director Paul Verhoeven
The funny thing about Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film Starship Troopers is that I think from the day I saw it in the theater, I totally got it as a nearly comic critique of the genre of sci-fi action film. I read it as a critique of Hollywood in general, a subversive statement in Verhoeven’s experience post Showgirls (1995), the film that sort of ruined his and writer Joe Esterhaus’s careers. Of course, Starship Troopers didn’t actually help Verhoeven’s career either, though it was a return to genre for him, director of the cult sci-fi hits Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990). A lot of people saw Starship Troopers at the time as just a shallow, callow, silly action film, a dud.
I indeed did not find many to agree with me that the film was sort of a genius act of subversive filmmaking at the time. But it has gone on to be known as just that sort of thing.
In a future world entirely populated by bimbos and himbos, everyone is super-good-looking, strangely multicultural, but banal and bland and cliche. It turns out that that is just how the world is for characters Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), and Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris), all from a very unrecognizable Buenos Aires. See, no matter who you are, rich or poor, the systems have figured out for you where you belong, particularly in the military. Carl is a brain bug, headed for military intelligence. Carmen is the perfect candidate for captaining a spaceship. While Johnny Rico is only cut out to be infantry. And the amazing thing about the sorting hat of future computer testing is that everyone gets placed quite accurately.
The parallel world to this fascist state of Earth are the Arachnids from space. These “mindless” giant insects have evolved into their own perfect army, with infantry-like killer fighting bugs, giant blasting plasma beetles, and oh, yes, “brain bugs”. The mindless insect world that we fight is basically the same as this glossy, hunky, bleached teeth humanity. All part of an essentially hive-minded culture. Only the cliches for the bugs are less obvious.
So sure, one the surface, Starship Troopers looks like what it is, a cheesy group of actors playing a bunch of stereotypical, poorly developed characters, right out of casting central for a war picture. But of course, that is the point and subversion. Really, is there anyone more bimbo than Denise Richards or more himbo than Van Dien?
The fascist critique is the human race, definitely military, but even our popular culture and media. Really, Verhoeven taps into this quite humorous social criticism in each of his sci-fi films. It hardly began here. But whereas lots of people unabashedly loved Robocop and Total Recall (both getting remade within a year of one another presently), to suggest that Starship Troopers is a bit of genius will get you looked at quite strangely by a lot of people.
But that’s the wonder of time. 17 years later, it’s maybe not widely appreciated as a subversive film, but more critics have come around to recognizing it for what it is.
I’m not usually one to try to say something about how I got it back in the day (I didn’t have my little blog yet back in 1997 and could have proved myself out if I did) but for some reason, I do want you all to know that I did indeed sort of “get” the movie when it first came out, oddity that I was at the time. I will just as quickly tell you that when I first saw The Big Lebowski (1998), around the same time, I actually totally didn’t get it. I thought it was kind of weird and a muddle. It was only a year later on cable that I came to realize that the film was actually what it is, one of the wonderful cult works of genius of the 1990’s.