Friday, May 15, 2015

Heinlein In Hollywood part 2

Eric Thal in The Puppet Masters

It was perhaps inevitable that Hollywood would come calling on the Robert A. Heinlein estate in the early 1990s. The previous decade had seen filmmakers becoming interested in literary science fiction thanks to the cult success of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (a version of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) and the blockbuster success of Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (based on Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"). Hollywood's infatuation with Philip K. Dick continues to this very day, unabated, with recent versions of Radio Free Albemuth and a pilot for a web series based on The Man in the High Castle premiering in 2014. By the early 1990s, Hollywood began to expand their field of interest to writers like William Gibson (Johnny Mnemonic) and Isaac Asimov (Nightfall, The Bicentennial Man, I Robot), writers with caché in pop culture. Heinlein must have seemed a fertile ground for development: his books had name-recognition well beyond the occasionally insular community of science fiction fandom. Heinlein was, after all, the first science fiction writer to place a book on the New York Times bestseller list. Name recognition is an important quality for an industry that likes to sell audiences products they already know everything about. It's ironic that The Puppet Masters (1994, directed by Stuart Orme) should be the film to kick off this interest, given that it's the novel at the heart of The Brain Eaters, the last "adaptation" of the 1950s.

The Puppet Masters is an awkward compromise between the studio who funded it (Disney) and the filmmakers who actually made the film. Screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio intended the film to be as faithful to the book as they could make it. Disney wanted a blockbuster action film. Neither party really got what they wanted. The plot of the movie is largely the same as the plot of the book: a team of secret agents investigate the apparent takeover of a small town in Iowa by alien parasites who turn the townspeople into compliant automatons. This basic plot provides a sturdy genre platform on which the book builds extrapolations about the way societies adapt to threats, about free will versus enslavement, about what it means to be a free human being versus a part of a collective, about the fundamental viciousness of humankind as a species. It's a hard-nosed book, one that's deeply reflective of Heinlein's libertarianism and his abject horror of the co-option of the individual by the collective. The movie, even though it retains almost all of the book's plot, manages to omit virtually all of what makes the book compelling. Instead, the film provides stale thrills. The film screams late-1980s genre hackwork, and almost seems out of time, given that it appeared in 1994, after films like The Abyss, Jurassic Park, and Terminator 2 had dramatically raised the standard.

Still and all, it's watchable. Enjoyable, even, so long as you approach it with diminished expectations. The Puppet Masters is the beneficiary of thirty five years of advances in film craft, so that even as a relatively low-budget thriller, it has access to special effects, production values, and actors the likes of which would have been a fond dream for the makers of The Brain Eaters. And Heinlein's fingerprints are still on the film even if his ideas have been attenuated. True, you don't have society at large adopting nudism as a means of assuring one's fellow human beings that they aren't being ridden by an alien slug, but you do find some of Heinlein's perverse attitudes toward women here. One member of the team is Dr. Mary Sefton, an exobiologist, who is presented as hyper competent in her field. In one scene, she (correctly) notes that a man is being controlled by a slug because he doesn't glance at her cleavage (the notion that the man might simply be gay or respectful isn't raised). Julie Warner, to her credit, plays the scene and the part as a whole with a straight face. Good acting will cover a lot of sins, and fortunately, the film doesn't engage in some of the writer's views on rape and other kinds of sexual violence. Donald Sutherland plays the movie's spy-master and he's a familiar archetype if you're familiar with Heinlein's work. He's the wise patriarch who blusters and manipulates his younger friends into doing things. He's a variant of Stranger in a Strange Land's Jubal Harshaw or Lazarus Long from the Future Histories. Sutherland is a better actor than the film could have hoped for, and he's impish enough to really sell the part. The weak link is Eric Thal as Sam Nivens, the ostensible hero of the film. The movie, as does the book, turns plot points involving one or another of its central characters becoming enslaved by the slugs, including a long passage in which the protagonist, Sam, becomes controlled. This works fabulously in prose, as the tone of the writing changes. It's less arresting on film, because we're never privy to Sam's internal sense of self. Thal tends to telegraph his performance in his scenes under the thumb of the parasites, just in case the people in the back row miss it. Sutherland is better in his scenes when The Old Man is controlled, but you would expect that.

Will Patton, Julie Warner, Richard Belzer, and Eric Thal in The Puppet Masters

The craft of the film is certainly competent, but it is often no more than that. Compared to the best comparable films of its time, it comes up wanting. A useful comparison is Jack Sholder's The Hidden, which has a similar premise. That film is ruthless when it comes to exploring the implications of being controlled by an alien parasite. This film is less so. It lacks The Hidden's pile-driver pace. The Puppet Masters does have fine monsters, though, brought to life by practical effects just at the end of the practical effects era. And, in truth, it's the first film based on Heinlein that manages to tap into the writer's skill not just as a science fiction visionary, but as a storyteller. Many of Heinlein's books are framed as espionage thrillers, and spy plots are a natural fit for films. As compromised as The Puppet Masters is, it's the beneficiary of its genre mash-up. Still, it lacks the book's galvanizing ending, when it's hero oversees the first wave of rocketships dispatched by humanity to take the war to the parasites. He writes to his father, The Old Man:

"...I feel exhilarated. Puppet masters--the free men are coming to kill you.
Death and Destruction!"

