‘Starship Troopers’ May Be A Satirical Anti-Fascist Movie…But It’s Still Horrible
I have tremendous respect for Paul Verhoeven. The man made two of the best science-fiction films ever: Robocop and Total Recall. Those films helped define my childhood*. The first was an over-the-top satirical indictment of the “Me Decade” and the second was an examination of what it means to be human, masquerading as a sci-fi action movie. They are both extremely subversive and I mean that in the best way possible. In fact the films are so subversive, it involves a certain amount of film analysis to even reach that conclusion. Total Recall and Robocop are so immersed in bombast, it’s like trying to find the small lit match next to the Wicker Man bonfire. But it’s there. I mean good Lord! The name of one of the films is freakin’ Robocop! The title even sounds ridiculous.
However, one of his films that’s since gained an ex post facto degree of notoriety is Starship Troopers. For those of you who don’t remember this steaming pile of excrement, let me refresh your memory. Released November 7, 1997, the film was loosely (and I stress loosely) based on the classic novel of the same name by Robert A. Heinlein, about an interstellar war between humans and an alien race known as the arachnids. It follows the exploits of Johnny Rico as he goes from high school to the Mobile Infantry to fight the “Bugs.” It starred such thespian greats as Denise Richards, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris (pre-Barney Stinson so it’s a slight pass) Patrick Muldoon, and of course that pinnacle of auteur acting Casper Van Dien. The only highlights acting wise in this movie are Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside.
As you may suspect from the names listed the acting was reprehensible. Edward Neumeier, who wrote this abortion of a script, has since written only one script, for Starship Troopers 3: Marauder. That this guy ever got another opportunity to write anything other than a grocery list boggles the mind. What’s worse is that this is the same man who wrote the first two Robocop films! How do you have a fall from grace that bad?
I distinctly remember seeing Starship Troopers in the theater. I went into it with zero expectations and knew nothing about the film other than it involved soldiers in space fighting giant alien bugs. Seemed right up my alley and I was hoping for a quasi-Aliens film. What I got was a shit fest so disastrous, that only a public bathroom in the worst part of New Delhi can rival. Here’s what I got: pretty white people from South America (?) playing pseudo football, poorly done propaganda shorts about the evils 0f Bugs led by Doogie Howser, a co-ed military shower scene that, while enjoyable, was nothing more than gratuitous, and a scene where a soldier who accidentally gets shot in training that looks so fake, that the animators of Mr. Bill could have done a better job. If I hadn’t been with my friend Ken I would have walked out of the theater half way through.
Now I know what some of you may be thinking at this point. “Darth don’t you realize that Starship Troopers was meant to be satire, and that’s Verhoeven’s signature move, and blah, blah, blah.” Yes I’m aware. I’m aware that there were grandiose displays of nationalism, xenophobia, and fascism in the movie. I’m aware that military mobilization scenes were shot for shot remakes of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Yes I’m aware that the film is influenced by Verhoeven’s own experiences growing up in the Nazi occupied Netherlands. I’M AWARE.
Here’s the problem. Just because this was Verhoeven’s intention (one he admittedly was successful at getting across) it doesn’t excuse the fact that Starship Troopers is a HORRIBLE film. It’s almost as if Verhoeven went out of his way to make a bad film. And to me that’s inexcusable. It’s one thing to have an overriding theme for a film. However, it’s another thing entirely to make zero effort at casting quality actors, crafting a better script, and upping the production value to acceptable levels. Robocop was also a satirical film, but it wasn’t an egregiously bad one like Starship Troopers. So for people to praise Starship Troopers as some kind of masterpiece isn’t only disingenuous, it’s flat wrong. Blade Runner this movie is not.
Furthermore, Starship Troopers didn’t even originate as Starship Troopers. It wasn’t meant to be based on Heinlein’s classic work. The original title-and I’m not making this up-was Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine. It wasn’t until similarities to the novel were pointed out that names and events were tweaked and the book rights were licensed. The fact that Robert Heinlein’s name in any way, shape, or form has to be associated with this film is an insult. If Verhoeven wished to make a satirical war film, he shouldn’t have usurped a classic work of science fiction. Call it something else.
Now granted Starship Troopers the novel comes across as extremely fascist and militaristic. Critics of Heinlein have in fact accused him of glorifying fascism. Ergo since the Terran Federation is a fascist society, Starship Troopers is an endorsement of fascism and Heinlein is clearly a fascist. What a crock of horseshit. That’s like saying Stephen King is an axe murderer because Jack Torrance tried to kill his son in The Shining. Or that Ken Kasey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest represents all mentally ill people. It’s the fallacy of author intent criticism. Regardless of what the author intended for the work to be is irrelevant. Once the art is out there, it’s out there. What matters is how the reader responds to the work. In fact you could make the argument that Starship Troopers as a novel is so over the top fascist and militaristic as to be antifascist. The hyperbole indicates the ridiculousness of a fascist society. It’s similar to critics who say Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho is a feminist work because it demonstrates the vile consequences of rampant uber misogyny.
Recently, Sony decided to develop a Starship Troopers movie more in line with Heinlein’s work. Not surprisingly, Verhoeven said the film would be a fascist movie very much in line with a Trump Presidency. Again this is the fallacy of author intent. Verhoeven is assuming that whatever Sony and Neal H. Moritz put out will be a Trump propaganda film. For all he knows it will be such a strict adaptation as to hold a light up to the potential threat of real fascism in the world at large. But like Verhoeven I’m speculating on author intent for a movie that hasn’t started production, let alone been released. Furthermore, I’m not sure how much credence I’d lend to Verhoeven’s statements when, by his own admission, he didn’t finish the novel:
“I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring,…It is really quite a bad book. I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn’t read the thing. It’s a very right-wing book.”
Yes a “bad” book. A novel that’s considered a classic of modern literature and won the Hugo award in 1960. Truly “awful.” I know art is subjective but how about we try finishing the novel that you’re going to adapt into a movie first before fully judging it Paul?
Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers may be an anti-fascist and satirical film, but you’ll never convince me it’s a good movie.
*Incidentally, Robocop was the first rated R movie I ever watched. I remember being terrified when the dude started to melt from toxic waste.