“War makes fascists of us all.”
That’s the line that best describes the attitude and approach Paul Verhoeven takes in his science-fiction masterpiece Starship Troopers. The film was neither a flop nor a success at the box office, and critical reception was mixed to say the least. In his written review, renowned film critic Roger Ebert was dismissive of the film. Ebert interpreted the film as a sincere adaptation of the original novel by Robert A. Heinlein and saw the film as nothing but hollow escapism. In contrast Ebert’s co-host of “At the Movies”, Gene Siskel, identified the movie as a parody of the propaganda films of World War II and enthusiastically recommended the film. This stark difference of reactions to Starship Troopers has carried on to contemporary criticism as Josh Macouga celebrated the film as a guilty pleasure action film. Whereas the brilliant comic critic and X-Men historian Comicbookgirl19 celebrated Starship Troopers as a brilliant science fiction film both about propaganda and also disturbingly prophetic.
Compared to Paul Verhoeven’s two previous science fiction films (RoboCop, Total Recall), the satire was a subtext to a pleasant action-adventure narrative. However, genuinely enjoying Starship Troopers on a prima facie basis is discomforting for adults. On the surface the movie seems so aptly juvenile, with the appropriate amounts of blood and nudity for young boys to delight in. Furthermore, as some astute critics opined, if taken on a purely superficial level the film is genuinely embracing all of Heinlein’s concepts that many argue are fascist: the belief that one should “earn” the right to vote through military service, that free speech is a privilege and that anyone who is not in the military is a second-class citizen.
While Heinlein likely believed everything that he presented in Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven certainly did not when adapting the novel. In terms of adaptation, this is literally the most intentionally parodic and satirical take on a source material since Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Red Alert into Dr. Strangelove. Verhoeven grew up in the Netherlands when it was occupied by the Nazis, and was even once forced to march down a street with dead bodies to warn the Dutch of double-crossing their occupiers. He purportedly only read half of Starship Troopers, before becoming bored and depressed. Instead, Verhoeven saw the source material as ripe for making a satire on war propaganda films and aspects of American Culture.
The satire is immediate and apparent with the opening of the film having a presentation of propaganda as news. One quickly senses that the fourth estate has become a tool of the government with the military presented in an absurdly glamorous manner. A boy is shown in a soldier’s uniform, later we see children play with machine guns and rounds in order to downplay the oppressive nature of the fascist government. Starship Troopers refuses to be easy in its satire, it resists the easy method of identifying the faults of the status quo from an outsider’s perspective like 1984. Instead, audiences are forced to always remain observers to the events from the mainstream society’s vantage point. Furthermore though the acting and dialogue is intentionally “hammy” it never approaches the obvious farcical levels found in works like Idiocracy or the aforementioned Dr. Strangelove. The characters are presented as ordinary individuals who are duped into the propaganda that surrounds them. Starship Troopers forces audiences to resist believing the lies the government perpetuates.
The main hero of Johnny Rico is the embodiment of the nameless masses that are duped into fascism. On the surface Rico is the All-American patriot, fighting for his country (or planet) and rising the ranks on merit. However, there are plenty of tell-tale signs throughout the film demonstrating that the protagonist is a cautionary example of how one can unconsciously become a fascist. The High School Johnny attends is mostly a fascist indoctrination seminar with one teacher being a covert military recruiter. The second teacher shown is literally blind and praising the enemy species, the bugs, for creating a selfless society. The teacher trivializes mankind’s achievements in the arts and science; instead guiding her students to envy the bugs lack of individuality and destructive capability. The teacher’s blindness symbolizing a person who teaches society to ignore human accomplishment and strive to not see the oppression before them.
Furthermore it is stunning how Rico is literally seduced into becoming a Mobile Infantry Soldier. Rico’s relationship to the Carmen has Rico blindly choosing to do anything to appease her. Rico’s reckless impulse is recognized by all even within the film as stupid and demonstrates that Rico does not take time to think about such major decisions. Rico’s impulsiveness makes him like many blindly ignore the real dangers and horrors in wars. The tell-tale shot of a limbless military recruiter commending Rico for joining reflects the consequences to Rico’s foolhardiness.
