Starship Troopersrecommended viewing

If only all political satires had giant killer bugs
★★★★
☆
Released: 
1997
Director: 
Paul Verhoeven
Starring: 
Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Michael Ironside, Dina Meyer, Neil Patrick Harris
The Setup: 
Sci-fi war film satire with humans vs. bugs.
Discussion: 

I had seen this movie when it was out, and, expecting a straightforward sci-fi adventure, thought its first hour of standard war-film melodrama and interstitial newsreel-type films just a distraction. The whole thing just seemed unfocused and unsatisfying. Then I started reading various reports on how it’s all a satire, none of which was apparent to me at the time, so I thought it’s about time to watch it again.

WHAT a different experience I had watching it now, ten years later. Definitely a satire, a really OBVIOUS SATIRE—so obvious I’m a little chagrined it flew so far over my head before—and also a really sharp and funny satire. What can I say, I’m clueless sometimes.

We open with a recruiting commercial entitled “Why We Fight,” our first giant clue that none of this is to be taken at face value, because that is the name of a famous war film from the past. These short films, that mirror the tone and voice of the old newsreels that would show before films, deliver a lot of exposition in the first few minutes. The basic deal is that humans are at war with these giant bugs on a distant planet.

We meet our hero Johnny Rico, played by Casper Van Dien, in his class, where he is being lectured to by Michael Ironside on history; social scientists brought society to the brink of chaos, but the veterans banded together to bring society back together through military force. He goes on to state that brute force solves more problems than negotiation. We notice that Ironside is an amputee. We also meet Denise Richards as Rico’s love Carmen, and Dina Meyer as Diz, who is obsessed with Rico, and who kept reminding me of Ginger Spice. Also on hand is former Dougie Houser Neil Patrick Harris as Carl, who is psychic and can control people’s minds.

So Rico has found out that Carmen is signing up for Federal Service, which means she will become a citizen, which means she will be allowed to vote and have a number of other privileges. Non-Citizens cannot vote. Rico’s parents are aghast that he is considering joining the service, but their insistence only makes him more intractable. Diz and Dougie are also signing up. Now, this far in, you’re already saying “WHY are these people so bland?” and when viewed as a satire it’s obvious that they are supposed to be, as a result of militaristic society they live in. The actors are blank and beautiful, and actually seem to be made up so that their skin is absolutely smooth and free of any imperfection, like a Barbie. My friend said he read an interview with Verhoeven, the director, who said that he purposely wanted to cast actors who came off as one-dimensional. It’s effective, as it becomes a little creepy seeing all these naïve youngsters throwing their lives away in a war that is going through young recruits like them at a blistering pace. This is emphasized by the large number of amputees we have seen, and the greeting of the recruiter where they go to sign up: “Ah, more meat for the grinder.”

As the three friends go their separate ways, the emphasis turns to melodrama. Carmen is trained to fly huge spaceships at the side of Zander, an attractive guy who has a rivalry with Rico. She promptly dumps Rico [they are more than likely never to see each other again, after all], who realizes that he joined the service for her, and now she’s gone. Obsessive stalker Diz starts to make her play for Rico. She gave me the creeps throughout. Then the bugs send a meteor toward Earth, which destroys Buenos Aires and kills Rico’s parents, sending Earth to war and giving Rico a reason to fight. He says “Who cares [that he left his parents]. The federation will give me everything I need for the next two years.” Apparently the writer and director tried to make clear that the bugs’ actions are a result of humans invading their territory, i.e. they were provoked, although the humans ignore that and focus only on the offenses committed against them. In the commentary the writer and director make quite clear that while their subject is fascism in general, most of what we see occurring in the movie is inspired by the actions of the United States.

We have a few more newsreel segments, including one about the destruction of Buenos Aires beginning with the announcer intoning: “Crisis for humankind.” They then talk about how this has led the Earth to declare war in a segment called “Countdown to victory.” We then see a bunch of small kids crushing bugs in their street as the narrator says “Everyone’s doing their part!” We can see the teacher behind the kids, laughing and clapping gleefully. These are presented in a sort of Internet on which everything is video, and there is navigation at the top, a persistent element of which is “Enlist.”

