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  • Brett Willis

Starship Troopers (1997)

Starship Troopers (1997)

My first experience with Starship Troopers was in probably 1999, a couple years after the movie came out. I was in my early teens and had not been exposed to many, if any, “gory” movies. I think the closest I’d come was like The Ghost and the Darkness—a Val Kilmer movie about an angry lion. I was not steeped in the likes of Evil Dead II, Jason, or Freddy Krueger. In fact, I avoided those sorts of films late into my teens.

Anyway, I wandered into my brother’s room about halfway through his viewing of Starship Troopers—rented from Blockbuster, I believe—and was confronted with a scene where the Roughnecks, a highly trained mobile infantry unit of earth soldiers, are fighting at an outpost on Planet “P.” They are, as we say, in the shit.

The distress call that brought them to this outpost was, it turns out, a setup. Bugs—known as “arachnids” to The Fandom—are swarming from all sides. In an attempt to escape, a mobile infantry member leaps from an upper deck. Midway into his fall, a warrior bug scrabbles over the outpost’s battlements, uses its blade-like forelegs to impale the man through both of his shoulders, and hauls him back over the battlements to be torn to shreds.

Viewing that was a formative experience. I did not stick around for the rest of the movie.

And you’re wondering, this was a good thing? It probably wasn’t, at the time. In fact, the look of horror that I hope I captured in Michael Ironside’s face (in the header image) roughly equates to my expression when that soldier got dismembered. However, the next time I watched the movie, probably fifteen years later, I was expecting the gore—I had seen RoboCop and Total Recall and actually understood/enjoyed Paul Verhoeven’s penchant for body horror. And beneath the gore, I, like many, many people have penned articles about, learned that the movie actually had substance.

The fact that this movie was seen, when it was released, as a straight-faced “Summer Blockbuster” probably says more about us as a culture than anything else I can write here. I mean, in retrospect, the movie’s message about the bleakness of fascist militarism is almost lit in day-glow. Literally, the first scene of the movie features a propagandistic federal military recruitment commercial in which soldiers stand in Wermacht-esque rows saying, “I’m doing my part,” only to have a boy of no more than eleven, dressed in full battle armor, pop out and say, “I’m doing my part, too!” In response, the row of soldiers does a good-hearted belly laugh. And our cultural critics of the time weren’t like, “wow, this movie is a sendup of our militaristic tendencies as Americans.” The response was mainly “the big bug movie was not very fun.”

It is legitimately fucking awesome how hard we culturally whiffed on Verhoeven’s lobbed pitch of meaning.

Here are some choice quotes pulled from reviewers in around 2000.

“A brainless bubblegum movie. It’s an exhilarating adrenaline rush.” David N. Butterworth of affirms that he missed the message, but was still titillated.

“The enjoyment you get from watching Starship Troopers is similar to the pleasure felt from a loud 'ZAP' from a bug zapper. And about as deep.” Madeleine Williams of Cinematter zaps herself.

Janet Mazlin of THE N. Y. T. gave it a 2/5, saying “Starship Troopers never gets over its 180-degree swivel from teen-age love story to murderous destruction.” We’ll also talk about the love story later.

Richard Schickel of Time Magazine says “Maybe the filmmakers are so lost in their slambang visual effects that they don't give a hoot about the movie's scariest implications.” I believe they did, Richard, as the entire film is the singular hoot, dutifully detailing what this sort of society delivers for its citizens.

Dennis Schwartz was so befuddled, he fell back on the age-old trope of burning the youngsters, “You might find this film entertaining if you are a fan of MTV.”

I’m sad he didn’t call it “the MTV.”

And here, the question becomes, “so wait, if all these reviewers missed the point, did Paul Verhoeven even mean for this movie to be a skewering of right-wing ideologies?” We’ll let the man speak for himself.

“If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn't work, no one will listen to me. So I'm going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it's only good for killing fucking bugs!”

– Paul Verhoeven

To give the reviewers credit, however, their impressions are not wrong. It is not a feel-good romp. It is incredibly pessimistic. All of the adults have deformities from fighting in battle. Rasczak (Michael Ironside), their history teacher, who becomes their platoon leader, has one arm. Their science teacher (Rue freakin’ McClanahan) is blind with acid burns on her face. The person who signs our heroes up for the mobile infantry basically has no non-bionic limbs.

Also, emotionally, the movie thwarts. There is a love quadrangle between Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), and Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon) that sees everyone disappointed. Dizzy loves Johnny, and when Johnny begins to hesitatingly reciprocate Dizzy is killed by arachnids. Johnny actually loves Carmen, who actually loves Zander, whose brain gets sucked out by a “brain bug.” It is unsparing. In the end, Carmen flies off as the Captain of a spaceship, leaving Johnny, with a reconstructed leg, mimicking his late teacher/platoon leader Raszcak in yelling at his Roughnecks, “c’mon you apes, you want to live forever?!”

Don’t get me wrong, this movie is not that deep. It is laden with gore. It has brief nudity (that many men of my vintage, I’m sure, are aware of). It has sight gags like Carmen Flores vomiting because of bug guts in science class. It has an inexplicable electric fiddle hoedown. But! This dichotomy of dystopian fascist future mixed with neon gore blockbuster makes for a singularly enjoyable movie experience.

To cut the movie more slack, there are some pretty wonderful symbolic details peppered throughout. Why are the bugs attacking our valiant heroes? Well, the humans were just innocently venturing out to colonize the solar system when bugs fought back. Sound like any culture you know?

Also, during the aforementioned history lesson, Rasczak teaches Johnny, Carmen, and Dizzy that “naked force” is the ultimate law of the universe. He also lays down this little nugget of background. “This year, we explored the failure of democracy, how the social scientists (emphasis mine) brought our world to the brink of chaos. We talked about the veterans and how they took control, and imposed the stability that has lasted for generations since.” So we’re talking about a military dictatorship. Pretty unfamiliar scenery for a good good funtimes summer blockbuster.

This is totally personal conjecture, but I feel like my viewing experience with Starship Troopers mirrored Verhoeven’s intended viewer’s experience. First, it instills horror. Then you begin to get inured to the violence. Then you accept it. Then you revel in it. I’m not honestly certain Verhoeven meant to go this far, but I believe this sequence of emotions would be similar for a person living in a culture like the one detailed in the film. Revulsion. Acclimation. Acceptance. Glorification.

I mean, this movie rules. It has action, intensity, some substance, and a mix of CGI and actual models that holds up. It ends in triumph that is also depressing. And it consistently shows us the horrors of a militaristic, xenophobic culture without once wagging its finger.

One of my favorite lines—after the brain bug has finally been captured alive—I think encapsulates the wry irony of this film. When Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) puts his hands to the bug’s grotesque body and reads its mind, he doesn’t exclaim, “we won,” or “it’s over!” Instead he shouts, “It’s afraid!”

Needless to say, the roughnecks cheer.

IN SUMMARY: Why was this a good thing?

Starship Troopers is a gory Verhoeven movie with substance that glaringly displayed 2000’s America’s lack of self-awareness.

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