Starship Troopers (1997).

Paul Verhoeven’s misunderstood sci-fi satire re-examined for it’s 20th anniversary.

In 1997 acclaimed Dutch director Paul Verhoeven hoped to return to the success of his first three Hollywood films after the failure of his fourth film, 1995’s disastrous Showgirls. His first American film, 1987’s RoboCop was a huge sleeper hit and rightly earned its classic status as one of the most beloved of all science fiction films. 1990’s Total Recall was another huge hit and solidified Verhoeven’s place as a true master of adult science fiction. In 1992 he had another hit in Basic Instinct, a modern take on the Hitchcockian thrillers of the 1950’s and 60’s. His fifth Hollywood film, Starship Troopers, was yet another slice of adult science fiction and was loosely based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel of the same name and set in an unspecified time in the future.

Two decades on from its release, Starship Troopers is now regarded by many as a beloved classic held in similarly high regard as Verhoeven’s first two big sci-fi hits yet still has its staunch detractors and was hardly a hit at the box office. Made on a budget of $100 million it only made just over $121 million worldwide. Whilst home video sales and rental figures are unclear, it certainly didn’t recapture the success of the Dutch visionary’s earlier films. Critics were divided on the film and many found that the excessive violence was too much to stomach as was the often wooden acting of its young cast.

“Figuring things out for yourself is the only freedom anyone really has.”

Starship Troopers is rich in political and social satire, even more so than Verhoeven’s previous collaboration with screenwriter Ed Neumeier, RoboCop. Like RoboCop, Starship Troopers gets much of its socio-political satire across with the use of media, in this case via the FedNet’s Public Service Announcements. These propaganda infomercials are often hilarious but fit perfectly within the framework and tone of the film.

Rewatching Starship Troopers in 2017 with the political ramifications of 2016 still being felt, I was immediately hit by how remarkably prescient much of the satire is. Early on in the film, Michael Ironside’s ex soldier turned teacher of history and moral philosophy, Jean Rasczak says to his pupils, “This year we explored the failure of democracy.” Well, depending on where you live in the world, this line may well now resonate heavily with you. The world depicted in Starship Troopers is something of an exaggerated utopia in many respects with its class, gender and racial neutrality but it is also highly militaristic and Rasczak’s teachings are blatantly geared towards the indoctrination of its pupils into conforming to the quasi-fascist beliefs of this future society. Even the biology professor espouses her admiration of the mindless, selfless nature of the bugs that her pupils are dissecting, the same pupils that are also being taught to mindlessly serve the society in which they live.

“I’d rather take ten lashes in public square than see you ruin your life.”

There’s a certain tone that permeates Verhoeven’s films, it’s certainly prevalent in his three science fiction films made between 1987 and 1997. I touched on it in my review of RoboCop and I would describe it as Verhoeven’s “Life is Cheap” formula. Many, if not all of the characters in his films have a cold detachment towards violence and death and it goes beyond even that in Starship Troopers. Publicly televised executions are aired at prime time. A news report censors an arachnid butchering a cow yet the same report shows the brutal devastation of a Mormon colony, dismembered human bodies displayed in all their visceral glory. In order to have a baby you must first be granted a licence. Isn’t procreation one of the basic rights we have as humans? Not unless you become a citizen. It’s the clear delineation between being a proud citizen and a lowly civilian that marks much of the pointed social satire in Starship Troopers. If you sign up to the war effort you become a citizen and benefit from many privileges that are considered basic human rights and shouldn’t have to be earned. The war effort here is a war against giant bugs from a distant solar system that we may well have started through our own galactic incursion.

“Mobile Infantry made me the man I am today.”

Some of Starship Troopers’ more cheesy, cliched teenage drama is hard to stomach and could be seen as the film’s one major flaw but Verhoeven’s too clever to have put this in without it being there to serve the plot. The almost gleeful abandon by which our young cast throw themselves into danger early in the film shows how naive they are, a clear product of the constant indoctrination of this war driven and militaristic society. This is showcased in Carmen’s first scene at the flight academy where she pilots a shuttle to the ship she’ll serve on with scant regard for danger. This scene also showcases composer Basil Poledouris’ stunning score and also the impeccable special effects, a stunning amalgamation of models, CGI and optical effects that I’ll come to later.

It’s this teen drama that worked so well for me when I first saw Starship Troopers in the cinema. Not that I liked the clunky drama elements that formed the opening act, far from it. On my first viewing, having expected more filmic brilliance to match RoboCop and Total Recall, I remember being aghast at what I was seeing. Was one of my favourite directors really giving us a futuristic version of Beverly Hills 90210? So far I’d seen nothing of the Dutch auteur’s trademark style. Then at around the 40 minute mark the film took a definite and abrupt turn in tone at the live fire exercise on the shooting range as one of our young cadets gets his head blown apart and it was at that point I got what Verhoeven had been doing up to this point. He’d successfully lulled me into a false sense of security and from this point forward he ramps the carnage up at regular intervals to almost gleefully absurd levels.

“We thought we were smarter than the bugs.”

