Wednesday, January 24, 2007

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Starship Troopers (1997)

How should I put this? There are people who "get" Paul Verhoeven's "space warfare" epic from the nineties, Starship Troopers. And then people who...don't. In the camp of those who don't are those folks who often complain about the callow cast, the tongue-in-cheek approach to violence, and the sometimes hard-to-swallow tactics adopted by the futuristic infantry in the war against the vicious Arachnids, the "bugs."

Those who do get Starship Troopers tend to see it for what it actually is: a stunningly prescient warning against blossoming totalitarianism on a future Earth run by neo-fascists; one that lays raw the fallacy behind the concept of blind nationalism (or blind patriotism...). Starship Troopers also exposes the primary tools of a totalitarian state hoping to control the minds of its cowed populace: a state of never-ending war (and thus fear...), and propaganda films.

This pointed subtext, laced with satirical humor, is the same brand that director Paul Verhoeven brought to another science fiction masterpiece, RoboCop (1987), only in that instance, he was working to a different end: revealing what could happen in a future America where corporations have run wild and the government has willingly bent over for them.

No doubt there are better and more tense "serious" space warfare movies than Starship Troopers (Aliens [1986] for instance), just as there are better superhero movies than RoboCop, yet I don't know that there's ever been a more layered or pointed film in this genre. Some critics mistake Starship Troopers for a stupid, special effects adventure, when in fact, it lampoons stupid, special effects adventures.

Let's re-count some of the plot details here. In a not-too-distant future where "[military] service guarantees citizenship," a totalitarian government rules what seems a prosperous, globally-connected Earth. In propaganda films such as the aptly titled "Why We Fight," the government informs the people who their enemies are, in this instance giant arachnid "bugs" from the distant planet Klendathu. The planet is termed "a bug planet," an "ugly planet," (not unlike the Middle East, perhaps?) And the bugs are successfully demonized in every school system and class room, even Biology (where dissections of this enemy occur regularly...). Young students are informed that the bugs have "no intelligence" and that they are evil. This is convenient, isn't it? I mean, you can't engage in "negotiations" or diplomacy with a giant bug, right? You just bomb 'em out of existence...

So when the bugs seemingly launch a pre-emptive strike on Earth, hurtling an asteroid into Buenos Aires, the propaganda machine carried by the government-owned and sanctioned media, called the Federal Network, goes into over drive. The same populace that believed bugs are "stupid" are now also asked to believe that these dumb bugs launched a pre-emptive, and successful, surgical attack against Earth. This notion captures perfectly the irrationality of fear-mongering as government policy. The bugs are either stupid or clever...but they can't be both simultaneously. Tellingly, the government actually prefers having it both ways. Anything to demonize the enemy and keep a state of war going forever, right? How do the bugs hurtle a meteor at Earth since they possess no technology, no spaceships, no instrumentation? Why do the bugs launch a first strike against humanity? The movie version of Starship Troopers is canny in the way it doesn't explain either notion. Neither does government propaganda. The populace is only informed "what it needs to know" to thirst for the blood of the enemy. They killed our people, and now our vengeance shall be righteous. And bloody.

The important thing here is that a sneak attack, real or conspiratorial, is the pre-text that the government in Starship Troopers utilizes to launch an invasion of Bug territory at Klendathu. The AQZ (Arachnid Quarantine Zone, kind of like Iraq's former no-fly zone...) is violated by the human race. Notice again that this isn't a defensive war launched by Earth; rather an offensive spearhead deep into Arachnid territory. The battle doesn't even occur in neutral territory. Nope, it's in bug territory. I suppose the troopers fight them there so they won't have to fight them here, right?

Okay, okay, I know some reader is out there saying, "Muir, you lily-livered leftist pacifist surrender monkey, shouldn't we fight the evil bugs?" The answer is, of course we should. My point is simply that a "surprise" attack (alleged or real...) is just the pretext a fascist government needs to keep the war machine oiled and continuing...eternally. I'm not saying Earth should bow before the bugs anymore than I'd say America should bow before terrorists. What I'm saying is that in both cases, the "war" against a real enemy fits into the pre-existing agenda of a dedicated political ideology. (Ever heard of the Project For The New American Century)? See the distinction?

All right, back to the movie. We can tell from Starship Troopers that Earth has become a fascist state not just by a vast propagandistic Federal Network that controls all the news broadcasts, but from the propaganda films produced by the government. In describing a "WORLD THAT WORKS," a govt. propaganda film shows kindly soldiers handing out guns and bullets - like they're candy - to smiling civilian children in a suburban neighborhood. The military is seen here as a kind of helpful big brother; the first recourse when there's a crisis. Again, forget diplomacy please. If there's trouble, send in the soldiers first. I'm reminded, for some reason, of that chilling picture from Easter 2000, when armed, bullet-proof-vested soldiers broke into a Miami house to seize that child, Elian Gonzalez. Kind of scary, isn't it? The thought that men in goggles and machine guns can burst into your home and take children on government orders. Here, the goal in these films is to make such men seem "friendly." Like protectors, not oppressors.

Another propaganda film is called "CRIME AND PUNISHMENT" and it informs us that a convicted criminal is arrested, tried and executed in one day. Swift justice? Or too-swift justice? In a fascist society, all dissenters are called "criminals" and dispatched with quickly. Lest the government be threatened by fact.

