There’s a fine line between satire and sincerity.
We all know this, right? We’ve all noticed it lately, yes? People say horrible, abusive things online, and then say, “LOL, are you triggered?” People insult each other on the basis of their genders or races or ethnicities, and then complain about the “humorless PC culture.” And, of course, we have a President who, we were told, should be taken “seriously, but not literally,” because just engaged in “locker room talk.” And yet, he really did try to ban Muslim entry into this country.
It’s a fine, fine line.
Paul Verhooven’s 1997 movie Starship Troopers often falls on the wrong side of that line. For a pretty goofy film about pretty awesome space marines and pretty scary alien bugs with pretty gratuitous nudity [and not just on the part of the space bugs!], this film entertains quite a few fascist ideas. Given the source material, that’s not too surprising. Robert Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers literally lectured its readers about the joys of fascism. The society it depicted—one dominated by a military elite who reserved civil rights for only those who served and enforced strength and unity through waging war on others—was explained and justified through a series of classroom scenes. I hope you like your fascism as didactic as possible!
Verhooven’s movie, as I think we should expect, trades in the lectures for something far more visually dynamic. Unfortunately, it keeps a lot of the ideas, and making them flashier just makes them more compelling. The movie has a series of interstitial scenes that evoke World War II propaganda newsreels and swipes Nazi imagery in some character, sets, and prop designs. One scene is even pretty directly inspired by Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
There are glimmers and hints and green shoots that this is all just a put on; if nothing else, Neil Patrick Harris had already mastered the knowing smirk that makes you feel like only you and he are in on a really good joke. And certainly, Verhooven himself would tell you it was all a grand satire, as well as something of a cautionary tale. “War makes fascists of us all,” he said, in defense of the film.
But look, NPH is only in this movie so much, and Verhooven’s post-facto explanations aren’t in it at all, so what are we, the mere movie-goers who still believe in liberal democracy, supposed to think? Don’t get me wrong—playing with fascist ideas and imagery doesn’t have to amount to an endorsement of fascism, and can indeed serve to satirize fascism, if you find a way to undercut them. You can crib from Leni Riefenstahl if you find a way to take the piss out of her.
But fist-pumping action sequences with futuristic space guns isn’t the way to do that. They don’t expose fascism as silly, or wrong-headed, or dangerous, they make it look badass.
Verhooven actually has done effective satire before. Robocop seems to be the same pretty goofy kind of movie as Starship Troopers, but I will talk for an obnoxious length of time about how it actually has something meaningful to say. But Verhooven can’t duplicate that success here. Part of it, I suppose, is because he claims he stopped reading the source material after three chapters. You can’t effectively critique something, or even have a dialogue with it, if you don’t even read it.
But another big part of this is that fascism is a very seductive ideology. It absolves you of your faults and your responsibilities, casts blame on an other, and promises to give you the power to destroy them. That’s how we ended up with so many fascists in Europe in the ‘30s, and how Donald Trump won an election last year. It’s not easy to “just kid” about it.
As with most things, Kurt Vonnegut put it best: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”