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DVD Review: Starship Troopers

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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.

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About Thomas M. Sipos

  • Oh, I think the Heinlein fans fully understand and get Verhovan’s satire – it ain’t subtle….they just don’t like it as the movie butchered the Starship Troopers premise and story. Bluntly even as satire it wasn’t particularly well-done or effective. And the movie was hideously bad with the exception of the digital bugs, who proved they were better actors then most of the cast.

    There have been reams of discussion online regarding the book which was highly contraversial when it was published, and remains so today, which might give you a clue as to the depth of the ideas and the book content. I doubt the movie will be remembered in 40 years…..

    One aspect you failed to note was that Verhovan grew up in occupied Holland in WWII, so the fascistic/Nazi symbology and the graphic violence that characterizes many of his films (highly visible in Total Recall, and Robocop (also very satirical and much more fun then Starship Troopers)) was a result of his childhood remembrances (as was his evocative film Soldier of Orange).

    Lastly, and I throw it in mainly because it will be the first thing the Heinlein fans cite – the political system that Heinlein envisioned was not a dictatorship – it was a democracy with limitations on who could hold full citizenship (i.e. vote or hold office). You needed to have participated in federal service to become a full citizen and federal service wasn’t just the military, it could be medical service, teachers, police, etc. The point behind the system was that the only people who were permited to vote were those who had gave of themselves for the betterment of society (i.e. put themselves on the line to protect it or serve it). The idea being that they would not put self-interest first in their decisions…which I think, is where the philosophy tends to break down.

  • I think the film largely ignored the Heinlein book; Verhovan satirized Heinlein without paying attention to him. Rather, Verhovan paid attention to Heinlein’s critics.

    Yes, I read the Heinlein book, after seeing the film, so I know the book’s negative critics were wrong. The book is not fascistic.

    So the film fails as a satire of the book — but it succeeds as a satire of 9/11 war hysteria. A case where the satire was created before its target.

    As for Heinlein, I don’t much like his work. I hated “Gulf” and couldn’t finish Friday. I liked “They.” I thought The Forever War, which Starship Troopers is often compared to, was a much better book.

    Heinlein and Clive Barker are two writers I often can’t finish reading. Their characters turn me off. Cold, too self-assured, and they “don’t believe in sin.”

    As opposed to characters by Kurt Vonnegut, Ian Fleming, and Philip K. Dick (authors I like). Even if they don’t believe in God, their characters understand that man is a “fallen being,” and they’re wracked with self-doubt and ambivalence. (Fleming’s James Bond is not the one-dimensional superhero of the movies.)

    I suppose all this says something about my “sense of life” (as Ayn Rand put it). So be it.

  • Heinlein was one of the first sc-fi writers I ever read but I agree that his work was decidely mixed. I liked Starship Troopers as it is a quick and easy read, but it is very didatic in its style. I didn’t much care for any of his later work (Friday, The Number of the Beast) or for that matter Stranger in a Strange Land which i couldn’t even finish. The majority of his earlier short stories were quite good as were many of his “juveniles” (Have Spacesuit, Will travel”). My personal favorites remain The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Glory Road.

  • One sly thing someone pointed out to me that reinforces the Aryan-nation satirical intent of it all: Van Dien, Richards, Meyer, et al. are living in Buenos Aires. Not a Hispanic face in sight — just well-chiseled blue-eyed white kids.

    And I liked earlier Barker, back when he was still writing the gory stuff. Not so sure about his later ‘fantasy’ works (it was all downhill after the unreadably dense Imajica).

  • I don’t know how “sly” the Buenos Aires part was, as opposed to being (again) inadvertant satire, i.e., serendipidy.

    After all, it was Buenos Aires in the book, and Hollywood usually casts well-chiseled white folk, whatever the film.

  • From what I’ve heard there are a wide number of Argentinians of non-latin descent (lots of Germans and Irish) so having “chiseled aryans” from Buenos Aires may not be as wrong as you would think.

    Weirdly enough, in the book Johanny Rico was from a Filipino family living in Buenos Aires, definitely not a chiseled aryan as the books specifically mentions the fact (including that his native language is tagalog).

    Heinlein liked to play with race in many of his books. He was forever disguising this or that character’s ethnic background and then unveiling it at a key moment to make a social point, so its another piece that Verhovan ignored when he made the film.

    The part of the film that I hated the most wasn’t the satire but rather the blatent stupidity of the show (typical movie military tactic: have troops make a big circle around the bugs and shoot them…I guess nobody in the future ever thought about what the shots might do to the guy on the other side of the circle…). Satire I can take, stupid concepts and poor execution annoy me when I am paying to see it.

