It is a mark of my perspective as a philosopher that what struck me initially about Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997) were its similarities to what Plato called a Timocracy in his Republic, a society ruled by military honor only one step down from Plato’s blueprint for the ideal society. Like Plato’s vision of the perfect Aristocracy, men and women were equally capable of fighting for their civilization or leading that fight, but the values of a united planet Earth were militaristic, not philosophical. Service in the military was required as a condition of citizenship (which was limited to the elite minority), who in turn earned a variety of benefits by joining up. Like our incursion into Vietnam, the bug war may have been triggered by our expansionism into their part of the galaxy.
This is not the only place where Verhoeven’s satirical take on the dangers of a fascistic state hooks up with the Vietnam War. News coverage of the attacks is reminiscent of the televising of the Vietnam War, interspersed with commercials, and interactive features, as if made for the home screen of the future. The treatment of bugs as subhuman, playing on our primal insect phobias, has uncomfortable resonances with US treatment of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong as ‘gooks’, a racist phenomenon still fresh in the minds of many Americans twenty years ago. Their mass attacks against humans are wiped out by napalm air strikes.
Verhoeven was familiar with propaganda films firsthand, having lived under the Nazi occupation of Holland as a child. He recaptures their tone by using actors with archetypal looks and little acting ability, creating a kind of soap opera atmosphere. Casper Van Dein (Marine grunt Johnny Rico), and Denise Richards (Starship pilot Lt. Carmen Ibanez) had undistinguished careers thereafter, but perfectly set the cartoon-like tone with their patently superficial interactions. Michael Ironside plays Johnny’s high school teacher and top sergeant with spartan aplomb, and Neil Patrick Harris is the young genius who eventually reads the mind of the brain bug.
Director Paul Verhoeven’s second career as one of Hollywood’s most successful blockbuster directors was made possible in part by the big jump in special effects during the 1990’s, which made Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990), and especially Starship Troopers, so memorable. Stop-motion animation techniques for the big robot in Robocop were as old as Ray Harryhausen, and the technological leap to 1997 is striking. The bugs themselves are a triumph of CGI magic, and the first big battle, where many of our starships are blown to smithereens by bug rockets, was absolutely riveting on the big screen. A platoon leader gets her arm burnt off by a flame-throwing bug, and a pilot gets the contents of his skull sucked out through a phallic straw, by an otherwise disturbingly vaginal brain bug.
Meanwhile, the battle is also being fought on homeland screens all over Planet Earth. Talk shows mock anyone who speaks out against the war, and children are shown crushing juicy cockroaches with great relish, proudly doing their part for the war effort. Starship troopers visit a middle school, and young people are encouraged to take up the gun. Harris shows up in a cautionary spot warning those trying to kill the warrior bugs to aim for the brain stem. The short features all end with the question “would you like to know more?”, and the interactive promise to connect you with more information if you do.
Returning to the real battle, the earth deploys a vast array of formidable weapons, some of a tactical nuclear nature. The explosions are gorgeous to behold. Our protagonists get trapped in a frontier fort, and slaughter the insects like redskins, only this time with mass napalm air strikes. Hollywood clichés mix with propaganda tropes until one cannot differentiate between them. The action scenes here are viscerally violent, and at times revolting, but are sometimes relieved by welcome humor, as when a rather obnoxious news reporter embedded with the Trooper battalion gets crunched by the bugs on live feed.
Verhoeven’s reign at the top of the Hollywood heap only lasted a decade, from Robocop in 1987 to Starship Troopers. His next foray into science fiction, Hollow Man (2000), was a bust, and he has only made three, relatively modest, films since. It was an unlikely run of popular success for a Dutch Art House director, who seems to have returned to his deeply sensual and perverse roots in Elle (2016).
What made Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers so successful was their common vision of life in media governed cultures, along with their lighthearted sense of violence as great fun. None of these films were to be taken too seriously; a cartoon-like atmosphere is sustained throughout, slightly campy in its exaggeration (a delicate tendency that was taken to disastrous extremes in 1996 in Showgirls).
I must admit to admiring Verhoeven’s serious films somewhat more than the blockbusters. Spetters (1980) is a gritty motorcycle racing movie that introduced Rutger Hauer to the screen. The 4th Man (1983) is his masterpiece, about a writer drawn into a vortex of seduction and murder. Almost as good is Basic Instinct (1992), another Hitchcockian homage. But I have watched Starship Troopers more often than any of these, both for its pop philosophy and for its inspired mayhem.
The cautionary elements of this tale are singularly relevant to the present political climate. As military expenditures increase, while social and regulatory programs face drastic cuts, there is a similar degree of nationalism (in the film’s case, speciesism) and demonization of the other behind the class warfare and sabre rattling in the United States, and several other nations around the world. These characteristic features of the rise of fascism are ably depicted in Starship Troopers, as is the pervasiveness of propagandistic media in such an age. They serve as reminders that we should not let ourselves be fooled again.
Starship Troopers (1997, USA, 129 minutes)
Prod Co: TriStar Pictures/Touchstone Pictures Prod: Jon Davidson & Alan Marshall Dir: Paul Verhoeven Scr: Edward Neumeier Phot: Jost Vacano Ed: Mark Goldblatt & Caroline Ross Prod Des: Allan Cameron Mus: Basil Poledouris
Cast: Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Neil Patrick Harris, Clancy Brown, Patrick Muldoon, Michael Ironside, Jake Busey