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12 Futuristic Facts About Metropolis

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There's no debate: Fritz Lang's Metropolis is the most influential science fiction film ever made. To watch it now is to constantly think, "Oh, so that’s where that came from." The sets, costumes, stories, and themes have inspired filmmakers, music videos, fashion designers, and architects, most of whom only saw a severely truncated version of the film yet were struck by it anyway. As with many sci-fi films, Metropolis' visuals are better than its story, but the story proved to be an archetype of the genre. Let's head deep, deep underground to learn more about one of Germany's most vital contributions to cinema.

1. THE FILM INSPIRED AN ECLECTIC LIST OF POP CULTURE CONTRIBUTIONS.

Here’s a list of just a few of the things that were inspired by Metropolis: The design of C-3PO; The Matrix; the videos for Madonna's "Express Yourself," Whitney Houston's "Queen of the Night," and several Lady Gaga songs; Brazil; the futuristic cities of Blade Runner, Dark City, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Tim Burton's Batman films; and the wild-haired "mad scientists" of countless movies.

2. AT THE TIME, IT WAS THE MOST EXPENSIVE MOVIE EVER MADE.

The budget of 1.5 million Reichsmarks eventually swelled to 5.3 million, which in 1926 was about $1.2 million. The film looks like it cost even more than that, with its huge sets and massive crowds of extras (though see below). But adjusted for inflation, that $1.2 million is only $16 million, or about one-tenth the cost of a large-scale sci-fi epic made today. Movies are a lot more expensive to make now than they were then.

3. PEOPLE HAVE EXAGGERATED JUST HOW HUGE IT WAS.

Articles about Metropolis often mention that Lang used "thousands of extras," with 36,000 being the number officially declared by the studio in publicity materials at the time. But according to Lang, that's nonsense. "There were never thousands of extras,” he said in 1971. “Never ... Two hundred and fifty, 300. It depends how you use a crowd."

4. IT INTRODUCED A TECHNIQUE THAT WAS STILL BEING USED AS RECENTLY AS THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

Lang built some very large sets, but a lot of the visual effects he wanted required something even bigger. For those, his cinematographer and special effects guru, Eugen Schüfftan, adapted an old bit of stage trickery, using mirrors to "project" actors into miniature models or drawings. This came to be known as the Schüfftan Process and was used quite a bit over the next few decades until new technology came along that made it easier to get these effects. Still, it's not unheard of even today: Peter Jackson used the old trick in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

5. THERE IS PROBABLY NO ONE ALIVE WHO HAS SEEN THE WHOLE MOVIE.

Metropolis was 153 minutes long when it premiered in Berlin in January 1927, longer than theater owners liked movies to be. When its box office performance was marginal at best, and with its distributor, Ufa, in financial trouble already, the studio made arrangements to sell the film and chop it up for foreign release.

The butchered, almost incoherent version that played later that year in the UK and the U.S. was about 115 minutes long, followed by a re-release in 1936 that was only 91 minutes. Then, wouldn't you know it, the original version was lost. For 80 years, the only way you could see Metropolis was in one of those shortened forms, with various scenes occasionally rediscovered and re-added.

In 2008, a battered negative of the original cut was found in Buenos Aires. It was painstakingly restored and issued on DVD and Blu-ray two years later, now 148 minutes but still not quite complete, as a few scenes were damaged beyond repair. (The restored version uses intertitles to explain what's in the missing footage.) So the only people who have ever seen the full, original, complete version were the Berliners who caught it in the first few months of 1927, nearly 90 years ago.

6. IT WAS INSPIRED BY THE REAL METROPOLIS.

Lang visited New York City in 1924 and, in his own words, "I looked into the streets—the glaring lights and the tall buildings—and there I conceived Metropolis." Now, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Lang was already working on the Metropolis script with his wife, Thea von Harbou, when he visited the Big Apple, so the city wasn't what gave him the idea in the first place. But New York, and especially the Art Deco architectural style of the time, certainly influenced the visual design of the film.

