Why Is Starship Troopers Still So Misunderstood?

Starship Troopers is about as subtle as a movie about screaming bug killers can be. So why do people keep missing the point?

Starship Troopers
Photo: TriStar Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

“You get me?” barks Career Drill Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown). The young, beautiful, and vapid recruits giving him their full attention answer in kind: “Sir yes sir!” Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his fellow roughnecks might get Zim, but most people do not. Since its first theatrical run through today, viewers misread, misunderstand, and, frankly, misattribute Starship Troopers time and again, failing to see the cutting satire at work.

The most recent example comes from author Isaac Young, who took to Twitter to critique the film’s approach to satire. Young argued that director Paul Verhoeven failed to make fun of the Terran Federation because the attractive heroes, clean cities, and technologically advanced schools look nicer than the ugly bugs they fight.

While it might be easy to dismiss Young’s surface-level critique as the result of a viewer deeply concerned with attacking “lib” aesthetics, a common theme among the author’s tweets, many great critics made a similar mistake when the film released in 1997. “[I]t certainly is a jaw-dropping experience, so rigorously one-dimensional and free from even the pretense of intelligence it’s hard not to be astonished and even mesmerized by what is on the screen,” wrote Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times.

In the New York Times, Janet Maslin described Starship Troopers as a pandering film, “what with pretty actors, grisly critters, brains sucked out of skulls, buckets of green slime and a plot that is half beach blanket bingo, half Iwo Jima.” Maslin chalked up this glossy excess as nothing more than an American blockbuster pushed to the extreme, as Verhoeven did in his last movie, Showgirls. Roger Ebert agreed, acknowledging that “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.” Ebert spoke for most critics, suggesting that any satire that Starship Troopers achieved happened by accident.

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If we’re being generous, we can understand why so many would make the mistake. Not only does the Robert A. Heinlein novel on which the movie is based have some fascist tendencies, but Paul Verhoeven gives the film a slick beauty, employing blockbuster tropes that most of us take for granted. But with the Starship Troopers-inspired video game Helldivers 2 taking the world by storm, there are lots of new viewers who are discovering the film for the first time and missing the point of one of Verhoeven’s best pictures…

Strange Troopers in a Strange Land

When Navy vet turned best selling sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein sat down to write Starship Troopers in the late 1950s, he intended to encourage support for the American military, which he considered on the wane at a crucial point in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Concerned about the country’s loss of civic spirit, as well as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decision to suspend nuclear weapons testing, Heinlein wrote a novel about the glories of service and the importance of sacrifice.

Even before Verhoeven made Starship Troopers, many readers recognized fascist undertones in the Heinlein’s novel, which led some to accuse the book of being militaristic propaganda on par with what the Nazis disseminated under Joseph Goebbels. But that reading simplifies Heinlein’s actual position. Before becoming a writer, Heinlein was active in the 1934 gubernatorial campaign of author Upton Sinclair, who ran as a socialist in California. In 1938, Heinlein ran as a left-wing Democrat for California State Assembly.

In response to critics that called out Starship Troopers for its alleged fascism, Heinlein insisted that readers focused too much on the militarism depicted, ignoring other types of service. In his mind, individualism and civic duty were the important lessons of his novels, which he considered contrary to the all-consuming nature of fascism.

Whatever Heinlein’s intentions for his book, the tone changed when Starship Troopers was adapted to the big screen, and not just because of Paul Verhoeven. It’s because that’s the nature of cinema.

“The spectacle grasped in its totality is both the result and the project of the existing mode of production,” wrote French theorist Guy Debord in his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle. “It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration. It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society.” By “spectacle,” Debord means the larger-than-life nature of society under capitalism, best demonstrated in mass media, such as cinema. It’s loud, shiny, and beautiful. It enchants and excites us, drawing our attention away from the world as it is and toward the world as it could be.

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For Debord, spectacle had become so powerful that it was accepted as normal, replacing the direct experience with real life for most people. “In all its specific forms, as information or propaganda, as advertisement or direct entertainment consumption, the spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life.”

Debord sees fascism as a potential outcome of capitalism, when the society it creates falls under siege. “Fascism was an extremist de­fense of the bourgeois economy threatened by crisis and by proletarian subversion,” Debord writes in The Society of the Spectacle. “Fascism is a state of siege in capitalist society, by means of which this society saves itself and gives itself stop-gap rationalization by making the State intervene massively in its management.”

For Debord, fascism is not as much an ideology as it is “a violent resurrection of myth which demands participation in a com­munity defined by archaic pseudo-values: race, blood, the leader.” Thus, the spectacular nature of cinema makes it an ideal media for disseminating that myth.

Even before Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl made her first feature, the 1932 fantasy The Blue Light, D.W. Griffith employed filmic techniques to make the white supremacist historical fantasy Birth of a Nation into America’s first blockbuster. Riefenstahl in particular used cinema in movies such as Triumph of the Will to accentuate the power of the German army and to minimize individuals.

