“War makes fascists of us all”
—Paul Verhoeven, director. Starship Troopers DVD commentary
The best satire is subversive and can be interpreted in any number of ways. A successful subversive movie can be accepted at face value, but when audiences look beneath the surface, they notice that nothing is quite as it seems. Is the director praising or condemning his characters’ actions? Is the outcome happy or sad? What exactly does the movie stand for?
The best satire is also polarizing, and difficult to pull off. Not everyone will get the joke. Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film Starship Troopers, loosely based on the eponymous 1959 Robert A. Heinlein novel, is both subversive and polarizing. As its 63% Rotten Tomatoes score suggests, not everyone understood the movie at the time. This went for Verhoeven’s other films as well: not everyone saw the allegorical references to Christ in Robocop, for example. But that’s Verhoeven. I say this film is only loosely based on Heinlein’s book because Verhoeven never finished reading it; he stopped after several chapters, finding the book “boring.” As someone who has had my own struggles with Heinlein, I tend to agree.
On the surface, Starship Troopers is your run-of-the-mill space action flick. The main characters are Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Dizzy (Dina Meyer of Saw fame), Carmen (future Bond girl Denise Richards), and Carl (Neil Patrick Harris when he was still trying to shake off his child actor persona). It’s the future and Earth is at war with the Arachnids, a bug race who use asteroids (and their own bodies) as weapons. After high school, the friends all sign up for military duty to fight the bugs. Carl goes off to Military Intelligence and Carmen goes to pilot school, while Dizzy and Rico join the Mobile Infantry. The film mostly follows Rico as he suffers through boot camp and his first disastrous missions as an infantry member. The film is interspersed with futuristic newsreels that provide depth to Verhoeven’s military-hungry future.
Like Verhoeven’s other films, Starship Troopers isn’t for the squeamish. Over the film’s two-hour run limbs are severed, brains sucked out of skulls, people cut in half. The list goes on. On the surface, the blood, the nudity and the somewhat wooden performances make Starship Troopers seem like just another dumb action flick.
But peel beneath the surface and you’ll find a heavy critique of jingoism and blind faith to the military. Verhoeven, who grew up in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, purposefully dressed his military up like the Gestapo. The newsreels are intentional propaganda, as are the slogans people chant throughout the film (“Come on you assholes; you want to live forever?” “The only good bug is a dead bug!”). The opening newsreel is a recreation of a scene in the Hitler-approved Triumph of the Will. (Seriously: watch this.) Although the film is designed to have you rooting for the humans all the way, by the time it’s finished, you’re questioning yourself. Who were the real aggressors: humans or bugs?
Starship Troopers also deals with gender equality way ahead of its time, as Star Trek did with racial equality back in the 60s. The women of Starship Troopers are fighter pilots, infantry fighters, and football players. Everything is co-ed (including the showers in a famous scene), and it’s all natural. No one in the future cares about your gender when the time comes to fight; all that matters is whether you can. Since we’re still having the argument on whether or not women can fight on the front lines, this gender equality is refreshing.
Shoutouts to the cast, who chew through the scenery with aplomb. Van Dien is marvelous as fresh-faced, naive Rico. Denise Richards shines as his wide-eyed girlfriend Carmen. Dina Meyer plays Dizzy tough but sensitive, while Neil Patrick Harris is perfectly aloof yet haunted as the psychic Carl. Jake Busey, Michael Ironside and Clancy Brown all bring their character acting A-games as well.
Starship Troopers, like many of Verhoeven’s films, is so over-the-top it’s hard to be taken at face value. But it isn’t meant to be. Watch it again (or for the first time) and try to catch the little telltale signs of satire.
Would you like to know more?
Quick summary: Earth is locked in a bitter intergalactic war with the Arachnids of Klendathu. Against this backdrop, four friends, Rico, Dizzy, Carmen, and Carl take very different paths in their military careers in mankind’s ultimate quest to destroy the bugs once and for all.
Too many writers? Edward Neumeier, author of Robocop, took the film Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine, mashed it together with Heinlein’s novel and created a masterpiece.
Recommended if you like: This is Verhoeven at his finest, so if you liked Robocop, Total Recall or Basic Instinct, this movie is for you.
Better than I expected? 20 years and one perpetual War on Terror later and the film seems all the more relevant.
Worse than I hoped? My HD computer screen shows all the flaws of practical effects, which isn’t a lot but does take me out of the action from time to time.
Would it work better in a different medium? There’s rumors of a televised reboot, but I think some of the tone would be lost if all we got was Band of Brothers in space.
Verdict: For those of us who get the satire, StarShip Troopers is still watchable and relevant.
Related Reading: Starship Troopers: One of the Most Misunderstood Movies Ever