You’d be forgiven for thinking that Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 sci-fi satire of both militarism and fascism, was always supposed to be so ridiculous. If the concept of a group of galaxy trotting Space Marines battling overgrown cockroaches wasn’t enough to make you snicker, then the over-the-top, in your face performances by Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown, Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, and others definitely had you smirking. The film was so overblown and ludicrous that it’s hard to imagine how so much cheese could be crammed into a two hour block of time.
Despite the pomp and circumstance that Verhoeven is best known for, through classics like Robocop, and was definitely showcasing to full effect in Starship Troopers, the film remains a cult darling in the hearts and minds of sci-fi and die-hard movie buffs the world over. There have been fan clubs, online groups, conventions, and even blogs with custom domains that capture a quote or term used in the franchise in the URL, that keep the movie alive. In Japan, the movie enjoyed such a high degree of popularity that it got its own anime series, and Japanese film studios continue the story of Johnny, Carl, and Carmen in 3D animated, feature length movies. In short – Starship Troopers succeeded, in spite of itself.
What is it that’s so special about this strange sci-fi nugget that continues to capture the admiration and attention of so many movie fans?
“I only have one rule: Everyone fights. No one quits.”
Right off the bat, Starship Troopers is an adaption of the classic sci-fi novel of the same name by Robert A Heinlein. Contrary to most film adaptations, that try to recreate, as best they can, the plot, characterizations, themes, and tone of the source material, Starship Troopers had the distinction of trying its rowdy best to tear apart everything that the book stands for.
Heinlein was a former U.S. Navy officer, and much of his philosophy and views on life were shaped largely by his military service. When he sat down to pen the novel in 1958, he wanted to craft a work of fiction that explored and promoted militarism, patriotism, social responsibility, and what it means to be a citizen of a particular nation. The result was Starship Troopers, and it became one of the most successful, and controversial, works of science fiction ever published.
While many of the characters keep the same personas that they have in the movie (Johnny in the novel was still from Buenos Aires, but he was Filipino, instead of caucasian), the tone could not be more different. The novel argued that the only way to be a good citizen, and by extension, a good person, was to dedicate one’s entire body and soul in service to society. At the same time, the book emphasized the importance of achieving your potential through your own endeavors, instead of waiting for a government handout. It also explored the responsibility of leaders in becoming the best they could be, not for their own sake, but to better lead people to prosperity and enlightenment. The novel absolutely abolished any investment in a particular political party.
For all of Heinlein’s trouble, the novel received multiple accusations of being a militaristic, fascist, ultra-nationalist delusion of grandeur.
“The only good bug, is a dead bug.”
By contrast, the film is a campy, bombastic exaggeration, and a slap in the face of everything the book stands for. Many of the same speeches and sections of dialogue are copied word-for-word from the book, but delivered in the most satirical way possible. While in the novel, Lt. Rasczak’s dissertation to his high school class about the difference between a citizen and a civilian is a serious challenge to their preconceived notions about having a national identity, in the film, it’s a ridiculous outburst highlighted by the military veteran using the nub of his amputated arm to emphasize his point.
Verhoeven was certainly aware of what he was trying to do, and to a large degree, he succeeded. Serious characters like Rasczak are delivered in an over-the-top manner, to the point that all you can do is chuckle, even when things are their most serious. The film is clearly trying to imply that anyone who can take these ideals heart, and shape their whole life around them, couldn’t be anything other than a ridiculous person, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
In the hands of a less skilled director, and a less talented cast, it most assuredly would have devolved into an unwatchable mess. Instead, Starship Troopers stands as one of the greatest sci-fi romps of all time.
“Would you like to know more?”
What makes Starship Troopers so endearing, and what keeps it from devolving into a slog of a film, is its charm. These characters are so outrageous, as is the thought of anyone getting so amped up about what amounts to a giant ant infestation, that you can’t help but accept it and enjoy it for what it is. Verhoeven doesn’t try to relay his points with a big stick; he uses a punchline. Though he definitely wants to address, and deconstruct, the themes and values that Heinlein espoused, Verhoeven doesn’t sacrifice story by way of sermon. He’s fully aware that what he was doing, first and foremost, was to make a movie that entertained his audience – everything else was a bonus.
Because of that, there’s an undeniable sense of fun that comes through in Starship Troopers. You can see it even in the most gruesome scenes, when body parts, both human and alien, are flying all over the screen, and giant globs of green goo coat everything in the frame. You can see it in the faces of the actors as they gleefully shout, “Kill ‘em all!” while advancing on a group of bugs. It reminds me a lot of the old sci-fi movies of the 1950s and 60s, where the actual situation was dire, but the dialogue and performances were so cheesy that you ended up laughing, instead of cringing. And I think that’s key – despite a very cheesy delivery, those Hollywood gems became immensely popular, and are regarded as classics to this day, and Starship Troopers projects that same undiluted sense of pure, ridiculous fun.
Starship Troopers, for everything that it could have been, and wasn’t, remains a charming, utterly ridiculous film that invites to you sit back, eat some popcorn, enjoy the bullets and blood, and maybe, just maybe, try not to be a fascist.
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