Critics Would Have Loved 'Starship Troopers' if it Was Released in 2017
Paul Verhoeven has always been ahead of his time. With his fascist, bug squashing 1997 sci-fi gorefest, he was exactly 20 years ahead.
I was about to turn 11 when Starship Troopers was released 20 years ago—a little young for the R-rated space-jock adventure, but I somehow got my hands on a VHS copy just after its theatrical run. I'm sure my young mind missed most of the subtext, taking in just the surface of bug-killing action. But then critics didn't know what to do with it either, taking the campy machismo and explosions of alien guts at face value.
If it were released today, it would be hard to miss Starship Troopers' biting critique of American fascist militarism and xenophobia. Take director Paul Verhoeven's recent Oscar-nominated Elle in contrast: yesterday's rape-revenge exploitation fare is today's thoughtfully feminist festival film.
Back in '97 Roger Ebert saw me as Troopers' ideal audience. Overall, he panned it, suggesting that "its action, characters and values are pitched at 11-year-old science-fiction fans." He admitted that the film achieves a "sly sense of satire" but also seemed offended by its "quasi-fascist militarism." One has to ask, what makes the film satirical if not its gung-ho celebration of fascism?
Ebert wasn't alone. Janet Maslin, writing for the New York Times in 1997, complained that Starship Troopers "never gets over its 180-degree swivel from teen-age love story to murderous destruction."
In all fairness, Starship Troopers was marketed as a mindless action movie, encouraging this kind of reaction from critics. But it was so much more than that.
In the 23rd century, when humanity has learned to outgrow "the failure of democracy," the "Federation" declares all out war on a race of space bugs who have destroyed Buenos Aires. We mostly follow the mobile infantry's Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and Dizzy (Dina Meyer), along with Johnny's girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards), and their high school buddy Carl (Neil Patrick Harris in a small post- Doogie Howser, pre- Harold & Kumar role).
Some choice bits of dialogue should have probably clued everyone into how tongue-in-cheek the movie was—"Goddamn bugs whacked us, Johnny!," "You kill bugs good," and "the only good bug is a dead bug" stand out in particular. Then there are the costumes. Good guys don't always have to wear white hats, but the Federation's Nazi chic uniforms are less-than-subtle.
Looking back, Troopers was oddly progressive, and even a little prophetic. Verhoeven was best known for the brilliantly dystopic RoboCop, made 10 years prior, and he had just come off the box-office flop of his equally misunderstood erotic drama Showgirls.
RoboCop was a gritty action movie about corporatized police and industrialization in Motor City, and Showgirls gave us the American Dream as a rags-to-riches drama about making it big in Vegas. Like both of these films, Starship Troopers was a sharp critique of America that mostly played it straight. It was probably the most ambitious bit of satire of the three. On its surface, it's just another commandos-in-space movie, with a straightforward hoard of bad guys, a bland love story, and a blander protagonist.
But scratch the surface just a bit, and you'll find a lot of themes that still resonate—almost a little too much in today's post-truth political climate of travel bans, bathroom bills, and a rising tide of sad little men who think they can make fascism cool again. Verhoeven lampoons values that not many people advocated too loudly in 1997, maybe explaining why so few people got the joke.
Verhoeven's treatment of citizenship may well be the film's clearest signal of satire and its darkest parallel to the present day. In the very first scene, we get a "Federal News" bulletin: propaganda to enlist new soldiers to fight the bugs. The call to arms ends with a promise that "service guarantees citizenship."
With every news clip, we're reminded that citizenship is earned through blind adherence to the Federation's values. And our heroes constantly parrot this. They challenge each other, equating killing bugs with having what it takes to be a citizen.
The idea of using citizenship as a reward for submission to the state may have seemed heavy-handed in the 90s, but with an American president who advocates revoking the citizenship of flag burners, threatening dual citizens with exile, and questioning the basic principle of birthright citizenship, Verhoeven's critique feels uncanny today.
It would be impossible for contemporary critics to watch Troopers now and ignore the mainstreaming of white supremacy, Trump and the Muslim travel ban, Brexit, or the rising tide of right-wing "populism" across Europe—let alone the decades of armed conflict and America's need to declare which nations are "free" post-9/11. Its hyperbolic treatment of intergalactic politics is just reflexive enough today to break through the campy, gory veneer.
The bugs themselves are a great enemy, too. The possibility that they think and feel is generally dismissed, and when we learn that their attack on Earth was probably a response to human aggression, Johnny proudly cuts in that he plans to "kill 'em all" in retaliation. The humans have a frankly genocidal attitude, while their enemy's motivations seem entirely defensive. The war could be avoided by just leaving the bugs alone, maybe colonizing some other parts of outer space instead, or just staying home altogether.
It's no secret that the world's conflicts don't just materialize out of the blue. America usually isn't the good guy coming in to wipe out some entirely foreign threat. American imperialism creates a lot of the enemies it then has to bomb out of existence, but we don't usually see that in White House statements about making the world safer—or in most news coverage.
The overwriting of the bugs' right to defend themselves is a major part of the Federation's propaganda. In the Federal News alerts, we learn almost nothing except that everyone needs to do their part to kill as many bugs as possible. With the government running the media, these videos work double-duty. They're recruitment material tied into fake news to stir up support for the War on Bugs.
It's not all doom-and-gloom though. For all it's fascist flag waving, Starship Troopers also offers a future where gender barely matters. Dizzy is quarterback of her ass-kicking co-ed high school football team, and she and Carmen out-jock most of their male peers in the military.
In one particularly revealing scene, army recruits shower together in a gender-neutral change room. Nothing is sexualized, and no one's out of place. They all joke around, haze each other, and display general camaraderie. At a time when transphobic bathroom bills are hard to keep track of and Trump feels confident justifying sexual assault in the military as inevitable, the scene takes on resonance that would have been hard to predict.
Starship Troopers has a reputation for its so-bad-it's-good campiness, but the film is just too self-aware not to love on its own terms. Its anti-war, anti-fascist, anti-colonial message is constantly peeking through the surface to wink at us. After 20 years, it's only gotten more relevant. It was way ahead of its time, and suffered for it critically.
Let's hope it loses some of its timelessness soon.
Frederick is a film critic based out of Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter.