Mark Wahlberg Almost Starred, And More You Never Knew About Starship Troopers
After the disaster that was 1995’s Showgirls, director Paul Verhoeven came back in a big way with Starship Troopers. Similar to Verhoeven’s earlier hit RoboCop, this 1997 sci-fi war movie seems like a standard blockbuster at a glance, but it’s loaded with sly satirical humour as well as high-octane action and outstanding special effects. Did you know the following fascinating facts about the film?
25. Director Paul Verhoeven only read the first two chapters of the book it’s based on
Starship Troopers is adapted from the 1959 novel of the same name by noted American science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein.
Heinlein, whose other novels include Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, has long been a hugely influential figure in SF fantasy.
However, one notable figure who was unimpressed with the late author’s work was, perhaps surprisingly, Starship Troopers director Paul Verhoeven.
Verhoeven was unfamiliar with the book when he was offered the film – and when he attempted to read it, he didn’t get far.
The outspoken Dutch filmmaker recalls, “I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring. It is really quite a bad book.”
Eventually, the director “asked [screenwriter] Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn’t read the thing.”
24. Mark Wahlberg and Matt Damon could have played Johnny Rico
The lead character of Starship Troopers is Johnny Rico, the handsome high school athlete who joins the Mobile Infantry after graduation.
The movie follows Johnny as he goes through military training and swiftly rises through the ranks as the conflict escalates with the alien bugs from Klendathu.
For this key role, the filmmakers considered a hot, young, up-and-coming actor named Mark Wahlberg.
Although he was high on the wish list, Wahlberg did not take the role – most likely because he was too busy making what proved to be his breakthrough movie, Boogie Nights.
Another actor who came in to unsuccessfully audition for Johnny Rico was Matt Damon – who would soon thereafter shoot to fame as the star and Oscar-winning co-writer of Good Will Hunting.
Ultimately the role instead went to Casper Van Dien, a lesser-known 29-year-old actor who had worked mostly in television up to that point.
23. They started filming before obtaining the rights to the book
The movie rights to best-selling novels are a big business, with authors or their estates often being paid hefty sums by studios.
Similarly, laws around copyright infringement are taken very seriously in Hollywood, with offending parties having to pay out in a big way for the unauthorised use of someone else’s intellectual property.
All this being the case, it’s very surprising to learn that they started shooting Starship Troopers before securing the rights to the book.
Screenwriter Edward Neumeier (also the co-creator of RoboCop) wrote his adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel on spec; in other words, he wrote it at his own behest, and hadn’t been hired to do so by a producer.
Initially, Neumeier envisaged his script more as an homage to Starship Troopers rather than a direct adaptation, so he used quirky working title Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine. The film began production under this title – although it still followed the same essential plot, and used the same character names as Heinlein’s novel.
Happily, not too far into production the rights to the novel were legally obtained; goodness knows how many lawsuits would have ensued had they released the film regardless.
22. Neil Patrick Harris was nicknamed ‘Doogie Himler’ because of his Gestapo-esque uniform
Starship Troopers strongly suggests that the future society depicted in the film is a fascist dictatorship, rooted in the Nazis.
One of the ways this is most blatantly indicated is in the uniforms of high-ranking military officers which resemble those of the Gestapo.
As Neil Patrick Harris winds up wearing such a uniform, the actor was jokingly referred to on set as ‘Doogie Himler.’
In case the meaning of this joke isn’t clear, it’s in reference to Harris’ TV show Doogie Howser, MD.
Harris got his big break on the show playing a child genius who becomes a hospital doctor.
Doogie Howser, MD ran from 1989 to 1993. In the years since, Harris has enjoyed further small-screen success on sitcom How I Met Your Mother.
21. Verhoeven himself mimed alien bug movements on set
A great deal of state-of-the-art CGI was used on Starship Troopers for the alien bugs.
Phil Tippet, Oscar-winning FX artist behind Star Wars, RoboCop and Jurassic Park, was hired to bring the extra-terrestrial threat to life.
Under Tippet’s leadership, a hundred-strong team including animators, model makers and technicians worked to create the arachnids from Klendathu.
However, the vast majority of this was added in post-production – so on set, the cast were obviously required to use their imagination when pretending to do battle with these non-existent monsters.
