When Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers was first published in 1959, it was greeted with a mix of overwhelming praise and hard academic criticism. On the one had, it signaled a stylistic move of Heinlein’s work from teen-friendly fantasy into something markedly more adult, and it was widely lauded for its realistic depiction of military combat. Critics, however, immediately picked up on the book’s not-so-subtle military-glorifying underpinnings, and some felt that it was a work of military propaganda. To this day, fans and critics have trouble deciding whether or not Heinlein was attempting to glorify fascism or not.
Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film adaptation of Starship Troopers, playing at the New Beverly on Friday and Saturday, June 16th and 17th, takes Heinlein’s subtle pro-military sentiments, and elevates them into a wry, wicked, gloriously cynical parody of military propaganda. Ultra-stylized, weirdly discomfiting, and boldly overblown, Starship Troopers may be one of the most hilarious political satires this side of Dr. Strangelove. And while the film may function as a wham-bang action spectacle – the action sequences are first-rate – it doesn’t take a very sophisticated audience to see that this is not mere escapist entertainment. Verhoeven, in fact, is using Starship Troopers to deconstruct not only its source material – Verhoeven admitted to never actually finishing the book – but a cinema audience’s need for cathartic vengeful violence.
Perhaps fittingly, critics were torn when Starship Troopers first arrived in theaters, many unable to tell if the film was meant to be a simple spectacle for 11-year-olds (as Roger Ebert described it), or if there was something else going on. Perhaps because it was made in 1997, during the Clinton administration – a time when military distress was not on the mind of the populace – that audiences weren’t able to easily jibe with its anti-military satire. It wasn’t until the George W. Bush years, when the nation entered quagmire after quagmire, that certain audiences were finally able to see the film for what it was. And now, with the fear-mongering rhetoric of the current presidential administration, Starship Troopers is beginning to feel more relevant than ever.
It is the future, and Earth is under attack by the Klendathu, a distant species of giant, intelligent insects. No one remembers a time before the war, and a new generation of good-looking young people is now on the cusp of joining the military effort. The cause of the war is never given, and there is no explanation as to what the Klendathu are, what they seek to gain from the war, who attacked first, or anything of actual political significance. All we know is that they are big ugly bugs that we need – need – to destroy.
The rhetoric in Starship Troopers is, as a savvy viewer will immediately notice, taken directly from propaganda films of the 1940s. It is bold, loud, clear, friendly, and morally absolute. “We’ll keep fighting,” the announcer yells, “and we’ll win!” These messages of hope are playfully juxtaposed over images of incredible, terrible violence that soldiers are taking perhaps a little too much glee in committing. This world has been openly and wholly brainwashed, and military might is seen as the supreme, infallible ethos. There are a few voices of background dissent here and there, but they are seen being ushered out of the room by large men with guns. There is no sympathy, there is no voice of the downtrodden. This is a stratocracy.
The lead characters of Starship Troopers are a group of incredibly attractive, white twenty-somethings who were, no doubt, hired because they look like models out of a back-to-school catalogue. They are, for lack of a better term, Aryan Youth. Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, and even Jake Busey all grin openly, eager to tackle the world, unaware of the dark violence the government has planned for them. They are so impressionable, however, and their world is so militarily geared, that when they are molded into killing machines, they don’t really seem to notice. The only characters that seem to have any sort of self-awareness or motives beyond serving the state are Dina Meyer and Neil Patrick Harris, but that may because they are allowed to give more nuanced performances.
Our heroes join the military effort, are separated, and find themselves in a world of harsh corporal punishment and extreme violence. They are trained, they learn what death is, and their souls are stripped away. They are soon on distant planets firing their guns into an onslaught of GCI super-creatures, yelling in rage, eager to kill as many bugs as possible. There is never a moment when they stop to ask what the bugs are, or what is hoped to be gained. They merely follow orders, gathering on ships, entering battlefields, eager to shoot. They are all cogs in a greater military machine, behaving the way a good soldier ought to.
To digress for a moment: Many Hollywood blockbusters tend to thrive on – or at least commonly repeat – old, now well-known screenwriting tropes derived from Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, etc. etc. That narrative has been used so frequently in Hollywood movies that is has become a natural instinct within the mind of several generations of filmgoers. We all now inherently expect films to follow a very certain pattern, and certain audiences are uncomfortable with any film that deviates from that pattern.
The American military seems to know that The Hero’s Journey is now part of our cultural consciousness, and seeks to sell a very specific narrative when they construct recruitment propaganda for young people. If you’ve seen American recruitment videos, you see this starkly at work. You leave the ordinary world and enter a world of adventure. There will be hardships, but your service will be significant and the emotions will be heightened. You will return changed, but better off. This is a narrative that is often wielded by presidential administrations that seek to increase military violence. Don’t ask what the politicians want, dear soldier. Only concern yourself with your new role in your own Hero’s Journey.
Starship Troopers seeks to deconstruct that very basic expectation. Verhoeven has invented characters that have clearly swallowed this military myth that they, too, can take part in their own Hero’s Journey. What they are doing, the propaganda ensures them, is mythic and glorious. In making them so vapid and cold, however, audiences are able to look at them more objectively and see them as the cogs they are. They live in a society that requires an enemy and eternal combat. And now we are generations removed from any questions. This, Verhoeven seems to be arguing, is what the future will look like once the military industrial complex has taken over. No more empathy. No more intelligence. Just good looking youngsters blindly serving the machine.
Near the end of the film, Harris – mildly psychic – puts his hand on the forehead of a capture bug leader. He reads it’s thoughts. “It’s afraid!” he happily yells. The hundreds of soldiers surrounding him lift their guns in triumph, cheering in joy. They are so happy to be feared.
Despite all the dark, satirical subtext, though, Starship Troopers is no drag. Verhoeven, the man behind RoboCop and Showgirls, knows how to make a bright, fun, funny flick that will elicit more thrill and laughter than it will hand-wringing depression; this is no All Quiet on the Western Front. People return to Starship Troopers again and again because it’s simply fun to watch. As stated above, its action is a blast. Indeed, it broke a record for the most number of bullets fired in a film (a record that I believe was bested the following year by the current record-holder, The Replacement Killers).
Come for the violence, enjoy the bug-blasting, giggle at the overblown melodrama, ogle the young cast, and then stay for the quiet dissection of all forms of military thinking.