Starship Troopers vs. Mr. Bean: Reflecting on Paul Verhoeven’s Showdown with a Comedy Juggernaut 25 Years Later

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<i>Starship Troopers</i> vs. Mr. Bean: Reflecting on Paul Verhoeven&#8217;s Showdown with a Comedy Juggernaut 25 Years Later

It’s November 1997. Bill Clinton is 10 months into his second term as President of the United States, while across the Atlantic, the 10-year reign of Prime Minister Tony Blair is just five months old. The music charts are dominated by the likes of Shania Twain and Spice Girls, and Will Smith is about to release his debut solo studio album Big Willie Style. Politically and musically the US and the UK may have been pretty evenly matched, but there was one battle that was a little more lopsided: the box office battle between Starship Troopers and Mr. Bean.

On the seventh day of the eleventh month of 1997, Paul Verhoeven’s satirical sci-fi spectacle Starship Troopers blasted off and swiftly crash-landed into American theaters alongside Bean, a movie in which Britain’s favorite dimwitted-yet-lovable comedy caricature takes a trip stateside and accidentally destroys James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 by sneezing all over it. Hilarity does, in fact, ensue.

By November of ‘97, the two highest-grossing movies of the year were Men in Black, an enjoyable movie that spawned a bad franchise (it was a big year for Will Smith), and The Lost World: Jurassic Park, a lackluster sequel to a groundbreaking movie that also spawned a bad franchise. The first movie in history to pass $1 billion at the box office, Titanic, would be released the following month. Neither Bean nor Starship Troopers came anywhere close to doing Titanic numbers by year’s end, and they both failed to crack the top 10 highest-grossing films of 1997, but each film left its own cultural legacy.

Sandwiched between 1995’s Showgirls and 2000’s Hollow Man in Verhoeven’s, frankly, ludicrous filmography, Starship Troopers was received largely lukewarmly by critics at the time of its release. Roger Ebert gave it two stars (he gave Bean two and a half) and called the action “joyless,” while Janet Maslin unfavorably compared it to Gattaca—another 1997 sci-fi flick that failed to make much of a splash upon release. Starship Troopers wasn’t without its fans back in ‘97, but it would take a while before it secured its place in the pop culture lexicon, graduating from cult favorite to a must-watch masterpiece as it did.

The fact is, we humans just weren’t ready for an anti-fascist sci-fi satire in 1997, but we’ll always be ready for a bit of Bean.

Bean (or Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie as it was ingeniously titled in some regions) marked the big-screen debut of Rowan Atkinson’s titular Mr. Bean. Over the course of five years and 15 episodes, Atkinson as Bean earned the adoration of farce lovers everywhere with his almost entirely dialogue-free homage to physical comedy jesters like Jacques Tati and his Monsieur Hulot character. Bean’s first movie (written by Richard Curtis and directed by the late Mel Smith, two of Atkinson’s former Not the Nine O’Clock News cohorts) arrived on cinema screens barely a year-and-a-half after the TV series had ended, and would be his final outing until 2007’s Mr. Bean’s Holiday—that’s right, the prime ministership of the aforementioned Tony Blair, who left office in ‘07, was bookended by Mr. Bean movies, because of course it was.

The Mr. Bean TV series featured very little dialogue, which no doubt enabled the character’s international success. Of course, mainstream audiences weren’t ready for a silent film in 1997 (just as they weren’t ready for Johnny Rico’s interplanetary exploits), so there’s a fair amount of talking in Bean. The addition of dialogue to the formula didn’t seem to hinder Mr. Bean’s broad appeal, however, as the movie would go on to make $251,212,670 worldwide.

Naturally, the R-rated Starship Troopers did not make as much money as the family-friendly Bean (which was, somewhat bizarrely, given a PG-13 rating in the US), but the popularity of Verhoeven’s Clinton-era movie grew once Bush-era movie-watchers began to resonate with its anti-militaristic themes. Of course, Verhoeven wasn’t predicting the Bush presidency as far back as ‘97, but the specter of fascism is ever-present and his movie proved prescient as a result.

Unlike so many big-screen adaptations of successful TV shows, Bean delivers. It’s not a canonical comedy by any stretch, but it meets expectations and is one of those movies that you’d leave on if you were flicking through the channels in a hotel room. Starship Troopers is also an adaptation, but it’s an adaptation of a book that wasn’t liked by the man who was charged with adapting it. In a 2018 Guardian piece, Verhoeven called Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel “militaristic, if not fascistic” and explained that his goal in adapting the novel into a film was to critique “certain aspects of US society” from his European perspective, just as he had done with 1987’s RoboCop.

When Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis, and Mel Smith made Bean, they were also satirizing certain aspects of American culture from a European perspective, albeit a bit more broadly. Bean sees the very British Mr. Bean transplanted to Los Angeles, where he unintentionally dupes a bunch of hoity-toity art lovers into thinking he’s a genius. While Verhoeven tackled the creeping influence of fascism, Mr. Bean took on the American bourgeoisie. It was a one-two punch of pro-proletariat sentiment.

That neither Bean nor Starship Troopers managed to crack the top 10 highest-grossing movies of 1997—a list that contains some outrageously average movies like Tomorrow Never Dies and My Best Friend’s Wedding—is a damn shame. Not only are they thoroughly enjoyable, but both movies have stood the test of time and still hold up today, which cannot be said of so many movies from the same era. If you’ve never seen either film or even if it’s been a while, go give them a watch … just make sure the kids are asleep before you subject them to two hours of bug genocide (this happens in Starship Troopers by the way, not Bean).

Norman Quarrinton is a tall person from South London who now resides in Southern California with his American wife. Follow him on Twitter @NormanQ.