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The Untold Truth Of Starship Troopers

Paul Verhoeven is the brilliant mind behind two of the great sci-fi film classics: "RoboCop" and "Total Recall." Yet his third epic addition to the genre, "Starship Troopers,"  fell flat with both critics and audiences alike upon its release in the U.S. A major reason the film was considered a flop is that it was completely misunderstood at the time. Over the years, though, it has gained increasing praise and cult classic status.

For those who simply want a rollercoaster ride type of amusement with a multitude of gory, action-packed scenes, the film certainly suffices. On the other hand, there are further layers to "Starship Troopers" that were so over the top that viewers somehow missed them, even though the central message is blatantly obvious in retrospect. Several background stories molded this unique vision into a highly fascinating film, which is sure to help modern audiences appreciate it in the way it deserves. To quote a certain digital propagandist from the film, "Would you like to know more?"

The messages of the novel and film adaptation are extremely different

Ever since its release in 1959, "Starship Troopers" has been considered one of Robert A. Heinlein's best novels. In fact, it is so respected among military circles that the book can be found on the U.S. Marine Corps' reading list, which is unsurprising given how pro-war the narrative is. However, director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier took a very different approach to frame the fictional story of mankind's battle with big bugs. The duo created a clever critique of fascism and far-right ideology by taking the novel's themes and events to the extreme. 

Verhoeven explained to Digital Spy, "Ed and I disagreed with Robert Heinlein and we felt that we needed to counter with our own narrative. Basically, the political undercurrent of the film is that these heroes and heroines are living in a fascist utopia — but they are not even aware of it! They think this is normal." Transforming the original novel was easy enough for the director, especially since he was not beholden to the original writing. The director told Empire, "It is really quite a bad book. I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn't read the thing. It's a very right-wing book. And with the movie we tried, and I think at least partially succeeded, in commenting on that at the same time... All the way through we were fighting with the fascism, the ultra-militarism. All the way through I wanted the audience to be asking, 'Are these people crazy?'"

The cast was chosen for a specific reason

The main rationale behind why director Paul Verhoeven cast the actors he did for "Starship Troopers" was not just because of their acting talents; the director also had another goal in mind when choosing who to fill each role. Verhoeven wanted audiences to think of a fascist society when seeing his characters, so he figured one of the best ways to achieve this goal was to refer to the look of the crowd in one of the most infamous and controversial propaganda films of all time while crafting his characters' looks.

In an interview with Digital Spy, Verhoeven revealed, "I took them because I wanted them to look like the people you see in Leni Riefenstahl's [pro-Nazi propaganda] movie 'The Triumph of the Will.' So it was a ploy, but more based on a visual aspect." Verhoeven has, however, second-guessed his own looks-first policy in retrospect, saying, "I probably was looking too much to the streamlined bodies and sculpted faces, and perhaps paid not enough attention to all the acting stuff... I mean, I don't know, in retrospect, you could also say that was the right way to do it because it should be these kinds of people."

Many critics completely misunderstood the satirical nature of the film

Unfortunately for Paul Verhoeven and the rest of the team that put the giant "Starship Troopers" patchwork together, the satirical message of the film went over many viewers' heads. Not only did it seem like a lot of critics misunderstood "Starship Troopers," but they also had the same complaints the director had received for his previous movies — that there was too much gratuitous nudity and graphic violence.

Verhoeven explained his irritation to Empire, saying, "We were accused by the Washington Post of being neo-Nazis! It was tremendously disappointing. They couldn't see that all I have done is ironically create a fascist utopia. The English got it, though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, 'Finally someone knows how to promote this.' In America, they promoted it as just another bang-bang-bang movie."

It was one of the first films to combine CGI with animatronics

An abundance of CGI is now commonplace among sci-fi epics of the same caliber as "Starship Troopers," but at the time of its release, the film was a first of its kind. Fortunately for Paul Verhoeven, the talented special effects artist who created the impressive ED-209 stop-motion animation in "RoboCop," Phil Tippett, had fully embraced the new technology. Still, when another longtime collaborator with the director, Jost Vacano, described working on the movie from his perspective to American Cinematographer, he talked about methods that seem obvious today but were revolutionary for the time.