Known for being a very hands-on director, Paul Verhoeven helped his actors out in this department, repeating a trick he’d used for the menacing robot ED-209 in RoboCop.
To help them envisage the alien threat, the director would stand out of shot miming bug movements, sometimes using a broom handle for scale, and energetically roaring, “I’m a big f***ing bug!” through a bullhorn.
20. Denise Richards refused to shoot a nude scene
Starship Troopers proved to be a big break for Denise Richards, whose highest-profile role beforehand was in schlocky comedy-horror Tammy and the T-Rex.
Thanks to her screen presence and good looks, Richards was soon an in-demand actress.
However, Richards refused to shoot a scene that would have played more heavily on her sex appeal.
As her character Carmen Ibañez is in the Fleet rather than the Mobile Infantry, she was not in the group shower scene. Nonetheless, director Paul Verhoeven originally wanted to add a nude love scene for Richards.
However, the actress would not agree to this, feeling that it was unnecessary and did not serve the character in any way.
Richards would go on to appear topless in her next film, 1998’s Wild Things, which pushed her even further into the limelight; not long after that she became a Bond Girl opposite Pierce Brosnan in The World is Not Enough.
19. It was a critically-derided flop on release
Today, Starship Troopers is widely held up as an unusually smart blockbuster thanks to its satirical overtones.
However, when the film first hit screens in November 1997, it seems a lot of viewers didn’t pick up on this.
The initial reviews for Starship Troopers were largely negative, with many critics misinterpreting it as a genuinely pro-war movie. Verhoeven recalls one article that accused the director and screenwriter of being neo-Nazis themselves.
This negative word-of-mouth had a knock-on effect at the box office, as Starship Troopers wound up taking only $121.2 million from cinemas worldwide.
This might not sound like a bad haul for the late 90s, but as the film cost $105 million to make, it wasn’t nearly enough to put it in profit.
Happily, Starship Troopers wound up doing much better on home entertainment, and it didn’t take long for critics to re-appraise the film.
18. It spawned a direct-to-DVD franchise
As a result of Starship Troopers’ strong performance on VHS and DVD, it spawned two direct-to-DVD sequels.
The first of these, 2004’s Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation, was directed by the original film’s FX supervisor Phil Tippet.
Next came 2008’s Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, which was directed by the original film’s screenwriter Edward Neumeier (who also wrote both sequels). This third film saw Casper Van Dien reprise the role of Johnny Rico.
In addition, there was a short-lived animated TV series spin-off, Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles.
Finally, there were two straight-to-DVD animated movies, 2012’s Starship Troopers: Invasion and 2017’s Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars (the latter of which again features Van Dien as Rico).
In 2011, producer Neil Moritz announced plans for a Starship Troopers remake, and later a live-action TV show was proposed in 2015. However, nothing has come of either project to date.
17. A love triangle subplot between Johnny, Carmen and Zander was cut
Initially, the only real reason Johnny Rico joins the Mobile Infantry is to please his girlfriend Carmen.
However, not long thereafter Carmen decides their long-distance relationship won’t work, and breaks up with him (leaving Johnny to enjoy a brief romance with Dizzy).
At the same time, Carmen is working in the Fleet alongside Patrick Muldoon’s Zander, an old high school sports rival of Johnny, to whom she soon finds herself romantically attracted.
The first cut of Starship Troopers emphasised these elements of romantic tension more heavily, clearly indicating that Carmen’s affections are torn between the two. Spoiler coming up: originally, Carmen and Johnny reunited with a kiss at the climax, following Zander’s death.
Test audiences were left very unhappy by this, feeling that Carmen came off as immoral for toying with the affections of two men, and betraying the memory of Zander by returning to Johnny so quickly. As such, cuts were made accordingly.
Reportedly some test audience viewers also felt that, because of her abandonment of Johnny, (another spoiler ahead!) it should have been Carmen who was killed off in the second act rather than Dizzy.
16. Ventilation holes were added to the body armour after Jake Busey was hospitalised with heat stroke
For the scenes on the bug planet, the cast and crew were shooting in Hell’s Half Acre in Natrona County, Wyoming during the summer.