7. LANG ALMOST GAVE SOME POOR KIDS HYPOTHERMIA.

For the scene where the workers' city is flooded, Lang brought in some 500 children (note that that's more than the 250 to 300 extras he cited earlier) from Berlin's poorer districts and had them stand in a pool of water that was, in the words of one actor, "kept at quite a low temperature, to nip excessive demonstrations of our youthful gaiety in the bud." The sequence took 14 days to shoot. To his credit, Lang made sure the kids were well fed and cared for during those two weeks on the set, and he was no more indifferent toward them when the cameras were rolling than he was toward anyone else.

8. IT TOOK A YEAR TO FILM AND IT'S A WONDER NOBODY DIED.

Lang was a meticulous, exacting filmmaker, often doing multiple takes for even uncomplicated scenes. By the time Lang spent two days getting a shot of Freder collapsing at Maria's feet, the actor playing Freder could barely stand up. In the scene where Maria is burned at the stake, the actress' dress caught fire. In the flooding sequence, he commanded extras to throw themselves at the jets of water, which were coming with fire hose force.

9. THE NOVEL AND THE MOVIE HAD A SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP.

Thea von Harbou wrote the novel of Metropolis in 1925, specifically so her husband could make it into a film. Thanks to shrewd thinking at Ufa, before the novel was published, it was serialized in a magazine, accompanied by photos from the still-in-production movie. The book was released to coincide with the movie's premiere, and also had photos in it—an early example of cross-promotion. (By the way, the novel had supernatural and occult elements that didn't make it to the final cut of the movie.)

10. H.G. WELLS SAID IT WAS THE SILLIEST FILM HE'D EVER SEEN.

The visionary sci-fi author's The Time Machine had inspired Metropolis' division into an upper world and an underworld, so it must have stung a bit when Wells hated the movie. He called it the "silliest film" he'd ever seen, saying it was wrong, "with a sort of malignant stupidity," about the direction society was headed. "Metropolis, in its forms and shapes, is already as a possibility a third of a century out of date," Wells wrote.

11. THE LEADING LADY'S MOM GOT HER THE PART.

Brigitte Helm—born Brigitte Schittenhelm in 1906—acted in school plays but had no professional experience when, in 1924, her mother sent her photo to Fritz Lang, hoping he might cast her in a film. Lang gave young Brigitte a screen test, which she charmingly described in the printed program for Metropolis: "Someone gave me a letter to read, and while doing this, the lights were switched on, and the cameraman turned the handle. The great moment had come. I was being filmed! Then an actor approached me unexpectedly, and in a loud thrilling voice insulted me. Afterwards I heard that this incident was necessary, as Mr. Lang wanted to test my expression." Lang liked what he saw and cast 18-year-old Brigitte as the female lead.

12. IT WAS A FLOP AT THE TIME, AND FOR REASONS THAT WILL SOUND VERY FAMILIAR.

As mentioned above, Ufa pulled out all the stops to hype Metropolis prior to its release, with marketing materials trumpeting how big and lavish the production was, how it was unlike any previous film, and how Lang was a visionary. And then the critical consensus, both at home and abroad, was that the movie was amazing visually but had a weak story—the very same criticism lobbed at countless expensive sci-fi adventures released in the 21st century. "Nothing of the sort has ever been filmed before; the effect is positively overwhelming," said the Variety review. "Too bad that so much really artistic work is wasted on this manufactured story." Or The New York Times: "A technical marvel with feet of clay, a picture as soulless as the manufactured woman of its story." Some things never change ...

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Oral History
The Dark Side: An Oral History of The Star Wars Holiday Special
Larry Heider
Larry Heider

Summer 1978: Over a year after its debut, Star Wars wasn’t through smashing box office records. Ushered back into theaters for a return engagement that July, it made $10 million in just three days. George Lucas had welded mythological structure, pioneering special effects, and a spectacular production design to create a cinematic phenomenon that redefined how studios selected and marketed big-budget spectacles. Movies would never be the same again.

Neither would television. That same month, filming began on The Star Wars Holiday Special, a 97-minute musical-variety show that featured Bea Arthur serenading a giant rat and Chewbacca’s father, Itchy, being seduced by a virtual reality image of Diahann Carroll. Originally, the show was intended to keep the property viable and licensed merchandise moving off shelves until the inevitable sequel. But with Lucas’s focus on The Empire Strikes Back and producers shrinking his galaxy for a television budget, the Holiday Special suffered. So did viewers.