Vacano had worked on Verhoeven's other sci-fi classics, "RoboCop" and "Total Recall," but this was a new experience. The cinematographer explained, "Whether you're doing opticals or using computer-generated images, the procedures are very similar. The main artistic problem is that you have to frame objects which are not there. You always have to keep in mind the size of the bugs — even the eyelines are important. You start working with cutouts, or long poles with flags on top, so you can determine the height of the bugs. This made it difficult for me, the actors, and especially A-camera operators Billy O'Drobinak and Mark Emery Moore."

Remote locations in the U.S. were used for filming

For the 4-month-long shoot, the crew needed to construct a gigantic set in a remote location to depict the alien worlds of Klendathu, Tango Urilla, and Planet P, along with the human fortifications built there for the interplanetary war with the Arachnids. Production did not have to travel too far from Hollywood as ideal sites were found in the U.S. at the Badlands of South Dakota and especially in a massive 300-acre canyon called Hell's Half Acre with bizarre rock formations that cause many people to think of the underworld upon entering the area.

Roads were made in order to transport the materials to build the set, yet some parts were so large that helicopters had to lower them into the pit. Despite the nightmarish logistics and natural features, Neil Patrick Harris certainly appreciated the location. In his book, "Choose Your Own Autobiography," the actor described the unique locale and said it "looks like a cross between 'Lawrence of Arabia' and Carlsbad Caverns."

It offered breakthrough roles for several actors

Regardless of the reasons why the actors were hired for the film, "Starship Troopers" was a huge opportunity for many of its stars, and they were well aware of that. In her autobiography, "The Real Girl Next Door," for example, Denise Richards talked about what the role meant for her career, saying, "In Hollywood terms, this was a major step up. I was going from guest spots on TV shows to a key role in a more than $100 million budget motion picture that was going to open around the world."

Richards also mentioned that she was able to build close friendships with the other actors, like Casper Van Dien, Patrick Muldoon, Jake Busey, and Dina Meyer, because they were all in similar situations. Likewise, Harris described his career at that point by saying, "You audition for dozens of film roles and come up pretty much empty. You keep hearing the same feedback through your agent: you're (a) too Doogie, (b) too white and all-American, and (c) still too Doogie. But you keep at it, and your persistence pays off when Paul Verhoeven casts you in the sci-fi adventure 'Starship Troopers.'"

Neil Patrick Harris was purposefully excluded from the group

Neil Patrick Harris may have been in the same boat as the other stars in terms of his career, but his character was not in lockstep with the others, which meant time away from his co-stars. The actor explained his unfortunate position in "Choose Your Own Autobiography," saying, "As someone who's come to love the process of bonding with the theater castmates, you look forward to the same thing happening here. But it's not to be. Your character, Carl Jenkins, is the smart one who doesn't get involved in the exciting man-on-alien fight action, so the director deliberately excludes you from the three-week paramilitary training session the rest of the cast has to go through."

On the other hand, Richards got to participate in the boot camp, along with the numerous training sessions to mold the cast into fierce, alien-slaying soldiers. The actress admitted that the process was tough, especially when they were hit by a sudden blizzard during the paramilitary training, but overall, the cast was able to grow much closer as they used the warmth of each other's bodies to survive the cold nights — except for Harris, of course, who sadly missed out.

Paul Verhoeven stripped down with the actors

While "Starship Troopers" is shockingly gory, showing both giant insects getting blown apart and humans torn to pieces in brutal combat, one nonviolent scene ended up as one of the most controversial. Verhoeven had already casually placed a locker room scene in "RoboCop" with a nude woman and men. When he did it again, though, the director featured a much more prominent unisex shower scene on purpose and took a somewhat extreme step to put everyone at ease for the uncomfortable experience.

In an interview with Empire, Verhoeven described how the filming of the now infamous shower scene played out and said, "One cast member said they would only get naked if we did. Well, my cinematographer was born in a nudist colony, and I have no problem with taking my clothes off, so we did. It is strange, but of course, Americans get more upset about nudity than ultra-violence. I am constantly amazed about that."

Verhoeven also reasoned why the scene was so important to include, explaining, "The idea I wanted to express was that these so-called advanced people are without libido. Here they are talking about war and their careers and not looking at each other at all! It is sublimated because they are fascists."

Denise Richards did not see a reason for her nude scene in the film

Paul Verhoeven's justification for the notorious shower scene was enough for the actors in the scene to go through with it — especially with the filmmakers' willingness to bare it all right alongside the cast — but he could not convince another cast member to do the same in a separate part of the film. Denise Richards (who has apparently been open to on-screen nudity for other films where it made sense for the role, like in "Wild Things") did not see a reason for her character Carmen Ibanez to strip down for a love scene in "Starship Troopers." 

