 that the USPS was decommissioned (as a direct response to the leadership’s failure to anticipate and prevent the Postal Strike of 1970) and turned into the behemoth that we know and love so well. Though it is entirely civilian now, it remains the second-largest employer in the US (~600,000 workers).
[8] Note that this happened well before the infamous Ben Tre quote.
[9] Remember that this was written just as the US was losing the Korean War.
[10]The Federation is at war with two different groups, one of which it hopes to convince to swap to their side.
[11] For example, how many non-historians remember that the US Marines had a tradition allowing soldiers to wear an earring after a successful battle? Or that the US Merchant Marine had fought to have their work during World War II count as “military service”?
[12] No matter what Laumer says.
[13] And for inspiring others. Besides the obvious (Gundam anime), there are references to Heinlein’s work in movies (Aliens) and other novels (Bill the Galactic Hero, Old Man’s War).
[14] In the process of doing so he apparently overlooked the definition of fascism: a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition; the society in the novel had none of these traits. As noted, it was essentially the same as the US society of 1955.
[15] Here Verhoeven seems to have missed that the US hadn’t been in a war of aggression since Grenada in 1983. Sure, we had intervened in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992-1995, but only as part of a UN peace-keeping force.
[16] OK, so it wasn’t all bad.

[i] Brian De Palma, Michael Bay – I’m talking to you! Quit substituting violence for plot!
[ii] Adam Sandler, Bill Murray – I’m talking to you! Learn to act, fer criminy’s sake!
[iii] Though the novel is much better than the movie.
[iv] Though the novel is much better than the movie.
[v] That’s why Koop wore that uniform; it is the dress uniform of the Surgeon General, who is head of the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps

8 thoughts on “Day 11 – A movie you hated

  1. Having neither read nor watched, I don’t have much to say.

    I knew a conscientious objector during the “police action” in Nam. He served as an orderly in a VA hospital.

  2. Probably my all-time favorite book ever. Favorite author too, at least when I was younger… Not so sure, now. I guess it’s time to go back an re-read my favorites for the 1000th time. As always, this was an excellent analysis – practically perfect!

    • Heinlein is one of my favorites as well; Stranger in a Strange Land is probably the only thing that kept me sane during adolescence.

      Just out of curiosity, how well did my experiment work? I tried not to identify which author or novel until very late so that folks wouldn’t be inclined to prejudge either one. When could you tell which novel and author I meant?

  3. Actually, I had my suspicions in the first paragraph, but the second and third sentences in the second paragraph confirmed it for me. It is a logical choice for you.

    The wiki on Verhoeven says he didn’t even finish the book. I also discovered there were two sequels made and possibly a fourth on the way. Ugh.

    • Two sequels plus a TV series and a video game. Triple “ugh!”

      If I ever win a really big lottery, I promise to buy the rights to the book and remake the movie the right way.

      • Good luck! I will certainly hold you to your promise. ;-)

        TV series? No wonder I don’t have cable. This movie made me angry and physically ill. I had dreams of inflicting serious bodily harm on those responsible.

  4. I particularly enjoyed the troopers forming a circle around a bug and opening fire.

    How anybody ever came to the conclusion that this movie was clever satire rather than brain damaged tripe a la Showgirls has always baffled me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s