Saturday 11 March 2023

Starship Troopers (1997)

Starship Troopers, dating from 1997, has been (like most of Paul Verhoeven’s movies) widely misunderstood. There’s so much action and violence and noise and so many special effects that a lot of viewers (and unfortunately some reviewers) end up not noticing the satire.

At some point in the future humanity becomes involved in a war to the death with an alien species. The aliens are bugs. Gigantic very mean bugs. The war consumes millions of lives, of both people and bugs.

A bunch of high school kids in Buenos Aires decide that they want to join the military. They do so, but it turns out to be less fun than they’d anticipated. Contrary to expectations, defeating the bugs turns out to be awesomely difficult. Finally it penetrates even the military mind that the bugs are intelligent. Maybe not intelligent in a human way, but definitely intelligent. The bugs can not only out-fight us, they seem to have a distressing ability to out-think us.

Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) joins the military because Carmen joins up and he’s hopelessly in love with Carmen and he thinks he’ll lose her if he doesn’t enlist. Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) joins up because she’s hopelessly in love with Johnny and she wants to be near him. Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) joins up because he’s ambitious and super-intelligent and he knows he’s not going to end up in the infantry. He’ll have a nice safe job in military intelligence. Johnny is as dumb as a rock so he was always going to end up in the infantry.

They go to boot camp and their experiences there follow the pattern set in countless previous movies. Their drill sergeant is merciless but that’s because he has to weed out the losers.

Then the war starts and Johnny, Dizzy and Carmen are caught in the middle of it.

I hate getting into political discussions in connection with movies (I have no interest in political ideologies myself) but this is such a political movie, based on a very very political novel, that it’s unavoidable in this case.

What’s interesting is the way this future society is portrayed but first we have make a detour and consider the source material, Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel of the same name. It’s regarded as one of the classics of the genre. It’s widely regarded as a fascist novel although Heinlein’s politics were in fact somewhat complicated. The key political point in the novel is that you can only become a full citizen in Heinlein’s imagined future society by undertaking military service. And only citizens have political rights. Only citizens can vote. If you want to be able to vote you have to join the military. It sounds like a recipe for a fascist military dictatorship but Heinlein thought it was a swell idea.

And in the movie military service is also necessary if you want political rights. It’s a society entirely run by ex-military types. It seems to be some sort of global government known as the Federation. As you can imagine Paul Verhoeven is much more sceptical about this idea than Heinlein was. In the movie the totalitarian nature of society is pretty obvious, with the population being fed an endless stream of propaganda by the military government, most of this propaganda being of course of a very gung-ho militarist nature.

There’s also a suggestion (it’s just mentioned briefly but it is there) that the bugs may not see themselves as the aggressors, that they may be acting defensively in response to human invasions of their sector of the galaxy.

Verhoeven’s movie is also much less admiring of the military. The war is an endless series of bungles caused by arrogance and a persistent tendency to assume that humans must be superior to bugs so therefore the bugs must be destined to lose. As a result of human military incompetence millions of lives are thrown away in ill-considered attempt to conquer the bugs’ home planet.

We only see one general, and he’s not only a blithering idiot he’s also a coward, hiding in a cupboard in terror of the bugs.

There are other aspects of the movie that are more complex. It’s hard to say exactly how Verhoeven expects us to react to a military ethos in which the highest expression of duty is blowing out a comrade’s brains rather than let him fall into the hands of the bugs. Sure, maybe it’s kinder in a way but it does capture the dehumanising nature of war.

One thing that a lot of people don’t seem to have noticed is that the Federation uniforms are vaguely reminiscent of Second World War Nazi uniforms. In fact there’s a lot of Nazi iconography associated with the Federation.

I don’t know how much more obvious Verhoeven could have made it that he was making an anti-fascist film but lots of mainstream critics at the time missed the point entirely and attacked it as a fascist movie. Mainstream critics really are pretty useless when confronted with a movie that takes an unconventional or non-mainstream approach. It’s also odd that so many people missed the fact that the movie is showing us that a society run by ex-military types will inevitably be a militaristic society engaged in endless wars.

The acting is less than dazzling but I suspect that the performances were exactly what Verhoeven wanted. These are people so heavily indoctrinated ands media-saturated that they’re incapable of independent thought. They’re content to be obedient cogs in the machine. Their emotions are also extremely shallow. They think and feel simplistically. They’ve been dehumanised.

A weakness is that the level of violence eventually desensitises the viewer. But than I guess that was also deliberate on Verhoeven’s part

The studio promoted the movie as another big dumb action movie blockbuster which it clearly isn’t so it’s not surprising that Starship Troopers did mediocre business at the box office. Its cult reputation has grown steadily since then.

Starship Troopers is an outlier among big-budget Hollywood science fiction epics. It really has more in common with Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964) than with the average Hollywood sci-fi movie.

Starship Troopers is intelligent provocative science fiction. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed three other Verhoeven movies from the 90s, movies which also seemed to perplex critics - Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995).

1 comment:

Santi Pages said...

One of the highlights of the movie is that the Casper Van Dien took his character literally. He never thought it was a satire. His completely serious acting works perfectly.