Mental Floss spoke with many of the principal production team members to find out exactly how Lucas’s original intentions—a sentimental look at Chewbacca’s family during a galactic holiday celebration—turned to the Dark Side.

I. A VERY WOOKIEE CHRISTMAS


Thomas Searle via YouTube

According to onetime Lucasfilm marketing director Charles Lippincott, CBS approached Star Wars distributor 20th Century Fox in 1978 to propose a television special. Fox had seen a boost in box office returns after several aliens from the Cantina scene appeared on Donny and Marie Osmond’s variety show; CBS figured the success of the film would translate into a ratings win; Lucasfilm and Lippincott though it would be a good vehicle to push toys.

With all parties motivated to move forward, two writers—Leonard “Lenny” Ripps and Pat Proft—were brought on to write a script based on an original story by Lucas.

Leonard Ripps (Co-Writer): Pat and I spent the entire day with Lucas. He took out a legal pad and asked how many minutes were in a TV special. He wrote down numbers from one to 90. He was very methodical about it. He had at least a dozen stories he had already written, so we were just helping to fill in a world he knew everything about. His idea was basically for a Wookiee Rosh Hashanah. A furry Earth Day.

Pat Proft (Co-Writer): Wookiees played a big part of it. Stormtroopers were harassing them. I don't have the script. It sure as [hell] wasn't what it ended up being.

Ripps: Pat and I had written for mimes Shields and Yarnell, which is why we were brought on. We had written lots of non-verbal stuff. The challenge was how to get things across. Wookiees aren’t articulate. Even in silent movies, you had subtitles. Whatever we wrote, it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Proft and Ripps delivered their script several weeks after the meeting. It focused on a galactic holiday celebrated by all species, with the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk selected to host the festivities that year. Chewbacca’s family—father Itchy, wife Malla, and son Lumpy—were introduced, with the writers leaving gaps for executive producers Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith to insert celebrity guest stars and musical acts. For the latter, Hemion and Smith turned to producers Ken and Mitzie Welch to arrange original songs and enlist talent.

Elle Puritz (Assistant to the Producer): I was working for the Welches at the time. I remember hearing, “OK, we’re going to do a Star Wars holiday special,” and everyone laughing about it. I thought it was a terrible idea.

Miki Herman (Lucasfilm Consultant): Lippincott requested I be involved with the special. I did a lot of ancillary projects. I knew all the props, all the actors. I hired Stan Winston to create the Wookiee family. [Sound effects artist] Ben Burtt and I were there to basically provide authenticity, to make sure everything was kept in context.

George Lucas (via Empire, 2009): Fox said, "You can promote the film by doing the TV special." So I kind of got talked into doing the special.

Ripps: Lucas told us Han Solo was married to a Wookiee but that we couldn’t mention that because it would be controversial.

Herman: I do remember Gary Smith saying they wanted to have Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ann-Margret involved, high-caliber people that were popular.

Puritz: Ken and Mitzie called Bea Arthur. They wrote a song with her in mind.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Ripps: It never occurred to us to get Bea Arthur. We spent just that one day with Lucas, then got put in touch with [director] David Acomba. Our notion was Acomba was very much Lucas’s guy, so he spoke for Lucas.

Acomba was a Canadian filmmaker who had coincidentally gone to the University of Southern California around the same time as Lucas, though the two never crossed paths at the time. Lippincott knew him, however, and hired him to direct the special in keeping with Lucas’s spirit of finding talent outside the Hollywood system.

Larry Heider (Camera Operator): David came out of a rock 'n' roll world, a documentary world. Smith and Hemion had three different projects going on at the same time, so I think they felt they wouldn’t have time to direct just this one thing.

Puritz: David wasn’t used to shooting television. Using five cameras, everything shooting at the same time. He was very indignant about his own lack of knowledge, and he did not get along with the Welches.

Ripps: I got the impression it was not what he wanted, and had turned into something he didn’t want to do. I don’t want to say he was overwhelmed, but it would’ve been overwhelming for anyone.

