Film Review & Discussion: Starship Troopers

Title: Starship Troopers

Director(s): Paul Verhoeven

Screenwriter(s): Edward Neumeier

Studio: TriStar Pictures, Touchstone Pictures Released: 1997

Runtime: 2h 10m

Starring: Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Muldoon, Clancy Brown, Michael Ironside


Loosely based on Robert A. Heinlein’s novel of the same that was first published in 1959, the writer and director of Robocop (1987) not surprisingly takes a satirical approach in this adaptation. Also not a surprise is that this film takes the sci-fi violence, satire and parody up a few notches. This does not imply that it is better than Robocop, just that much of it is in-your-face and effective in its own way.


The film opens with a cheesy recruitment ad where children are half-jokingly encouraged to join the armed forces, so the audience is immediately introduced to a militaristic society. I use “militaristic” as a more general term to avoid getting bogged down in the ideological and historical distinctions between fascism and communism, and left and right—after all, both have their militaristic aspects.


These ads and other snippets of media throughout, although crude, are used to great comical effect. Some are allusions to the war propaganda of not only Nazi Germany and the USSR but also of the West, whilst others are allusions to infomercials and so-called reality-TV. These are shown on the “Federal Network”, the only network shown as if to imply that it is one of the major networks (if not the only one) and very much controlled.


Starship Troopers

After the “cold start” battle scene in which Federation infantry fights the bugs, the narrative rewinds to one year earlier. The three main characters are high school soon-to-be graduates Johnny Rico (Van Dien), his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Richards) and Carl Jenkins (Harris). Dizzy Flores (Meyer) is a supporting character, a fellow student who is a friend of Rico’s and has a crush on him.


In class, Mr Rasczak (Ironside) reminds them of the historical fact that the veterans took control of a failed democracy, rescued society from “the brink of chaos” and “imposed a stability that has lasted for generations since”. Mere coincidence or not, that is relevant to the current state of the world, particularly the West. Either way, this is where the brainwashing at school intensifies. Military intervention (or something like it) is not necessarily wrong and rescuing society is one thing, but “imposed stability” is another.


Rasczak then makes more leaps in logic. He mentions that only a “citizen” may vote, something a “civilian” may not do, because that is exercising political authority which he conveniently equates to force. And force is the “supreme authority”, the only thing that can solve problems. Not surprisingly, citizenship is granted to those who perform “Federal service” which includes military service. So here the audience is introduced to Federation philosophy as presented to the youth. As part of that, the students dissect enemy bugs in their science class run by a teacher who vaguely resembles Hillary Clinton.


Like today’s world, at least one contact sport is popular. This early scene establishes Rico’s athletic abilities and leadership as well as his friendship with Dizzy, but it’s also thinly veiled social commentary. Contact sport is just another version of gladiatorial competition, partly to distract the population (panem et circenses or “breads and circuses”) and partly to normalize violence (psychological conditioning). Later, during training for infantry, this is taken further with Capture the Flag. The mixed football teams also hint at the “equality” of sexes which is also taken further later.


In addition to the two-tier system of “citizen” and “civilian”—which vaguely reminds one of how vaccination status is currently promoted—is the emphasis on academic achievements and what is in effect a caste system. Taking that joke to the extreme, only the score for math is shown as if everything depends on that one subject. No sciences, and certainly no arts.


Rico graduates with poor marks and so he joins Mobile Infantry whereas Ibanez does much better and joins Fleet in order to become a pilot. Jenkins does the best and is assigned to “Games and Theory” (the prestigious Military Intelligence), a term that obviously disregards the value of a soldier’s life. To complete the satire, the recruitment officer is a tri-amputee veteran. Dizzy also joins the infantry along with Rico.


The film progresses at an unhurried pace. It is about an hour before the narrative catches up to the “cold start” battle, the invasion of the bug homeworld Klendathu. It is unfortunate that most films avoid this by rushing into it just for the sake of not wanting to be slow.


However, this unhurried approach permits more effective worldbuilding and gives the audience a chance to know the characters. This is particularly necessary since it is difficult to relate to characters who are being brainwashed in an overtly militaristic society. By rotating through the three main characters and with the use of ads to break things up, the film avoids feeling slow.


As our main characters go through training and beyond, the satire and parody range from subtle to blatant, with arguably more of the latter. In addition to satirizing militarism is the parody of sci-fi, the two overlapping at times. This is not surprising since it is not uncommon for some sci-fi to have a degree of militarism. Almost every war film and sci-fi trope are made fun of.


It is revealed that citizenship is required not just to participate in the political process but also in having children. It is also apparent that “equality” is taken to the extreme. Contact sports and the military make no distinction between the sexes. Dizzy is the QB in the mixed football team, the barracks’ showers are unisex and drill instructor Zim (Brown) has no qualms beating up Dizzy in a demonstration. The bugs certainly don’t seem to care who they rip apart. Whether one interprets this type of “equality” is a result of militarism and/or is in itself a form of militarism is interesting… It feels like the latter nowadays.


The military uniforms are blatant rip-offs of Nazi uniforms. The infantry helmet and body armor somewhat resemble modern gear in form if not in color. The rifle with the top carrying handle resemble the M41A Pulse Rifle from Aliens (1986) and soldiers indeed are shooting at an alien species. Ibanez is assigned to the Rodger Young, presumably named after the WWII infantryman who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Although this is common in real life, naming a ship after a dead soldier can be seen as a cheap way to “remember the dead” as if civil authorities actually care.


