“This year we explored the failure of democracy”
Starship Troopers is twenty years old this year! I mean the film, not the book. Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s classic science fiction novel was greeted with critical disdain upon its release. Those fond of Heinlein’s novel disliked his interpretation of the text (and lack of power suits). Film critics disliked the fascistic overtones, bland acting, and simple plot. However, both parties misunderstood Verhoeven’s intentions behind directing Starship Troopers. He didn’t want to bow down before a science fiction classic. He wanted to be subversive and controversial. He wanted to turn the novel on its head and lace it with his own brand of brutal satire. In that respect, it was a success. Starship Troopers isn’t a classic science fiction film, but it’s pretty darn close.I read the novel after picking it up at a charity shop. I found it boring and repulsive. Long stretches of the book take place in a classroom, where students and teachers discuss the state of affairs in their world. It’s basically Heinlein describing the world he wished to live in. It’s a military dictatorship, where violence is lauded and citizenship (i.e. the right to vote) is only given to those who serve in the army. Democracy failed, so military leaders stepped in to sort things out. They built the human race around the glorification of the military. Their perennial enemy is the ‘bugs,’ who apparently pose a threat to the human race. Oh, the army have ‘power suits,’ exoskeletal suits that increase each soldier’s abilities.
Verhoeven took the bare bones of Heinlein’s text. There isn’t a power suit in sight, just a bunch of teenagers being brainwashed into serving the army. Like Robocop, the film is interrupted by news flashes (presented like a web browser). These news flashes tell us about the world surrounding these teenagers. Like Heinlein’s novel, they live in a military dictatorship. The enemy is the ‘bugs.’ But this isn’t a glorification of the military in any way, shape or form. This is a Verhoeven satire about a fascistic state (he added a love triangle/quadrangle, involving the main character Johnny Rico and three others).
“Figuring things out for yourself is the only freedom anyone really has”
It works. It only takes a little digging to see what’s beneath the surface of Starship Troopers. Not one section of this military dictatorship is seen as morally good. In Heinlein’s novel, the military dictatorship is the best form of government. Here, it serves to undermine society and brainwash its civilians. Take, for example, the early scenes in the film showing our teenagers in school. Both teachers shown are clearly ex-soldiers. One is missing an arm, one is blind. In this world, even teachers have military ties. There’s no aspect of society left untouched by the military.
The teacher missing an arm, Rasczak, propounds the use of violence. He describes it as the “supreme authority.” Discussions never got anyone anywhere. He tells an inquisitive teenager to ask the people of Hiroshima about diplomatic solutions. The teenagers’ drill instructor, Zim (who gives Gunnery Sergeant Hartman a run for his money), uses extreme violence against the cadets, such as breaking one’s arm (“MEDIC!”). Why talk about things when you can just shoot them? Of course, like any Verhoeven film, the extolling of violence goes hand in hand with visual ultraviolence. The bugs tear people in half, rip limbs off and cut people’s heads off. There’s plenty of blood splattering the scenery. It’s supposed to be exaggerated and absurd. That’s the point. But for all the blood spilt, all the violence doesn’t seem to make a difference. Verhoeven likes to press that message in most of his films.
To remain in power, all worthy dictatorships need an enemy. The enemy is are the ‘bugs.’ Like all worthy enemies of dictatorships, they didn’t start the violence. The humans started the violence by colonising planets in the bugs’ system. When the bugs retaliated in self-defence, the dictatorship called it an act of aggression and declared war on the ‘bugs.’ The humans don’t rate the bugs intelligence at all, and are caught unawares when the bugs display intelligence of war strategy. You can see the parallels here with the Vietnam War (and Aliens, which also had the book of Starship Troopers as an influence): the more advanced army underestimates an inferior one, only to find themselves in deep trouble during war.
“Everybody fights, no one quits”
One thing that I’m not sure help the satire or hinders it is the awful acting from the teenagers, Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards presumably think that they are in a serious war film. But they are so rigid and stiff that they look like they’re in a 50s B-movie. They look the part, all chiselled chins and beautiful features, just like the perfect Aryan, but they can’t play the part. Emotional scenes are torn to pieces by their cringeworthy acting. But perhaps that’s another level of satire. Maybe that’s part of not taking the film seriously. But it can make the film difficult to watch occasionally.
Verhoeven said of Starship Troopers: “If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn’t work, no one will listen to me. So I’m going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it’s only good for killing f***ing bugs!” Perhaps that’s why people didn’t like it back in 1997. They mistook the satire for glorification. Perhaps if it hadn’t been released during a period of relative prosperity and lack of war in the Western world, it would have been received like it was supposed to have been received.
It isn’t a classic science fiction film on the level of Verhoeven’s Robocop (but maybe better than Total Recall?). The acting, whether intentionally awful or not, does cause the film to stutter along the journey. There’s no real plot, save these teenagers making their journey from innocent youth to war-hardened veterans. But as a warning against fascism, it’s second to none. Violence may be the supreme authority, but all it leads to is more violence. The film ends with an advert for the army (like the one it began with). A final message is splattered on the screen: “They’ll keep fighting…and they’ll win!” War victories mean nothing in this world. They are only preludes to another battle or war. There’ll always be an enemy to fight…Verhoeven warned us. It’s time we heeded him.
VERDICT: 8/10. Starship Troopers is not a faithful adaptation of a beloved science fiction novel, but a bitter satire about the dangers of right wing fanaticism. The acting is hokey and the story is simplistic, but just as simplistic and silly as the world depicted in Starship Troopers. If violence is the supreme authority, nothing else matters.
What do you think of Starship Troopers (1997) Leave your thoughts/opinions below!
Click here for my review of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987)