As might be ascertained from the location’s charming name, it proved hellishly hot for the cast and crew.
Working in high temperatures proved a strain on the actors playing soldiers, who were clad in thick black costumes.
Actor Jake Busey was hit particularly hard, passing out from heatstroke and having to take several days off to recuperate.
For this reason, discreet ventilation holes were added to the uniforms to help the actors cool off.
Watch closely and it can also be noted that, while they start out in full-sleeved uniforms, at times the soldiers are just wearing black T-shirts under their armour.
15. Verhoeven and the cinematographer were also naked when shooting the shower scene
Starship Troopers envisages a future society in which men and women are truly considered equal.
The film brings this point to light in a number of ways, firstly with the mixed sports team that Johnny and Dizzy (Dina Meyer) play on together.
More pertinently, the film shows men and women fighting side by side as soldiers – with all that this entails.
In order to really hammer the point home in an audience-pleasing way, director Paul Verhoeven insisted on including a mixed group shower scene for the Mobile Infantry trainees.
As might be expected, many of the actors required to be naked were a little nervous about this – so for the sake of fairness, Dina Meyer dared Verhoeven to be naked as well.
The director agreed, as did cinematographer Jost Vacano. Both men were also naked behind the camera whilst shooting the sequence.
14. The recruitment/news videos were modelled on Nazi propaganda films
Some of the most memorable scenes in Starship Troopers are the ‘Would You Like To Know More?’ information videos.
These news clips were designed in a forward-thinking manner, predicting a time when news reports would be accessed in a more interactive manner, as is indeed the case today.
In tone and content, however, the news videos harken back to a most unsavoury chapter in our past.
Verhoeven and company modelled the clips directly on propaganda films produced by the Nazi Party during their rule of Germany.
One clip in particular draws directly on Triumph of the Will, the controversial yet acclaimed film by German director Leni Riefenstahl.
It’s worth noting that the eagle insignia of the United Citizen Federation is a nod to the very similar icon used by the Nazis.
13. There’s a cameo from Golden Girls actress Rue McLanahan
The artist formerly known as Doogie Howser, MD, Neil Patrick Harris, isn’t the only unlikely TV star to pop up in Starship Troopers.
Watch the early high school scenes closely, and you may notice that one female teacher looks and sounds a bit familiar.
That’s because it’s Rue McLanahan, better known to children of the 80s and 90s as Blanche from The Golden Girls.
McLanahan plays the blind biology teacher in the scene in which the students have to dissect a small Klendathu alien.
On top of her top-rated sitcom, McLanahan clocked up a great many small-screen credits throughout her long career, although her big-screen appearances were comparatively few.
McLanahan’s last major film appearance was in 2003’s The Fighting Temptations. She passed away in 2010 at the age of 76.
12. The MI uniforms have been used again in numerous movies and TV shows
The uniforms worn by the Mobile Infantry in Starship Troopers pretty much nail the look we expect for a Space Marine.
It would seem a lot of other people in film and television would agree, as the uniforms have popped up many times outside the Starship Troopers franchise.
The very same outfits were worn by enemy soldiers in the short-lived but celebrated TV sci-fi series Firefly (which later spawned spin-off movie Serenity).
As Firefly also features a Federation, this has fed into fan theories that it could be set in the same universe as Starship Troopers. (Casper Van Dien can be seen remarking on this in the video below.)
These same uniforms can also be spotted (re-dressed in a variety of ways) in TV shows Babylon 5: Crusade, VIP and the Power Rangers shows Time Force and Lost Galaxy.
The suits have popped up in other movies too, including Planet of the Apes, Imposter, and Agent Cody Banks.
11. The legless recruitment officer is a genuine double amputee
One eye-opening moment early on gives Casper Van Dien’s Johnny Rico pause for thought regarding his future as a soldier.
Rico faces a military recruitment officer sat at a desk, who has one mechanical arm.
On learning that Rico has qualified to join the MI, the officer shakes Rico’s hand with his metal one, remarking, “Good for you. Mobile Infantry made me the man I am today.”
With these words, the man moves to one side on his chair – and we see that, on top of losing an arm, he doesn’t have any legs either.
This moment was not achieved using special effects or trickery; the actor in question, Robert David Hall, is a genuine double amputee.
