Bedtime story, from Papa Bush to his young ‘uns: Once upon a time, a long time from now, there was a United Earth. A New World Order of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Everyone was clean and pretty and healthy. Good genes, all around. Black people too. And the streets were clean, and the environment, and the trains ran on time. Then one day, bad monsters attacked Earth, because the monsters were evil and ugly, and looked like giant bugs (because they were giant bugs), and they hated anybody lucky enough to have so much peace, prosperity, and freedom, and who were so good-looking.
But luckily for the happy people of Earth, their world government had the bestest military in the universe, with lots of gnarly weapons and way cool uniforms. So everyone enlisted like crazy to fight the ultimate war between good and evil. The politicos and top brass called it the Bug War — but for the young recruits, it was the kick-ass adventure of a lifetime!
The bugs never had a chance. The end.
No, not a bedtime story, but Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, a dead-on satire of post-9/11 war hysteria – astonishing, because it was released in 1997!
The film’s satire was originally aimed at its source material: Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel, Starship Troopers (condemned by some critics upon publication as “fascistic”). But like humor-impaired Trekies, many Heinlein fans remained clueless and unamused. They complained that the film had replaced Heinlein’s socio-political military philosophy with mindless bug battles. Few realized the joke was on them. Verhoeven didn’t so much ignore Heinlein’s philosophizing as lampoon it.
Heinlein’s novel paints a future Earth in which everyone enjoys equal rights and liberties – except to vote and hold office, which are reserved only to those who complete military service. Enlistment is voluntary and non-discriminatory; any sex, any age. Blue-haired grannies can sign up, but no special treatment. Many softies die in the sadistically brutal boot camps. (However, you can quit any time, without reprisal.) Another rule: everyone fights; cooks, supply clerks, nurses, medics, privates, and generals. No paper-pushers or desk-warmers in Heinlein’s military.
Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers parodies Heinlein’s romanticized military culture by trivializing and sanitizing war. Soldiers are sexy and clean even after battle, ready to party hardy. Ready to die. Dina Meyer’s deathbed speech satirizes an old war film cliché; while reaffirming her love for her main squeeze, she nobly adds that she has “no regrets” about her sacrifice.
For “red shirt” soldiers, death is less sentimental. Quick – and quickly forgotten. After shooting a captured soldier (to prevent a painful bug death) Michael Ironside curtly informs his platoon, “I expect you to do the same for me.” Which they do.
Starship Troopers was no big hit in 1997, but it has its fans, many of whom — judging by review postings on Amazon.com — confuse the film for a serious sci-fi epic with a “war is hell” message. (Not surprisingly, post-9/11 postings are more likely to “get it”.)
Those who doubt the film’s satirical intent should consider one hero’s uniform, which can best be described as neo-Third Reich. Clearly, Verhoeven’s film was not informed by Heinlein’s libertarian fans, but by those critics who interpreted the novel as fascistic.
Also noteworthy, the film’s stars are all strikingly attractive with well-chiseled Aryan features. Their SS physiques are not part of the plot, but merely a hint at the film’s underlying satire. Plot-wise, Federal Service (as it’s called) is open to all, and the Aryan protagonists warmly welcome their sidekicks of color. In one brief scene, a dumpy black female is appointed as the new Sky Marshall, promising to “take the war to the bugs.”
However, because a lot of moviegoers confuse fascism with racism, and because most of them were unfamiliar with the novel, the film’s satire was lost on many. For most moviegoers, the film was just vapid soldiers shooting giant bugs. Further obscuring the satire, the soldiers were just too damn sexy, the bugs too mean and ugly. We humans are inclined to sympathize with attractive people, which is why satirists often paint their targets in hideous garb (communists as pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and as grotesque vampires in my own Vampire Nation).
Starship Troopers takes the opposite tact, painting globalist fascism as imagined by globalist fascists. Everyone is healthy and happy and sexy. The satire is in the exaggeration of fascist ideals (as in Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream). With unwavering fortitude and unshakable confidence in Earth’s inevitable total victory, Denise Richards flashes her Pepsident smile throughout the film. In hairy battles, her mouth may turn sexily pouty, but her brilliant teeth soon return, vast and blinding, equally at home on a TV commercial and an SS recruiting poster.
Want to laugh out loud? The funniest scenes are the recruiting ads and “news” propaganda bulletins. One news item features warmly grinning soldiers distributing bullets to the delighted squeal of eager schoolkids. (How clueless do you have to be to post reviews at Amazon praising the film’s “war is hell” message?)
But the clueless are out there. Unfamiliar with the book, smitten with the sexy stars, and repelled by the bugs, many didn’t get the jokes. In practical terms, until 9/11 Starship Troopers was a satire without a target. The war hysteria following 9/11 provided just that; the players and events stepping tailor-made into the film’s sites with amazing prescience, granting the film a powerful resonance that was lacking when it was first released.
All the parallels are present. The enemy — the Bugs — are pure evil. The military, the news reports, the war, and the government are all beyond question. If they make a mistake, they can be trusted to correct it. United Earth we stand.
The Bug War begins with a Bug attack on a city. In the film’s eeriest scene, a burning building’s framework resembles the Twin Towers. Also remarkable are the many random jokes that find a target post-9/11. In adapting a 1950s book to a 1990s sensibility, Verhoeven tossed in some contemporary satirical barbs unconnected to the book, or even to much of anything in 1997 – but which eerily resonate with our post-9/11 war culture.
There is the film’s black female Sky Marshall, a kooky but satirically pointless joke in 1997. Yet it’s a role tailormade for Condoleezza Rice. There are the TV war correspondents, absent in the book, but today stationed in Iraq. They pester the soldiers in battle, don’t appreciate the threat, and are killed by the bugs. There are the TV pundits who would understand the bugs, woolly and ineffectual as seen through the film’s fascist prism (the New World Order likes to see itself as tolerant).
Starship Troopers is a penetrating satire of post-9/11 war hysteria as might be imagined by an idealistic New World Order fascist. It’s hard to believe it was made pre-9/11 and impossible to think it could be made post-9/11.
Starring Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Jake Busey, and Michael Ironside.