Report Card: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers is an unlikely movie to have come out of the 1990s. Director Paul Verhoeven says that it got made because it was a high-turnover time at Sony, and the script just got shooed along as studio leads paraded in and out. The irony, hyperbole, and critique of American neocons as fascist warmongers was all in the script from the beginning. Had anyone looked at the script or the dailies, he says, it might not have been made. That’s probably why I like this movie so much, in that it’s a criticism of hawkishness and the culture that gives rise to it.

But despite that soft spot that I have for it, I’m here to rate the interfaces, and in that regard, it is lucky I don’t send it to the brig.

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Escape pod weapons cache

I wish that the last Starship Troopers interface wasn’t this one, but so it goes.

After piloting the escape pod through the atmosphere using the meager interfaces she has to work with, it careens off of a hill to pierce the thin wall of a mountainside and landing Ibanez and Barcalow squarely in the dangerous depths of bug burrows.

After checking on Ibanez, Barcalow exits the pod and struts around to the back of it, where he pulls open a panel to access the weapons within.

So equipped, the pair are able to defend themselves at least a few moments before being overwhelmed by superior bug numbers.

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So. OK. This.

I want to ask why, in the first place, they would get out of a vehicle that can survive space, re-entry, breaking through a frakking mountainside, and crash landing without so much as a scratch. If they’d stayed there, would the bugs have been able to get at them? Couldn’t staying inside of it given them at least a fighting chance until Rico got there? The glass didn’t break when slammed at terminal velocity into stone. I think it can handle bug pincers. But I digress. that’s a question of character logic, not interfaces, so let me put that aside.

Instead, let me ask about the design rationale of putting the weapons in an exterior compartment. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put them inside the pod? If they’d landed with hostiles present outside the vehicle, what was the plan, ask them to hold on while you grabbed something from the trunk?

Additionally, it appears that there are no security features. Barcalow just opens it. Silly seeming, of course, but that’s how it should work, i.e., for the right person it just opens up. So in the spirit of apologetics—and giving it way more credit than it’s earned across this film—let’s presume that the pod has some passive authentication mechanism that biometrically checks him at a distance and unlocks the panel so that he doesn’t even have to think about it, especially in this crisis scenario.

That’s an apologetics gift from me to you, Starship Troopers, since I still have a soft spot in my heart for you.

COURSE OPTION ANALYSIS

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When Ibanez and Barcalow enter the atmosphere in the escape pod, we see a brief, shaky glimpse of the COURSE OPTION ANALYSIS interface. In the screen grab below, you can see it has a large, yellow, all-caps label at the top. The middle shows the TERRAIN PROFILE. This consists of a real-time, topography map as a grid of screen-green dots that produce a shaded relief map.

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On the right is a column of text that includes:

  • The title, i.e., TERRAIN PROFILE
  • The location data: Planet P, Scylla Charybdis (which I don’t think is mentioned in the film, but a fun detail. Is this the star system?)
  • Coordinates in 3D: XCOORD, YCOORD, and ELEVATION. (Sadly these don’t appear to change, despite the implied precision of 5 decimal places)
  • Three unknown variables: NOMINAL, R DIST, HAZARD Q (these also don’t change)

The lowest part of the block reads that the SITE ASSESSMENT (at 74.28%, which—does it need to be said at this point—also does not change.)

Two inscrutable green blobs extend out past the left and bottom white line that borders this box. (Seriously what the glob are these meant to be?)

At the bottom is SCAN M and PLACE wrapped in the same purple “NV” wrappers seen throughout the Federation spaceship interfaces. At the bottom is an array of inscrutable numbers in white.

Since that animated gif is a little crazy to stare at, have this serene, still screen cap to reference for the remainder of the article.

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Design

Three things to note in the analysis.

1. Yes, fuigetry

I’ll declare everything on the bottom to be filler unless someone out there can pull some apologetics to make sense of it. But even if an array of numbers was ever meant to be helpful, an emergency landing sequence does not appear to be the time. If it needs to be said, emergency interfaces should include only the information needed to manage the crisis.

2. The visual style of the topography

I have before blasted the floating pollen displays of Prometheus for not describing the topography well, but the escape pod display works while using similar pointillist tactics. Why does this work when the floating pollen does not? First, note that the points here are in a grid. This makes the relationship of adjacent points easy to understand. The randomness of the Promethean displays confounds this. Second, note the angle of the “light” in the scene, which appears to come from the horizon directly ahead of the ship. This creates a strong shaded relief effect, a tried and true method of conveying the shape of a terrain.

3. How does this interface even help?

Let’s get this out of the way: What’s Ibanez’ goal here? To land the pod safely. Agreed? Agreed.

Certainly the terrain view is helpful to understand the terrain in the flight path, especially in low visibility. But similar to the prior interface in this pod, there is no signal to indicate how the ship’s position and path relate to it. Are these hills kilometers below (not a problem) or meters (take some real care there, Ibanez.) This interface should have some indication of the pod. (Show me me.)

