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This Week in Genre History: Starship Troopers was a bugged-out critique of fascism

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Nov 5, 2020, 11:48 AM EST (Updated)

Welcome to “This Week in Genre History,” where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

“It’s an idiotic story: young people go to fight bugs.”

You’d think that quote came from one of the many critics at the time who wrongly lambasted Starship Troopers, the fiendishly satirical and exceedingly entertaining sci-fi action film that hit theaters on Nov. 7, 1997. But, no, that line comes straight from Paul Verhoeven, the man who made the movie. But here’s the thing: He meant it as a compliment. 

“I was looking for the prototype of blond, white and arrogant,” he went on to explain in that 2018 interview about his casting process, hoping audiences would get his movie’s hidden message. “[T]hese heroes and heroines were straight out of Nazi propaganda.”

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For more than 20 years now, Starship Troopers has been misunderstood, then reevaluated, then misunderstood again. A film that, on its surface, looks like a straightforward humans-versus-aliens battle royale is, in fact, a fairly blunt critique of nationalism, fascism, and the action-movie genre. Verhoeven cast beautifully blank actors, including Casper Van Dien, to tell the story of an interstellar military operation to defeat the Arachnids, a menacing race of big bugs. But because Starship Troopers keeps its tongue buried deeply in its cheek, it can be easy to accept the film as just one more effects-driven shoot-‘em-up, which is why unsuspecting new viewers always feel like they’re the first ones to notice the barbed commentary coursing through the movie. Starship Troopers is like a hand grenade, just waiting to go off.

A box-office disappointment that’s since been anointed a cult classic, the film inspired several sequels and even talk of a remake. But nothing can match the genuine strangeness of the original, which cheekily married the teen melodrama of Beverly Hills, 90210 — one of the most popular programs of its era — to the outer-space spectacle of Star Wars. The movie is incredibly violent but also really campy. No matter how many times you watch Starship Troopers, you can never entirely make sense of it. So you just keep watching.

Why was it a big deal at the time? When Verhoeven was working on Starship Troopers, he needed a hit. After a successful career in his native Netherlands, the filmmaker had moved to Hollywood, crafting a series of seductive, pulpy thrillers and action movies that brilliantly tapped into America’s consumerism, madness, and sexual paranoia. RoboCop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct worked both as crackerjack entertainments and societal critiques, giving audiences plenty of titillation while questioning our endless need for sensation. But his hot streak ended thanks to Showgirls, a sexually frank drama — boldly rated NC-17 — that was meant to be an uncompromising look at the life of a Vegas dancer working her way up the ladder. Showgirls’ critical and commercial failure turned Verhoeven into a laughingstock. 

So it would make some sense that for his comeback he’d choose to adapt Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel, which depicts an all-out war between humanity and alien insects: After all, Verhoeven had enjoyed great success with his previous sci-fi films. But Verhoeven hated Heinlein’s book and decided to mock its fascist bent. “It's a very right-wing book,” the director said. “And with the movie, we tried, and I think at least partially succeeded, in commenting on that at the same time. It would be ‘Eat your cake and have it.’ All the way through we were fighting with the fascism, the ultra-militarism. All the way through I wanted the audience to be asking, ‘Are these people crazy?’”

Taking inspiration from the Nazi propaganda films made by influential German director Leni Riefenstahl — which tried to play up the country’s fearsome military and Aryan beauty — Verhoeven selected photogenic actors who were far from household names. Playing Rico, the gung-ho jock soldier who just wants to kill some bugs, Casper Van Dien had been on Beverly Hills, 90210, which had also been a launching pad for Dina Meyer, whose Dizzy secretly nurses a crush on Rico. Denise Richards (who’s the other leg of the film’s romantic triangle as Carmen) had also been on 90210, as well as Seinfeld and Melrose Place. (“I didn’t think about the politics,” Richard recalled about signing up for Starship Troopers. “I was just hoping not to get fired from my first big movie.” ) As for Neil Patrick Harris, the protagonists’ psychic buddy who ends up rocking a Nazi-ish outfit near the end of Starship Troopers, he was trying to graduate from the childhood stardom of his Doogie Howser years. “We filmed that movie with no intention of it being funny,” Harris said years later. “Casper and Denise, they all thought that it was a big, franchise action movie they were doing. ... I was just excited to be on a big movie!”

There was every reason to assume Starship Troopers was going to be big. Showgirls aside, Verhoeven had a winning track record, the film was budgeted around $100 million — a huge amount for the time — and the previous year’s highest-grossing movie was Independence Day. Clearly, viewers wanted to watch humans battle aliens. Surely Starship Troopers would scratch that itch.