Other propaganda films in the movie are called "Know Your Foe," (which shows the torture of a Brain Bug...), "Do Your Part" (which dramatizes in brilliant and funny imagery how kids are programmed at an early age to despise all insect life...) and "Countdown to Victory," which assures the scared masses at home that no matter how many soldiers die in the field of battle (308,000 die at the Klendathu encounter alone...), their country is winning. VICTORIOUS! Facts - and reality - be damned. Just stay (the bloody...) course.

So, what Verhoeven has done here, in very dynamic and memorable terms, is make the protagonists of his unique film - the starship troopers - part and parcel of a really despicable, controlling, fascist society. They are cogs in a fascist machine, and these Federal Network "commericals" dotting the film make us aware of that fact. Again and again.

But that's not the only clue. The other obvious "tell" in Starship Troopers that Verhoeven is making a statement about the perils of blind nationalism comes from the wardrobe, the costumes. Just look at the uniform Doogie Howser wears as he enters the battleship near the end of the film. The black leather. The hat. The trench coat. Look at all familiar? Whom does he resemble, this representative of Earth's "military intelligence" division? There's no doubt: he looks precisely like a Nazi, and that's the overwhelming metaphor here. Of course, Nazis were fascists, but also masters of propaganda, so it's a strong allusion.

As for the cast? Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Casper Van Dien and the like have been disparaged many times and in many places as callow and insipid clothes-horses and WB-clones. Indeed. I think this is exactly right. In fact, I think that's why they were cast in the first place. Not a one of these protagonists seems very smart. Not a one of them has any depth. Let alone perspective or insight. Yet these are exactly the kind of people a fascist society would want to see populate its citizenry. Callow folks who don't question orders or the "way things are." Who gladly take orders and are easily riled to violence. So even down to casting, I believe Verhoeven has pulled a fast one on his audience. What happens, one might ask, after a century of a Lindsay Lohan/Britney Spears culture? I submit you end up with physically beautiful nincompoops. Village idiots all...just like the characters in this film. They're tan, gorgeous, physically fit, and without a single important thought in their daft heads. At least, from the government's standpoint, they're easy to control.

As for the attack tactics dramatize in the film, well, it's true, the Earth mobile infantry seems pretty lame and ineffective. The men and women of these forces stand around and form circles - with over sized machine guns - and blast away (wasting ammo...) at the indestructible bugs. It's not subtle, but this is surely another way of indicating that to the fascist overlords, the common man - the grunt - means absolutely nothing. "Support the troops!," yeah right! By the end of the film, the government is recruiting 12 year old kids!!!! But just study in the film how the military tactics are totally ineffective, and how the battle plans are utter failures. These kids - in their fiery patriotism - are nothing more than cannon fodder. No one mourns them or their sacrifice. They're tools in carrying out an agenda, and that's it. Useful props.

Watching Starship Troopers this week, on its tenth anniversary nearly, it's almost eerie to consider how America has taken a quasi-fascist turn since 9/11. Almost everything that's happened to America, Starship Troopers accurately predicted. The sneak attack of 9/11 is like the sneak attack on Buenos Aires, and also serves as the endlessly recited impetus to launch an invasion of "enemy" territory, Iraq. I also saw in this film, embedded journalists (like Geraldo Rivera on Fox News!) cheering for the military and government on the battlefield, journalistic objectivity be damned. Why, there was even a reference to another bugaboo of our day: one character comments that there should be a "law" against recruiting "soldiers" on school campuses. Well - ahem - this battle is raging in courts all across our country today, as the Iraq effort requires more and more fodder, especially now for this "surge" designed to curb sectarian violence.

And propaganda from the government? Well, remember how the Bush Administration released a medicare commercial designed to look like a news broadcast ("This is Karen Ryan reporting...")? You don't need a paranoid bent to "read" Starship Troopers like this today. You just have to be living in the reality-based world.

Almost a decade ago, the science fiction cinema gave us a warning about the slippery slope to totalitarianism. It was in the form of a silly, special-effects laden, gory outer space movie, and I guess it was all too easy to ignore.

Not so today.


  1. Howard Margolin4:26 PM

    John, not surprisingly, I agree with your review. However, I don't think you could find the same depth in the direct-to-video "Starship Troopers 2."

  2. I never saw Starship Troopers 2. And, given your comment, I think I'll avoid it!!!!

  3. Amazing, telling, and quite tragic thing about Starship Troopers-a few days after the Bush administration declared war on Iraq, a local Toronto TV station (CityTV) showed the film, as if to comment on the events that would happen as a kind of future prediction-and in fact, what was shown in the movie did happen, with the media cheerleading the war like nobody's business.

  4. Nothingness12:12 AM

    This movie was bashed by so may people and critics, it's a really misunderstood movie. It was passing late at night and I was in the mood for a brainless action movie so I sat to watch it, which I've never regretted, I didn't get a brainless action movie, I got a deep funny cruel movie instead. I find the movie so mind blowing which makes me ponder why so many don't get it. And you are right, with 9/11 and where the US is going today, it's scary.

  5. Chris7:24 PM

    the 3rd movie is probably the strongest point of this satire you explained, good review, thanks.