On November 7, 1997, moviegoers watched as a cast of no-name actors—plus Neil Patrick Harris—went to war against a planet full of giant bugs. Most critics dismissed the splatterfest that ensued as yet another brainless action flick. But in the 20 years since its release, appreciation has grown for director Paul Verhoeven’s film as a clever satire of warmongering civilizations. Here are a few things you might not know about Starship Troopers, on the 20th anniversary of its debut.
1. IT’S A COMMENTARY ON ROBERT HEINLEIN’S PRO-WAR NOVEL.
Released in 1959, Heinlein’s sci-fi adventure follows Juan “Johnnie” Rico as he rises through the ranks of the Mobile Infantry squad and eventually battles giant bugs on the planet Klendathu. Filled with classroom lectures and lengthy dialogue about the virtues of armed conflict and molding men into soldiers, the book struck many readers as more political diatribe than action story. One such reader was Ed Neumeier, co-writer of RoboCop, who decided to give Starship Troopers an over-the-top satirical bent, complete with fascist overtones and wholesome teenagers getting mowed down in droves. Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch filmmaker who directed RoboCop, Total Recall, and Showgirls, and had grown up in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, liked the idea and jumped on board.
2. PAUL VERHOEVEN COULDN’T FINISH THE BOOK.
The filmmaker knew he needed to read Heinlein’s book before he began filming, but he only read a few chapters before giving up and asking Neumeier to tell him the rest. “It is really quite a bad book,” Verhoeven told Empire magazine.
3. ITS WORKING TITLE WAS BUG HUNT AT OUTPOST NINE.
Verhoeven and company didn’t secure the rights to Heinlein’s book until well into the filming process, so they used the campy stand-in until then. That didn’t seem to bother the crew; most of them weren’t even aware of the connection, despite the shared names and plot elements.
4. THE FIRST SCENE IS MODELED AFTER TRIUMPH OF THE WILL.
Starship Troopers opens with a recruitment video for the Mobile Infantry unit that recreates Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film. There’s eagle imagery, flags fluttering, a wide shot of troops in formation and soldiers cheerfully proclaiming they’ll do their part.
5. THE UNIFORMS ARE ALSO MODELED AFTER THE THIRD REICH.
The officer uniforms in particular, with their gray-and-black hues, jackboots and eagle pins, were tailored to resemble those worn by the Nazis. Not convinced? Just check out what Neil Patrick Harris wore.
6. MARK WAHLBERG WAS CONSIDERED FOR THE LEAD ROLE.
No word on why, exactly, he wasn’t chosen, or if he would have accepted the role of Johnny Rico (Juan, a.k.a. Johnnie, was changed to John, a.k.a. Johnny, for the movie), which ended up going to then-unknown Casper Van Dien.
7. VERHOEVEN USED SOME INTERESTING STAND-INS FOR THE CGI BUGS.
The film had an ace visual effects coordinator in Phil Tippett, who also worked on the original Star Wars films and RoboCop. But on set, the computer-generated bugs had to be simulated using some rather unconventional methods. Verhoeven used everything from brooms to poles and even himself as a stand-in. As Clancy Brown (Sgt. Zim) recalled, Verhoeven would be "jumping up and down with a bullhorn going, 'I'm a big f**ing bug! I'll kill you!'”
8. THE SHOWER SCENE WAS BOTH SHOCKING AND EXPECTED.
On the one hand, the scene showing male and female soldiers all showering together was shocking. On the other hand, it was exactly what you’d expect from the director who brought you a three-breasted alien and Sharon Stone’s infamous leg-cross. According to Verhoeven, the cast wouldn’t do the scene unless he and cinematographer Jost Vacano were naked, too. No problemo, he told them. “My cinematographer was born in a nudist colony and I have no problem with taking my clothes off,” Verhoeven told Empire.
9. HANK FROM BREAKING BAD HAD A SMALL ROLE.
Dean Norris plays the commanding officer who reinstates Rico after his home city of Buenos Aires gets destroyed.
10. GERALD FORD’S SON ALSO HAD A SMALL PART.
Steven Ford, an actor who also appeared in When Harry Met Sally... and Heat, plays Lieutenant Willy, a no-nonsense commander who addresses soldiers before landing on Klendathu. “You kill anything that has more than two legs, you get me?!” he yells as their ship prepares to take off.
11. AND DON’T FORGET RUE MCCLANAHAN.
The Golden Girls actress plays a blind biology teacher who oversees a dissection and introduces her students to some of the bugs’ finer qualities. It’s as far removed from Blanche Devereaux as she could possibly be.
12. A REVOLVING DOOR OF STUDIO EXECS HELPED THE FILM GET MADE.
The mid-1990s were a turbulent time for Sony Pictures, as executives were frequently shuffled and replaced as the company attempted to find its footing. According to Verhoeven, this prevented the studio from taking a more critical look at his $105 million sci-fi satire. “All the satire was in the script from the beginning, but they might not have been really aware of it, or had read it precisely,” he said in an interview with The A.V. Club. “By the time one of them might have understood what movie I was going to make, he was already gone.”
13. CRITICAL OPINION OF THE MOVIE HAS SHIFTED.
Many were quick to pan the movie’s squeaky-clean cast, over-the-top violence, and seemingly one-dimensional narrative. But in the ensuing years, critics have picked up on Verhoeven’s intent to portray a so-called “ideal” society that’s lacking humanity and consumed by warfare. “Starship Troopers is satire, a ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism,” Calum Marsh writes in The Atlantic. “The fact that it was and continues to be taken at face value speaks to the very vapidity the movie skewers.”
14. IT INSPIRED SEVERAL SEQUELS AND SPINOFFS.
The first sequel, Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation, came out in 2004, followed four years later by Starship Troopers 3: Marauder. In the latter, Van Dien reprised his role as Johnny Rico—though apparently not to increased returns, as sequel number four never materialized. In 2012, there was Starship Troopers: Invasion, a CGI feature that hewed closely to Heinlein’s novel, followed by a second CGI feature, Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars, which was released in August. Arguably the most popular spin-off was a 1999 animated series called Roughnecks: The Starship Trooper Chronicles that ran for just one season.
15. IT MAY GET MADE INTO A LIVE-ACTION TV SHOW.
For years, there’s been talk of a possible TV series or a movie reboot. A satire-light, less-violent feature seemed to be in the works, but that irked fans of the original film. Earlier this year, Goosebumps producer Neal Moritz seemed to indicate that a TV show is in development. No word yet on timeframe, network, or whether Neil Patrick Harris will reprise his role as telepath Carl Jenkins.