II. FORCING IT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

With a budget of roughly $1 million—the 1977 film cost $11 millionThe Star Wars Holiday Special began filming in Burbank, California in the summer of 1978 with a script that had been heavily revised by variety show veterans Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren, and Mitzie Welch to reflect the Smith-Hemion style of bombastic musical numbers and kitsch. Chewbacca was now trying to race home in time for “Life Day,” with his family watching interstellar musical interludes and comedic sketches—like a four-armed Julia Child parody—on a video screen. 

Ripps: Lucas wanted a show about the holiday. Vilanch and everyone, they were wonderful writers, but they were Carol Burnett writers. In the litany of George’s work, there was never kitsch. Star Wars was always very sincere about Star Wars.

Herman: Personally, I was not a fan of Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, or Art Carney. That wasn’t my generation. But they had relationships with Dwight Hemion and the Welches.

Heider: Bea Arthur was known for being a little cold and demanding. When she was asked to do something a second time, she wanted someone to explain what was wrong. When the script wasn’t making sense for her to say something, she had a hard time translating all of that. She was pretty much [her television character] Maude.

Bea Arthur [via The Portland Mercury, 2005]: I didn't know what that was about at all. I was asked to be in it by the composer of that song I sang—"Goodnight, But Not Goodbye." It was a wonderful time, but I had no idea it was even a part of the whole Star Wars thing … I just remember singing to a bunch of people with funny heads.

After shooting the Cantina scene, it became apparent that Acomba was an ill fit for the constraints of a television schedule.

Heider: David was used to a single camera—run and gun, keep it moving, a real rock 'n' roll pace. This show was anything but. There were huge sets, make-up, costumes. It was slow-paced, and it got to him.

Ripps: I didn’t go down for the filming, but Pat went down. He has a story.

Proft: Took my kid for the Cantina scene. All the characters from the bar were there. However, they forgot [to pump] oxygen into the masks. Characters were fainting left and right.

Heider: Characters would walk around onstage with just their shirts on to stay cool. We were shooting in a very warm part of the year in Los Angeles, and it was difficult, especially with the Wookiees. They took a lot more breaks than they had calculated.

Ripps: I knew how frustrated David was. It wasn’t his vision. He phoned me up and said, “I’m not going to be working on this anymore.”

Acomba left after only shooting a handful of scenes. A frantic Smith phoned Steve Binder, a director with extensive experience in television—he had overseen the famous Elvis ’68 Comeback Special—and told him he needed someone to report to the set the following Monday morning.

Steve Binder (Director): I was between projects and got a call from Gary basically saying they had completely shut down in Burbank and there was talk of shutting it down for good. The first thing I realized was, they had built this phenomenal Chewbacca home on a huge film stage, but it was a 360-degree set. There was no fourth wall to remove to bring multiple cameras into the home. I would think it would be impossible for a crew to even get into the set to shoot anything.

Puritz: I think David was part of that plan.

Heider: I remember when that happened. I don’t think it was David’s idea. It was the way it was conceived by producers on how to make this look really cool, but it didn’t work. You have no lighting control. Steve got it. He’s really a pro. There’s no ego.

Binder: They FedExed me the script. The first thing I looked at was, the first 10 minutes was done with basically no dialogue from the actors. It was strictly Chewbacca sounds. The sound effects people would use bear sounds for the voicing. It concerned me, but there was no time to start changing the script.

Ripps: We had concerns about that. But George said, "This is the story I want to tell."

Binder: The Chewbacca family could only be in the costumes for 45 minutes. Then they’d have the heads taken off, and be given oxygen. It slowed everything down. The suits were so physically cumbersome and heavy. The actress playing Lumpy [Patty Maloney], when she came in, I don’t think she was more than 80 or 90 pounds and she a lost tremendous amount of weight while filming.

In addition to guest stars Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, and Art Carney, Lucasfilm approached most of the principals from the feature for cameo appearances. Feeling indebted to Lucas, they agreed to participate—reluctantly.

Puritz: They had made this big movie, and now they’re doing a TV special. Carrie Fisher did not want to be there.

