In recent weeks on the blog, I have examined the science fiction films of director Paul Verhoeven, including favorites RoboCop (1987), and Total Recall (1990).
As was the case in RoboCop, Verhoeven artfully uses exaggeration to craft the film’s dystopian landscape, and by doing so, points out just how silly -- and transparent -- propaganda can be.
Everyone else is just a civilian, less-than-a=second-class citizen. Heinlein also dehumanizes his enemies in terms that Americans are all too familiar with. The Arachnids are “Bugs” in the same way that other, real-life enemies were labeled “Gooks.”
It’s so much easier to hate and destroy an enemy when we give them names that don’t register their full humanity or intelligence, when we can separate them from "our side" and tag them as different from us.
In the not-too-distant future, a limited democracy, the Federation, faces a new challenge from deep space: a rival race of powerful Arachnids, or bugs.
When Buenos Aires is pulped by an asteroid that originated in the AQZ (Arachnid Quarantine Zone), war is declared, and three friends go different ways.
Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) joins the Mobile Infantry, Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) pursues her dream of piloting a star-ship, and Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) joins military intelligence.
After a botched, failed invasion of the Bug home world, Klendathu, the Earth Federation changes Sky Marshals, and adopts a new philosophy. To defeat the Bug, humans must think like the bug.
Part of that new approach involves capturing a Brain Bug, an intelligent arachnid that has never before been seen by human eyes.
What he describes, though not in exact words, is actually a military coup.
Bluntly stated, soldiers knocked down a civilian democracy and installed themselves as rulers of a free people. Then, they favored their own people -- veterans and soldiers -- and forbid any non-veterans from serving in the government or in any other positions of leadership, for that matter.
There’s some debate among readers and viewers, based on Heinlen’s book, about whether all Federation service is military service, but that’s certainly how it appears in the film. To gain citizenship and even the right to vote, you must first hope you don’t become cannon fodder in your master’s chosen campaign of sustained invasion and attack.
Again, what this means in practice is simply that might makes right. Violence is a moral good in this fictional universe. Those with military power get to impose their value system on the losers in any conflict. Why, because they have might on their side.
And yes, indeed, this seems very much like a fascist world-view. It is right in line with the precepts of Spanish fascism in the early 20th century (as voiced by Primo de Rivera): “no other argument is admissible than that of fists and pistols when justice of the Fatherland is attacked.”
We see this very tenet played out in theVerhoeven film.
At first, the Federation doesn’t believe that bugs are intelligent at all. But when territory in AQZ (Arachnid Quarantine Zone) might be acquired by Earth, suddenly the bugs are capable of hurling an asteroid directly at us, launching a sneak-attack or war upon the human race.
Ask yourself, if the bugs have no intelligence, how could they have possibly slingshot that asteroid into Buenos Aires?
And then, quite simply, before we know anything about the enemy, we see the call to action, the call to all-out war. Honor must be satisfied. Blood must be avenged.
Importantly, a journalist asks a question about the Bugs at one point. He wonders if it is possible that they have responded in this bloody fashion because humans invaded their territory first. He similarly questions if negotiations can’t begin, based on the things that the Bugs and the humans have in common (implicitly, territoriality).
The jingoistic rhetoric mounts (“we’re in this for the species, boys and girls,”) and the mobile infantry invades the Bug solar system. And yet the so-called meteor attack may not even be an attack at all. But if it is an attack, it may be based on the same fears regarding territory and dominion that our species frequently ponders.
But no quarter will be given, and Bug Space will soon be Human Space.
The troopers fight them there so they won't have to fight them here, right?
The military is seen here as a kind of helpful big brother; the first recourse when there's a crisis. They come bearing not food or shelter, but heavy arms.
Swift justice? Or too-swift justice? Is there any longer a thing, in this state, known as due process?
In a fascist society, all dissenters are called "criminals" and dispatched quickly. Lest the government be threatened by facts or evidence.. Lest viewers get to hear an argument that goes counter to government policy.
Another propaganda film in the movie is called "KNOW YOUR FOE," which gives advice about how do successfully manage a kill shot on a bug.
There's also "DO YOUR PART: 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.
So, what Verhoeven has accomplished here, in very dynamic and memorable terms, is make the protagonists of his unique film -- the starship troopers of the title -- part and parcel of an autocratic, controlling, fascist society.
The other obvious "tell" in Starship Troopers that Verhoeven is making a statement about the perils of blind nationalism comes from the wardrobe, the costuming choices.
Just take a gander at the uniform Neil Patrick Harris wears as he enters the battleship near the end of the film.
The black leather. The hat. The trench coat. Look at all familiar to you?
Indeed. I think that, on certain physical/visual level this is exactly right. They are all gorgeous.
Village idiots all...just like the characters in this film. They're tan, gorgeous, physically fit, and without a single important thought in their pretty little heads.
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. They’re cannon fodder as likely to shoot one another as they are the bugs. We need numbers, not sound strategy, dammit!
Our opponents in combat become “savages,” and “brutal,” and “barbaric,” like they are craven monsters…not actually fellow human beings with whom we have ideological differences.
Starship Troopers provides the ultimate example of this de-humanization: the enemies are, literally, monstrous insects.
They are disgusting bugs, and so humans have no compunctions whatsoever about destroying them utterly. These citizens of a totalitarian, highly-militarized state have been conditioned to believe the bugs are inferior to us, and deserve to die. Again, you can go back in history and look at descriptors such as Gooks, Charlie, Japs, Jerry, and more to see how easy it is to slip into a slang that de-humanizes the enemy, making them less than our equals.
The special effects remain, for the most part, astonishing. The scenes involving the Rodger Young in space combat look staggeringly good. And I scanned and scanned for signs of fakery with the rampaging hordes of bugs, only to not find many at all.
Over a decade ago, Verhoeven gave us a warning about the slippery slope of totalitarianism and jingoistic, blind nationalism. It was in the form of a silly, special-effects laden, gory outer space movie, and I guess it was pretty easy to ignore or discount.
The gap between the world of fictional exaggeration and the world of reality, as we also saw in RoboCop, seems to be shrinking at a terrifying rate.