Updated: Mar 30
Starship Troopers, (a film I love), just may be one of the most underrated and misunderstood films of all time, (and I love that, too). There, I said it.
This isn't really that crazy of an opinion these days. Although the super-violent 1997 space-action flick barely made its money back – $120 million from a $100 million budget – and was panned by critics all around (I can't even quote Roger Ebert's views on the film; it's too embarrassing for too many reasons from too many points of view), the film was finally understood after, well, 9/11. There's also a lot of Vietnam in there for sure. How the movie decides to present both its story and themes through subtlety and commitment to satire can be confusing, if not downright unnoticeable. The ideals and motivations of the world and its characters are presented in such an overaggressive way that it’s enough to make the audience commit in one of two ways: 1) either this is an insanely right-wing, fascist, pro-genocide work of propaganda wrapped up into a summer alien invasion-action movie, or 2) this is a humorous denouncement of overt militarism and how our society is moving towards a culture that has left behind any lessons we may have learned from our past, instead deciding to champion violence and victory over kindness and understanding. And, ho-boy does that sound familiar, am I right?
Flashback time! It's the summer of '97. The new Alien: Resurrection flick is about to hit theaters this fall and everybody can't wait. My father introduces me (at the very inappropriate age of 11) to Ellen Ripley and the world of the Xenomorphs in their first three incarnations, all in preparation to take me to the movie theater to see the newest installment in the Signourney-Weaver-Kicks-Ass-Chronicles. And I am pumped. The Alien series was such a treat for me, as a young boy who had already begun whetting his cinematic appetite with the likes of Spielberg, Lucas and Cameron, not to mention the occasional traumatic experience served up by Carpenter, Craven or Scorsese. The first movie got me into Ridley Scott. The second movie more than affirmed my choice of favorite director at the time, (both Terminators and The Abyss, baby). And the third introduced to me to one of my future favorite auteurs of film, David Fincher. Long story short, we rolled out to see Resurrection in early December, just after the holidays, and were met with the dreaded sold out. I was crushed. We started to drive back home, and when my father's heart couldn't take anymore, he pulled a U-turn for the ages, heading straight back to the box office and asking for two tickets to the next screening of any movie. That movie was Starship Troopers, still idling by on silver screens across America, knee deep in its first month of release.
My goodness, what a mistake he must have thought that was. Where the Alien franchise depended on dread to astonish, Starship Troopers was an exploitation smoothie, as if its creators had put anything they could find from the most depraved genres of film: cursing, nudity, violence, gore, sex, guns, white people, etc., and pushed the blend button. This is a film where the first ten minutes contain a scene in which a teacher lectures students on how the attack on Hiroshima is considered a great act for stopping World War II. A film where two characters, who have done nothing wrong morally or ethically, are sacrificed for the sake of our other heroes, (one by being impaled repeatedly and swung around like a rag doll, and the other by having his brains sucked out through a tube by a giant space slug). This is a film where our main character is shown to have a true dream, aspirations that no one believes he can ever hope to achieve, and we, the audience, get to see these dreams systematically crushed over the course of his journey, whether by the manipulation of his tyrannical government, or ripped from him by being placed in situations that will most definitely lead to some seriously tragic and traumatic episodes. Pass the popcorn, Dad!
But I digress. As foolish as my father was to put me in that theater, I've gotta say, it's one of my favorite film anecdotes concerning myself. Mainly because it brings up Starship Troopers, a film that most people seem to forget, and those that remember it fall firmly into one of the two previously stated categories. They either think that it's a laser-filled mess, or they believe it is a satirical masterpiece. And that has always been an intriguing conversation to get into. It's a film that demands open-mindedness in the face of everything that gets the closed-minded off: violence, sex, guns, torture and white people. It is intentionally misleading in its own bravado showmanship of the very actions and ethics, (or lack thereof) it seeks to ultimately upend and criticize. It glorifies a society that has become one of conquest, always needing a new frontier to colonize, thereby, creating a new enemy that they must defeat. And the tactics this society uses, both against its enemy and themselves, are truly unnerving.