What was the impact? Despite mixed reviews, the film debuted at No. 1 on its opening weekend, knocking I Know What You Did Last Summer from the top spot. But Starship Troopers failed to make a profit, which shouldn’t have been surprising. Independence Day was a grand, goofy, crowd-pleasing alien-invasion movie. By comparison, Starship Troopers was this prickly mixture of satire, cheesy acting, and gory battle scenes. (Plus, the bugs, beyond looking amazing, were legitimately terrifying.) Rated R, Starship Troopers wasn’t a feel-good sci-fi flick. It didn’t have Will Smith punching out an extraterrestrial while bellowing, “Welcome to Earth!” 

And, of course, there was the weird fascist undercurrent to the story. Verhoeven’s heroes were all gorgeous, vacuous kids who looked like they could be part of the Hitler Youth, and the movie’s seeming worship of military might felt uncomfortably fetishistic. In addition, Starship Troopers occasionally cut to propaganda films touting the righteousness of the United Citizen Federation’s mission to exterminate these bugs. Were we watching a movie or being recruited?

Critics didn’t know what to make of it. The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan suggested that Verhoeven had preserved “the fascist utopianism of the original Heinlein novel. ... Troopers takes us to a militaristic future where video bulletins encourage young people to ‘Join the Mobile Infantry and save the world’ and schools teach that ‘violence is the supreme authority’ and nothing solves problems with the efficacy of ‘naked force.’”

Turan wasn’t the only one who missed that Starship Troopers was condemning that stance, not celebrating it. “We were accused by The Washington Post of being neo-Nazis!” Verhoeven bitterly recalled in 2014. “It was tremendously disappointing. They couldn’t see that all I have done is ironically create a fascist utopia.”

The confused reception for Starship Troopers — followed by Verhoeven’s experience on his next movie, the so-so Hollow Man — made the director decide that he was done with Hollywood. “I felt like I was doing the bidding of the studio,” he said of Hollow Man. “I couldn’t even put a personal touch to it. I fell into that trap. There were no big problems with it, like there were with Starship Troopers or Showgirls. It worked OK. But I felt that I had done something that lacked a personal touch, a signature.” And so he returned to Europe, earning some of his best reviews for his subsequent films, the tense, sexy World War II thriller Black Book (featuring future Game of Thrones star Carice van Houten) and the kinky, Oscar-nominated revenge thriller Elle

Meanwhile, Starship Troopers became a surprise franchise. In 2004, a cheapie sequel, Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation, was directed by Phil Tippett, the man who masterminded the special effects for the first film. Four years later, Edward Neumeier (who wrote the first two installments) directed Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, which brought Van Dien back. There have also been two animated films and an animated series. In 2016, Van Dien marveled at this commercial disappointment’s strange staying power: “There has not been a week in my life since I did that movie where I can go down the street without someone going ‘Rico!’”

Unfortunately, the ongoing interest in Starship Troopers isn’t just because of the film — it also has something to do with the world that Verhoeven helped predict. “The relevance of Starship Troopers was only appreciated after 9/11,” he said, later adding that his movie “wasn’t a prophecy, but a possibility of American life.” Indeed, the George W. Bush administration’s buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq had uncomfortable similarities to the rah-rah warmongering in Starship Troopers: In both cases, the leadership assured us that we’re in the right and that we need to destroy the evildoers. (In the movie, it’s barely noticed that the only reason the Arachnids attack Earth in the first place is because we’re trying to colonize their planet. In truth, it’s the humans who are the bad guys.) 

And more recently, the frightening rise of fascism both in America and abroad has made Starship Troopers look less like a satire and more like a grim warning of how democracies need to remain vigilant against these forces. After 2016, there was talk of a Starship Troopers remake, which infuriated Verhoeven after he learned that the plan was to more closely follow Heinlein’s book. “We really, really tried to get away from the novel, because we felt that the novel was fascistic and militaristic,” the director said.

Has it held up? Starship Troopers remains a riveting, somewhat ridiculous movie. The acting isn’t very good, and the characters’ romantic troubles come across as incredibly shallow. Even if you recognize that that’s all part of the point — that the characters are meant to be dullards brainwashed by their fascist government — it’s painful to sit through the movie’s more melodramatic sections.

But as a sci-fi/alien movie? It’s still first-rate, with its Oscar-nominated effects — the only nod the film received from the Academy — pretty impressive even by 2020 standards. Starship Troopers’ mocking catchphrases — “I’m doing my part!” “Would you like to know more?” — have entered the lexicon, serving as the one sign that society recognizes that the movie’s jingoistic attitudes are meant to be ridiculed. It’s hyper-violent and shamelessly sensationalistic — people get naked just because — and once you realize what’s being satirized, you can laugh at the film’s uber-macho mindset. Just so long as you understand that Verhoeven was deadly serious about what he was trying to say.

“With a title like Starship Troopers, people were expecting a new Star Wars,” the filmmaker has said. “They got that, but not really: it stuck in your throat. It said: ‘Here are your heroes and your heroines, but by the way — they’re fascists.’”

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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