Rico gets a “dear John” letter from Ibanez during training and there is an accident that leads to the death of a soldier during a live-fire exercise. Rico gets a good whipping but considers leaving anyway before the bugs hurl a rock at Earth, killing millions. This triggers an emphatic response. It’s war! Rah!!!


The invasion of Klendathu, the first battle sequence shown, is a disaster due to a major intelligence blunder. The bugs’ energy farts are supposed to be “random and light” but turn out to be neither, taking out capital ships and dropships (landing crafts), thereby making fun of every intelligence blunder in history. Whilst the military action is deliberately farcical in its own way, it is never quite the comedy of errors as seen in the HBO series Generation Kill (2008) which, by the way, is a very good series.


The dropships look like a metal box with wings as if to imply the soldiers are merely freight and/or that the crafts are glorified coffins. The whole landing scene is pretty much an allusion to any landing that didn’t work out well.


The soldiers run across the terrain just to be slaughtered like the frontal assaults on the Western Front during WWI, and especially more so since there is no aerial bombardment and no close air support. The presence of a war reporter, however, seems to reference the first Gulf War’s feigning of “real and honest” live reporting. And despite being public knowledge that a bug can be taken out by shooting its “nerve stem”, most soldiers don’t do that, using tons of ammo just to bring one down. (This, of course, does not apply later when the main characters need to get away quickly.)


Rico is mistakenly reported as KIA amongst the one hundred thousand dead within the first hour. Instead, he is wounded and spends time in the tank like Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.


After the failed invasion, at the Federation Council in Geneva (today a financial center) that looks like the UN, the supreme commander resigns and a new commander takes his place. She announces a new approach which is sort of new but not really. Instead of attacking the bug homeworld, she declares that efforts will be made to “understand” the bug. This leads to the searching of the “brain bug” and attacking outlying worlds, an allusion to the island-hopping in the Pacific during WWII or perhaps drawn-out conflicts like the Vietnam War where forces seem to aimlessly go from one place to another and so on.


Like most American films, this film loosely adopts the structure of Greek mythical tales. Rico being nearly KIA can be considered an “underworld” moment for him. He recovers, is assigned to the “Roughnecks”—a unit led by Rasczak (the-schoolteacher-who-leads-a-unit trope) who actually practices what he preaches—and rises through the ranks.


The Roughnecks are sent to some desert planet. He takes out a big bug by riding its back, shooting a hole and dropping in a grenade as if it is a tank. He gets promoted and also hooks up with Dizzy. He may not “get the girl”, but he gets a girl. Of course, she has to die. And on that note, many of the minor characters die, just like in war films and the away-team members in Star Trek.


On the desert planet, there is a brief display of airpower. Whilst the massive explosions look like napalm bombing in Vietnam, the setting resembles the first Gulf War. Gruesome deaths and body parts continue, including decapitations. Well, plenty of decapitations during war, the Japanese forces in China being just one example.


Given the desert setting, it was not difficult, even at the time, to predict that conflicts would spread throughout the region. Maybe it wasn’t intended to be a prediction but, in hindsight, some may link the decapitations to ISIS (or whoever they want to blame it on). It is fortunate for this film that 9/11 and the Afghan War happened a few years after. If not, then the film would probably not work as the audience would naturally gravitate towards seeing the “war on terror” in everything and miss some of the other allusions.


By the end, three main characters become the faces of the new cheesy recruitment ads. And yes, there is a new class of capital ships.


As part of the Federation’s militarism, there is obviously a degree of so-called xenophobia. This is apparent in the media, including the children enthusiastically stomping on bugs. Perhaps more relevant to recent decades are two “experts” arguing whether the bugs are intelligent. The snob dismisses the idea just because it is “offensive”. He doesn’t use the term “conspiracy theory” but that mentality is reflected.


Interestingly, despite the obvious differences between bug and human, there are notable similarities. Both have a hierarchy in their social structure. The infantry in their helmets and “plated” body armor vaguely resemble an insect’s exoskeleton even if the color and tone are different. Indeed, the mass of soldiers look like insects in wider shots. Both sides, whether literally or figuratively, try to get into each other’s heads.


Consistent to the idea of “eyes are the window to the soul”, there are a few moments when the bugs’ eyes are emphasized. In one instance, an injured bug’s eye is shot out. The brain bug’s eyes, despite having more than a pair, are drooped to convey a sense of sadness. At the end, it is even confirmed that it is “afraid”. Of course, this does not evoke any sympathy from the humans. The research department proceeds to experiment on it. Although the humans’ eyes are never hidden, they are generally not emphasized in any manner except on one occasion: during the live-fire exercise accident when the recruit has a portion of his head blown off, including his right eye.


The performances are difficult to describe. It is not overtly B-grade. Perhaps it would be too obvious and/or too distracting if taken that far, even if it is more comical. And yet, it is at times awkward, just enough to be consistent to the satire. If this balance is deliberate, then it’s arguably genius on the part of the director and the cast. Van Dien does well as the good soldier boy, a little wooden at times. Particularly worthy of mention is Brown who portrays the drill instructor with a touch of Full Metal Jacket but still makes the character his own. Muldoon also deserves a mention, bringing that Melrose Place soap-opera cheese with his looks and mildly smug and sleazy delivery.


The visual effects and sound design are top class. The animation of the bugs look very convincing. Although CGI was utilized, the ships used miniatures. As such, the effects mostly hold well even after over 20 years. The score by Basil Poledouris takes that same epic approach with the heavy use of brass as was done in Robocop.


Overall, although much of the film is crude, it is nonetheless comical and enjoyable. And whilst there is that crude, simple layer that just about anyone will understand, there is some subtlety there that rewards a thinking audience and repeated viewings.

 

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