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Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers critiques war - and war films

In The World on War, we travel around the globe and investigate how armed conflict influences a country's popular culture and its representation of war in film.

François Truffaut once said that “it is impossible to make a true anti-war film, because the act of looking at violence is inherently exciting”. Robert A. Heinlein wrote, “Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor”. Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers would have had them both rolling in their graves. Verhoeven’s 1997 adaptation throws good taste — and Heinlein’s original novel — out the window. The rare film that indulges the horrors of war and the joys of watching it vicariously, Starship Troopers makes the wrong feel so appealing because, quite simply, it is.

Starship Troopers opens with what might well be 90210 in space. As the sensitive jock, doe-eyed love interest and the brainy joker, Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards and Neil Patrick Harris are typecast so blatantly it borders on self-parody — it’s high school as you know it, but with space football! But why is future Buenos Aires populated by only the whitest, most all-American kids? We’re watching Casper Van Dien’s lovelorn Johnny Rico goof around in class — why is a maimed ex-soldier spouting rhetoric like “Violence [is] the supreme authority from which all other authority derives”?

Paul Verhoeven’s future takes every aspect of 20th century American exceptionalism to its extreme. Both voting and reproduction are privileges earned through military service, that distinctly American notion of hard work. “There should be a law against using school as a recruiting station!” yell Rico’s parents, the only dissenters in the entire film, but their civics class spouts no less propaganda than their school, their media, their entire lives. This is the new American dream: in a world seemingly free of multiculturalism, class, or even gender discrimination, everyone serves. The scariest thing about Starship Troopers is that we might only be seeing the best of its society — we’re never far removed enough from our heroes’ relentlessly perky idealism to tell what kind of dystopia they’re really in.

Both Starship Troopers’ actors and characters might seem comically naïve, but there’s no question we’re meant to feel for them. “Let’s swear we’ll always be friends no matter what!” says Denise Richards’ Carmen, and you believe her, even as creeping dramatic irony threatens to laugh in your face. With no specific skills, Rico’s thrown into the lowest tier of service: the mobile infantry. When Carmen lets him go to pursue her dream of being a pilot, Rico throws himself into training, quickly making squad leader. But a slip-up causes the death of one of his cadets during a live-fire exercise, and his commanders have no choice but to make an example, publicly flogging him in front of his fellow recruits.

But Verhoeven never misses an opportunity for a Christ metaphor. The military actually wants him to stay: it’s a punishment borne of love, to test if Rico has higher ideals than the self. He takes his lashes, then nearly walks out in shame — until his parents and all of Buenos Aires are incinerated in a bug meteor attack. Ironically, it’s only once he’s shed all personal attachments and desires, accepting the constant threat of death, that he’s promoted off the frontlines — only to send the next generation to their deaths. Oh sure, he shows initiative and bravery too, but it’s mostly because everyone else around him keeps dying. Next to Casper Van Dien’s chiselled Hollywood features, the fresh batch of teenage recruits who arrive late in the film look horrifically immature. The film’s blackest joke might be that Rico more or less only lives because he’s the main character in a major-studio blockbuster. Starship Troopers might be set in a universe full of cruel, meaningless death, but it still needs a happy ending, dammit!

By the time they attack the bugs’ home planet, driven to retaliate for Buenos Aires, it’s clear that humanity isn’t remotely prepared for what they encounter. Their military intelligence is wrong, their tactics non-existent — and why are the technologically advanced Federation even invading an entire planet on foot anyway? No screen battle has ever looked more deliberately like a bunch of confused actors running around an artificial set. It’s here that you realise Starship Troopers isn’t just critiquing war, but war films themselves. But Verhoeven never judges you, or himself, for wanting to have a good time. Death comes frequently and bloodily, but it still feels thrilling because, to the soldiers, it is.

Still, when Verhoeven’s camera lingers on hordes of dismembered bodies, we glaze over just as easily as the troops who keep coming back for more. We’re not desensitised to violence because of action films; our dumb escapism itself is desensitised because lingering on the consequences would genuinely be uncomfortable. On a grand scale, Starship Troopers is about why humanity never seems to learn from our mistakes — so much so that the reactionary politics it depicts uncannily seems to predict America’s response to 9/11. The bugs are every foreign menace rolled into one: Cold-War era nuclear abominations, fearless suicide bombers, literal illegal aliens encroaching on human territory. You can’t negotiate with a bug — they’re the perfect ideological enemy for Starship Troopers’ perverse fantasy of an America that still thinks it’s the underdog. The Federation goes from mourning millions dead to calling for genocide within seconds — no one stops to ask why, let alone if it might be humanity’s entire philosophy of relentless expansion that’s wrong.

In a sense, every film is propaganda. Every narrative is consciously written to make you root for its protagonists. Remember when Star Wars ended with its heroes killing tens of thousands on a space station? Starship Troopers treats both its characters and audience like the butt of some grand, cosmic joke: that it’s impossible not to cheer, even if we should know better. The finale’s so rousingly celebratory it nearly erases all the horrors that came before; so effective it deliberately undercuts the subversiveness of Verhoeven’s own film. That’s why Starship Troopers is one of the great lowbrow films: Verhoeven doesn’t really need you to get whatever points he’s making, but he’d be really offended if you weren’t entertained. It’s more effective if it’s fun anyway, right?

The strangest thing about the film isn’t the critically reclaimed bleakness underneath — it’s the infectiously warm, often joyful surface. It’s deeply cynical, but it believes just as much in its petty teen love triangles as the ultimate fate of humanity. A profoundly guilty pleasure, yet Starship Troopers refuses to be sad. Here’s your happy ending. Would you like to know more?

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