I promise this feature, unlike my last one, really has a connection to this week’s sci-fi cop theme. Starship Troopers was directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumeier. Their lone collaboration before that? RoboCop. Boom! And that’s the end of this article.
OK, I actually should probably keep on going with this. Starship Troopers polarized audiences and critics alike upon its release and was widely considered a flop at the box office. And it wasn’t because the movie sucked. In fact, I happen to think it’s really good. The true problem lies in the fact that it was misunderstood and misinterpreted by a whole lot of people when it came out. It’s been stated time and again, but I’ll beat a dead horse a little more… this film is clearly a satire, and a very effective one at that. Still, it’s a point that’s often lost on audiences. Here are some quotes from a few critics:
Starship Troopers is the most violent kiddie movie ever made. I call it a kiddie movie not to be insulting, but to be accurate: Its action, characters and values are pitched at 11-year-old science-fiction fans.
In this bizarrely discordant mixture of ultraviolent action footage, bad acting, crisp special effects and futuristic camp, the remnants of Heinlein's rhetoric of military pride stick out like a grimy Marine uniform at a high-toned Hollywood party. Scott Rosenberg
A jaw-dropping experience, so rigorously one-dimensional and free from even the pretense of intelligence.
Starship Troopers is fatally lacking in lightness, play, invention. Human bodies are gutted and eviscerated, the limbs pulled off, the heads drilled. Are children supposed to enjoy this literal-minded, grisly bloodbath? As you watch the endless carnage, you become sure that Hollywood has gone completely, utterly mad. But how can you fight the success of ‘ironic’ stupidity?
Those are some pretty scathing reviews. But what’s really sad about all of this is that Verhoeven and Neumeier had previously released a sci-fi that was all satire in RoboCop. And for as over-the-top and ridiculous as everything was in Starship Troopers, people for whatever reason couldn’t grasp that they were following the same blueprint once again.
Starship Troopers is a satirical replica of the kind of propaganda film that we could expect to see if a world government became engaged in an interstellar conflict. In fact, we need look no further than our own history to draw comparisons. During World War II, propaganda films like Why We Fight and Triumph of the Will were used to drum up public support for the war efforts in their respective countries. If you pay close attention to Starship Troopers, particularly the Federation news and information clips, you’ll see imagery that has been borrowed from these famous World War II films. Check out this clip from Why We Fight:
And this one from Starship Troopers:
It’s pretty easy to see that these films had a profound influence on Verhoeven. There’s also a ton of fascist and Nazi imagery in the film, from the SS-looking uniforms to the Federation symbol being a golden eagle. Because of this, many people actually accused Verhoeven himself of being a fascist. Out of all the misguided statements about the film, I think that’s probably the one that irks me the most. Verhoeven actually lived under German occupation during World War 2, so to say he would promote Nazi or fascist ideals is simply ridiculous.
What’s also extremely frustrating is the fact that this film made no effort to hide its satirical nature, yet it was still missed on so many. Here’s another clip.
Soldiers letting children play with fully automatic rifles and live ammunition? Those same children fighting over one of the weapons? It’s fairly obvious that this film isn’t serious about the ideas it’s promoting. In the second half of the clip, the slaughter of a cow by one of the bugs is censored, but moments later the aftermath of an attack on a Mormon settlement is shown, gore and all. Other moments that prove this point in the film include children being encouraged to “do their part” by squishing normal bugs on Earth and schoolteachers praising military service and violence.
People who dislike this Starship Troopers often cite bad acting, excessive violence, and weak storytelling as major flaws in the film. Much of this was purposely done to highlight the rigidness and lack of the creative art form in propaganda films themselves. I had the pleasure of meeting Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier at a screening of Starship Troopers a couple of years ago. During a Q&A after the screening, Verhoeven addressed the casting of the film. He basically said that he wanted to cast only beautiful, young actors, the kind you’d see in Melrose Place or something along those lines. The reason being that he was really trying to play up the satire and ridiculousness of the story, by showing these young, beautiful people who were so gung-ho about rushing off to a bloody death while fighting off an enemy horde for the good of the Federation.
Speaking of that enemy, we can’t ignore the Arachnids in this conversation. When drumming up support for a war, propaganda tends to label the enemy as some unspeakable evil force that lacks the same values and beliefs as "normal people" like you and me. The bugs in this film are ruthless killing machines that attack humans for what the Federation will have you believe is no reason at all. They’re also just bugs, which falls in line with the idea that in propaganda, the enemies are always mindless heathens hell bent on destroying our very way of life. What better way to represent an idea like this than to make the enemy a lowly (although extremely large and dangerous) bug.
Good satires always have a strong message behind them and Starship Troopers is no exception. It’s taking a look at the idea of warmongering. That is that through propaganda an entire society can be riled up into believing that some foreign enemy needs to be destroyed at any cost. Verhoeven takes this even further by making the audience a willing participant in this. You want the Federation to eradicate the bugs. You want them to take out their revenge. He also explores the idea of desensitizing soldiers to violence in order to make them better warriors. Verhoeven amps up the gore in this film as an attempt to desensitize the audience itself to violence. It’s all really brilliant stuff when you step back and understand what he’s trying to do with this film.
More recently, many people have taken a more positive opinion on this film. There are a few theories as to why the film didn’t achieve much success on release. The first is a common trend with films that underperform… bad or off-the-mark marketing. In the same Q&A I mentioned earlier, Verhoeven talked a little bit about the release of the film. TriStar underwent a regime change during filming and the new people in charge weren’t too hot on the project. As a result, they tried to dump it and cut back on the marketing. The film’s release date was November 7, 1997. A film like this, with a budget of $105 million, usually gets a Spring/Summer release to maximize its profits. The marketing also focused on the action elements of the film, completely ignoring the satire of it all. Now, if you want to make money, you definitely need to highlight action sequences, but I think you can do that without ignoring what a film truly is about. I believe one of the main reasons a lot of people missed the entire point of the film was because they went into it thinking it was just another action flick.
Do you guys remember the video Rorie posted last week asking if it was possible to make an anti-war film? Well, another reason Starship Troopers suffered was because it can be extremely difficult to make a war film that doesn’t in some fashion glorify combat with its action sequences. When I first saw Starship Troopers I was just starting middle school. Naturally, I was mainly concerned with how totally awesome the fighting scenes in the film were. Of course, the entire point and message of the film was lost on me. I’m not saying it’s impossible to make an anti-war film, but even with the best intentions you’ll get people like me who can completely miss what a film’s trying to accomplish, because they’re so engrossed in the excitement and adrenaline of what’s onscreen.
Starship Troopers is, and always has been, a great piece of science fiction. If you haven’t watched it with an understanding of what it truly is, I suggest you give it another shot. And, if you do get it, watch again. It's definitely a film that you appreciate more and more with every viewing. Would you like to know more?