Caper Van Dien in Starship Troopers

Over the decade of the 1950s, Heinlein made a name for himself with a series of juvenile science fiction novels (we would call them "young adult" novels these days). Written for a target audience of twelve year-old boys, these books comprise a substantial portion of Heinlein's total output. Indeed, they include some of his best work. This came to a crashing end in 1959 when Heinlein delivered Starship Troopers to his publisher as his latest juvenile novel. Starship Troopers is an aggressively militaristic novel which follows the fortunes of Juan "Johnny" Rico, a recruit into the Mobile Infantry, a power-armored army fighting a desperate war against a race of "Bugs." Heinlein's usual horror of collectivism is neatly encapsulated in his choice of social insects for a model "other" for his heroes to strive against. Heinlein extrapolates the effects of a strongly militaristic society by suggesting that "veteran status" is required to earn the vote (Heinlein later clarified that "veteran status" was not necessarily limited to military service in this society, but that's not entirely clear in the book). In spite of its inherent violence and its inherent jingoist politics--an extension, I should note, of the last lines of The Puppet Masters--the book is like the preceding juveniles in so far as it's a coming of age story. Johnny Rico begins as a callow youth and discovers his place in the universe, in this case through the agency of military service. Heinlein's publisher balked at the militarism of the book. They didn't think it was appropriate for a tween audience. Heinlein took the book across the street to Putnam and subsequently won his second Hugo Award for best novel, much to the author's own bewilderment.

Regardless of its politics, Starship Troopers is a major work, one with which literary science fiction continues to have a dialogue. Two other legitimately great science fiction novels--Joe Haldeman's The Forever War and Orson Scott Card's Enders Game--are direct responses to Starship Troopers, and it's the foundational work of the military science fiction subgenre. In spite of its pedigree and in spite of the cinematic potential of its premise and its action scenes, Starship Troopers became a film almost entirely by accident.

Director Paul Verhoeven and writer Ed Neumeier had had a tremendous success in 1987 with Robocop. Verhoeven had had a further success adapting Philip K. Dick in Total Recall, establishing himself on the cutting edge of science fiction filmmaking in the late 1980s. Verhoeven's science fiction films were equal parts satire and gut-wrenching violence. Verhoeven's response to the autoclave of science fictional futures was to demonstrate that regardless of the tech, human bodies were still fragile things. Even Robocop himself was subject to the slings and arrows of mere mortality. Verhoeven's career hit a bit of a roadbump in the mid-1990s with the flop of Showgirls, a film that was lambasted by critics and shown only reluctantly by theaters given its NC-17 rating. It was a financial disaster. Verhoeven's response was to go back to basics for his next film. For him, back to basics extends past his science fiction films into his earlier career with films like Soldier of Orange. He began to organize a film based around the idea of young people possessed of patriotic zeal even though their country was Nazi Germany. They didn't know what Nazi Germany was to become because they were caught up in a movement. What would that be like, he thought. In order to get it off the ground, he translated the idea into the future, into a movie called Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine (perhaps in response to a line in James Cameron's Aliens, a film with more than a passing relationship with Heinlein's Starship Troopers).

Starship Troopers

The plot of Starship Troopers (1997) finds a group of young friends, freshly out of school, signing up for the Federation military during the Federation's war with the Arachnids, a hostile, insectile alien species. The friends are: Johnny Rico, who goes to the Mobile Infantry with his friend, Dizzy Flores. Dizzy is in love with Johnny, but Johnny doesn't reciprocate. His heart belongs to Carmen Ibanez, who is recruited as a potential starship pilot. Their other friend, Carl Jenkins, is psychically sensitive, so he's recruited by Intelligence. Rico is trained by the hard-boiled Sgt. Zim who sees promise in Rico and promotes him to squad leader. This is short-lived. After one of Rico's squad is killed in a live fire drill, Rico is demoted and flogged. He leaves the military--he was only chasing Carmen in the first place--only to be drawn back in after a surprise attack from space drops an asteroid on Buenos Aires. Gavlanized, Rico ships out--again with Sgt. Zim, who has taken a demotion so that he can go out and fight the Arachnids--and with his friends, Dizzy and Ace. Their first action is a disaster. The bugs are waiting for them and unveil heretofore unknown military capabilities. In their first engagement, Rico is listed as killed in action, which gets back to Carmen (who is being romanced by Rico's high school rival). Rico is reassigned to another unit, the Roughnecks, under his hardened veteran ex-high school teacher, Lt. Rasczak, and sent with his unit to respond to a distress call that turns out to be a trap. A bloody battle ensues, one that resembles the battle of Roarke's Drift only with bugs. The high attrition rate means the survivors are promoted and eventually Rico winds up in charge of the Roughnecks. He adopts Rasczak's motivational tactics: "Do your job or I'll shoot you myself." The Roughnecks soon find themselves dispatched on a mission to capture a "brain bug," a mission coordinated by Carl at Military Intelligence. This brings Rico back in touch with Carmen, who is the pilot who rescues the Roughnecks, and who he in turn rescues from the Arachnid hive while rooting out the Brain Bug. Rico and his surviving friends are soon used in propaganda as models of military virtue....