Additionally, if any of the peaks pose threats, she can avoid them tactically, but adjusting long before they’re a problem will probably help more than veering once she’s right upon them. Best is to show the optimal path, and highlight any threats that would explain the path. Doing so in color (presuming pilots who can see it) would make the information instantly recognizable.

Finally the big label quantifies a “site assessment,” which seems to relay some important information about the landing location. Presumably pilots know what this number represents (process indicator? structural integrity? deviation from an ideal landing strip? danger from bugs?) but putting it here does not help her. So what? If this is a warning, why doesn’t it look like one? Or is there another landing site that she can get to with a better assessment? Why isn’t it helping her find that by default? If this is the best site, why bother her with the number at all? Or the label at all? She can’t do anything with this information, and it takes up a majority of the screen. Better is just to get that noise off the screen along with all the fuigetry. Replace it with a marker for where the ideal landing site is, its distance, and update it live if her path makes that original site no longer viable.

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Of course it must be said that this would work better as a HUD which would avoid splitting her attention from the viewport, but HUDs or augmented reality aren’t really a thing in the diegesis.

Narratively

The next scene shows them crashing through the side of a mountain, so despite this more helpful design, better for the scene might be to design a warning mode that reads SAFE SITE: NOT FOUND. SEARCHING… and let that blink manically while real-time, failing site assessments blink all over the terrain map. Then the next scene makes much more sense as they skip off a hill and into a mountain.

Escape pod and insertion windows

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When the Rodger Young is destroyed by fire from the Plasma Bugs on Planet P, Ibanez and Barcalow luckily find a functional escape pod and jettison. Though this pod’s interface stays off camera for almost the whole scene, the pod is knocked and buffeted by collisions in the debris cloud outside the ship, and in one jolt we see the interface for a fraction of a second. If it looks familiar, it is not from anything in Starship Troopers.

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Rescue Shuttle

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After the ambush on Planet P, Ibanez pilots the shuttle that rescues survivors and…and Diz. We have a shot of the display that appears on the dashboard between the pilot and copilot. Tiny blue columns of text too small to read that spill onto the left. One big column of tiny green text that wipes on and flashes. Seizure-inducing yellow dots spazzing around on red grids. A blue circle on the right is probably Planet P or a radar, but the graphic…spinning about its center so quick you cannot follow. There’s not…I can’t…how is this supposed to…I’m just going to call it: fuigetry.

Federation Binoculars

When conducting reconnaissance on the bug home Planet P, Rico pauses to scan the nearby mountain crest with a pair of Federation binoculars. They feature two differently-sized objective lenses.

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We get a POV for him and get to see the overlay. It includes a range-finding reticle and two 7-segment readouts in the lower corners. It looks nifty, but it’s missing some important things. Continue reading

Healing chamber

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After Johnny was mistakenly reported as killed, the next time we see him he is in a healing chamber, submerged in green-underlit translucent fluid, resting on form-fitting clear plastic supports. He breathes through a tube, and a pair of small robot arms work busily to regenerate the damaged tissue in his leg.

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The main reason to discuss this chamber on a blog about interfaces is the material choice of the outside of the chamber. By being surrounded completely in a transparent material (glass? plexiglass? transparent aluminum?), it means that physicians can keep an eye on progress, and he can have visual interactions with visitors, as we see when Dizzy and Ace visit to share with him his mistaken death certificate (and for Dizzy to leave him a kiss.) Additionally it gives Johnny something to look at during the long hours of recuperation.

I’m not sure why the green light is necessary. The scene implies that it could serve some part in the healing process, but if not, I wonder if an amber light might signal a more human, nurturing warmth to Johnny and visitors. Narratively, you’d want to avoid anything too yellow or run the risk of the audience’s first interpretations drifting too far to the Andres-Serrano-esque.

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KLENDATHU CASUALTIES: 308,563

The initial invasion of Klendathu is disastrous, and our hero Rico suffers a massive penetration wound in combat, with an Arachnid digging its massive, thorn-like pincer straight through his thigh.

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Rico is (spoiler alert) mistakenly reported as deceased. (There’s perhaps some argument for outfitting soldiers with networked biometrics so this sort of mistake can’t be made, but that’s another post.)

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After returning to dock, Ibanez hears reports about the military disaster, and sees a death roll scrolling by on a large wall display. Three columns of off-white names tick along, surname first, with an initialism indicating whether the soldier was killed, wounded, or missing in action. At the very top three legends summarize key information, WOUNDED IN ACTION 2,548; KILLED IN ACTION 205,515; and MISSING IN ACTION 105,753. Largest of all is the KLENDATHU CASUALTIES: 308,563. (I know, the math doesn’t add up. It’s possible I misread the blurry numbers.) But the screen could use some more deliberate graphic design. Continue reading