Casper Van Dien
Neil Patrick Harris
2 Hrs., 9 Mins.
July 17, 2020
adness is methodical in Starship Troopers (1997). The sci-fi action movie, written by Edward Neumeier and directed by Paul Verhoeven, is a satire. When it seems to be upholding genre tropes, what it’s really doing is highlighting their silliness, not co-signing them. Targets in Starship Troopers: the fascistic underpinnings of the military-industrial complex; the way Hollywood, by making the war movie a
bankable genre, has helped render jingoism and imperial violence not only thrilling but also things oftentimes conflated with superheroic heroism. When it was released a couple of decades ago, though, most critics missed the point of Starship Troopers. It was lumped in with other adolescent-baiting action movies — another noisy carousel of right-wing-inflected action thunder. They thought Neumeier and Verhoeven were celebrating the very things they were indicting, or they recognized some of the satire but didn’t quite see the full extent of it.
Tides, in recent years, have steadily turned. How couldn’t they? You don’t have to parse through much — in fact I don’t think you have to parse through anything, really — to get to the heart of what the movie is trying to say. In 2013, The Atlantic published what might be the first high-profile reexamination of the movie. It’s “one of the most understood movies ever,” the headline resoundingly declares. Before then, indie publications like The A.V. Club had considered it “the most subversive major studio film in recent memory.” Watching it a few decades after its initial release, I’m a bit puzzled by the way the feature was at one time mostly written off as “just another action movie.” Its contempt, to my eye, is so plain that it almost becomes an additional aesthetic device. Verhoeven isn’t merrily parroting the visual style of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935) for nothing.
Starship Troopers is set in the 23rd century. The human population, as of late, has taken to colonizing new planets as a pastime. The endeavor’s been going well enough until the film opens, when we learn that the most recent excursion has resulted in a series of attacks from the giant bugs with daggerous limbs populating one of the planets. Why wouldn’t they be aggressive back, with their world’s livelihood threatened? The film zeroes in on classically handsome, recent high-school graduate Johnny (Casper Van Dien) as he enlists in the United Citizen Federation to join in the fight against the beasts. Side-narratives involve his ever-changing relationship with his high-school sweetheart, pretty Carmen (Denise Richards), who becomes a pilot, and impulsive Dizzy (Dinah Meyer), a former classmate who unsuccessfully vied for his heart in school and purposely joins Johnny’s division to be with him.
and fighting for one’s country, it is almost always relatively uninteresting, standardly good-looking white people who don’t question the systems that exploit them put front and center. Conformity is dressed up as exceptionalism. These people have been led to believe that the violence they gleefully practice is uncomplicatedly “good.” The set design apes the wonted 1950s, pulpy sci-fi look but is far chintzier — as if to highlight the plasticity of many of the stories associated with it.
The action sequences are as efficient as they are run-of-the-mill. They’re flat, without fulfillment. They communicate that, in war, how much of the time are battles being fought to pave the way for another campaign whose chief shared characteristic is unceremonious death? Reactionary violence might seem an answer a lot of the time, especially when you have giant insects wanting to stab you and/or suck your brains out with a pointy tongue, destroy cities. But early on in the movie, the tendency to use it as a solution for everything rather than a rarely deployed, strategic tactic is coolly ridiculed. A scientist lets it be known that the only way to get out of this mess is to actually study the insects and then figure out a response. A TV anchor opposite her concludes nonetheless that bugs in his experience are stupid and, as such, should strictly be blown and shot up. At the end of each of the movie’s dramatic sequences, TV ads designed to compound fears over the bugs (while also minimizing the strength of said bugs) and make violence seem appetizing take up the screen. They're commercial breaks, intermissions. In the world of Starship Troopers, adverts celebrating violence are as banal as Garnier Fructis shampoo commercials. “I tried to seduce the audience to join [Troopers] society, but then ask, ‘What are you really joining up for?’” Verhoeven told Entertainment Weekly in 1997.
Uncritical militarism always wins out in Starship Troopers. “Violence is the supreme authority!” is one of many frightening adages uttered. War is so venerated, in fact, that in the movie’s world, one can only vote if they have served. It isn’t until after manpower quickly gives way for numerous gratuitous deaths (one battle in Starship Troopers sees the demises of 100,000 soldiers in an hour) that logic is used, when the bug queen is captured and then studied. (But what might have happened if the human population had retreated to begin with rather than continuing to stoke the flames?) When a character with mind-reading abilities (!) presses his palm against the bulbous queen’s head, he announces that she’s scared. The audience encircling them breaks out into applause and cheers. To dominate is preferable to letting be.
When watching a satirical movie, a viewer must discern whether a film is sharply critiquing certain tropes and ideas or if they are more so recapitulating and therefore unwittingly fueling them. Starship Troopers sometimes does mundanely reiterate. The reliance on action sequences I think dulls some of their parodic impact (after some time, they make our eyes glaze over), and Westernization of the main cast (they are supposed to be from Argentina but are definitely just plain white Americans; Johnny in the novel the movie is based on is Filipino) still results in the appropriate performers not getting leading parts in movies. Even if white-washing is part of the critique, you are still, at the end of the day, upholding the problem.
Still, Starship Troopers is a gripping Trojan horse of a movie. This capable sci-fi action film is also disdainful of other capably made sci-fi action features that perpetuate noxious ideologies as much as they seek to thrill. It makes you want to rewatch, and rewatch with a more critical eye, violence-heavy blockbusters teeming with similar ideas. “With a title like Starship Troopers, people were expecting a new Star Wars,” Verhoeven reflected in a 2018 interview with The Guardian. “They got that, but not really: it stuck in your throat. It said: ‘Here are your heroes and your heroines, but by the way — they’re fascists.’” A
he love triangle, and Johnny’s coming of age, are bland, exacerbated by the orthodox beauty and straight-laced personalities of the characters. But as with all else in Starship Troopers, the traditional all-Americanness of the ensemble (not to mention the white-washed casting of them) seems a pointed maneuver. It seems to lampoon the way, in fictional stories extolling the virtues of romanticized patriotism