Cinophile: STARSHIP TROOPERS

5 min read
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The author of the book Jarhead makes an interesting point: war movies are generally pro-war, even anti-war ones. It doesn’t matter how anti-war types view such films. People like soldiers tend to see a different purpose in them. As he writes, they celebrate the terrible and despicable beauty of the soldiers’ fighting skills.

This is an excellent way to describe Starship Troopers, a movie that should never have succeeded and yet it did. It is not Paul Verhoeven’s best movie, sharing little of Total Recall‘s personality or Robocop‘s realism. The cast is a mix of so-so talent, better known for their looks than thespian charm. And it really has little to do with the original book.

On top of that it’s hard to figure out if this is a glorification of fascism or a parody of it. Knowing Verhoeven’s feelings on the subject, we can safely assume the latter. But you can’t be blamed for reaching a different conclusion after watching this movie.

Then there is a painful cheesiness about the whole thing. Even the name feels a little bit stupid, though it was lifted from Robert Heinlein’s venerable novel. If the CG bugs weren’t as incredible, all we’d remember are some dodgy sets and dodgier military uniforms.

And yet we’re all ready to jump to this movie’s defense. Why? Because it’s f***ing Starship Troopers.

If Starship Troopers was released today,  it would be criticised for behaving like a video game. There is little doubt this movie influenced a generation of game designers, biting deep into a leg of ‘kill em all’ with a side of ‘let God sort them out’. It glorifies war, jingoism and machiavellianism to a ridiculous degree, which are elements of the book. But then Verhoeven sidesteps the novel’s deeper symbolism for a good old humans vs giant insects armageddon. Starship Troopers at times seems really daft, as if its entire cast shared a collective IQ on the wrong side of a 90210 audition. But that is intentional – the whole experience is meant to be vapid and surreal, a point made again and again by the excellent television clips featuring recruitment drives and war propaganda. This helps make space for the real reason we all watch.

Giant bugs and mini warheads explode on screen in ever-larger set pieces. Bullets fly and limbs are torn off  with glee. Countless rounds are fired with increasing inaccuracy and things move at such a pace that you hardly notice how poorly trained the human soldiers are. Their tactics wouldn’t qualify for the Normandy landings, let alone the last moments of Zero Dark Thirty. If they had, this would have been a shorter movie. But that is all part of the film’s subtle critique of war-mongering. While it postures as the absolute celebration of military brawn, Starship Troopers instead makes you think: this is all just really stupid.

But that may be taking things too deep. Ultimately we all loved it because those bugs are awesome. This is the Jurassic Park of giant insects, combining CG and puppets to a level that still looks brilliant today. Throw in relentless firepower and Verhoeven’s unique talent of elevating b-grade material into immortal pop culture and it’s obvious why Starship Troopers has never had a peer. It stand alone. Nearly two decades (and several unfortunate sequels) later it is still the movie we think about when someone mentions bugs…

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Starship Troopers was directed by Paul Verhoeven, who reunited with his Robocop writer Ed Neumeier for the project. Verhoeven saw it as a great chance to relive the 40s and 50s horrors of his childhood about giant insects attacking humans. But the director only signed on because renowned designer Phil Tippett would create the giant insects. Tippett is also known for his work on Evolution, Jurassic Park and the original Star Wars movies.
The Starship Troopers cast is a curious mix of it-actors from the Nineties. It’s the last significant role Casper Van Dien had, other than Sleepy Hollow. It was also a high-water mark for Denise Richards’ brief A-list status. The film starred a young Neil Patrick Harris, at that point struggling to break away from his Doogie Howser, M.D. years. Verhoeven fans will find it interesting to see Michael Ironside and Dean Norris in the cast: both previously worked with him on Total Recall.
The movie features the same gender-neutral world as Verhoeven proposes in Robocop. Other than co-ed showers, there are also mixed-gender sports teams and the military has no gender bias. The movie’s Fleet Academy is named after Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. And when the first human assault on the bigs fails, Earth’s male military leader is replaced by a female officer.
The movie features the same gender-neutral world as Verhoeven proposes in Robocop. Other than co-ed showers, there are also mixed-gender sports teams and the military has no gender bias. The movie’s Fleet Academy is named after Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. And when the first human assault on the bigs fails, Earth’s male military leader is replaced by a female officer.
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Starship Troopers courted a lot of controversy. Verhoeven is no stranger to this: his battles with censors over Robocop, Basic Instinct and Total Recall are well-known. This movie was no different, attracting ire for its graphic violence. But the director was more surprised over attacks that the movie glorifies fascism, even briefly leading to it being accused of Nazism. The opposite is true, but many failed to read between the line of this war-mad parody. Ironically the movie may never have been made due to its jingoistic script, but because the Sony studio was undergoing constant management changes nobody was around long enough to really read the script and affect changes before the film was made.

 

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: January 5, 2015

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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