Coming off of the disastrous critical and box office reception to Showgirls in 1995, director Paul Verhoeven decided to return to the science fiction genre he was best known for, adapting Robert Heinlein’s much-revered, juvenile-oriented novel “Starship Troopers.”
Verhoeven was known for the hyper-violent “RoboCop” and “Total Recall,” so filmgoers were ready for giant bugs and graphic death scenes. What nobody was prepared for, however, was for the Dutch native to turn Heinlein’s pro-militaristic novel into a hilarious and biting satire on the dangers of becoming a fascist state. While some of its tactics are directly and hilariously out in the open, many of the film’s surface values caused critics and audiences alike to remain mystified of the movie’s intentions, preferring to stick with a lazier oppositional reading and instead writing it off as a teen coming-of-age movie, a kind of “Melrose Space.”
A deeper examination of the film’s philosophical underpinnings, though, reveal an ironic stance on militarism and its pervasiveness in mass media. Verhoeven tried to achieve an anti-war, anti-fascist perspective through a thinly veiled parodic ideology. Verhoeven was saying a lot more in 1997′s “Starship Troopers” than the movie’s slogan “The only good bug is a dead bug.”
If we were to examine “Starship Troopers” on a realist level, you’d be in league with with Columbia/TriStar, which on the DVD describes a “dazzling epic” based on a “classic sci-fi adventure” featuring “courageous soldiers” in search of “shrieking, fire-spitting, brain-sucking special effects creatures.”
To read the film literally, however, would be naïve, and would ignore the many codes Verhoeven uses to signal the audience of the film’s true meaning. Viewing it in a postmodern light (no distinction between high art and culture), “Starship Troopers” is a movie rich with intertextuality that hearkens back to both the purposeful misinformation of the past and the current half truths of the news media.
The entire film is presented from two points-of-view. We meet a group of young teens-turned-soldiers, and follow their education and induction into military service and battle. Their story is briefly interrupted at various points by broadcasts from the government’s news agency, the Federal Network. Over-the-top parody is the order of the day right away, as the Network shows military troops laughing and handing out bullets to eager children.
Later, while the narrator gleefully states that “Everybody is doing their part,” more kids cheerfully smash bugs (a representation of the humans’ insect enemy) into the ground. As if this allusion to the brazen indoctrination of Germany’s Hitler Youth weren’t enough, Verhoeven piles on the propagandistic codes with an extreme long shot of rigidly organized troops in gray uniforms under a giant flag that recalls “Triumph of the Will” and the Nazi war documentaries of Leni Riefenstahl.
Some mistake his use of this intertextual imagery as one-sided, although it does not stop with a criticism of just the Nazis. Coupled with titles from the Federal Network that read “Why We Fight” and “Know Your Foe” and are direct references to the U.S. war propaganda films of Frank Capra, it should be understood that Verhoeven is warning the viewer how distinctly war can change any society.
By the very construction of the main narrative, we identify with the fresh-faced teenagers who go through training and eventually into battle against the enemy bugs from the planet Klendathu. The attractive young soldiers themselves are a parody, clueing us in again to the film’s messy postmodern technique. Four of the five main characters have appeared in “Beverly Hills 90210″ and “Melrose Place.” What we know of these stars from their past work plays heavily in how the viewer reads their roles. On one level, the film works in the genre of a high school coming-of-age movie, but the vacuous nature of the stereotypical characters does the actors no favors. The blame should not be placed on the stars themselves, though, as they have help from their purposeful director. “They are not bad actors,” Verhoeven has stated. “It is me who made them play stereotypes.”
The “budding youth” genre’s design may be urging us to take a journey with the impressionable soldiers, but their campy, gung-ho militaristic attitude signifies a deeper ideology at work. In a hilarious ironic twist on the usual youthful rebellion, our main character Johnny Rico (Caspar Van Dien) refuses to go on an expensive vacation and then enter Harvard on his parents’ dime for a college education. He rebels against them instead by signing up for the military.
