On Starship Troopers

I used to watch Starship Troopers all the time because it was so funny! OK, certainly Casper Van Dien helped a little bit.

Still, the movie is freaking hilarious! Take it from someone who watches a lot of military-related media, like Stargate SG-1 (as well as Atlantis, and Universe), Babylon 5, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which all have some form of military engagements present in these series. According to The Atlantic‘s article “Starship Troopers: One of the Most Misunderstood Movies Ever“:

When Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers hit theaters 16 years ago today, most American critics slammed it. In the New York Times, Janet Maslin panned the “crazed, lurid spectacle,” as featuring “raunchiness tailor-made for teen-age boys.” Jeff Vice, in the Deseret News, called it “a nonstop splatterfest so devoid of taste and logic that it makes even the most brainless summer blockbuster look intelligent.” Roger Ebert, who had praised the “pointed social satire” of Verhoeven’s Robocop, found the film “one-dimensional,” a trivial nothing “pitched at 11-year-old science-fiction fans.”

But those critics had missed the point. Starship Troopers is satire, a ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism. The fact that it was and continues to be taken at face value speaks to the very vapidity the movie skewers.

Starship Troopers is set in the distant future, when humankind has begun to colonize worlds beyond the borders of our galaxy. Earth has provoked an otherwise benign species of bug-like aliens to retaliate violently against our planet, which it suddenly and correctly perceives as hostile. Interpreting what are pretty obviously self-defense tactics as further gestures of aggression, humankind marshals its global forces and charges into a grossly outmatched interstellar war. The rhetoric throughout is unmistakably fascistic: Earth’s disposable infantrymen, among whom our high-school-aged former-jock hero naturally ranks, are galvanized by insipid sloganeering, which they regurgitate on command with sincerity as they head to slaughter. (“The only good bug is a dead bug!” is the chant most favored—shades of Animal Farm abound.)

The resulting film critiques the military-industrial complex, the jingoism of American foreign policy, and a culture that privileges reactionary violence over sensitivity and reason. The screenplay, by Robocop writer Edward Neumeier, furnished the old-fashioned science-fiction framework of Robert A. Heinlein’s notoriously militaristic novel with archetypes on loan from teen soaps and young adult-fiction, undermining the self-serious saber-rattling of the source text. Even the conclusion makes a point of deflating any residual sense of heroism and valor: We see our protagonists, having narrowly escaped death during a near-suicidal mission, marching back to battle in a glorified recruitment video—suggesting that in war the only reward for a battle well fought is the prospect of further battle.

Over the nearly two decades since the film’s debut, the critical reputation of Starship Troopers hasn’t especially improved. But you can feel the conversation beginning to shift; it rightfully has come to be appreciated by some as an unsung masterpiece. Coming in at number 20 on Slant Magazine’s list of the 100 best films of the 1990s last year (a poll in which, full disclosure, I was among the voting critics), the site’s Phil Coldiron described it as “one of the greatest of all anti-imperialist films,” a parody of Hollywood form whose superficial “badness” is central to its critique. It fared well in The A.V. Club’s ‘90s poll, too, appearing in the top 50, where it was praised as a “gonzo satire destined, even designed, to be misunderstood.” Scott Tobias, former editor of the A.V. Club’s film section, lauded Troopers a few years earlier as “the most subversive major studio film in recent memory,” observing that it “seems absurd now to write it off as some silly piece of escapism, as its detractors complained.”

But the original misperceptions still persist. On October 4th, RiffTrax—a series of downloadable comedy commentary tracks from the creators of Mystery Science Theater 3000—released an episode in which they mocked Starship Troopers, a movie their website describes as “dumb and loud” and a “goofy mess.” Mike J. Nelson and his RiffTrax co-stars Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett heckle the film with about as much insight and wit as they misperceive the film to have. Sample humor: At one point, a bomb destroys a giant bug, and the three of them yell “Oh no, Raid!” Later, Denise Richards smiles, and someone says, in a robotic voice, “Smile-o-tron 3000 engaged.” It goes on like this. The tagline for RiffTrax is “Your favorite movies—made funny!” What they don’t seem to understand is that Starship Troopers already is funny—and smart.

Troopers, of course, is far from the only instance of a film being popularly misinterpreted. Given enough distance even the most fervently reviled movie may one day find its legacy resuscitated, earning decades later its long overdue acclaim. Maybe that time is near for Troopers; hopefully, at least a few Rifftrax listeners newly introduced to the film picked up what was really going on. If you’re open and attuned to it—if you’re prepared for the rigor and intensity of Verhoeven’s approach—you’ll get the joke Starship Troopers is telling. And you’ll laugh.