Herman: They didn’t love doing TV. At that time, movie actors didn’t do TV. There was a stigma against it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Heider: Harrison Ford was not happy to be there at all. Carrie Fisher, I think part of her deal was she got to sing a song, and that was her draw to it. Because Lucas was involved, and if another movie is coming out in two years, there’s pressure to keep going. So they showed up, on time. Mostly.

Binder: My recall with the whole cast was that there was a little mumbling going on with a few of the actors who felt they should’ve been compensated more for the movie. I think Lucas did do that after the special, giving them small percentages.

Heider: We were doing a scene where Ford was sitting in the Millennium Falcon and he just wanted to get his lines done and he made that very clear. “Can we just do this? How long is this going to take?”

Harrison Ford (via press tour, 2011): It was in my contract. There was no known way to get out of it.

Heider: Mark Hamill was a good guy. He just had that normal-guy-trying-to-work vibe.

Mark Hamill (via Reddit, 2014): I thought it was a mistake from the beginning. It was just unlike anything else in the Star Wars universe. And I initially said that I didn't want to do it, but George said it would help keep Star Wars in the consciousness and I wanted to be a team player, so I did it. And I also said that I didn't think Luke should sing, so they cut that number.

Herman: I worked with the actors on a lot of the ancillary stuff. Honestly, they were just all so dopey.

III. BUILDING BOBA FETT


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

 

Before Acomba departed the production, he and Lucas reached out to a Canadian animation company, Nelvana, to prepare a nine-minute cartoon that would formally introduce one of the characters from The Empire Strikes Back: Boba Fett. The bounty hunter originated from a design for an unused Stormtrooper by production designers Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie; he was intended to make public appearances in the interim between films, initially popping up at the San Anselmo County Fair parade in September of 1978.

Michael Hirsh (Nelvana Co-Founder): David knew me personally. Lucas watched a special of ours, A Cosmic Christmas, that was just coming on air at the time. He asked people on his crew, including David, who we were. David said, "Oh, I know these guys." We were not a well-known company at time.

Clive Smith (Nelvana Co-Founder, Animation Director): Lucas supplied a script that he wrote. I think I probably had about two weeks to storyboard, then start character designs.

Hirsh: Frankly, I think the cartoon was more along the lines of what Lucas wanted to do in the first place—if he did the special, there was a possibility Fox and CBS would fund Star Wars cartoons. The variety show itself wasn’t something he was particularly interested in.

Smith: We ended up shooting slides of each storyboard frame. There must’ve been 300 to 400 frames. I loaded them up, put myself on a plane, and went down to San Francisco and did a presentation with a slide projector. I was in this room of people who were absolutely silent. Things that were funny, not a whimper or murmur. But at the end, George clapped.

Hirsh: CBS wanted him to use one of the L.A. studios, like Hanna-Barbera, who did most of the Saturday morning cartoons. But Lucas, from the beginning of his career, had a thing for independent companies, people who weren’t in L.A. The style of animation was modeled after [French artist] Jean “Moebius” Geraud, at Lucas’s request.


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

Smith: A lot of the designs and characters were inspired by Moebius, who did a lot of work for Heavy Metal magazine. We thought it was a good direction to point ourselves in. At the time, there was no Star Wars animation to follow.

Hirsh: There was a big deal made about the introduction of Boba Fett.

Smith: We needed to design Boba Fett, and all we had was some black and white footage of a costumed actor who had been photographed in someone’s backyard moving around. We took what was there and turned it into a graphic idea.

Hirsh: I directed the voice sessions. Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) had the most dialogue, and the other actors came in for short sessions. Harrison Ford and the other performers generally came in and nailed lines, whereas Mark Hamill was anxious to try different things. [Hamill would go on to a successful career in voiceover work.]

Herman: Michael got upset when I told him Princess Leia wore a belt. It was part of her costume, and they didn’t have it. Redoing it was going to cost them a lot of money.

Hirsh: That’s possible. Lucas was happy with how it turned out. After the special, we stayed in touch and we were developing a project with Lucasfilm and the Bee Gees. Nothing ever came of it.