Following Rico’s harsh punishment by way of the lash for his failure he is then thrust headlong into the war against the giant bugs and the sheer level of over the top violence and viscera that’s put up on screen often borders on comedic. This all links in to the cheesy first act and what I see as the clear reasoning as to Verhoeven’s approach. The almost cardboard cut-out nature of the young cast with their wooden acting doesn’t do anything to endure the audience to them and ultimately their forthcoming plight. As they’re almost throwaway characters it builds up a barrier between them and the viewer and creates a certain distance that makes their ultimate grisly demise (for some of them at least) much easier to bear, especially given the graphic nature of almost all the deaths in the film. If Verhoeven had crafted characters that had engendered our care and sympathy then it would have drastically altered the tone of the second and third acts when they’re offed so brutally. This methodology plays along with both the aforementioned “Life is Cheap” tone that permeates the film and also the way that the characters lives are so cheaply valued by their own militaristic society. They’re seen as nothing more than fresh meat to the grinder as a recruitment officer puts it in early on in the film. If Verhoeven had overloaded the film with pathos and melancholy then his scathing satire on war and fascism wouldn’t have been nearly as effective as it is here. Or as darkly funny.

Sky Marshall Dienes’ proclamation that the war effort of Starship Troopers’ fascist society will ensure that humans will dominate the Galaxy leads into more hilarious anti-bug propaganda. Here Verhoeven’s social commentary and satire is at its most blunt and effective, a solid jab at the Nazi’s that invaded and occupied his home country in WWII and their use of subversive indoctrination to fuel their own war effort. The powerful military force, confidently and blindly striding in to war against a far less advanced enemy also mirrors America’s attitude leading up to the Vietnam conflict. Far from being a vacuous action film, it’s got lots happening underneath all the surface gloss and carnage.

Michael Ironside’s line, “They sucked his brains out” is delivered with straight faced conviction in spite of its absurdity. The sheer amount of blood and gore on display is incredible and pushes the R rating to its limits. The almost celebratory display of violence peaks when the newly rescued but now insane General Owen is squashed by a flying bug only to illicit a reaction of utter bemusement by Jake Busey’s Ace Levy. This is either a moment of clever and conscious fourth wall breaking comic genius that you’ll embrace or simply disregard if you haven’t bought into the wildly subversive tone that Verhoeven is aiming for. Maybe it’s an indicator of my own twisted sense of humour that way back in 1997 when sat in the cinema it was at this moment where I was fully sold and almost got up and cheered.

“They’ll Keep Fighting… And They’ll Win!”

Aside from the overt social commentary and deep vein of satire, the film is a technical tour de force. Across the board from make-up and prosthetics to models, miniatures and CGI, the special visual effects are outstanding and still hold up today. The use of highly detailed models for the giant spaceships and space stations give a level of realism and a sense of scale that even modern CGI often fails to replicate. CGI is used frequently but only where models and animatronics wouldn’t suffice and when it is used it’s done so to generally great effect. The way these various techniques blend is seamless. Just look at the level of detail on the huge spacecraft as they’re cut in two by bug plasma fire, you can see individual crew being sucked out of the different decks of the burning cross-sections. This consistent attention to detail really sells the validity of this artificial future and is part of what holds the film together and helps balance some of the slightly more over the top elements.

The pace and editing of the film are also spot-on which comes as no surprise as the film was co-edited by Mark Goldblatt, editor of The Terminator and T2. Jost Vacano who gave RoboCop’s Old Detroit its run-down grimy feel goes in the other direction here with bright vivid colours which is especially effective in amplifying the gore and human dismemberment. As mentioned, the late Basil Poledouris puts in another fine score that suits the film perfectly and injects it with a suitable level of rousing bombast but also several quieter character moments as required. Just listen to how subtle yet effective the score is as Carmen daringly reverses the massive ship, Rodger Young out of space dock. A simple scene is given added tension and lift by the perfectly crafted score.

If you’re one of the many people who simply didn’t get Starship Troopers then I hope you can now rewatch it in a slightly different light and at least recognise some of the pointed satire and social commentary. Starship Troopers ends without the conflict being ultimately resolved and with mankind pressing on towards the bug’s home planet and the goal of conquest. Its propaganda infomercial ending could be taken several ways, as a positive message of hope that mankind will prevail against it’s intergalactic foe, as a loose promise made to encourage continued recruitment to the war effort or as just as a knowing nod to the film’s own wicked sense of irony.

That’s the magic of Paul Verhoeven when he’s at his best. On the surface, some of his films can seem fairly straightforward in their construction but if you scratch beneath the surface you’ll often find hidden detail and meaning that wasn’t apparent on the first viewing. I initially scoffed at the idea of the Christ metaphors in RoboCop when I was younger but now see those same crucifixion/resurrection themes clearly. It’s the same with Starship Troopers, having recently re-watched it for the purposes of this review. There’s more to it than over the top violence and hammy acting but if you can’t or don’t want to see beyond that then that’s perfectly fine. It certainly isn’t a film for everyone and it definitely pushes the envelope with regards to its excessive gore and violence and its implementation of some fairly farcical hyperbole that may be too much for some tastes.

For me it remains a defining personal cinematic experience, a film that, after an intentionally shaky start, I thoroughly enjoyed on that first blind viewing and whilst it’s not my favourite of Verhoeven’s films, I’ll always be very fond of it. If you’ve seen it and didn’t get it the first time I urge you to give it a second chance. If you haven’t seen Starship Troopers then it’ll come as no surprise that it gets my highest recommendation.

Film ‘89 Verdict – 9/10