This piece originally ran on March 2, 2017.
“American cinema today is missing all existential thought. There’s no questioning society. No politics. Studios try to make themselves feel good with the movies that make it to the Oscars.”
—Paul Verhoeven, in a 2016 interview with The Playlist
Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
—Noam Chomsky, in a 1992 interview with WBAI radio
There’s been quite a bit of revisionist history surrounding Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film Starship Troopers, a movie largely savaged by critics of the time but currently sitting at 63 percent on Rotten Tomatoes due to a conspicuous number of reviews from about a decade after it came out that recognize it as a pointed satire.
Verhoeven himself has vocally affirmed this reading of his misunderstood work. And, for no particular reason in light of our current political climate here in the United States—in which Neo-Nazis and openly racist conspiracy theorists support a president who has no interest in rebuking or denouncing them, and in which Jewish community centers and cemeteries are enduring a wave of terrorism—it’s worth taking a look back at the film as it turns 20 this year.
The Plot: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate the Bugs
Starship Troopers has the most rock-dumb and dirt-simple plot of any science fiction feature in recent memory: Humanity is at war with gigantic creepy-crawlies from outer space, and a crew of determined youngsters must do battle with them. Young Johnny (Casper Van Dien), Dizzy (Dina Meyers), Carmen (Denise Richards) and Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) all decide to enlist in the military, go their separate ways, and reunite to fight the “bugs.” After their home city is destroyed by a bug incursion, they must sally forth on a secret mission to capture a “brain bug,” one of the creatures the military high command believes to be an intelligent alien that directs the mindless, frontline combat bugs.
They do. That’s it. The End.
But try this: Watch Starship Troopers through the lens of somebody in the world in which it’s set. Imagine you’re watching this as a denizen of this legitimately scary society. As Republican candidates for president in 2016 went on about possibly repealing birthright citizenship—a legal precedent established centuries ago that stands unquestioned in nearly every country in the New World—this movie from 20 years ago paints a perfect picture of what a society without it would look like. The film’s newsreels and secondary characters repeat that “Service Guarantees Citizenship,” meaning that if you voluntarily enlist in the military, you are granted citizenship.
Nowhere in this sunny propaganda film of an action movie is there any mention of what not being a citizen means. This is a world where the fascists have already won. All society is geared around and idealizes the military. In the film’s opening scenes, when Johnny and friends are finishing high school, we’re given glimpses into what this is doing to society. Their teachers are disfigured and unhinged war veterans. Michael Ironside plays an amputee who fills his students’ heads with war propaganda, flatly telling them that violence is the solution to political disputes, and maybe you should ask Hiroshima how being a peacenik works out, huh?
Elsewhere, in a cameo I had to look up just to believe my own eyes, Rue McClanahan (!!!) is an entomology teacher who extolls the dangers of the bugs humanity is at war with, all while wearing shaded goggles that are clearly concealing her scarred eyes.
This world isn’t without its dissent and discourse, either. Elsewhere on TV, we see that people do question whether humanity provoked the bugs by encroaching on their corner of the galaxy. These soft, liberal defeatists are shouted down and followed by commercials that show little kids being encouraged to stomp out larval bugs. I’m sure they post lots of fiery rebukes to the military high command on Facebook.
All fascism is about Us vs. Them at base. The most insidious regimes encourage this enmity not just toward other states, but toward other citizens. It’s in the film’s second reel, when the young cadets all head off to boot camp, that we get a few more details about who is the Us and who is the Them. Some of Johnny’s fellow recruits want to do things like have children or start businesses—but the government regulates all those things and only citizens are allowed, or at least fast-tracked to permission. If you aren’t out there sacrificing your limbs for the military’s dumb wars, you don’t deserve any of society’s other benefits. One of the cadets gives a little shrug—perhaps the same one you did when they imposed the indoor smoking ban in your state. That’s just the way it is now.
This is the world that’s raised Johnny and his friends. The government isn’t around to do things like grant newborns the safety of belonging to a state. It’s not there to encourage free thought or to support the endeavors of the individual. It’s there to fill the ranks of its military and make war. Better get the youth ready for it while they’re young.
The Characters: Nobody Knows They’re in a Propaganda Movie
Starship Troopers is so misunderstood because it’s too good at doing the things it’s satirizing. Our window into this dystopian world is the love triangle between Johnny, Carmen and Dizzy. Johnny wants Carmen, who doesn’t seem to care much about him, and Dizzy wants Johnny, who gets over her eventual death in the span of about five minutes. The performances are dopily earnest, the actors selected seemingly for their chiseled Old Hollywood features—Ebert wrote that they look like they come from a Pepsodent ad, and that “the whole look of the production design seems inspired by covers of the pulp space opera mags like Amazing Stories.” It seems impossible that Van Dien and Richards in particular had any idea what kind of movie they were actually in.
Those gleaming exteriors mask totally vacuous and ugly inner lives, of course. The movie essentially tracks Johnny’s rise from a directionless and fickle youngster to a mindless war machine, all in the quest for tail.