IV. SPACING OUT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Nelvana had a relatively smooth journey to the finish line compared to the live-action production team. By the time Binder was prepared to shoot the climactic “Life Day” celebration with the entire cast and a group of robed Wookiees, there was virtually no money in the budget left for a large-scale spectacle.

Binder: No one ever mentioned there was no set for the closing. I was told by the art director we had no money for it in the budget. So I said, "No problem, just go out and buy every candle you can find in the store." We filled an empty stage with candles. I had experimented with this on another special, maybe a Victor Borge ice skating show. Candles in a dark environment give off an incredibly creative effect.

Herman: The sad truth is, everyone was so overwhelmed. Ken and Mitzie knew that last scene was a disaster. They came to me saying, "Help us." But George was out of the picture. It was a runaway production.

Ripps: Acomba and Lucas had walked away from it. They weren’t there to fight for anything.

Lucas: It just kept getting reworked and reworked, moving away into this bizarre land. They were trying to make one kind of thing and I was trying to make another, and it ended up being a weird hybrid between the two.

Heider: They were spending a lot of money for stage rental, lighting, a TV truck, and everyone was putting in really long hours. It translated into a big below-line budget problem. 

Herman: Honestly, a set wasn’t going to save that scene. All the Wookiees were wearing [consumer licensee] Don Post masks.

Premiering November 17, 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special was seen by 13 million viewers, a significant but not overly impressive audience for the three-network television landscape of the era. It came in second to The Love Boat on ABC for its first hour, with a marked drop-off following the conclusion of the cartoon at the halfway point. Gurgling, apron-clad Wookiees, low-budget Imperial threats—they do nothing more sinister than trash Lumpy’s room—and an appearance by Jefferson Starship proved too bizarre for viewers.

Binder: I felt you have to open with a bang, really grab the audience, make it worth their time to sit and watch. The opening scene going on as long as it did was a killer for the TV audience.

Ripps: I had no idea what had happened to it. When it was broadcast, I had a party at my house and ordered catering. After the first commercial, I turned it off and said, "Let’s eat."

Binder: The day I finished shooting, I was on to other projects. It’s the only show I never edited or supervised the editing of. The Welches had the whole weight of the unedited special in their hands, and I questioned how much experience they had at that given they were songwriters.

Heider: Somebody made choices in terms of how long each scene would be on TV, and it's really painful.

Herman: I remember I was moving to Marin County the next day. I was staying at a friend’s house, and their son was a Star Wars fan. I had given him all the toys. Watching him watch it, he was really bored.

Binder: What I realized was, the public was not told this wasn’t going to be Star Wars. It was not the second movie. It was going to be a TV show to sell toys to kids. That was the real purpose of the show. It had nowhere near the budget of a feature film. [Lucasfilm and Kenner produced prototype action figures of Chewbacca’s family; they were never released.]

Heider: I didn’t watch it when it was on, but I do have a copy I bought several years ago on eBay. It’s not a great copy, but it’s enough to show how it was cut together. I haven’t been able to sit through whole thing at one time.

Herman: George hated it, but he knew there was nothing he could do about it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Binder: I never met Lucas, never got a phone call, anything. Which was disappointing to me. It was his show, he developed it. To totally walk away from it and critique it negatively was, I felt, not cool.

Ripps: One of the reasons I took the job was I thought it would be an annuity. Every year, I’d get a check for Star Wars.

Hirsh: I did watch it. I was happy with our contribution. It was a phenomenal opportunity for our little company. We got to work on the Droids and Ewoks animated shows later on.

Ripps: I still go out to dinners on the stories. Once, at a dinner party, one of the waiters had Star Wars tattoos up and down both of his arms. When he found out I wrote the special, we got better service than anyone in the restaurant.

Lucas: I’m sort of amused by it, because it is so bizarre. It's definitely avant garde television. It's definitely bad enough to be a classic.

Herman: The interesting thing is, the day after the special aired was the day of the Jonestown Massacre. It was just a bad time for everyone.

Dwight Hemion (via NPR, 2002): It was the worst piece of crap I’ve ever done.

This article originally ran in 2015.

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entertainment
15 Fun Facts About Starship Troopers
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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.


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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) remembers, 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. 


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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.

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