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I never felt like I needed to see Starship Troopers. It came out when I was the right age for a sci-fi future-war movie of any quality and it should have been right up my alley, based on the marketing. In previews it seemed like a big, dumb, loud war against bugs. I didn’t really understand why anyone would want to see it. Even as a teenager it seemed unappealing, despite being a genre that seemed to be marketed entirely to teeenagers.
But it’s the kind of movie that people with great taste keep recommending. It became a curiosity to me, like a band that’s always listed among your favorite bands but you’ve never checked out. I still couldn’t figure out why people like culture critic David Roth were writing about this space bug war movie in The New Yorker.
There’s really only one way to talk about Starship Troopers now, and if you’ve seen it and are a fan to any degree then you know where this is going. I’ll keep the history lesson short, but it’s critical for our discussion that we all be on the same page. People didn’t get it, somehow, in 1997. Roger Ebert used the phrase “sly satire” in his review, which says more about the two decades between that moment and this one than any other two words could say. Starship Troopers is not sly. It’s a clanking, screaming, insistent satire that is so brash that people managed to miss it as coming around the other side.
Just as you must watch a movie from the 1920s with some understanding of the times, you have to send your brain back to 1997 for Starship Troopers. The world was not what it is now. That which seemed ridiculous to writer Ed Neumeier and director Paul Verhoeven has been toned down now. Starship Troopers has the same DNA as Brazil and Idiocracy, other dark portrayals of futures that might be if we do not turn away from troubling trends. Brazil especially feels present, with the darkness just out of reach for the cast we’re seeing.
The difference is that we have no surrogate character here. No one in Starship Troopers is part of a resistance or even struggles to buy in to the reality of their world. This is why it struck a weird note for so many people in 1997, because it felt too genuine. The military rules the world and the characters love that. They don’t just accept fascism, they revel in it. We start the movie so far in the future that we don’t ever really contend with the period most other dystopian films are interested in. Verhoeven shows us what it looks like in the generation after the bad guys already won.
The world of Starship Troopers is all military, all the time. Humanity has defeated democracy and now is in a permanent war with “bugs” on another planet. The bugs keep bombing our world and we interpret from this that they are the aggressor. If Starship Troopers is “sly” about anything, it’s the truth behind this conflict. The bugs appear monstrous and exist in a society we never see beyond war. Humanity only slightly comes across as more “human” but visually, it’s clear that some of these are people and those other things aren’t. It’s consistently suggested that there might be a way out of this, but humanity has gone way past diplomacy being an option.
We follow a few stock characters that rise in the ranks and show us boot camp, officer school, and the stratification of the military. Everyone is cranked way up, excited and beaming about uniforms and regulations and honor and duty. It’s impossible to miss this as a ridiculous choice today, but it really did seem to people to be a suggestion that this life is aspirational. I really struggled to see that reading on my viewing and it’s a challenge, now. During a brief cutaway where a character on a news broadcast says that it’s possible humanity’s adversary might be capable of thinking and there might be a way to go about this differently they are shot down immediately by another host who calls the suggestion “offensive.”
A lot of the cultural commentary on Starship Troopers focuses on the launch of Fox News Channel that was nearly concurrent with the movie’s launch. The film is broken up with newscasts that appear to be clickable for at-home viewers, all of which end with an excited “would you like to know more?” It is impossible to untangle these ideas all these years later, but this had to come across strangely at the time. Nothing in the film is more prescient than insistent, barking news programs talking about the military and propaganda, tied together with a suggestion that consuming more of this will increase your knowledge. It doesn’t seem to have been clear to people in 1997, but it makes Verhoeven look like a time traveler now.
Is it any good? Yeah, of course it is! It’s much more interesting as a reflection of changing times than it is as an action movie, but that was the point. The bugs still look scary and quasi-real, which is an accomplishment in a field where effects look dated almost immediately. The plot hums along, with the standard beats of sci-fi and war movies but plays with the tropes of both genres enough to be surprising. It’s a fine enough movie if all you want is man vs. monster, but the message is why you’re really watching.
Verhoeven supposedly had to explain a lot of what he was trying to say to his actors. It’s easy to laugh now at people who “didn’t get it” but that seems to be the majority opinion. It opens up a legitimate discussion of satire, one we’re still having in the present. If people don’t immediately understand that you’re presenting something evil as evil, are you actually telling the story you mean to tell? I don’t think the problem is in the text, but we apparently weren’t ready for Starship Troopers in 1997.
It’s screamingly funny, now. The propaganda all pops as hilarious and the over-the-top violence all reads as a condemnation of a fallen society that lost what makes us real. There’s a safety net to all of this for a modern viewing, though. Anything that feels awkward or poorly executed can be rounded up to being part of the satire. Everyone is wooden and ridiculous, but that’s part of the joke. The love stories are shoehorned and surface level, but that’s also a joke. That can be true and frustrating to contend with at the same time.
It’s a better movie today than it was on release, which is not a statement you can make very often. Almost every person who contends with Starship Troopers does so through this lens of rethinking film through different context, and it is worth noting that Starship Troopers takes a very specific stand. Idiocracy is funny in a lot of the same ways, but ultimately the warning there is too all-inclusive to ever feel perfectly suited to any time. We’ll always fear that we’re getting dumber and that we’ll be undone by the loudest and least-informed among us, but Starship Troopers tells us that all happens because you give in to something else before it gets that dark. Verhoeven isn’t worried about “the future,” he’s worried about what we’re going to do right now.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so. I’ve certainly spent more time contending with Starship Troopers than I did Badlands, but one is much messier than the other. Badlands may have less overall to say, but it does it in a more inarguably artful way. Starship Troopers is more fascinating than anything else, which is a remarkable achievement but not a better finished product than Badlands.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, though it’s infinitely more interesting than I expected it to be. I completely understand where people were coming from with their reviews in 1997. If you walked out of Starship Troopers disgusted by an exciting war movie where the good guys are fascist idiots who love war and violence, you did get one level of what was happening. It’s not entirely fair to say that anyone who hated it didn’t understand it, a lot of them just thought the satire wasn’t presented in a way that sold the message. There is struggle, but ultimately, one of the on-screen messages is that might does, in fact, make right. It’ll be a much better movie for you if you take that one step further and see that all of this is happening in a world that doesn’t deserve to be saved anymore, but it’s a fair criticism to say that Verhoeven is asking you to make that leap yourself. It’s also frustratingly dumb, often, which is the point, but it’s not any more fun to watch bad acting just because it’s a subversive joke.
You can watch Starship Troopers on Amazon Prime. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.