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…
Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.
Last Updated: January 5, 2015