Starship Troopers

Reporter: “Some say the bugs were provoked by the intrusion of humans into their natural habitat, that ‘live and let live’ is preferable to war with the bugs.”

Johnny Rico: “Let me tell you something. I’m from Buenos Aires, and I say ‘Kill ’em all!’” —Starship Troopers

Creators of science fiction are by nature forward-thinking and occasionally prescient, but after rewatching Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers—to my mind the most subversive major studio film in recent (or distant) memory—I now wonder if Verhoeven and his screenwriter, Ed Neumeier, had access to a time machine. Because even though it was produced in 1997—and based on a Robert Heinlein novel from 1959—Starship Troopers is such a clean, strong, almost direct post-9/11 allegory that Verhoeven and Neumeier had to have seen what was coming. Just a few of the connections:

  1. Buenos Aires as the Twin Towers, the destruction of which provides fuel for a retaliatory effort with no foreseeable endpoint, much less an exit strategy. 
  2. An unwieldy conventional military force squaring off against a nimble, relentless insurgency whose leadership is rooted in sophisticated cave complexes. 
  3. The refusal of the government—and their media abettors—to entertain the notion that the enemy might have been provoked by its foreign policy. (Or, as the reporter says above, “The intrusion of humans into their natural habitat.”) The phrase “They hate our freedom” is never uttered in Starship Troopers, but neither is any other rationale for what the bugs might be thinking.

Then again, Starship Troopers isn’t a satire about any specific war, it’s a brilliant dissection of how all wars work—how they’re packaged and sold via propaganda, how the enemy is (in this case, literally) dehumanized, how young people are sent eagerly to sacrifice on the front lines. For Verhoeven, it’s a subject that’s continually haunted his career, currently bookended by two films, 1977’s Soldier Of Orange and 2006’s Black Book, that cover the Dutch occupation and resistance in World War II with equal parts patriotic fervor and an ironic, often cynical sense of history. Verhoeven was only 7 when the war ended, but his memories of German-occupied Holland obviously made a deep impression on him. Back when I interviewed him for Black Book, Verhoeven recalled a particularly harrowing incident when he and his family had to pass through a German blockade in order to get back home: 

We were suddenly forced by the Germans to take another route to our house. They wouldn't allow us to take the normal way, and instead, we were forced to pass the bodies of Dutch citizens that were taken out of prison by reprisal, because some German officer had been killed on that street. The Germans would take something like 20 or 30 people out of prison—political prisoners, resistance fighters, sometimes just criminals—and they would put them on the road at the spot where the German soldier was killed, and they would execute them. And so that had happened in the street next to our house, and my father and I were forced to pass the dead bodies as an act of terror. Of course, the Germans were showing us that if we were, let’s say, naughty or bad, that they would shoot you and kill you.

Though Starship Troopers is a generalized critique of war, Verhoeven’s preoccupation with World War II dominates the look of the film, which is loaded with Nazi allusions and compositions on loan from Leni Riefenstahl, whose propaganda films lionized order and physical beauty. Only here, the fascists are our heroes in the Federation, the governing body that’s working to ensure that humans, not bugs, control the galaxy. And for some critics and viewers, that’s where the confusion sets in: Was Starship Troopers an endorsement of fascism? Or at the very least, a thoughtless, juvenile celebration of young people sacrificing themselves for the good of mankind? Audiences are naturally inclined to root for the gung-ho hero in space adventures like these, and certainly the bugs, whose motives are somewhere between inscrutable and nonexistent, seem like ghastly adversaries, worthy of extermination. What’s more, the Heinlein novel is considered a stirring defense of militarism and the necessity of war and civic duty, so an adaptation would surely honor those themes, right? 

Wrong. Verhoeven spends much of the essential commentary track on the Starship Troopers DVD making emphatically clear that the film is an anti-war satire, that fascism is “bad, bad, bad,” and that “war makes fascists of us all.” But intent means nothing if a work itself suggests a contrary reading, so I’d endorse another way of detecting the satirical elements of Starship Troopers: Open your eyes. There’s so much evidence onscreen—and in Verhoeven’s career, especially in Robocop, his other collaboration with Neumeier—that I don’t see how it could be missed, but a lot of intelligent people got it wrong nonetheless. Or maybe they just underestimated it: Big-budget science-fiction spectaculars like this one aren’t expected to have subtext, and Verhoeven, an exceptionally skilled technician (the effects here are still astounding), does well in presenting the surface of the dopily exciting showdown between humans and giant space bugs. He also avoids the overt absurdity of something like Dr. Strangelove, which makes its agenda clear from the character names (General Jack D. Ripper, Colonel “Bat” Guano) on down. Nevertheless, how can you possibly look at clips like this one, from the government-run Federal Network, with a straight face?

