Thursday, February 12, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Starship Troopers (1997)

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).

The third film in Verhoeven’s sci-fi trilogy is Starship Troopers, an adaptation of -- or more correctly, a cinematic rebuttal to -- Robert A. Heinlen’s Hugo Award winning 1959 novel.

Owing in part to his early life in Nazi-controlled Netherlands, Verhoeven’s science fiction films often parody or critique extreme right-wing aspects of American culture, namely the excessive freedom and power of corporations, and the alarming violence of the society as a whole.

Verhoeven’s films are gory, pointed, and funny, and accordingly Starship Troopers succeeds, in many ways, as the perfect capper for the trilogy.

In other words, it functions as a summation of the director’s individual and artistic perspective.

This time out, Verhoeven reminds audiences of how easily and readily some citizens fall in line behind totalitarian, even quasi-fascist regimes, and how Authority (with a capital “A”) utilizes propaganda to transmit its message of unthinking nationalism or patriotism. 

Also, Starship Troopers points out how easy it is to manipulate opinion based on fear, specifically after an attack on the homeland.

Like RoboCop, the central narrative of Starship Troopers is interrupted periodically by short films. These interstitial interludes do not mock TV commercials this time, but rather propaganda films of the fictional Federation. These short films reveal the Earth government at its absolute, pandering worst.

These shorts -- and particularly those involving the indoctrination of children into patriotic group think -- also remain hysterically funny to this day.

Yet, while everyone seems to understand the social critique presented by RoboCop, there exist two camps of thought regarding Starship Troopers.

In the camp of those who don't really understand the film are those folks who complain about the callow cast, the tongue-in-cheek approach to violence, and the sometimes hard-to-swallow tactics adopted by the futuristic mobile infantry in the war against the vicious Arachnids, the "Bugs."

But those who do get and understand Starship Troopers tend to see it for what it actually is: a humorous warning against blossoming totalitarianism, and mindless nationalism. 

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.

To put the matter another way, some critics and viewers mistake Starship Troopers for a stupid, special effects adventure, when in fact it lampoons stupid, special effects adventures, and reminds us through its grotesque, bloody carnage that there is nothing heroic, glorious or ennobling about war, or its mindless pursuit by the State.

And no, this is not at all how Heinlein imagined his literary universe.

Contrarily Heinlein’s novel suggests that violence has settled more contentious issues in society than any other course of action. The author reserves the right to vote and lead in his Utopian future only for those who have served in war.  

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.

Verhoeven’s film aptly punctures these aspect of war and fascism too.

As noted above then, the movie Starship Troopers is actually a meticulous, dedicated rebuttal to the novel, and a warning about the brand of thinking that informs Heinlein’s world view.

Would you like to know more?

“They’re just like us.  They want to know us. So they can kill 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.

“We’re in this for the species, boys and girls.”

Much of the pseudo-fascist philosophy of Starship Troopers is voiced in the Verhoeven film by Michael Ironside’s character, Rasczak. He starts the film as the high school teacher of Rico and Ibanez, and is thus able to describe the historical and moral underpinnings of the film’s “universe” in his class lecture and discussion.

Rasczak describes, specifically, the “failure of democracy” in the past (implicitly our time, the 20th and early 21st century), and the ensuing course correction: veterans took control of the levers of power and established stability.  

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.

The new Federation, then, is an example of leadership by the few, the proud, the privileged and the powerful, while the masses can only succeed by serving in the wars that their masters choose.  

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.

Rasczak also notes in the film that “naked force,” violence, is the “supreme authority from which all other authority is derived.” 

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?

This question is never raised in the film, or by anyone in the Federation. Instead, we see news footage of the city’s destruction. We see the body count tally on the screen, going up, up and up into the millions.  

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).

Rico’s response? “Kill them all.”

There will be no accommodation with this particular enemy. 

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.

In school rooms across the planet, human students learn that bugs have “no intelligence” and that they are “evil.” And the propaganda industry begins broadcasting scenes that show mobilization on the home front. 

One very funny Federation propaganda video reveals children in a suburban neighborhood going out in the street and stomping terrestrial bugs, while a happy Mother claps and cheers, encouraged by the mindless hatred for anything insect-like.

Notice again that this isn't a defensive war launched by Earth to protect the planet or the homeland; rather an offensive spearhead deep into Arachnid territory. The battle doesn't even occur in neutral territory.  

The troopers fight them there so they won't have to fight them here, right?

The point is that the attack -- intentional or otherwise -- is mere pretext, something a fascist government requires to keep the war machine oiled and continuing...eternally.

We can tell from Starship Troopers that Earth has become a fascist state not just by Rasczak’s words and by the explicit nature of the war effort, but by the existence of the propagandist Federal Network that controls all the news broadcasts.

In describing a "WORLD THAT WORKS," a govt. propaganda film shows kindly soldiers handing out giant machine 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. They come bearing not food or shelter, but heavy arms.

