When I first saw “Starship Troopers” perhaps a decade ago, I saw it for everything it was and none of it for what it was satirizing. It was a film with one-dimensional characters, a cast best suited for an 80s high school film and an unrepentant tonal clash. Maybe worst of all, it was a film about human civilization flying halfway across the cosmos to shoot giant insects on a desert planet. It appeared, at first glance, to be “Aliens” without the pacing that made its horror so effective. It looked like “Ender’s Game” with the anti-war message and human element sucked out. And it was. I used to hate that.
I made it only fifteen minutes into German propagandist Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” before turning it off for good. I wasn’t surprised by my dislike for the film; after all, I certainly hadn’t gone in with the intention of enjoying genuine Nazi propaganda. Instead I was trying to see why film critics had lauded praise upon the film, to try to understand how a distorted perspective can make even the most vile of institutions alluring. Today, I think the praise “Triumph of the Will” received from post-war film critics was some sort of attempt by them to appear so objective that they were unaffected by their personal beliefs. Of course, it’s nearly impossible for fascism to be anything more than repulsive and at the very least subtly disturbing, even when it’s being presented in a positive light. It wasn’t until I recently rewatched “Starship Troopers” that I realized how wholly its makers had embraced this notion.
Before it was a film, “Starship Troopers” was a 1960 Hugo Award-winning novel by author Robert Heinlein. The book, when it wasn’t depicting pulpy sci-fi action, had its characters debating capital punishment, incarceration, civic duty and the occasional necessity of war. I’ve never read it and so will withhold judgment, but some critics at the time accused Heinlein of promoting fascism. Paul Verhoeven, the director of the dystopic “Robocop” and cheesy “Total Recall,” was so intrigued by these accusations that he decided to make a film adaptation over thirty years later (but disliked the book so profoundly he forced the other screenwriters to read it and feed him their summaries). The result is a film satirically designed to be fascist propaganda as quietly disturbing as it is outwardly weird and comical.
The protagonist is all-American Johnny Rico, played by the rather aryan Casper Van Dien. He is joined by his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) and his best friend Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris). Lending itself to the film’s cheesy tone are romantic conflicts: a different girl, Diz, competes with Carmen for Johnny’s attention, and Carmen herself seems all too willing to flirt with the sleazy Zander Barcalow. Where this romantic dilemma diverges from similar premises is in the fervor with which our protagonists join their nation’s military.
The reality of this universe is ever-present, but the characters distract from it with their own ignorance. In the opening scene, as Rico draws out flirtatious doodles, his teacher, played by the ever-stern Michael Ironsides, lectures on the failure of the “social scientists” and the abolishment of democracy. Before he’s done, he reminds the class that “might makes right,” using the bombing of Hiroshima as an example. Rico is hesitant to agree, at first.
There are often distractions from the horrible reality of the universe of “Starship Troopers.” A scene in which military recruits share their motivations for enlisting also has them showering nude in an indiscreet shower room, the nudity seemingly acting as a distraction for their rather melancholy reasoning. They enlisted so they could vote, so they could earn a license for children, so they could pay for their college. Only a handful are patriotic, and they are hardly more hopeful than the others.
Reality strikes again in the film’s action scenes. Against insects five times their size and outnumbering them a hundred to one, the human soldiers barely stand a chance. Their optimism and patriotism is contrasted against a practically amusing amount of terrible gore and violence. Soldiers who had spent the better part of their screentime whooping and posturing have their limbs torn apart and their torsos swallowed whole. It’s not pretty and it’s not even emotionally effective. Still, in the lowest way possible, it is entertaining.
I’m hesitant to call this movie brilliant. I can only describe it by warping other media. In any other film depicting this kind of government, there would be an uprising, or an attempted revolution. This film is like the “Hunger Games” through the eyes of a Capital soldier; like Star Wars: Episode V from the perspective of a stormtrooper.
Any humanity left in Johnny Rico has vanished by the end of the film. In a warped callback to a previous scene, the three friends who once joined the military on a whim walk together after a grisly battle. One is in his military uniform, one is splattered in the blood of both friend and foe, and one is adorned in a distinctly Nazi-like uniform, with a Raven badge to boot.
The film cements its place as the anti-“Ender’s Game” in one of its final scenes, when a character reading the mind of one of the insects announces to the other soldiers that their enemy feels fear. In “Ender’s Game,” this drives Ender to abandon the cause to which he blindly devoted himself, and instead to attempt to atone for his crimes against a race he assumed to be emotionless. In “Starship Troopers” the soldiers quickly break into cheers upon news of their enemies’ fright. Like most of the movie, there is no message here. The film lacks any real message, any real meaning. While this might prevent it from ever truly being a masterpiece, it is also it greatest quality. The movie is as devoid of art, emotion and meaning as the fascist society it depicts.