  • Another interesting thing is that in the story, full citizenship is bestowed only on those who serve the government (military or otherwise). I read the book so long ago I don’t remember how this was presented exactly, but it seems in opposition to the Heinleinian libertarian philosophy Thomas alludes to. It seems that in this particular Utopia, everything is (benign) Government.

  • Guppusmaximus

    I guess I am rather uninformed then because I loved Starship Troopers mainly for the films gore… I kinda caught the idea that the U.S. likes to kill supposed enemies before understanding them but I wasn’t watching it for that. I loved the cheesy sci-fi and I thought the acting was great for this type of movie…. Just my opinion

  • I’m obviously a very shallow person because about the only thing I thought was good about the movie was Dinah Meyer naked (I liked her more than the Denis Richards character). I enjoyed the book, which was invariably place in the “young adult” section of the library, and the book does have some interesting ideas including the notion that people don’t want to be involved in their government – Rico’s parents are appalled that he went into the army (although they didn’t know his reason) because their family had never been involved in politics and didn’t want to be.

    The movie has none of this sort of thing. It’s disguised as a propaganda film of the sort that the major Hollywood studios made during and and immediately after World War II, but there’s an edge to it that is vaguely distasteful. Maybe it’s Neil Patrick Harris in a uniform that looks every inch the “model of a modern Nazi general” or the goings on at the boot camp where the punishments are like nothing I remember from the book (including amputations – but don’t worry they’ll put the hand back on). The character played by Michael Ironside reminds me a bit of the school teacher in All’s Quiet On The Western Front but without there being any irony to him. On the whole the movie does have a similarity to some of Verhoven’s other North American films in its dark view of society and the people running things – I’m thinking specifically of Robocop and Total Recall. An interesting movie in that respect but not a good movie of the book or a particularly enjoyable bit of film making in my opinion.

  • Ah yes! the exquisite sight of young Doogie Howser MD in his Pan-nazi uniform…highly creepy. Personally I preferred his turn as the token white guy in Undercover Brother.

  • I think it’s supposed to be distasteful on some level – it’s like the aftermath of the rape scene in Man Bites Dog, showing us the true ugliness of the people we’re rooting for.

    I think part of the reason I dug this (much like I do all Verhoeven’s films) is that he’s implicitly criticizing the dark mindlessness and sick kicky thrills of most Hollywood action product by cranking up the violence and sickness to uncomfortable, near-psychotic levels. It’s like he’s saying, “So THIS is what you like, huh? Let’s see how far we can push it before you don’t like it anymore.”

  • Brent: “but there’s an edge to it that is vaguely distasteful. Maybe it’s Neil Patrick Harris in a uniform that looks every inch the “model of a modern Nazi general”

    That’s the brilliance of the satire. It sets these people up as heroes, beautiful and friendly and victimized by the Bugs — then it slowly creates these moments where you’re suddenly hit with, “Hey, aren’t these supposed to be the Good Guys? But why are they…”

    They get you to identify with them, then pull the rug out from under you.

  • Baronius

    I’ve got to agree with the critics on this one. The actual satire in the film was heavy-handed. Really just a rehash of Total Recall and especially Robocop, but clumsier. In the rest of the film, places where you see brilliant satire, I think it’s just incompetence. The incompetence is so spectacular that you’d think there must be some meaning to it, but there isn’t.

    If you’re going to do satire, you need actors who can convey subtlety. This cast didn’t have the capacity to convey the obvious. (It’s the difference between, for example, Tea Leoni and Pamela Anderson playing a ditzy blonde. One is funny, the other is just sad.) As others have noted, there are plot holes everywhere, like the firing in a circle. Or the fact that they’re using guns at all, which clearly aren’t effective. These aren’t characteristics of a cleverly developed film.

  • Vern Halen

    Verhoeven? Didn’t he direct Showgirls also? If so, he should have put these two films together – naked Las Vegas babes fighting alien bugs. Even if that’s not satire, it would’ve been more watchable than either film that saw released.

  • Baronius: “If you’re going to do satire, you need actors who can convey subtlety. This cast didn’t have the capacity…”

    Well, satire can be subtle. But here the heavy-handedness works.

    Soviet and Nazi propaganda is in-your-face and heavy-handed. They see themselves in loud, glowing terms. And these characters are loud, in-you-face, and glowing.

    Starship Troopers is globalist fascism as seen by a globalist fascist. We’re seeing the world through their own eyes.

  • ashton

    This shit is so fuckin stupid!!!!!