Hall (who later found fame as coroner Albert Robbins on TV’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) lost both legs following a car accident in 1978.
10. Verhoeven told Michael Ironside he wanted to show that fascism was “only good for killing bugs”
Starship Troopers is the second collaboration between director Paul Verhoeven and actor Michael Ironside, the two men having first worked together on Total Recall.
Ironside’s character Lt. Rasczak marks a deviation from the original novel, in which Rasczak was simply the commander of Rico and Dizzy’s unit, and not also their former high school history teacher.
The actor has admitted being taken aback by Verhoeven’s decision to make Starship Troopers, given the filmmaker was born in Holland under Nazi occupation.
Ironside said in a 2014 interview that he asked Verhoeven during production, “Why are you doing a right-wing fascist movie?”
“Verhoeven replied, ‘If I tell the world that a right-wing fascist way of doing things doesn’t work then no one will listen to me.'”
“‘So I’m going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everyone is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it’s only good for killing f***ing bugs!'”
9. The actors were running from a real fireball at the climax
Like any action movie worth its weight in gold, Starship Troopers packs in its fair share of fire and explosions.
In the grand finale, we even have that classic moment no action movie is complete without: our heroes running away as something explodes behind them.
Although Starship Troopers uses a lot of digital effects added in post-production, this moment (which comes around the 3.48 mark in the video above) was captured live on camera for real.
Denise Richards recalls that it was the final shot she filmed for the movie, remarking, “They saved the most dangerous thing for last.”
“Casper (Van Dien), Jake (Busey) and I had to run out of a tunnel with an explosion rushing up behind us – a real one. We had to keep moving because there was a ball of flame.”
“We had one take, so we had a lot of adrenaline going on. We said to each other: if someone falls, pick ’em up and drag ’em out.”
8. Verhoeven originally wanted to cast actual teenagers
One of the most eye-opening scenes in Starship Troopers comes late in the film, when Casper Van Dien’s Rico has been promoted to Lieutenant.
A new batch of recruits to the Roughnecks show up – all of whom are clearly young teenagers.
If director Paul Verhoeven had had his way, this might have been what the core ensemble of Starship Troopers looked like.
To really hammer home the harsh reality that wars are often fought by the very young, Verhoeven wanted to cast age-appropriate actors.
However, the director was eventually talked out of this, as it was agreed that having genuinely young actors on screen would be distracting.
Instead, the bulk of the cast were in fact in their mid-to-late 20s at the time.
7. The bugs were based on disused creature designs from Tremors 2
A huge part of Starship Troopers’ enduring appeal is the memorable alien antagonists known simply as Bugs.
Completely lacking in any sense of humanity, the creatures from Klendathu have insect-like characteristics but really do seem to belong to another world entirely.
As perfect as these creatures are for Starship Troopers, they actually have their roots in another monster movie franchise: Tremors.
Tremors 2: Aftershocks, the 1996 sequel to the beloved cult classic starring Kevin Bacon, introduced a new form of ‘Graboid’ which walks on the earth.
When the initial designs for these creatures were rejected, FX supervisor Phil Tippet pitched them for Starship Troopers instead.
Happily, the design turned out to be just what Paul Verhoeven and company were looking for.
6. The violence had to be pared back to avoid an NC-17 rating
On Paul Verhoeven’s previous film Showgirls, the director had deliberately planned to make an NC-17 rated blockbuster – and this didn’t turn out too well (although the rating was a minor part of that).
With Starship Troopers, the plan had always been to make an R-rated movie, but not for the first time Verhoeven had issues with the ratings board.
As with all of Verhoeven’s action movies, Starship Troopers is unflinching in its graphic depiction of violence.
It got a bit too much for the Motion Picture Association of America, who originally threatened to give the film an NC-17 until some of the goriest moments were toned down (although this only amounted to a few seconds of cuts).
Verhoeven ran into similar difficulty with the MPAA over the more gruesome scenes in his earlier films RoboCop and Total Recall.
In the UK, this R-rated cut was (to the surprise of some) passed with a 15 certificate for the film’s theatrical release, although it was later upped to an 18 on home entertainment.