So now we go into actual battle, an hour into the movie. The entire first hour here is just war-movie melodrama, part of what alienated me from it the first time, seeing as I was expecting an awesome action epic. Rico and his team drop to the planet in a sequence obviously meant to allude to the landing on the beaches at Normandy. They battle bugs, and people have limb cut off or are cut in two quite neatly. Until now I haven’t mentioned that this film is very gory, with severed body parts everywhere, but I think it works here and serves a purpose, as it shows how these kids think it’s awesome to join the military and don’t seem to realize that they are quite likely to be ripped apart—especially in this war, where the soldiers really are little but “meat for the grinder.”

The other thing is that these bugs are nasty sons of bitches. They are basically just a big combination of deadly sharp body parts that impale or chop off at will. And it takes a hell of a lot to kill them, as the guys are shooting machine guns at them and snapping their limbs off, but they keep coming. Rico finds this out the hard way when he’s blasting and blasting at one until it’s seemingly dead, only to have it make one last lurch and stab his thigh with a beak as thick as a fire extinguisher. It’s nasty!

SPOILERS > > >
Up in space, where Carmen is, there are giant balls of glowing bug juice that destroy whole ships, and they begin to realize that while the humans thought this was a surprise attack, the bugs were ready and waiting. The humans retreat, and the next news segment we see starts with “100,000 dead in one hour,” which successfully carries an undercurrent of the program implicitly saying: “Isn’t that awesome?!” Then, to prove how very brilliant this film is, we have a debate show with a Fox News-type blowhard who goes apoplectic as he spouts “Frankly, I find the very idea of a bug that thinks offensive!” On the commentary the writer and director say that this movie was filming at the beginning of the first Gulf War, and that a lot of the battle footage and these debate show things was based on CNN at the time.

So it turns out that they think the bugs set a trap for them. But how? They send Rico and company [now under the command of Michael Ironside, who shows up again], to answer this distress call on another planet. By now it’s kind of difficult to sort out what’s happening as there’s so much packed in here that one can’t tell what to focus on, and all the planets look the same. Anyway, they go in and find a colony of humans slaughtered on a planet that was supposed to be bug-free. They find a guy whose brains were apparently sucked out through a hole in his head. Then there’s a massive bug attack, and Diz dies, not a moment too soon. She bugged that crap out of me with her constant obsessing over Rico. At the beginning of the movie I wanted him to grab her and shout “Get it through your fuckin' head! I! Am! Not! Interested!” but when Carmen dumps him he ends up becoming involved with her. Anyway, as she’s dying [bye!] she tells Rico “It all right… because I got to have you.” Sweet pea, you are the damaged emotional shell of a human psyche and what you need is serious therapy and a restraining order. Thank God she’s dead.

Anyway, so the flaming bug poops are shooting up from the planet and hitting the giant starships that vaguely resemble the Battlestar Galactica. Now I personally could just sit and watch starships float around and explode forever, and this movie definitely gives some good starship. But never more so than in a spectacular, worth-renting-the-movie-for scene in which one of the bug poops rips Carmen’s giant ship in half! And it splits open and you can see all of the individual decks on fire and shit. It’s a little bit like when the Titanic split in half in that movie, except on fire, and with a spaceship. So Carmen and Zander [you remember him, the pilot and rival with Rico?] escape in a pod. Incidentally, on the commentary they talk about how preview audiences HATED that Carmen wasn’t true to Rico and didn’t remain chaste while waiting for him, saying they received comment cards along the lines of “The slut should die.”

But I forgot to tell you that after the bug attack on the planet and before the destruction of Carmen’s ship we have re-met Dougie, who has risen up the ranks and is now in full, obvious fascist regalia. Turns out he used Rico’s group [not necessarily knowing he was in it] to go to the colony to test if the bugs were thinking; i.e. he used them a bait and knew many of them would die, and is totally unrepentant about it, because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.