Starship Troopers presents a distant future of Earth, one where we have essentially become the Mirror Universe of Star Trek, a civilization reaching for the stars in want of war and victory, instead of peace and exploration. Screenwriter Edward Neumeier, (who also wrote director Paul Verhoeven's much more critically accepted take down of police states, Robocop), adapted the story from a Robert A. Heinlein novel of the same name. However, where the film takes a satirical approach in its depiction of a bloodthirsty human race of the future, the novel is chock full of brash and irresponsible warmongering, going so far as to practically condone fascism and genocidal tactics in conquest and war. Neumeier uses irony and exaggeration to comment on the right-wing mentality of American society, presenting these ideas as sincere and supportive, but undermining them through various methods to ultimately be critical and mocking of such a belief structure. To make matters even more confusing, Neumeier chose to take the themes of the Heinlein’s novel, (mixed with his own depiction), and translate them through the tropes and tone of mid-90's teen soap operas, creating a multi-layered crazy cultural satire that both intrigues and bewilders. It's quite amusing to watch a gory action film of this scale include all of the staple characters and sub-plots of whatever WB Thursday night teen-drama you wish to compare it to, going so far as casting ‘90's heartthrobs Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards and Sir Neil Patrick Harris, forcing them to deliver their lines in the most monochromatic way possible. How the fuck did they get these kids to do this to their careers?? This serves the film very well it turns out, as the first hour or so of the film is fully committed to character development and world building, allowing for quite simply, everything to be entertaining and interesting, instead of simply spectacle.
But let's get back to why it's worth talking about this movie 20 years after its release. It's no secret to those who have enjoyed Starship Troopers for years to give a great read to those about to embark on a revisit to the film. Every time they say, “bug,” replace it with “terrorist.” It is truly unnerving how 20 years has led us closer to this hysterically exaggerated take on how our American military (and the culture that backs it), functions both nationally and globally. Even more unnerving are the similarities of a film made four years prior to the events it accidentally (?) predicts, and commenting on our reaction as citizens of the leader of the free world. The attack on Buenos Aires by the arachnids, is propagated by the media and the government as an attack on our very way of life, an act of war that calls for us to enlist and help fight the good fight. However, we soon learn that the first rock thrown was actually very much our own: settling down on the “bug” home world uninvited and unwelcome, beginning a chain of events where our own pride and negligence would most assuredly result in retaliation of equal or greater force. Even worse is the idea that the “bugs” may have had nothing to do with, (or at the very least played a very small part in), the meteor that struck down Buenos Aires, causing millions of new soldiers to suddenly volunteer and suit up to fight the enemy. Very dark, indeed. The film presents a world where our young are imprinted on through propaganda and one-sided education, to create a sense of self-worth that can only be found in service to the military. The only way one can be fully accepted by society, the only way to be deemed a “citizen,” is to serve. It's about what you can give it, before it even considers giving you anything. That may seem harsh and a bit of a stretch when compared to real world – right now in America – but this is satire after all; some exaggeration is not only expected, it's mandatory.
The propaganda used in Starship Troopers, which is similar to that used in Robocop, is insanely relevant to the misinformation/”fake news” mentality of recent years in America and worldwide. The manipulation of facts and events to advance a one-sided agenda, presented through cleverly staged advertisements, reflect an exaggerated Facebook auto-play video that you can find on just about anyone's current timeline. The attempt is to other the so-called “enemy,” a continued perpetuation of violence against the seemingly horrible and evil looking face of those who are not like us. Outside of the propaganda itself, are the actions it attempts to rationalize and glorify, going so far as to defend specific measures we as human beings have learned to be unjust and immoral from past incidents throughout history, such as sending premature soldiers into battles they don't fully understand, falsifying information for national morale, using torture as a means to an end and genocide masked as virtuous conquest for the greater (our) good. Even the idea of communication is laid on the slab, as the intellectuals and scientists who dissect the bodies and minds of our enemy do so in order to find weaknesses in order to exploit them for gain, rather than to understand a path to peace or finding common ground.
Starship Troopers boldly presents a world where we are initially thrust unwillingly and unknowingly into the mindset of the bad guys, (the bad guys who think they are the heroes). If you need any evidence of this, just look at the casting of classic ‘80's bad guys, Michael Ironside and Clancy Brown, as generational heroes and teachers of this reality. It is an unfortunately close-to-home hit, as recent events have showed us that those in power are very determined to divide us both morally and ethically. Morals and ethics come from experience and our view of the world, and when our view of the world is controlled by what we read, what we see, whom we love and how we live, there are many variables to be toyed with to achieve a proper end. The film begs the question, (wrapped in an action-filled spectacle of popcorn entertainment), “Am I the hero of the story, or am I just the hero of my story?” We all believe ourselves to be the protagonist of reality, quite simply, because we have no other basis for comparison when it comes to experience and self-reflection. But if we could just try to understand each other on a slightly deeper level, and really listen to each other instead of waiting for our own turn to speak, we might fully comprehend that manipulation is a real thing. People in power are the one's who have immediate, easy access to use it without fear of consequence. Then we might just take one small step in the opposite direction from this possible future. And I personally would love to take that U-turn for ages.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He lives in Beacon, NY with his cat who is named after Kevin Bacon's character from Friday the 13th.