Again, forget diplomacy, please.

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? 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.

And then, there's "I'M DOING MY PART," which shows young children in heavy combat armor and helmets and makes the case for obliterating the Bug Homeworld, for genocide.

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. 

Facts -- and reality -- be damned. Just stay the bloody course.

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. 

They are cogs in a fascist machine, and these Federal Network "films" dotting the movie make us aware of that fact. Again and again, but always humorously.

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 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?

Who does he resemble, this heroic representative of Earth's "military intelligence" division?

There's no doubt: he looks like a Nazi, a Gestapo officer, specifically, and that's very much the metaphor here. Of course, Nazis were fascists, but also masters of propaganda, so it's a strong historical 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 Network stars-in-the-making. 

Indeed. I think that, on certain physical/visual level this is exactly right. They are all gorgeous.

In fact, I think this is precisely why they were cast in the first place. Not a one of these protagonists seems very smart (Despite their test scores in Math). Not a one of them has any depth. Let alone perspective or insight. They are all immature.

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." They gladly take orders and are easily riled to violence.

So even down to casting,  Verhoeven has pulled a fast one on his audience.  What happens, one might ask, after a century of Paris Hilton/Kim Kardashian culture?

I submit that you end up with the characters of Starship Troopers: 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 pretty little heads.

And 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 carrying 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. They’re cannon fodder as likely to shoot one another as they are the bugs. We need numbers, not sound strategy, dammit!

And, in verification of this notion, by the end of the film, the government is recruiting twelve old kids.

To its credit, Starship Troopers also predicts one of the absolute worst developments in the military and journalism: embedding journalists with the troops, so that they owe their safety to the soldiers and can’t be objective about the nature of the conflict, or the purpose behind it.  It is a journalist’s job to be dispassionate and objective, but it’s hard to do that when soldiers are physically protecting you from harm, and you come under fire. 

Finally, Starship Troopers notes well how, in times of war, propaganda helps to dehumanize our enemies.  

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.

Even outside the social critique, which is more relevant today after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan than it was in 1997, Starship Troopers really holds up.  

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.

It’s not that easy to ignore anymore.  

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.


  1. "It’s not that easy to ignore anymore." Yup. But we certainly seem to be striving mightily to do so - and so far, succeeding magnificently!

  2. I know part of the reason audiences were confused by this film was the marketing really was pushing the "Star Wars' angle on this one. And with the special editions hitting theaters the same year, I think folks were thinking "Starship Troopers" was going to be less satire and more of a straight up science fiction adventure. Also "Independence Day" came out the year before, and folks really enjoyed that lightweight film. So "Starship Troopers" was more of the same, right? What they got instead was huge helpings of satirical Verhoeven. This came out when I was working at the video store and I can tell you, folks did not know what to make of it.

    I think the years have been kind to the film, and with folks seeing it in the scope of Verhoeven's previous sci-fi films it seems like the perfect dessert. I still enjoy "Total Recall" quite a bit more than this one, but those propaganda films are still hilarious.

  3. I've always enjoyed this film, yet the Nazi symbolism you accurately call out never made sense to me. In the movie, Earth is attacked by Klendathu. The Federation then counters with an invasion of Klendathu.

    The bugs were essentially like the Nazis in that they initially attacked other countries. The fact that Verhoeven dresses the attacked Federation up as Nazis always seemed misplaced. I don't know if there's enough of a back story to prove out that the Federation was a previously offensive conquering force that just happened to get attacked by bugs. I'd really have to watch the movie again.

    Wardrobe issues aside, there are more recent films that show Earth being attacked by a malevolent invading force like "Edge of Tomorrow", "Battle: Los Angeles", "Battleship", "Pacific Rim". In each case, military forces draw together to counter the invaders but they are done without the sarcastic totalitarianism. The fact that Verhoeven chooses to do this is funny but troublesome.

    It's clear that in every movie I've mentioned, the invading aliens are not interested in diplomacy. Nationalistic forces counter attack the aliens as they have no other choice. I really think this is a natural reaction to being attacked, so I don't really understand why Verhoeven made the Federation (i.e. the good guys) come off like Nazis. He makes the protagonists as annoying and shallow as possible, but for what purpose? Am I supposed to side with the bugs? Let's say I'm a character in the movie. The bugs invade the Federation which I am a part of. Is Verhoeven suggesting that I lay down my weapons and assimilate into the new bug society? I just don't get what he is trying to say. It just never made any sense other than to be funny.

  4. Anonymous4:41 PM

    I started watching it, hoping to see the ultimate military scifi satisfaction that the book is all about. Then I got this funny yet indifferent action film. It just shoves the antithesis of military scifi to our faces. The infantry tactics were moronistic. How about a loud party with space violin in the middle of the enemy? The Nazi symbolism seemed too exaggerated. It took years for me to finally understand and appreciate the ingenious satire this movie is about. Nowadays I laugh even harder.