After a grueling and extremely violent basic training, Rico and his partner Dizzy (who is in unrequited love with Rico) are sent into war following a horrific attack by the bug-planet Klendathu. Rico and Dizzy are from the attacked city, Buenos Aires and are the most gung-ho about fighting. Rico angrily declares on camera, “I’m from Buenos Aires, and I say ‘Kill ‘em all!’” The wave of propaganda immediately seeks to galvanize humanity to unanimously support the war effort. From the horrors of destruction a man declares to the camera, “The only good bug is a dead bug!” Immediately humanity is supposedly justified in vengeance and any criticism of the war or investigating why the bugs attacked is dismissed as unpatriotic. In the genre-defining blockbuster Independence Day, the patriotism and thinly veiled propaganda commended American bravery in the face of adversity. Yet, near identical words and tone are used in the brief speech by Sky Marshall Dean to demonstrate the dangers of blindly going to war.
Verhoeven peppers the film with several key scenes that allude to the bugs having their territory encroached by Mormon extremists. But before anyone can ever outright consider that the bugs attack was retaliatory then unprovoked the world seeks to silence the critics. While plenty of fans see the parallels of Starship Troopers to America’s contemporary military actions, the film is ultimately a reflection on how all wars begin. America never forgets the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but rarely is America’s oil embargo on Japan mentioned. In ancient Rome, when the Germans decimated the Roman legions at Teutoburg Forest the Romans responded with massive raids on both armies and villages. General Germanicus swore to kill every German, with no distinction between man, woman or child (while parading his infant son Caligula in a soldier’s uniform). But no contemporary Roman Historian mentioned either the high taxation made on the Germans prior to Teutoburg Forest or the abuses made by the Roman Governors. Any constructive criticism on war is silenced by voices of blind patriotism.
The intentional irony is that when arriving on Klendathu, the actual battle is an utter disaster. The humans are clueless to the capabilities of the bugs. The humans while admitting failure refuse to publically credit the bugs as intelligent, and insist on them being a mindless menace. However, most of Verhoeven’s battle depict that the “intelligent” humans can never truly defeat the bugs. Despite impressive scenes of bugs being blown to bits the bugs still come in massive hordes to protect their home planet. Any propaganda tries to de-humanize an enemy, with Starship Troopers taking it to a logical extreme of the enemy becoming literal bugs to the eyes of the humans. But Verhoeven leaves plenty of hints to viewers to see beyond the propaganda. Take the scene of the unnecessary aggression by Watkins on a dying bug. Watkins fires right at the eye of the dying bug and declares, “Ain’t much to look at once you scrape ‘em off your boot.” One is forced to empathize with the bugs and recognize that this mysterious species is indeed the victims of the humans prolonged aggression. Indeed, the final scene with the brain bug being pulled out of the cave incensed PETA to declare the film glamorized animal abuse. This discomfort was intended by Verhoeven, one should not look with relish at the humiliated brain bug, but pity the fearful creature. Audiences see the “evil” that the brain bug does, but how is human’s torture and experimentation on the brain bug any better than the brain bug’s actions? Verhoeven shows that war is shown to make us violent ignorant monsters, true fascists. Starship Troopers is a brilliant piece of science fiction that demonstrates how war makes fascists of us all.
Historically the home of Nazi war criminals. With the Hispanic names on gorgeous blonde bodies Verhoeven intended to imply that the characters were the descendants of Nazis. The choice of an extremely beautiful cast was to imply the Nazi ideal of the Aryan race found in their propaganda films.
Excellent and informative article. I’d never made the connection with Buenos Aires and Nazi war criminals. But Starship Troopers is that kind of movie–every time I watch it, I notice some little detail that I’ve missed before.