According to Roger Ebert:

“Starship Troopers” is the most violent kiddie movie ever made. I call it a kiddie movie not to be insulting, but to be accurate: Its action, characters and values are pitched at 11-year-old science-fiction fans. That makes it true to its source. It’s based on a novel for juveniles by Robert A. Heinlein. I read it to the point of memorization when I was in grade school. I have improved since then, but the story has not.

The premise: Early in the next millennium, mankind is engaged in a war for survival with the Bugs, a vicious race of giant insects that colonize the galaxy by hurling their spores into space. If you seek their monument, do not look around you: Bugs have no buildings, no technology, no clothes, nothing but the ability to attack, fight, kill and propagate. They exist not as an alien civilization but as pop-up enemies in a space war.

Human society recruits starship troopers to fight the Bug. Their method is to machine-gun them to death. This does not work very well. Three or four troopers will fire thousands of rounds into a Bug, which like the Energizer Bunny just keeps on comin’. Grenades work better, but I guess the troopers haven’t twigged to that. You’d think a human race capable of interstellar travel might have developed an effective insecticide, but no.

It doesn’t really matter, since the Bugs aren’t important except as props for the interminable action scenes, and as an enemy to justify the film’s quasi-fascist militarism. Heinlein was of course a right-wing saberrattler, but a charming and intelligent one who wrote some of the best science fiction ever. “Starship Troopers” proposes a society in which citizenship is earned through military service, and values are learned on the battlefield.

Heinlein intended his story for young boys, but wrote it more or less seriously. The one redeeming merit for director Paul Verhoeven’s film is that by remaining faithful to Heinlein’s material and period, it adds an element of sly satire. This is like the squarest but most technically advanced sci-fi movie of the 1950s, a film in which the sets and costumes look like a cross between Buck Rogers and the Archie comic books, and the characters look like they stepped out of Pepsodent ads.

The film’s narration is handled by a futuristic version of the TV news, crossed with the Web. After every breathless story, the cursor blinks while we’re asked, “Want to know more?” Yes, I did. I was particularly intrigued by the way the Bugs had evolved organic launching pods that could spit their spores into space, and could also fire big globs of unidentified fiery matter at attacking space ships. Since they have no technology, these abilities must have evolved along Darwinian lines; to say they severely test the theory of evolution is putting it mildly.

On the human side, we follow the adventures of a group of high-school friends from Buenos Aires. Johnny (Casper Van Dien) has a crush on Carmen (Denise Richards), but she likes the way Zander (Patrick Muldoon) looks in uniform. When she signs up to become a starship trooper, so does Johnny. They go through basic training led by an officer of the take-no-prisoners school (Michael Ironside) and then they’re sent to fight the Bug. Until late in the movie, when things really get grim, Carmen wears a big wide bright smile in every single scene, as if posing for the cover of the novel. (Indeed, the whole look of the production design seems inspired by covers of the pulp space opera mags like Amazing Stories).

The action sequences are heavily laden with special effects, but curiously joyless. We get the idea right away: Bugs will jump up, troopers will fire countless rounds at them, the Bugs will impale troopers with their spiny giant legs, and finally dissolve in a spray of goo. Later there are refinements, like firebreathing beetles, flying insects, and giant Bugs that erupt from the earth. All very elaborate, but the Bugs are not interesting in the way, say, that the villains in the “Alien” pictures were. Even their planets are boring; Bugs live on ugly rock worlds with no other living species, raising the question of what they eat.

Discussing the science of “Starship Troopers” is beside the point. Paul Verhoeven is facing in the other direction. He wants to depict the world of the future as it might have been visualized in the mind of a kid reading Heinlein in 1956. He faithfully represents Heinlein’s militarism, his Big Brother state, and a value system in which the highest good is to kill a friend before the Bugs can eat him. The underlying ideas are the most interesting aspect of the film.

What’s lacking is exhilaration and sheer entertainment. Unlike the “Star Wars” movies, which embraced a joyous vision and great comic invention, “Starship Troopers” doesn’t resonate. It’s one-dimensional. We smile at the satirical asides, but where’s the warmth of human nature? The spark of genius or rebellion? If “Star Wars” is humanist, “Starship Troopers” is totalitarian.

Watching a film that largely consists of interchangeable characters firing machine guns at computer-generated Bugs, I was reminded of the experience of my friend McHugh. After obtaining his degree from Indiana University, he spent the summer in the employ of Acme Bug Control in Bloomington, Ind. One hot summer day, while he was spraying insecticide under a home, a trap door opened above his head, and a housewife offered him a glass of lemonade. He crawled up, filthy and sweaty, and as he drank the lemonade, the woman told her son, “Now, Jimmy–you study your books, or you’ll end up just like him!” I wanted to tell the troopers the same thing.

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4 thoughts on “On Starship Troopers

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