Usually, hegemony derives from consent and collusion from the lower class, but in this case, Johnny is an upper classman whose parents can afford to send him to a nice school. Through indoctrination at school and the constant barrage of government-sponsored audiovisual culture, he is susceptible to the government’s domination out of a natural desire for nationhood. It is no wonder, since his beloved teacher, Mr. Rasczak (Michael Ironside), lectures that violence is “the supreme authority from which all other authority derives.” The desire to sympathize with our young heroes is hard to overcome, even in the face of such dangerous advice.
Heinlein’s book followed a familiar pattern of all his “juvenile” works aimed at male adolescents, focusing on the “science” of science-fiction while following youthful education stories and supporting an optimistic vision of space conquest. Along the way, he taught some important lessons about difficult moral dilemmas. Some critics took issue with the Social Darwinian attitude that his young protagonists inherited, however, calling Heinlein’s political worldview authoritarian and fascist.
Verhoeven’s ideology is exactly the opposite, and by spoofing the hard-nosed military training routine and underlining the soldiers’ expendability, he mocks the very nature of Heinlein’s source novel. The gratuitous violence portrayed during basic training is so ridiculous, even when considering a profanity-strewn training camp classic like “Full Metal Jacket,” that viewing it in a pro-military light is unfathomable.
First, Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown) barks orders at the new recruits, signifying a million other familiar films in the war genre. Verhoeven is never content with one commonality, so insults are not enough, and he actually breaks one private’s arm to prove a point. Later, when another soldier is not following orders, Zim throws a knife through the boy’s hand, directly after forcing him to stretch it out like a target. At another point, a live-fire exercise is held while other troops are marching in very close proximity. Johnny allows a soldier to remove his helmet after a malfunction, and the boy is gruesomely shot in the head and killed instantly. These extreme exaggerations are sloppy and brutal and hilarious.
The obvious propaganda and sloganeering, combined with codes that signify Nazi culture, are warnings that war is capable of turning any nation into a fascist state. This particular one seems to be getting along just fine, thanks, with no sexism, no racism, and seemingly, no crime. To illustrate a happily fascist society, the film subverts stereotypes of gender and race. Not only do the men and women of the armed forces fight together side-by-side, they actually shower together in the same room with no sexual complications. Everyone is naked, but the camaraderie of all-for-one remains intact.
In another example, when new female recruit Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) joins the troop late during drills, Sergeant Zim has no problem challenging her to a one-on-one fight in front of everybody, just as he would if she were male. Gender equality extends further than the infantry, even, where the best man for the job could be a woman. In the case of the higher-ranking officers, it almost always is.
Johnny’s girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) wants a man and a career, but a career is clearly more important to her, so she dumps Johnny to pursue her dream of being a pilot. When her high test scores come back, the government decides she is, in fact, best suited to become a pilot, and she soon realizes her dream, steering a real starfleet ship in battle around some treacherous curves. Her captain is also a woman, and most of the men in the starships are in lesser roles. In case this gender equality and reversal of historical culture is too subtle for modern audiences, Verhoeven pushes the limits of good taste yet again in showing how race is equal in the happily fascist future.
When the war campaign takes a turn for the worse, white male Sky Marshal Dienes humbly steps down and is replaced, in a Federal Network news report, by a black woman named Sky Marshal Tehat Meru. Later, in a scene that clearly evokes the Civil War, a white soldier plays the fiddle, dancing around the infantry’s camp, where many are shirtless and wearing suspenders. Remarkably, the song he is playing is “Dixie,” an anthem to the slave-owning South. A black soldier takes up a white partner, and, in celebration, they dance together to the song. But that’s not all.
The thwarting of racial stereotypes continues, in an unreal and unfocused attempt to point out racial equality. In the director’s commentary track on the DVD, Verhoeven says that the studio begged for the following scene to be removed from the film. After white Johnny’s costly mistake on the live-ammunition exercise, he is punished by being publicly flogged. A black soldier winds up the whip and brutally thrashes a shirtless Johnny in front of the entire camp. This particular scene invariably evokes a response, however confused it may be.
While gender and racial equality seem like great ideas, the viewer must consider at what cost has this society achieved those goals? Again, the hegemony of the ruling class comes into play, and all citizens of the state are complicit. The Federal Network puts a spin on everything to turn its citizens towards war, and the result is a mass of brainwashed people with no individualistic traits and only one goal in mind—killing bugs to ensure the survival of the race.