Early in Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl’s looks down on ranks of soldiers moving in a clean and impressive fashion. Later she cuts from the camera panning by adoring German citizens giving the Nazi salute to Hitler, massive in the center of the frame, waving in response. Later shots, show the power of the Nazi army, with its members solidified into a war machine mass. Riefenstahl uses the language of cinema to realize the myth of the leader’s power and the perfect community of a shared volkgeist.

Because of this inherently spectacular and unreal nature of cinema, even standard storytelling tropes about charismatic leaders, hideous villains, and communities of sameness can get amplified to a mythic degree. If creators and viewers are not careful, the combination of medium and trope can result in fascist implications, regardless of the filmmaker’s intentions. But what Verhoeven does is use that spectacle for his own exploration of the people enticed by fascism, while also poking fun at them and their beliefs throughout.

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Would You Like to Know More?

Johnny Rico slaps down his application on the desk of a recruitment officer (Robert David Hall). When the officer sees that Rico wants to join the mobile infantry, pride fills his eyes and he reaches out to shake the boy’s hand. “Good for you,” barks the officer as he grasps Rico’s human hand in his mechanical appendages. “Mobile infantry made me the man I am today.” As the officer pushes away to file Rico’s paperwork, the camera pans down to reveal the stumps where his legs used to be.

Even the most inattentive among us can see the satirical menace in that scene: mobile infantry destroyed the man he was, making him little more than a cog in a machine. But that’s hardly the only time Starship Troopers invokes and satirizes militarism. Working again with RoboCop co-writer Edward Neumeier, Verhoeven decided against leaning away from the fascist undertones in the book. Instead the scribes took full advantage of cinema’s natural tendencies to exaggerate and, ultimately, belittle those ideas.

That approach is also obvious in the over-the-top victory sequences in Starship Troopers, such as when Rico defeats the tanker bug. While Verhoeven does include some disgusting gore in the scene, he and cinematographer Jost Vacano shoot it straight. The incredibly handsome Johnny Rico shows exceptional valor taking down an ugly, inhuman monster, all presented with slick imagery and a rousing score by Basil Poledouris.

When Rico gets promoted to leader of the Roughnecks, complete with his own recruits, Verhoeven and his co-creators present the scene like any other inspirational military speech sequence. The camera looks up at Rico, capturing the edges and angles of Van Dien’s jawline while rollicking musical stings punctuate every word of his speech. But when we cut back to his new troops, and see adolescent children in the crowd, the film once again lifts the veil on the horror actually taking place in the scene.

But Verhoeven goes even further to include direct allusions to Nazi cinema. “The first shot is taken from Triumph of the Will,” Verhoeven told Entertainment Weekly in 1997. ”When the soldiers look at the camera and say, ‘I’m doing my part!’ that’s from Riefenstahl. We copied it. It’s wink-wink Riefenstahl.”

Starship Troopers works as satire precisely because it doesn’t wink at the audience. It uses the tools of cinema to present the ideology of fascism in a spectacular manner. Which, of course, can and has gone horribly wrong.

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At the end of Starship Troopers, Rico’s classmate turned high-level intelligence officer Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) inspects the captured brain bug. The camera pushes close on Jenkins as he puts his hand on the creature, sensing its feelings. “It’s afraid,” he whispers in a tone so low that it would be inaudible if the score hadn’t softened. “It’s afraid!” he repeats with a shout, and the soldiers cheer in excitement.

As soldiers drag the brain bug away for experiments, Jenkins and Rico reunite with their classmate Carmen (Denise Richards). The blocking, acting, and cinematography of the scene all foreground the reunion, as if we’re watching three old friends coming back together for the glory of the Federation. But in the final wide shot, amid the cheering soldiers and hugging old friends, we can see the brain bug writhing in pain and fear. The scene demonstrates the key to understanding Starship Troopers. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll be taken in by the excitement of the soldiers, by the beauty of the stars, or by the victorious feeling of the music. You’ll be susceptible to the Federation’s fascist ideologies, much like the pretty, vapid people onscreen.

But if you’re watching with empathy, you’ll mourn the children about to die under Rico’s command. You’ll notice the flat intonations and empty stare of Neil Patrick Harris’ Jenkins, signifying the loss of his humanity. You’ll feel for the fearful bug, despite its ugly features. Watching with empathy, with a mind toward the evils of suffering, is the only thing that offsets the potential fascist tendencies of cinematic spectacle.

On one hand, Young’s critique of Starship Troopers is right. The bugs are ugly and gross. It’s a lot easier to just stare at the pretty actors and thrill to their exploits. But if we watch movies with an eye for caring for other people and beings, then we won’t get distracted by the spectacle.

Only then can cinema be what Roger Ebert saw: a machine for empathy. Only then will we truly “get” what the story is actually trying to tell us.

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