So Carmen and Zander are plunging through the upper atmosphere and come down and run smack dab into a mountainside. Could this spell the end for our intrepid heroes? Well, no, because incredibly, Carmen’s out-of-control ship just HAPPENED to hit at the exact place where there is an underground network of caverns leading away from her site of impact! So they land safely deep inside a mountain! Wow, WHAT were the chances of that? Rico hears that she ship went down but immediately [literally within 10 seconds] finds out that she is alive. Fate is having a banner day!

But all is not well for Carmen and Zander, as they are surrounded by vicious bugs. Carmen gets impaled through her shoulder, but Zander seems to be pretty much castrated by a bug claw between the legs. That is going to take some serious reconstructive surgery. But anyway, the bugs are keeping them alive and soon there’s these smaller stinkbug-looking things, then this massive nasty-ass bug that looks like a big brain with a bunch of eyes and an asshole for a nose saunters up to the pair, releases this big nasty poker-thing [accompanied by mucho grody mucus] impales Zander's head, and sucks his brains out. You can actually see Zander’s brains shooting through the bug’s snout, passing under a special gland that coats them with a tantalizing glaze of tangy honey mustard sauce, then into his sucking asshole mouth. This is how the bugs get their information about humans, although the idea that anything can absorb knowledge by eating brains is the tiniest fraction toward the stupid.

So blah, blah, Rico rescues Carmen, acting on a psychic tip from Dougie [redeeming his fascism slightly], and the capture the brain bug, whose snout has by this time been cut off by Carmen. So now they’ll probe the brain bug and probably get a big leg up in the war. The movie ends with another recruiting commercial.
< < < SPOILERS END

Overall, it was very good. I was a little chagrined that the whole thing went so far over my head the first time, but then again, it’s unusual for a major studio picture to have characters that are supposed to be archetypes rather than real characters, espouse views that are the very opposite of what the filmmakers intend, in an entire movie that is supposed to be taken to mean the total opposite of what it’s saying. Nevertheless, that’s all outside the movie, but when you look at the movie itself, the satire is so obvious. So I feel like a fool. But at least I’m not the only one who didn’t get it—most of the critics when the movie was released totally missed it as well. On the [reasonably interesting] commentary, Verhoeven and the screenwriter confirm the satirical view, however, saying “Whenever you see propaganda, we are saying that is bad! Bad, bad, bad!” We also find from the commentary that the screenwriter, Edward Neumeier, has quite psychoanalytic views, speculating that all humans tends toward fascism over time, and that all nations define themselves by their enemy, which is the thesis of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. He also defines one character as the ‘strong father’ and notes that at the moment the strong father dies a giant bug springs out of the ground.

So, all well and good. And I’m totally behind Verhoeven after this. Ready, even, to consider whether Showgirls is an allegory of the creation of the United Nations or whatever. A minor problem, however, is that the heroes have to have a minor triumph at the end of the movie, or else the mainstream audience who came in to see giant bugs get shot and spaceships blow up [like me at the time] will be disappointed. So it’s kind of hard to maintain the satirical attitude and yet have the heroes win… so if you’re watching for the satire that part kind of loses steam in the last 30 minutes, and if you’re watching for the action that kind of loses steam as well. This follows the rule with many sci-fi films, in that only the first two-thirds are really interesting, because they contain all the subversive stuff, and the last third has to be devoted to wrapping the actual story up.

But in this case the first two-thirds is so amusing that one can forgive the resolution. I was surprised to find myself much more interested in the satirical war-movie melodrama than the bravura bug attacks. There was a direct-to-video sequel, but I hear it completely drops the satirical angle and is more like an Alien-type monster movie. Hmm, maybe I need to watch that.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! Especially if you like military satire and watching sci-fi battles.

Comments

this is a very interesting movie to me because of the intelligent and thoughtful movie lovers i've talked to over the years that totally did not get the satire or the facism in starship troopers. so don't feel bad about missing it, many do, for some reason. probably part of the reason one might miss it is cause it's such a kick ass action movie. and those bugs once they show up, are wicked as hell.

i have not read the novel this is derived from, but it was commented that it glorified fascism back when it was 1st published.