At one point in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, a soldier played by Seth Gilliam (who would go on to greater fame in The Wire) tells our hero Johnny Rico (Casper van Dien), “You kill bugs good.” Between the words themselves and Gilliam’s grunting delivery, it’s a line that has never failed to get a huge laugh from every audience that I’ve ever seen the film with. And here’s the most important thing: Verhoeven wants to get that laugh. He is in fact depending upon that laugh. Starship Troopers is perhaps the most subversive film ever released by a major studio, where the suits thought they were getting a special-effects summer blockbuster that would fill the theaters up with 17-year-olds, and Verhoeven delivered a powerful statement that the sort of film those suits wanted is in fact a fascist construction.
Rico is a high school senior living in a futuristic Buenos Aires, under an authoritarian regime that is only vaguely described. The only way to become a voting citizen in this society is to serve in the military, which is the option chosen by Rico, his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), his torch-carrying friend Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) and the class brain Carl (Neil Patrick Harris). They get wrapped up in an intergalactic war with the aforementioned bugs – a society of arachnids brought to vivid, grotesque life by the effects wizards at Industrial Light & Magic.
Go back and read that last paragraph again. Perhaps you noticed that three not-at-all-Latin actors are playing four characters with ethnically Latin last names who are living in the city known as “the Latin paradise.” That is not a casting blunder or continuity error; it is planned. Subverting ethnic identity in the name of the state has been a part of every authoritarian movement in the 20th Century from Franco to Milosevic. It’s not just skin color or eye color either: any trace of what it means to be Argentinian has been wiped out, replaced with a society so bland that it might be an episode of Beverly Hills 90210. In such societies, Verhoeven tells us, it’s far easier for the fascists to rule.
Neither is the teen-soap-opera feel of the first third of the movie an accident. Blandly pretty actors were chosen to play all of the youthful roles in this movie, to heighten the ways that fascists brainwash their societies into not even caring about freedom or individuality. Richards and van Dien may not be the greatest actors in the world – it has been speculated that during filming neither of them was “in on the joke,” as it were – but they are perfect for depicting people who have been persuaded to follow any order, no matter how horrible. Harris is the only young actor who seems to know what is going on, and it’s no coincidence that the movie’s authoritarians find a way to co-opt his character’s intelligence and turn it toward their own ends.
The depth and breadth of the fascists’ control is shown in much the same way that Verhoeven and writer Ed Neumaier showed the corporate dominance of the future in their previous collaboration Robocop: fake propaganda/advertising video. The refrain “Would You Like To Know More?” is a brilliant construction, because the fictional person who would be watching these ads isn’t actually learning anything about the bugs or the war effort – they’re just receiving orders in the guise of education. My favorite is the talking-head segment where a know-nothing panelist on a Crossfire-type show refuses to even entertain the thought that the bugs could be intelligent; he seems to think that just asserting an opinion will cause it to become scientifically provable, which is not so different from the climate on our opinion-heavy cable news today.
Once the war-movie parts of the film start up, things get really interesting. This is because, as someone* famously said, all war movies are pro-war movies. The action of a fight scene, even a chilling one like the D-Day invasion in Saving Private Ryan, is inevitably exhilarating when you see it on a movie screen, because you are not living it and you can’t get killed. In many ways fascism relies upon that exhilaration, since it can easily be turned into hate or fear or any of the other base emotions that persuade people to give up their personal liberties.
It helps that Starship Troopers is a technical masterpiece among action films. That’s why you make this movie with the director of Robocop and Total Recall, to get some crackerjack action set-pieces. Moreover, Verhoeven might have felt that he had something to prove after the failure of Showgirls, since he seems to raise his game well beyond any of his past pictures. On top of that, the special effects from ILM are mind-blowing, holding up well against movies made 15 years on and with budgets twice the size of this one. The effects here are superior to those found in last year’s Wrath of the Titans, for instance, whose creations may have more detail than the Arachnids but lack the grotesque heft and lethal menace of the bugs.
That “grotesque” part is the most challenging thing in the movie. Anyone can make fascism look bad by pitting it against unarmed innocents or outgunned indigenous peoples. Verhoeven is aiming at a much tougher target: the opposition here is every bit as ugly and lethal as the fascists claim that it is. The bugs actually would kill every human in this movie if they could, and Verhoeven spares no expense to show how horrible a death that would be. And the entire point is that using propaganda and bribes of citizenship to persuade young people to throw themselves into war with that enemy is still wrong.
Audiences and critics were split on Starship Troopers during its theatrical release. Some people looked at Denise Richards’ blank-eyed performance and saw Verhoeven commenting on how fascist rule can turn people into automatons; others simply saw a bad actress. That’s not surprising: like fascists themselves, this movie gets you so subtly that many people won’t even notice. As Verhoeven has said about the movie in the years since, “war makes fascists of us all”, but you might not realize it until you find yourself rooting for Richards’ dead eyes.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*For some reason I cannot find the genesis of this quote. I’ve heard it variously attributed to the great directors John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Francois Truffaut.