There’s a part in every rah-rah war movie that puts our young cocky cadets through grueling, abusive training. For my money, Starship Troopers does it almost as well as Band of Brothers or Glory. You couldn’t ask for a more authoritative and imposing drill sergeant than Clancy Brown, who freely injures and maims his new recruits in an age when you can shout “Medic!” and almost completely heal a compound fracture in mere hours.
Johnny and his lovestruck former classmate Dizzy are easily the most kill-happy squad members in the cohort, and so Johnny is given a squad leader position. When his cockiness gets a fellow recruit killed in a live-fire exercise, it’s his corporal punishment and near-expulsion from the military that are the tragedies. One conversation between Brown and another officer at the boot camp (Dean Norris, of all people) even seems more concerned with sparing Johnny not because of his personal merit, but because the military has already lost the dead recruit and the one who inadvertently shot him, so why waste a third?
Johnny is on the verge of quitting when he learns his home city has been destroyed by a bug assault, and he’s suddenly ready to cast aside all doubt and go to war completely. (Reminder: This film came out four years prior to Sept. 11, 2001.)
The rest of the film sees Johnny and his squadmates slog through the hell of war with the bugs, all while Johnny essentially climbs the ranks chiefly through the death of his comrades. One fellow trooper bites it at the hands of Ironside—a mercy killing—and not a minute later, Johnny is promoted to the dead man’s spot and takes the news with a bright grin and a “Yes, sir!” Great guy to share a foxhole with, is Johnny.
Meanwhile, just as Carmen—off at flight school—casts aside Johnny for a smarmy starship pilot with a nicer uniform, Johnny mostly ignores Dizzy, who apparently loves him so much she’s followed him into a career where you are basically 100 percent guaranteed to get maimed. They’re reunited with their friend Carl, who has become an intelligence officer by virtue of his taking a level in psionics. Compassion isn’t his strong suit, either: If they’re unhappy with decisions like hurling doughboys into harm’s way just to probe for weaknesses in the bugs, well, he says, “Too bad.”
He is dressed in a uniform that is cut exactly the same as a Nazi SS officer’s uniform when he says this.
The Ending: I Am So Pumped for Perpetual War
All of these braindead heroics, we learn, are in the service of hunting down the brain bug. We know, of course, that Johnny and his squadmates are just as brainless as the drones they’ve been slaughtering and been slaughtered by. This pursuit—which has already killed poor Dizzy—takes them to the brain bug’s lair, one final horrible confrontation, and the death of Carmen’s smarmy pilot boyfriend. We’re left with our central trio—the handsome and heroic Johnny, the pretty and not-dead Carmen, and the ruthless strategist Carl. Carl mind-probes the captured brain bug and announces that it’s afraid, and this elicits a roar of approval and celebration from his fellow troopers.
Lost to the cutting room floor of Verhoeven’s RoboCop was an ending sequence of news stories that basically establishes firmly that RoboCop’s struggles may have killed some thugs, but the real criminals still rule a rotten world. Verhoeven got his way with Starship Troopers, which ends on another extended newsreel video. The music soars as Johnny shouts at young recruits to charge into battle, Carmen pilots a starship into more danger, and scientists violate the orifices of the captive brain bug in the name of finding the weaknesses of its species.
They’ve got bigger guns and better ships, but they need you!
Even 20 years later, very few films’ endings have ever made me so completely question everything preceding them. It didn’t dawn on me the third or even the fifth time I saw this film that the ending is showing us that this has been, as I said before, a propaganda film from the opening shots. Are we seeing a movie that’s actually a dramatization of Johnny’s rise, starring some pampered actor and some disingenuous representation of the bugs? Is this the To Hell and Back of the Starship Troopers universe, with Johnny Rico playing himself, just as Audie Murphy did?
I wasn’t old enough to “get” Starship Troopers when I first saw it. I found the violence shocking and off-putting as a teen. It wasn’t until later that the realization of why it’s such an ugly movie caught up with me. As a child, Verhoeven lived next to a Nazi military base in the Netherlands that became a target of allied bombings. The violence in his science fiction films is always brutal, but it’s the sickening sense of the characters being enveloped in a callous world over which they have no control that draws a line under the bullets and blood.
It’s in Starship Troopers that Verhoeven does his job too well, essentially throwing a desperate warning at the audience that says, “The right action movie director can even make fascism look just this cool, guys.”
Twenty years later, half of your friends and neighbors are okay with immigration purges, travel bans that in practice impact people with a certain religion, and a leader who seeks to de-legitimize the press. As of this writing, he wants to cut social programs and ramp up military spending, too.
In another twenty, you wonder if it’s all just going to make some young cadet shrug.
Kenneth Lowe washed out of Games and Theory. He works in media outreach in Illinois state government and has previously been published in Illinois Issues, Colombia Reports and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. You can read more of his work at gailybedight.com.