Fortunately, the director was respectful during the whole encounter, as she wrote in her book, "To his credit when Paul asked, he did it with no strings attached. He truly left it up to me, and after careful consideration, I said no. I didn't think it related to my character or the movie, which had more than enough going on between the action and the undercurrents of social and political commentary. Though he tried to persuade me otherwise, Paul didn't try so hard that I felt pressured, and ultimately, I didn't do it. Thankfully, I never experienced any fallout."

There were medical emergencies on set

The cast may have just been playing out fictional scenes of extreme violence for the film, but that did not mean that all of them were safe from danger in the desert of Wyoming. The harsh environment combined with his heavy costume was enough to give Jake Busey a heat stroke. Speaking to Esquire, the actor explained, "They had to shut down production for a week at a cost of $1.5 million a day. It was 115 degrees, and I was standing in the sun in a suit that didn't breathe. I'm from a pretty fair-skinned white Nordic bloodline. I can't handle the sun like that."

The desert sun was rough for Busey, but at least he did not get quite as bloodied up as Casper Van Dien. In one of the most gnarly battle scenes of "Starship Troopers," his character takes down a gigantic tanker bug, but the actor landed wrong while filming the cool scene. Van Dien's fall left him coughing up blood and with three cracked ribs.

Paul Verhoeven's creativity was somewhat restrained under Sony

Before "Starship Troopers," Paul Verhoeven had previously only worked with smaller, independent film companies, such as Orion and Carolco, until they went bankrupt. Even though they did not last, these studios were responsible for many classic movies in their prime, such as "Dances With Wolves," "First Blood," and "Pulp Fiction," along with "The Terminator" and "Terminator II: Judgment Day."

The director explained to Empire how filmmaking used to work for him with the independents and said, "these were led by people that all felt that after choosing the director then everything should be in his hands, which is very European, of course. He's responsible, he gets the glory — or the blame, of course, if it doesn't work. It was only very late when these smaller companies began to disappear, I became aware slowly about how American studios in general work. I had been protected by studios who were much more director-oriented."

Carolco fell apart in 1995 and Orion was acquired by MGM in 1997, so Verhoeven worked with Sony to make his huge budget sci-fi epic "Starship Troopers." Instability at the film studio with rapidly changing leadership allowed the filmmaker to get away with much more than he normally would have, but he still got a taste of what it was like to work for major companies in the U.S., and he did not like it. Verhoeven tried one more time with "Hollow Man," and then he decided to take a long break from American filmmaking. 

Basic soldier costumes were reused several times

If some fans of the original "Starship Troopers" novel were upset about the changed message of the film adaptation, likely more were disappointed with the absence of the formidable power armor worn by the troopers in the original story. The impressive technology gave the soldiers superhuman abilities that would have considerably increased the number of special effects in a film already loaded with them. And since the movie already had a staggering budget of $105 million, it was simply not possible to include that popular feature from the book.

Conversely, the production went with soldiers' uniforms that looked rather generic. In fact, the costumes were so basic that they've been used in several other films and TV series, even outside of this franchise. It made sense that the uniforms appeared in "Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation" and "Starship Troopers 3: Marauder," but it was a bit jarring to see them again in "Power Rangers: The Lost Galaxy" and "Imposter." The reuse of the costumes was the most comical for "Firefly," though, because on the DVD commentary it is pointed out that the outfits were still splashed with prop arachnid blood.

The starship Rodger Young was a tribute to a former military hero

While most of the action in the film is centered on the courageous exploits of the Mobile Infantry, these ground forces require the fleet to get them to the fight. Denise Richards' Carmen Ibanez is the central figure soaring through space and the skies of alien planets upon the starship Rodger Young. The name of her vessel was not random, though, and instead was chosen to honor a recipient of the U.S. Medal of Honor, Rodger Wilton Young.

In World War II, U.S. Army Private Young was fighting the Japanese soldiers on the Solomon Islands when his platoon was ordered to make a strategic retreat, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. While carrying out this maneuver, the opposition spotted them from several dozen yards away and began firing with a heavy machine gun. Even while wounded, the heroic soldier continued to distract the combatants long enough for the rest of his platoon to safely withdraw. Young died, but his actions also gave cover to other troops and brought down several adversaries.