How Starship Troopers’ Psychic Subplot Explains Its Divisive Message

The internet is warring over Paul Verhoeven’s subversive 1997 sci-fi blockbuster, and one puzzling element explains its message: psychic powers.
How Starship Troopers' Psychic Subplot Explains Its Divisive Message
Screengrab via YouTube/NOW PLAYING

The internet is deadlocked in a debate over Paul Verhoeven’s subversive 1997 sci-fi blockbuster Starship Troopers after a successful new video game inspired by the film, Helldivers 2, brought it back into public consciousness. 

For days, the argument raged between one group of people hailing the film as a satire of fascist jingoism—its intended message, according to Verhoeven—and people who see it as a failed critique of the Robert Heinlein book on which it’s very loosely based. To this latter group, Starship Troopers is indeed the product of a leftist director attempting to satirize the source material (Verhoeven famously tossed the book aside and dismissed it as “very right-wing”), but they argue that it ultimately still glorifies the film’s Aryan characters, their militarized society, and their fight against the supposedly inhuman bugs. 


It’s futile to argue with people who have already decided to gleefully celebrate fascism, but having re-watched the film this weekend, there is one element that people on both sides ignore: its strange psychic subplot.

This puzzling inclusion, which wasn’t explicitly in the original novel, holds the key to the film’s message. Though it’s easy to miss amid the alien bug war, the psychic abilities in the film show that humans have a mysterious connection to the bugs and can communicate with them, but the film’s incurious fascist characters ultimately reject this strange and exciting potential in a pessimistic denouement. 

What are the psychic powers in ‘Starship Troopers’?

Starship Troopers takes place amid a strange evolution of humanity: people are spontaneously developing psychic powers. Young civilians are screened for psychic abilities, and when they are detected, they are sent up the chain of military command. This is what happens to Neil Patrick Harris’ character, Carl Jenkins. “Who knows? Maybe it’s a new stage of human evolution,” Jenkins says just before psychically directing his pet ferret to attack his mother. He can’t do humans “yet,” he ominously tells the protagonist. 

This is all, I think, meant to be taken at face value. It’s revealed later on that the alien bugs humanity is at war with—it’s stated in a news clip that people are colonizing their planets, leading to confrontation—are themselves psychic. In fact, their abilities are even more highly developed. The bugs operate via telepathic communication from a leader dubbed a Brain Bug, and they can even psychically control humans to do their bidding. 


This is all fascinating to consider: These bugs, which seem so terrifying and alien, share a deep and mysterious connection with us in the form of an emerging telepathy which might just be our next step as a species. In fact, the human military is already inching towards a command-and-control structure that is similar to the bugs’. At a critical moment, Jenkins gives psychic instructions to the protagonist while in the field of battle. 

Can humans and bugs communicate in ‘Starship Troopers’?

The film’s detractors argue that Verhoeven does not do a good enough job of showing that humans could ever communicate with or live alongside the bugs, and that any viewer who thinks this must be defective. They did not watch the film closely. 

At the very end, Jenkins literally does communicate with the captured Brain Bug. “What’s it thinking, Colonel?” a commander asks Jenkins.

The telepathic Jenkins, dressed in SS-inspired attire, places his hand on the bug’s head. “It’s afraid,” he declares as a crowd of soldiers cheers.

This is unambiguous proof that humans can communicate with bugs, however crudely at first, and one would think that this kind of alien contact would be a watershed moment for humanity. Instead, the film cuts hard to a propaganda reel showing human scientists torturing the Brain Bug and gearing up to wage even more war.


That humanity could cross such an incredible threshold—psychic communication with an alien species—and only see it as an opportunity for more domination and war is profoundly depressing. 

What is the message of ‘Starship Troopers’? 

This, in a nutshell, is the film’s message. Humanity is going through an enigmatic and highly unnatural change, and these emerging psychic abilities and their connection to other species in the universe represent a profound mystery. But the fascist characters in the movie are at best totally incurious, and may even be afraid. After all, psychic abilities are suppressed among the population via early detection and immediate subsumption into the military.

At the end of the film, humanity’s potential for developing its abilities and flourishing among other species in the cosmos is unambiguously foreclosed by its militaristic, fascist society, and its need for all-out war on a convenient out group. The source of these powers is never explained, which is more a tragedy than a plot hole.

Now, someone might argue that this is cheating; that Verhoeven had to include some kind of psychic bullshit to give humanity a connection to the bugs, who are otherwise fearsome and strange. To this I say: Psychic abilities are not real, just like alien bugs are not real. This is all necessarily a commentary on our existing society with made-up parameters that are defined by the author of the work. 

Verhoeven giving such strange-looking creatures a mysterious and in a way beautiful connection to humanity, which the fascists in the film reject or ignore, is not merely the point but also a stroke of brilliance that shows why the movie had held up nearly 30 years after its release.