The Revisit – Starship Troopers

The Revisit is a place for me to rewatch films I love but haven’t seen in years or films that didn’t click with me the first time. Through The Revisit, I reevaluate these movies and compare my original thoughts on them to how they feel in this more recent viewing.

Starship Troopers (1997, dir. Paul Verhoeven)

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The late 1990s was a weird time in cinema. On the independent side of things, you had some interesting work produced, while on the studio big budget side there was some awful dreck being churned out. Take for instance 1997; the year Starship Troopers came out. Boogie Nights, L.A. Confidential, The Fifth Element, and Lost Highway were released, All films that I would argue are vital pieces of work from their respective creators. Simultaneously you have Batman and Robin, The Lost World, George of the Jungle, Spawn, and Spiceworld the Movie. All films that I would argue represents studio executives shaping films. In the middle of all this, you have Starship Troopers.

I think the first time I saw Starship Troopers was my first night in the dorm my freshman year of college. It was 1999, and the guy across the hall had the VHS tape so as about six of us were hanging out we decided to watch it. I hated this movie. I hadn’t done my deep dive into films yet, but I remember being very turned off by the cheesy nature of the movie and god awful acting. It was the ending especially that created friction with me. Something felt off and wrong about it. In my naivete, I discounted it as simply a bad film and have never actually revisited it til now. I was making up my list of movies to review for The Revisit and came across Starship Troopers. I had read things since 1999 that hinted at the film not being what it appears to be the surface level. It’s believed now that the audience has grossly misinterpreted the picture. So, I decided to give it a shot.

Paul Verhoeven, despite having a career directing films since the 1960s to the present. He was responsible for Elle, a film that came out last year starring Isabelle Huppert that has garnered significant praise (though I have not yet seen it). But for most of us that came of age in the 1980s and 90s, he feels like a director of that period. That is when he was hitting his peak as a big-budget director. Robocop. Total Recall, Basic Instinct. Showgirls, The Hollow Man. Those are the films his name is commonly associated with, but to understand Starship Troopers, you must understand some other things about Verhoeven.

He was born in the Netherlands in 1938, showing up just as the Third Reich began their march across Europe. War struck incredibly close to Verhoeven’s family. They lived near an installation for V1 and V2 rocket launchers so Allied forces bombed the area. His parents were almost killed. However, Verhoeven says as a child he viewed war as an adventure.Verhoeven states that he remembers the sight of charred corpses vividly and hollowed out buildings, but admits because his parents lived and he was not Jewish he doesn’t hold the trauma that others do. That sense of war as an exciting adventure existing alongside horrific violence and mutilation is a the core of Starship Troopers.

The opening frames of Starship Troopers are unquestioningly satirical. This is the first of many newsreels that will be used as an ingenious exposition device throughout the film. Each time one of these appears an unseen newsreader will click through related links to the videos we see unfolding before us. The important thing this first video establishes is the dichotomy between being a Citizen and a civilian. In the world of Starship Troopers, Citizenship is only obtained after serving in the armed forces. With Citizenship comes the right to vote as well as other rights that Americans and other developed nations currently hold as inalienable. One recruit gives her reason for joining is that one day she would like to have kids and getting a license to do so is much easier when you are a Citizen. We’re in a world where even nature is under the boot heel of the government. But for being such a dictatorial society we never truly see our protagonists question it.

Only one character speaks up against Rico, the protagonist, joining up with the Federal Service. Rico’s father has a brief moment where he chastises his son for choosing that path post-graduation. Later, both of Rico’s parents are killed by the enemy bugs who strike Earth with an asteroid launched from their system. The message of the film’s world is that Rico’s parents were wrong to question him and now he is emboldened to bring the wrath of humanity down on the bugs truly.

It is funny to think back at my reaction and the reactions of critics and audiences to Starship Troopers. From the start of the film, it is glaringly obvious what Verhoeven is saying about this world. Michael Ironside plays first the high school teacher to and commanding officer of Rico. In his Social Studies class at the opening of the film he states the following:

“This year we explored the failure of democracy. How our social scientists brought our world to the brink of chaos. We talked about the veterans, how they took control and established the stability that has lasted for generations since. You know these facts, but have I taught you anything of value this year? […] Why are only citizens allowed to vote? […] Something given has no value. When you vote, you are exercising political authority, you’re using force. And force my friends is violence. The supreme authority from which all other authorities are derived.”

A few moments later the teacher has this exchange:

Dizzy: My mother always told me that violence doesn’t solve anything.
Jean Rasczak: Really? I wonder what the city founders of Hiroshima would have to say about that.
[to Carmen]Jean Rasczak: You.
Carmen: They wouldn’t say anything. Hiroshima was destroyed.
Jean Rasczak: Correct. Naked force has resolved more conflicts throughout history than any other factor. The contrary opinion, that violence doesn’t solve anything, is wishful thinking at its worst. People who forget that always die.

Starship Troopers is not glorifying fascism or even oblivious to its presence in the film. The entire work is a direct commentary on fascism, and even further I believe the film is meant to be a piece of meta-fiction. We are watching a propaganda film made in the universe of Starship Troopers that is aimed at impressionable high school students.

The cast of “high school” students are apparently grown, adults. The acting is stiff and artificial. The music is overly bombastic. The characters exhibit no signs of empathy. Both the male and female lead lose people the film tells us they are romantically linked to, but at the end, they march off triumphantly. The meaningless nature of human death is highlighted even further in the newsreel segments. A cow is devoured by one of the Arachnid bugs and is censored. In the end, the brain bug has a tool inserted into her apparently vaginal mouth, and that is censored. One thing that is never censored throughout the film and the newsreels are human casualties. This is because one purpose of this propaganda is to desensitize the young viewers to the sight of human death. No one is ever truly grieved; the protagonist never appears to suffer any emotional or long-term physical consequences. As the teacher said, violence is the best way to solve every problem.

There is so much more I could write about Starship Troopers and eventually, I may. One big takeaway I did have was thinking about games inspired by material like Troopers and that they completely miss the point. Verhoeven did not intend for people to be inspired to run around and shoot bugs. I personally think this is one of the most transgressive studio films ever produced. He wanted us to be appalled through our laughter at the absurdity of fascist thought. He wants us to see what the characters fail to see, that this way of thinking leaves you blind to understanding the horrible implications of your actions on the world around you.

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