In 1997, few people got the joke.
War satire comes in many forms, but rarely is there a film so aggressively in conflict with its own source material as Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. An original script with the Ed Woodian title of Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine bore enough similarities to renowned sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers that the filmmakers bought the cinematic rights to the book, adapted some of its storyline and proceeded to skewer its celebration of military might, along with war movie tropes at large. The problem was, in 1997, few people got the joke.
With many viewers and critics alike chiding its hyperbolic trappings as another big, dumb splatterfest, Starship Troopers’s satire didn’t resonate in the relatively peaceful late-‘90s in quite the same way it would have upon release in a post-9/11 world. It took time for the notion that this film wasn’t playing it straight to sink in, partially because Verhoeven’s film so convincingly embodies the military glorification it subversively lampoons. Now two decades later, Verhoeven’s often misunderstood bug war movie may not quite have the same enduring pop culture legacy as his other sci-fi satires, Robocop or Total Recall, but its anti-war, anti-fascist message is more relevant than ever.
Throughout the film, Verhoeven takes aim at propagandist tendency to minimize the moral dilemmas of warfare by dehumanizing the enemy. That’s done literally in this film by pitting Earth’s citizens against a race of grotesque, malicious space bugs referred to as “Arachnids,” giant creepy-crawlies who apparently level Buenos Aires with an asteroid fired from their distant planet of Klendathu. “Bug” is tossed around like a racial slur, while military leaders describe their foes as relentless savages lacking in intelligence and sophistication (their apparent ability for precise, interstellar projectile attack notwithstanding).
Even before the deadly strike against Earth—during a period when our hero, Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), and his pals are still attending an indoctrinating high school—jingoism runs rampant in a world that only bestows citizenship onto those who have performed federal service (often through the military), while relegating everyone else to mere non-voting civilian status. Enfranchisement limited to only the demonstrably patriotic, a theme handled as earnest political philosophy by Heinlein in his book, is depicted in the film as ridiculously prone to fascistic extremes.
High school courses and standardized tests are oriented toward determining where in the global government each student should be plugged like a cog. Rico’s girlfriend, Carmen (Denise Richards), gets high marks and becomes a prestigious pilot, and his best friend Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), gifted with psychic abilities, quickly rises to a high-ranking officer wearing a uniform straight out of the Third Reich, minus the swastika.
When Rico follows Carmen into the military against his pragmatic parents’ wishes, his brawn-over-brains jock status gets him stuck as a grunt in the infantry, and he’s followed in turn by coed high school football teammate Dizzy (Dina Meyer), who harbors an obvious crush. Despite its commentary on fascist influence, which is reinforced through periodic retro-futurist propaganda newsreel clips, Starship Troopers gleefully indulges in “90210” levels of melodrama early on. And even once the grisly combat commences, there remain moments of Top Gun-level romantic cheese.
After a melodramatic opening, including Carmen eventually dumping Rico shortly after a Full Metal Jacket-lite basic training due to the pressures of long-term relationship and her kindled interest in his former athletic rival, Zander (Patrick Muldoon), Starship Troopers blows up into an over-the-top onslaught of garish gore. The Arachnids (the pronunciation of which sounds awfully close to “Iraqis,” at times) eviscerate the infantrymen-and-women who land on Klendathu, impaling legs and torsos with their giant spike-limbs, lopping off heads in dive-bomb attacks, snapping torsos in two between powerful jaws and even melting away flesh and bone with the molten spray of their flamethrower orifices.
The brains behind both book and film were heavily influenced by World War II. Having previously served in the Navy, Heinlein couldn’t fight in WWII due to health issues, but he served as an aeronautical engineer and chastised any American who didn’t serve their country during this tumultuous time, his fiercely pro-military views bleeding over into his subsequent fiction. Meanwhile, born in Amsterdam in 1938, Verhoeven’s early boyhood memories are rife with Nazis, giving him obvious insight into the slippery slope between nationalism and fascism. He badmouthed Heinlein’s book as “boring” and ultimately refused to finish reading it, relying on screenwriter Edward Neumeier to fill him in on the details. He completely removed Heinlein’s emphasis on hi-tech body armor and weaponry, instead mostly opting for big, silly machine guns that—except in one subtly humorous instance—seem to fire endlessly without need for reload, both a commentary on the implausibility of so much cinematic combat and the manifestation an action movie wet dream.
If the gore seems gratuitous, compare the initial invasion scene with Saving Private Ryan, released a year later; Earth’s infantry landing on rocky alien terrain echoes the American forces storming the beaches of Normandy, incisively satirizing the horrific glory often associated in war films with loyal men gruesomely cut down as cannon fodder. Twenty years later, is the dismemberment any more fetishized than what’s found in 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge? Is Mel Gibson’s depiction of Japanese soldiers as savage, shrieking hordes any more dignified than portraying them as a swarm of chittering bugs?
While Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers progressively integrates genders in this futuristic military to the point that coed group showers are treated as unremarkable, he also purposely whitewashes the cast. Most of these characters, hailing from Buenos Aires, have Hispanic last names and were written by Heinlein as multicultural, and yet Verhoeven makes them lily white and blue-eyed to hammer home his Nazi critique. It may be too generous to state that the almost painfully wooden acting and hokey dialogue, along with the cringe-inducing cheesiness of the film’s first act, do much more than blend into bad ‘90s melodrama rather than send it up. And yet, despite its missteps, Starship Troopers would go on to serve as a prescient allegory for the opening decades of the 21st century. From the hawkishness that followed the devastation of 9/11 to the current xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric about citizenship and “real Americans,” Verhoeven’s adaptation of Starship Troopers continues to offer satiric bite amid all its blood and goo.