The making of Starship Troopers offers a glimpse into its unusual journey from box office bust to cult classic. The movie is viewed today as an ambitious science-fiction story with a satiric point of view. It was not always this way. TriStar Pictures spent a lot of money producing, and then hyping, the picture in 1997, even giving it a fairly cushy early-November release date. To the company's dismay, it was a critical and commercial flop - one that cost more than $100 million to bring to the screen.
Movies can have a long shelf life, however, and what doesn't work in one time period can become a resounding success in another. Over the course of 23 years, Starship Troopers has earned a reappraisal from critics and audiences. It even spawned several direct-to-DVD sequels. Despite having been gently ribbed by the comedians at RiffTrax a couple years ago, it's no one's punching bag anymore.
So why didn't it make a splash at the time? The short answer is that the film was not the commercial enterprise it seemed to be on the surface. In fact, it was a rather stinging satire of fascism, and it encouraged audiences to root for the characters who were the most fascist of all. Director Paul Verhoeven had subverted expectations in a similar way a few years before with RoboCop, but that time audiences got the joke. This time, not so much.
The following Starship Troopers behind-the-scenes stories will give you a closer look at what few people got in 1997.
‘Starship Troopers’ Was Marketed As A Straightforward Big-Budget Action Movie, And Audiences Didn’t Know What They Were In For
The dirty little secret of making trailers is that they aren't designed to sell the movie - they're designed to sell the movie that the studio thinks people will pay to see. Time and again, trailers have proven misleading, promising audiences a certain kind of experience, only to deliver something else.
The marketing produced for Starship Troopers is a perfect example. Its trailer opens with renowned trailer-voice-guy Don LaFontaine putting a spin on his patented "In a world..." catchphrase by intoning, "In every age, there is a cause worth fighting for." Then, in big letters, comes the announcement that the movie is from the director of RoboCop and Total Recall. With those things established, the trailer proceeds to focus on bug-fighting action. It makes the movie look like a conventional big-budget action picture. TV spots and print advertisements also played up the fighting.
What's distinctly left out of the marketing is the satire of fascism that's pervasive in Starship Troopers. TriStar apparently knew that would be a turnoff to some people, so it highlighted the most commercial aspects of the movie, failing to give an accurate representation of the story's tone in the process. Audiences going in thinking they'd get an R-rated Star Wars had no idea what was coming their way.
The Film Was Based On A 1959 Sci-Fi Novel That Was 'Militaristic, If Not Fascistic'
Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel Starship Troopers has been popular for decades, but Paul Verhoeven wasn't enthralled by it. He described the book as "militaristic, if not fascistic." His response was to invert the source material, making "a movie about fascists who aren’t aware of their fascism." The approach made sense, given that the director grew up in a Nazi-occupied Holland and therefore had some strong ideas about the subject.
Verhoeven had the perfect collaborator in writer Edward Neumeier. The scribe had been told that another film he made with Verhoeven, RoboCop, was inherently fascist in tone and content. Reasoning that all action films are fascist to some degree, he was eager to make one that brought that concept to the forefront. Their approach was essentially to turn the source material into a satire of itself, making the fascist elements so blatant that their exaggeration becomes humorous.
As David Roth put it in the New Yorker, "Verhoeven advances his argument by making its every frame lavishly, overbearingly Fascist."
The Film Borrows Heavily From German WWII-Era Propaganda Films
A major part of Verhoeven's plan to turn Starship Troopers into a satire of fascism was to make it look like German WWII-era propaganda films, particularly those of famed director Leni Riefenstahl. She was a German film director whose visual style attracted the attention of Adolf Hitler, who recruited her to make films that made the Third Reich look heroic. Her most famous work is Triumph of the Will, a documentary of the 1934 Nuremberg Rally that utilized unconventional camera angles and lighting effects designed to create a dramatic impression.
Starship Troopers intentionally resembles a Riefenstahl film throughout. One shot, for example, features Johnny waving a flag after emerging victorious from a boot camp training exercise. The look of the shot - a backlit Johnny at a low angle - is styled exactly the way Riefenstahl framed the Germans in Triumph of the Will. The director orchestrated her work to emphasize not only the physical attributes of whomever was in front of her camera, but also to highlight the immense nationalism they possessed.
Verhoeven faithfully re-created that within a science-fiction framework, telling Entertainment Weekly that the opening recruitment video was a particularly direct crib. "When the soldiers look at the camera and say, ‘I’m doing my part!’ that’s from Riefenstahl. We copied it. It’s wink-wink Riefenstahl," he explained.
'Bugs' Were Chosen To Represent The Dehumanized, Unambiguously 'Bad' Nature Of Opponents In Conflict
The creatures in Heinlein's novel were called "Pseudo-Arachnids." For the movie version, Verhoeven decided to run with the idea of alien bugs. He liked the concept because most people generally hate bugs, and that made them a natural stand-in for opponents in conflict. In other words, the whole point of war is to exterminate the other side, so the enemy is often dehumanized and/or viewed as unambiguously bad. You know, like bugs needing to be squashed.
Said the director on the DVD bonus features, "We felt that it would be interesting to go back a little bit more to [WWII]. Clearly, our books and insects are mean. Evil. You only have one thought. It's [end] whatever is close to them. That sounded more like a [WWII] situation, where you would know that the enemy was bad."