On the surface, Starship Troopers, released in November of 1997, looked like the typcal bang-bang shoot ’em up sci-fi/horror action movie we’ve seen before. And that’s just what director Paul Verhoeven intended. The movie begins with with young soldiers battling huge bugs that look like a cross between a grasshopper and praying mantis and giant beetles that spit fire and disperse huge blue lasers from their rears into outer space. A young soldier Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is firing multiple rounds during a night-time battle and it looks like he’s outnumbered.
Flashback to a year before when Johnny is a high school senior sitting in a classroom with his girlfriend, Carmen Ibanez (Denis Richards), and fellow classmate, Isabelle “Dizzy” Flores (Dina Meyer), who has a crush on him. They are listening to their teacher, Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside), who is missing an arm, leading the room in a discussion about the fall of democracy. If you’re wondering why three young people who look like WASP all have Spanish surnames, well, they’re in Buenos Aires and it’s the 23rd Century.
In the future, the world has turned into a more pro-military fascist world, despite Buenos Aires being called ‘The Latin Paradise. ‘Disclipline is harsh. Johnny’s father, who even though looks wealthy, talks about how people are subjected to 20 lashes in the public scare as punishment for minor things. A killer can be arrested, charged, convicted and executed within 12 hours and their death broadcast across the world.
The United Citizens Federation runs things. People are divided between civilians and citizens. A citizen is someone who serves or has served in the military. Being a citizen is the only way you can vote or do much of anything of importance such as running for an elected office. Young people are encouraged to join the military instead of going to college. Johnny’s parents want him to go to Harvard, which is funny considering he flunks a math test poorly getting a 37 grade. Carmen is smarter and wants to be a citizen so she can fly spaceships. Even Johnny’s friend, Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris), who is also intellient signs up.
Leaving home, Johnny signs up with Carmen and Carl but while they seem to get better assignments that will ensure they’ll be officers in no time, Johnny is assigned to the mobile infantry. A recruitment sergeant played by Robert David Hall, who in real-life had both legs amputated following a car accident, calls the young people more meat for the meat grinder. When he seems more enthused that Johnny has signed up for mobile infantry, Johnny notices just how bad he looks.
As it turns out Johnny learns the mobile infantry is intended for those who will most likely die in combat. At basic training, Dizzy arrives much to his chagrin as Carmen breaks things off in a video she sends him. Johnny makes friends at basic training including the gruff Ace Levy (Jake Busey) as they battle over who can be squad leader. Despite earning respect from the very authorative Sgt. Zim (Clancy Brown), Johnny is subjected to 10 lashes when a bad call during a training simulation with live rounds causes a private to be killed.
Johnny considers leaving the infantry but as he is on his way to leaving the boot camp, word comes in that the Federation has declared war. The Arachnids from the planet Klendathu sent an asteroid toward Earth and it hit Buenos Aires, killing Johnny’s parents and everyone they knew. Millions are considered dead and millions other wounded. Everyone is ready for revenge.
Carmen is also making good in her duties as a young officer and becoming more romantically attached to fellow officer Zander Barcalow (Robert Muldoon). She even gets commendations from the ship’s Captain Deladier (Brenda Strong) as she diverts the ship from colliding with the asteroid. Carl is also climbing the ranks as an officer for Games and Theory, the military’s intelligence division. Carl also claims to know telepathy.
While it seems like a simple cookie-cutter action movie, Verhoeven films it with imagery similar to the Triumph of the Will. Verhoeven was born in Amstersdam and lived in The Hague during World War II during Nazi German occupation. He was no fan of the novel on which the movie is based which was written by Robert A. Heinlein who started out as a liberl-leaning Democrat. Then in the mid-1950s, he left the Democrat Party to the point he was working for the 1964 Barry Goldwater Presidential campaign.
Henlein published the novel in December of 1959 and there have been allegations that Heinlein was endorsing fascism and encouraging the military industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower had spoken out against. Verhoeven has said that he couldn’t finish reading the book calling it “boring” and “depressing” and just had Ed Neumeier, who wrote the screenplay, fill him in on the gist of the story. However, the book has become recommended or required reading of some military. In the 2001 movie Black Hawk Down, they refer to the Somalians as “skinnies.” This isn’t a reference to the physique of Somalians but actually a term derived from the book.
