Starship Troopers was the second of a trio of films whose mediocre reception would drive Dutch director Paul Verhoeven out of Hollywood. Bookended by Showgirls [1995] and Hollow Man [2000], the strangely toned space-marine movie augured the end of Verhoeven’s career as a blockbuster filmmaker. Reviews from the most respected reviewers were bemused at best, with figures like Richard Schickel and Roger Ebert agreeing that the film was too obsessed with “oddly joyless” [Ebert] violent spectacle to consider its own themes.

But—like Verhoeven’s brilliant and chilling satire of capitalism, ShowgirlsStarship Troopers is one of the most misunderstood films of the 1990s, perhaps of all time. Its take on American culture, which it diagnoses not just as neo-colonial, but as neo-fascist, is daring, subversive, and satirical. While the film is not short on cheap gags, its satire isn’t cheap, slyly depicting fascism’s transmission through information control, spectacle, and education, and implicating Hollywood itself in the propagation of the totalitarian mindset.

The world Starship Troopers presents is filled with stark moments of perverseness and conceptual oddities that call our attention to them, that make us both laugh (perhaps guiltily) and reflect. Everyone in Buenos Aires has blonde hair, green eyes, and an American accent. Giant bugs are hurling asteroids across the galaxy without any obvious mechanism. “I’d rather take ten lashes in the public square,” the main character’s middle-class father casually intones. Neil Patrick Harris definitely is wearing a Gestapo uniform. The society seems fascist, but black people and women seem to enjoy equal status with white men. Little of this is actually explained, but left dangling there as distracting tidbits.

Such moments pull us out of the film and call for us to interpret them. If these characters seem so bland, so prototypically American and so boringly heroes, why does it seem sometimes like they’re fighting for the Nazis? Why do none of them have any curiosity about the truth? How has “civic responsibility” been redefined as the ability to wield violence over others? How can fascism be maintained without racism and sexism?

The film’s bold thesis—that equality achieved in a permanent state of war is not liberation but totalitarianism, and that this is the kind of equality contemporary America believes in—was evidently too much for reviewers to take. In his review, Schickel wrote “maybe it’s saying that war inevitably makes fascists of us all,” but speculated that the filmmakers were too obsessed with their special effects to focus on that point. But in fact, the excessive special effects are also part of the point: in a metalepsis, the film begins to resemble the propaganda web-films that serve as its own [unreliable] narrator. 

The point being—Hollywood itself is the creator and purveyor of fascist motifs: the thrill of violence, the rush of death, the spectacle of complete order, the pleasure in guilt and submission. The battle scenes are interminable and “oddly joyless” indeed—one of them is even repeated. But then, what should violence be like? Triumphant? Starship Troopers undercuts any sense of triumph with its incisive anti-climax, which I will avoid spoiling here. [No promises about other articles this week.]

Responding to Schickel in the DVD commentary for Starship Troopers, a bemused Paul Verhoeven asserts, failing to mask the condescension in his voice, “I can tell you in fact that the film is stating that war makes fascists of us all … Of course it’s saying that the fascist propaganda in the movie should be read as something that is not good. So you should know that if you see something you think is fascist in the movie, that the filmmakers agree with you that it is not good.”

Another good quote from Verhoeven, discussing where the movie is trying to locate fascism: “You could of course say that these kind of statements [the film makes about fascism] are not so much going back to the Third Reich, I would say. They are much more statements about American politics. I mean, the whole movie is about the United States. All statements are about the United States.”

Here's what we'll have for you this week:

  • The Cinessential Podcast, Episode 16
  • Deeper analysis of the film's propaganda vignettes
  • Starship Troopers in context within Verhoeven's work
  • Related Review of Paul Verhoeven's most recent film, Elle
  • And more!