5. Loads of underage kids snuck in to see it after getting tickets for Bean
Starship Troopers didn’t do anywhere near as well as hoped in ticket sales – but this doesn’t mean it didn’t have an audience.
Reportedly, a good portion of the people who saw the film in US cinemas were kids who were sneaking in.
It’s not hard to see why youngsters would be keen to see Starship Troopers, given it features larger-than-life heroes fighting giant monsters in space.
In the US, the R-rating allows under 17s to see the movie so long as they’re accompanied by an adult, but it seems a lot of American kids were employing other tactics.
The New York Times fanned the flames when they gave 1000 kids tickets to see the PG-13 rated comedy Bean, specifically to see how many of them would sneak in to see Starship Troopers instead.
It turned out that a large number of these children did indeed sneak out of Bean and into Starship Troopers, leaving some to speculate the film would have fared better with a PG-13 rating (although it would have required significant editing to do so).
4. The song in the graduation dance scene is a David Bowie cover
You might not have known that the soundtrack of Starship Troopers features a song by David Bowie.
During the high school graduation dance scene, a singer onstage performs a song with the lyrics “I have not been to paradise.”
This is a variation on an existing song by the late British music legend, entitled I Have Not Been To Oxford Town.
The song was featured on Bowie’s 1995 album 1. Outside, a concept record set in a dystopian future.
It was re-recorded with amended lyrics for the Starship Troopers soundtrack by singer Zoë Poledouris – the daughter of the film’s composer, Basil Poledouris.
The elder Poledouris (who died in 2006) was an esteemed film composer, best known for providing the score for Conan the Barbarian, as well as earlier Paul Verhoeven movies RoboCop and Total Recall.
3. Internal studio politics allowed the filmmakers to get away with their more subversive content
Starship Troopers was made with the co-operation of a number of two major Hollywood powerhouses, Disney and Sony.
The film was co-produced and distributed by Disney’s live-action wing Touchstone Pictures, and Sony company Tri-Star Pictures (itself a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures).
This being the case, one might imagine every move the filmmakers made would be under close scrutiny from numerous studio executives – but this was not the case.
As Paul Verhoeven explains, “There was so much regime change at Columbia Pictures at the time that we slipped through the net.”
This accounts for how Starship Troopers was able to include so much unexpectedly subversive content in what was meant to be a major blockbuster – which is not to say executives were entirely pleased with the end result.
Verhoeven recalls, “When the executives finally saw it, they said: ‘Their flag – it’s a Nazi flag!’ I said, ‘No … it’s completely different colours.’”
2. It was pushed back from a summer 1997 release to make way for Air Force One
As a huge sci-fi spectacular largely geared toward an adolescent audience, Starship Troopers has ‘summer blockbuster’ written all over it.
Originally, the plan had indeed been for the film to open on screens across the USA and other territories in the summer of 1997.
However, studio executives had a change of heart on this matter, because of another Disney/Sony co-production with serious blockbuster potential.
That film was Air Force One, the action epic starring Harrison Ford as the President of the United States, fighting to save his family and colleagues when his private plane is seized by Gary Oldman’s band of terrorists.
It was agreed that this high-octane star vehicle had a better chance of being a summer hit than Paul Verhoeven’s soldiers-versus-bugs movie starring a bunch of unknown youngsters.
So as not to detract from Air Force One at the box office, Starship Troopers was delayed until November. This paid off – for Air Force One at least, as the action movie made over $315 million in ticket sales.
1. It’s been accused of whitewashing, but Casper Van Dien disputes this
In recent years, re-appraisals of films from years gone by have paid more attention to cultural appropriation and whitewashing (i.e. the casting of white actors in roles intended for people of colour).
Starship Troopers has been accused of this, given that its central characters are meant to be from Buenos Aires, Argentina – yet almost all of them are Caucasian.
In the novel, it is made clear that ‘Johnny’ is merely a casual variation on the central character’s actual birth name, Juan Rico.
However, Casper Van Dien has argued that the casting of white actors like himself is all part of the film’s implication of a future society built from the ashes of Nazi Germany.
The actor suggests that Rico and the bulk of the other characters in Starship Troopers are descendants of the many Nazi war criminals who fled to Argentina to live in hiding after the end of World War II.