This attitude turns sinister towards the end of the film, echoing the Reich’s most despicable crimes. Carmen’s flight partner gets genocidal when he screams to a brain-bug, “Some day, someone like me is going to kill you and your whole fucking race!”
German legal theoretician and political scientist Carl Schmitt helped form an ideological foundation for the Nazi dictatorship and justified its authoritarian state by using legal philosophy. His famous quote, “Tell me who your enemy is and I’ll tell you who you are,” can be applied to this soldier’s tirade of blatant racial hatred. It is always easier, Schmitt’s philosophy argues, for a populous to unite under a single banner when they are given a reason to unite, especially something to fight against.
Defining oneself by defining the enemy is precisely the role of the audiovisual media in “Starship Troopers.” The blurry question of who struck first (the humans set up an uninvited colony on Klendathu, the bugs killed them) becomes a non-issue once the Federal Network gets involved and starts spinning the facts to match their mediated version of reality. Every fascist state needs an enemy to help them rally around the cause.
Verhoeven makes a dreadfully dark point that the cause can become all-consuming. Johnny finds himself a lieutenant by the film’s end, addressing a new batch of recruits. Like the Hitler Youth towards the fading end of the Nazi regime, these newer, fresher-faced kids look to be about twelve years old. This scene is a damning and darkly funny indictment of this supposedly “classless” society that so many people have died for.
Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris), an old friend of Carmen and Johnny’s who has risen quickly to the rank of Colonel, shows what the ones in power really think of the infantry that has served them so loyally when he tells them his old pals that military intelligence knew the planet that the troops were sent to invade was a trap. “We’re in this for the species, boys and girls,” he says. “It’s simple numbers.” It is no wonder that audiences have trouble finding a clear perspective on things when this proclamation is coming from the same character who, at the film’s opening, was concerned about getting laid at the school dance.
“Starship Troopers” plays loosely and freely with surface values and challenges the viewer to think more than is usually expected of them in an action/adventure genre. It fetishizes the idea of violence while at the same time reveling in its special-effects laden action scenes. It also asks the viewer to consider the consequences of going along with the nation-state without question. Service may guarantee citizenship, but adults do not escape service unharmed.
“Mobile infantry made me the man I am today,” a legless man with a mechanical arm working a desk job tells our young heroes. Besides sporting similar attire to that of an SS officer, the biology teacher (who has the students cracking open giant bugs’ stomachs to see how they work—“know your enemy,” literally) is obviously scarred and blind. Father figure and teacher Mr. Rasczak (who shows up later on the bug planet to lead his troop into battle with the slogan “C’mon guys, do you wanna live forever?”) lost his lower arm and hand serving his country in the last war.
Free people often worry that the downtrodden will use their misfortune as an excuse as they lose their will to a totalitarian state that promises equality. Verhoeven shows the long-term results of such complicity in a sick physical metaphor.
Some of these scenes are not coded as important, since they are high parody and played for laughs. While there are more than enough familiar narrative devices to keep the viewer grounded in the most basic of plot developments, the incorrect reading would be to look at the film as a mindless science-fiction action picture. It is a movie that cleverly combines the aforementioned genres with the war film, the teenage film, the melodrama, and the documentary (with a propagandistic spin).
The stars are used against the audience, and the film’s semiotic codes send messages that become clearer with a working knowledge of the propaganda films of World War II. Parody is laid on thick to elucidate the director’s ideology, which is strongly at odds with that of its source novel’s author. Stereotypes are used and then subverted, especially with gender and race, and anti-fascist and anti-militaristic stances become clearer as the state exacts its changes on the film’s characters. All of this can only be appreciated with a postmodern reading of a movie that plays with surface values and intertextuality, but never delves into any psychological depths whatsoever.
Perhaps, after all this detail, however, Verhoeven’s preferred reading can best be summed up by this one simple scene towards the middle of “Starship Troopers.” As a reporter puts forth the possibility of a “live and let live” mentality concerning the bugs, Johnny pushes his way into the camera view, representing a military that rushes to violent judgment before exhausting all other options, and yells directly to the camera, “I say– kill ‘em all!” The reporter looks out at the viewer cautiously and shrugs.