Verhoeven and Neumeier are very clever in the way they parcel out information about life under Federation rule. (Humanity uniting under one banner suggests the equivalent of the Third Reich achieving world domination.) The Federal Network newsreel-style clips issue direct calls to action (“Join Up Now!” “Why We Fight”) along with messages about patriotism and civic duty, even among children who scrap playfully over guns and bullets or smash giant cockroaches underfoot. Yet the key to the Federal Network’s power isn’t necessarily the clips themselves—which feature such great cultural advancements as televised executions (after whiplash-swift justice) and barely censored “censored” violence—but the prompt at the end, “Would you like to know more?” That’s what makes it effective as propaganda: the illusion of knowledge, the illusion of choice, the illusion that people have control over their own destinies. 

Other details emerge in the classroom, where our dimwitted hero Rico (Casper Van Dien) gets his civics lessons from his favorite teacher, Mr. Rasczak (a brilliant Michael Ironside), who doubles as a stealth military recruiter. In a world where “service guarantees citizenship,” Mr. Rasczak explains that only citizens (as opposed to their second-class counterparts, “civilians”) are allowed to vote because “something given has no value,” and that violence is the supreme authority. “Naked force has settled more issues in history than any other factor,” he says. “The contrary opinion that violence never solves anything is wishful thinking at its worst.” For guys like Rico, Carmen (Denise Richards), and their friends, all specimens of Aryan beauty—and in Argentina, of all places—the path from graduation to the recruiting station is really the only viable one. As the maimed veteran stamping their papers cheerfully jests, they’re “fresh meat for the grinder.” 

In the scheme of Starship Troopers, it’s important that the actors be pretty and vacuous, and their characters’ romantic dilemmas of the most banal variety imaginable. Hence the casting of Van Dien and Richards in the lead roles, instead of Hollywood stars with more history and substance, who might have torpedoed the film with any hint of self-awareness. (Neil Patrick Harris, as a brainy military intelligence officer who struts around arrogantly in a Gestapo-like trenchcoat, is the only young cast member who seems in on the joke.) It’s barely worth talking about the romantic quadrangle that consumes these characters when they aren’t fighting off bugs. Rico and Carmen are high-school sweethearts whose separate military tracks—he’s a Mobile Infantry grunt, she’s training to pilot massive warships—find them pairing off with people in their station. Their shallow conflicts give the film shape and direction, but it’s obvious Verhoeven and Neumeier find them petty and stupid. (One bizarre example: When Van Dien comes to blows with his romantic rival, Verhoeven mutes this grand melodramatic moment by flooding the soundtrack with the dreamy Mazzy Star single “Fade Into You.”) 

As much as Starship Troopers concerns itself with satiric speculation over what a fascist society of the future might look like, it’s also about the gears of war and how the young and beautiful become “fresh meat for the grinder.” One of my favorite running jokes in the movie is Rico’s meteoric rise through the ranks of Mobile Infantry, which happens partly because he shows courage and initiative, but mostly because the men above him keep getting killed. (“I need a corporal,” says Mr. Rasczak. “You’re it until you’re dead, or I find someone better.”) For the men and women on the ground, the war against the bugs is not only pointless, but never-ending: The biggest battle scene in the film, a showdown at a fortress overwhelmed by the enemy, ends in a retreat, with a lucky handful escaping a horizon filled with infinite waves of arachnids and flies. The bugs are not only more efficient killing machines than humans, but by all appearances, they can reproduce faster, too. When some brave soldiers capture the “brain bug” at the end, it’s a hollow triumph, because it’s a senseless war they’re biologically and militarily doomed to lose. For the suckers going for citizenship, their greatest hope is to sacrifice a limb or two, and get back home; otherwise, the best and the brightest can expect the high honor of being ceremonially jettisoned into the vast nothingness of outer space. 

Even if you don’t find Starship Troopers as prescient as I do, the years have been kind to it, if only because it’s now removed from the context of whatever expectations people might have had for it at the time. It seems absurd now to write it off as some silly piece of escapism, as its detractors complained, and the amount of detail Verhoeven and Neumeier invest in their cinematic universe keeps cultists like myself coming back to it. (The commentary track also ranks among my favorite ever, alongside that of The Limey.) Each viewing seems to yield a new revelation—this time, Carmen asking Rico to “write her” via video message, suggesting an illiterate society—or something else to discuss, like the co-ed showers and military units, an intriguingly progressive sign that the battle of the sexes ended in a draw. I suspect its future is bright: The line between the world of Starship Troopers and Sarah Palin’s Twitter feed gets thinner every day. 

Coming Up:
June 24: A Tale Of Two Sisters
July 8: Delicatessen
July 22: American History X

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