And that’s what confused people in 1997. Was this movie supposed to be taken seriously? Or was Verhoeven pulling a joke on us? In the 1987 RoboCop, Verhoeven mixed satire, black comedy and Christian allegories with a sci-fi action thriller. Critics made note of the goofy commercials with the constant new story updates that seemed out of place. So, how could they have missed this? Verhoeven was saying as loud as he could that it wasn’t to be taken seriously.
The casting of Van Dien, Richards, Meyers and even Harris, aka Doogie Howser M.D., appearing in one scene dressed up in a uniform similar to the Gestapo, was intended because they fit the more blonde-haired blue-eyed people common with Nazi Germany. It was supposed to be a mockery of the Heinlein’s work and the growing global militarism. Even critics like Roger Ebert who had praised the comedy in RoboCop apparently didn’t get the memo that this was intended as comedy.
And this led to the movie being a disappointment at the box office as it only made $121 million worldwide against a budget that was as high as $110 million. On the home video and cable TV market, people were able to pause and rewatch scenes they may have missed to see what Verhoeven and Neumeier were doing. You could also make the argument that it’s the Federation and people of Earth who are the bad guys not the Arachnids. It’s never fully explained why we are at war. But it appears the Arachnids are just defending their homes. A reporter played by Greg Travis proposes this during a broadcast then he is killed in the next broadcast.
Some people might argue the American military has devolved into a world police, as there are military bases all over the world. Starship Troopers was released between the end of the Persian Gulf War and the beginnings of the Afghanistan and Iraqi Wars. It just shows how human beings are constantly having to be engaged in a battle with someone or something. Even the police have become paramilitarized. And what else but giant bugs as we as a species that hate spiders and insects, even though they are vital to the ecosystem.
The world that Starship Troopers takes place in is a world where fascism has become so normal people don’t see any other way. Propaganda news reports are shown everywhere with a male voice asking, “Would you like to know more?” My guess is this is something that’s been happening at least 100 years so that’s why no one bothers to question it. Even Rasczak, who Johnny thinks is anti-military, later is placed in charge of his own squad as a lieutenant, much to Johnny’s surprise. When Ace comments that he’s heard Rasczak is a “real nutbuster,” he is physically attacked for making derogatory remarks about him.
In many ways, I can understand why some critics didn’t see what Verhoeven was trying to do. The soldiers basically have to empty an entire magazine clip into one Arachnid to kill them. When giving a demonstration for propaganda, Carl aims a rifle at an Arachnid who had prior seemed docile while in captivity. The movie looked like it was overkill. And the acting seems a little too over the top. However, critics have also re-evaluated his previous movie Showgirls as a satire of the entertainment business. And that movie had some awful acting and a plot.
The irony is Troopers doesn’t even have the standard heroic ending in which the elusive Brain is finally revealed that is believed to literally get into people’s head and make them do whatever it wants before it sucks whatever brain matter it can. The Brain looks like a giant tick after filling up on blood with multiple eyes around its mouth that looks like a vagina where a probocis comes out. You think Johnny or Carmen might kill the Brain, but it’s captured off-screen by Zim who tore up Johnny’s form to be released from the military boot camp so he could be demoted down to private and fight.
In the end, the celebration of the capture of the Brain is actually ended early with more propaganda of Johnny, Ace, Carmen and others getting ready to go fight in another battle. In the end, the movie shows that the war machine keeps spinning and churning out younger soldiers as many of them die off. As the recruitment sergeant said, “more meat for the meat grinder.” With no more countries to fight as the world is united, they are causing problems on other planets.
Part of the problem was the movie came after a wave of alien invasion movies, most notably Independence Day in 1996 and then Men in Black during the summer of 1997 and had to compete at the box office with the much anticipated Alien Resurrection released over Thanksgiving Weekend. So, a movie featuring no big name star based on a book nearly 40 years old directed by the person whose previous movie is considered one of the worst movies of the decade if not of all time, didn’t have much luck.
But now, 25 years later, it’s one of the smartest underrated movies ever. Oddly less than four years after it’s release, 9/11 would happen and the Afghanistan War would begin, so there was a lot of life imitating art. A lot of people could see the knee-jerk reaction even following the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999.
The movie spawned two sequels and two CGI animated movies as well as talks of a reboot to follow Heinlein’s novel more closely. Reportedly, Van Dien said there was talk of doing a series but that was put on hold during the Covid pandemic.
What do you think? Please comment.