Denise Richards in Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers is a state of the art science fiction movie. It's one of the first films to really leverage the CG revolution into a vast space opera and it lavishes its resources on its production design. Even today, it holds up marvelously compared to the contemporary state of the art. Phil Tippet's animated bugs are marvelous special effects, and the practical-effects versions of the Brain Bug are as astonishing a monster as the cinema has ever produced. This is a movie that LOOKS fantastic. When science fiction fans began to fantasize about the possibilities of the special effects revolution of the 1970s in relation to the books they loved, I doubt that many of them ever dreamed of something this spectacular. Not even in their wildest imaginings.

Verhoeven's approach to this material is counter intuitive, if one assumes that his intent is to make a satire of fascism. The director has said that it's not enough to say that "fascism is bad," he set out to make it shiny and attractive and good for nothing but war and death. The downside of this approach is that the film plays a bit like an action cartoon. You can enjoy it on that level (or not, as the case may be), but it's all surface. The characters have no real depth. The satirical points are painted with broad fingerstrokes, both in its persistent use of Robocop-esque media breaks and in its production design. The Federation's architecture is all Nazi monumentalism, while Carl's costume at the end of the film is a thinly disguised SS uniform. It's a movie whose point is easy to see. Its "point" is controversial among fans of Heinlein's book. Verhoeven, for his part, hadn't read the book when he started production. The book rights weren't purchased until the film was well into pre-production, perhaps on the advice of lawyers, perhaps on the advice of marketing executives who do love name-recognition. Verhoeven himself read only the first portion of the novel, giving up when he decided that it was "boring and depressing." So it's not a surprise that fans of the book dislike what Verhoeven made of it. In a way, Verhoeven is pissing on the book's politics. He's making a film based on what HE thinks a militarized society would be like, rather than the one Heinlein extrapolates. For all that, they're surprisingly similar. Other critics of the translation grouse that Verhoeven whitewashed the book, though that is, perhaps, one of his points. It's hard to make a movie about Nazi straw men with diverse characters. Still other fans of the book grouse about the lack of the book's famous powered armor suits, which seems like nit-picking to me. Those people are directed to the film's surprisingly good second direct-to-video sequel, which provides all the power armor they could want.

Jake Busey and Casper Van Dien in Starship Troopers

For myself, I think the politics in Heinlein's Starship Troopers deserves critique. The critique of its politics is part of what makes Haldeman's The Forever War a masterpiece (it remains unfilmed in spite of frequent attempts). In spite of the fact that I agree with the aim of Verhoeven's film, I still don't much like it. I think the performances are a wildly mixed bag. Casper Van Diem is a block of granite as Johnny Rico. Denise Richards is a wide-eyed ingenue as Carmen, but doesn't stretch much beyond that. Neil Patrick Harris gives a performance that's almost high camp as Carl. The only genuine human being in the film is Dina Meyer's Dizzy. I admit that it's fun watching Michael Ironside as Lt. Rasczak. Hardass military men are uniquely cinematic, it seems. Beyond my qualms with the performances, I also think the film is too violent. When I originally expressed this when the film was new, it was a turning point for me--me, the kid who grew up grooving on the gore in horror films without number. Realizing that there was a point where I thought the violence in a film was an assault against me as an audience member rather than as something cinematically stimulating was a passage to adulthood for me. I suppose I have the film to thank for this, but it's not something I appreciate overly much and I don't look back on it fondly.

This is an entry in this year's Film Preservation Blogathon, being hosted by Ferdy on Film, This Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark. This is a fundraiser, so I encourage anyone who reads this to donate. All Patreon funds from my entries will go to this year's restoration. So click on the banner to donate and follow the links to read all the wonderful stuff that people are writing this year.

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ClassicBecky said...

I am so impressed with this article -- literate, insightful, informative. You have ignited a fire for me in finding all of these books and stories to read. I have seen some of the movies. I really liked your thoughts on Starship Troopers -- they are very like my own. Congrats on an excellent piece of writing.

Joe Thompson said...

Good analysis of the two movies. I don't want to see "The Puppet Masters," but after reading your thoughts, I want to read the book.

Unknown said...

Four points about your very interesting article on 'Starship Troopers': 1. I think Heinlein, who was I read an excellent fencer, would have run the director through had he been alive. 2. In two ways the film improves the book. The first being not stopping dead in the middle of the story to send Rico to Officer School for lectures on Heinlein's philosophy but having Michael Ironside do an abbreviated version in the high school class. 3. The other improvement is not having Rico's father being his Sergeant at the end which is too cute for words. 4. The reverence the men have for 'The Lieutenant' was written by a man who was forced out of the military by illness and had a romantic view of it untempered by reality. As a Sgt. in the 9th Engineers, 1st Marine Division, in Vietnam, I had, and it was shared by most of the troops, a contempt for most the officers we had. This is not to say that brave, competent officers did not exist, they do, but I never met any. Excellent article even though I disagree with some of it.