Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Line that stays with me: “Figuring things out for yourself is practically the only freedom anyone really has nowadays.”
Essay Warning: There are no spoilers or story details. I want to offer the emotion that a film can access within us. Plus I think the best way to watch a film is by not knowing anything about it. Just Go In…So if you haven’t watched this film yet please don’t read this essay. Read it afterwards so we can enjoy the “feeling” together.
In film history the fall of 1997 will always belong to Titanic but the film I was most excited about that autumn was “Starship Troopers”. I was 13 when I watched the Starship Troopers trailer for first time on some Live Entertainment straight to video movie starring Jean Claude Van Damme I rented. I thought it was going to be the BEST MOVIE EVER! It had everything most young American boys want in movies, amazing special effects, intense action, and the promise of childhood dreams coming to life. That’s what amazes me about the film now, the film seems to know more about the audience than the audience know about themselves. When I watched “Starship Troopers” the first time, I wasn’t aware of Paul Verhoeven’s style. I found his over the top satirical style hilarious even though I wasn’t ready to catch all the jokes at the time. The first time I watched the film I loved it for being the great Sci-Fi War film romp that it is. Now, I love it for many more reasons, but mainly how intelligent it is in figuring out ways to involve audiences in conversations most Americans do not have. This film is a dedicated satirical look on America’s righteous belief in fighting wars with enemies most Americans have never seen except maybe in the movies or TV. You never truly know what you are watching in “Starship Troopers”, which is one of Paul Verhoeven’s secret of success for his career. In “Total Recall” you don’t know if you are watching Arnold’s reality or Arnold’s implanted experience. “Basic Instinct” keeps you guessing till the final shot and even then there are no answers. It is a very special gift in cinema when a director can play with your head in that manner and not piss you off but excite you with all its ideas and themes. In “Starship Troopers” we are never sure if we are watching a “movie –movie” or a Propaganda film created for the young people in the movie’s reality. This adds a staggering amount of complexity and fun for those who catch on. I didn’t catch on till I realized that the first shot of the movie is a title card that says “Federal Network”, like we are watching a TV signal broadcast from the future.
If you do not pick up on the idea that we are watching a Propaganda film for some future generation, “Starship Troopers” is still a blast to watch. It has a very simple straightforward story and the filmmakers were not lazy in any area. But knowing about the “Propaganda” aspect does get me excited about watching the movie again just to discover more of its secrets and discreet intentions. At this moment and time I do believe that the whole film is a “Propaganda” film for the young people in the movie’s future. I am not going to lie, when I first watched the film as a kid, the propaganda worked on me. In my head I could see myself battling the bugs for the glory that all propaganda war films promise and that’s the whole point. Propaganda films are supposed to desensitize you to the point that war is hell and make you feel that there is no other way. You could also become a war hero. Some say the movie is so bloody, that it couldn’t possibly be a propaganda film. Wouldn’t that scare people away? My answer is no. This generation is very much desensitized to violence; we watch terrible tragedies on the news while we enjoy our dinner without flinching. That is us people today, so it is safe to think that future generations will be even less disturbed. Try and speak to a couple of 12 year olds today about what they’re into. Ask them, what videogames they play and you’ll see what I am getting at. I truly believe for better or worse that the Call of Duty series might be the best form of Propaganda ever created. “Starship Troopers” has found a way to express to audiences how propaganda works and it is not as straightforward as most people think.
To me, “Starships Troopers” is the Federation’s film to entice young men to join the Mobile Infantry like Johnny Rico, and for young women to become a pilot like Carmen Ibanez. Near the end of the film they even tell you to join so you can become successful like them. The film starts with Johnny and Carmen in High School even though the actors playing the roles look like they finished high school a decade ago, which goes back to my “Propaganda” film theory. Throughout the high school scenes we are informed how this society views citizenship, which is very interesting and simple: IF YOU DO NOT FIGHT IN THEIR WAR YOU ARE NOT A CITIZEN. Their teacher Lt. Jean Rasczak in a great fun performance by Michael Ironside talks about Hiroshima and how violence has solved many of the world’s conflicts. “Starship Troopers” has Sci-Fi elements but at the end of the day it is a war film. The classic war film story, about a young recruit whose home was destroyed by the ENEMY and now realizes that there is no turning back. He must go to war. It reminds me of those Marine commercials from the 90’s that they played all the time, with a Marine running through fire and other heroic obstacles that have nothing to do with the real horrors of war but I thought it was cool all the same. I’ve spoken to a few people who have lived through war and the feeling of heroism or glory is not really what comes across. Usually you feel they have seen things they rather not talk about for fear that talking about it may make them remember. Still propaganda works, World War Two and Vietnam proved that. “Love it or Leave it” is one of scariest phrases I ever heard.
Throughout “Starships Troopers” the propaganda continues to do its job and that’s the reason the film works. As a child, I clearly remember dreaming of the glory of war. Rolling around on the floor pretending to take out a whole fleet or dying bravely in some fantastic explosion. Even though I had no real concept of what bullets can do to human flesh. “Starship Troopers” lets you have fun with those very natural immature feelings. You watch Johnny Rico ride a giant bug, shoot a hole on its back, drop a grenade in there, and jump to safety before it explodes in spectacular fashion. Another scene gives us the heroic sacrifice death, which couldn’t be cooler because our dying hero Sugar Watkins actually says “Just give me the Nuke!” I love that line, it is freaking hilarious, I love how it plays on our American psyche of a war hero taking one for the team and the fact that things have gotten so bad in the future that he couldn’t say give me the grenade, he said “give me the NUKE”, wow. The film uses irony in ways that fascinates me and makes me ask over and over, what is this film trying to say. It talks about the power of ideas, and pushing ideology and beliefs on people who do not know the whole story. You just have to take the Federation’s word for it. For all we know there is no such thing as a “Brain Bug”. We don’t even know if the bugs ever truly attacked “Buenos Aires”. The Federation Network showed crushed buildings and bodies but we didn’t see one bug. They said it was a spore the bugs sent from space, which sounds ridiculous when you think about it. The whole invasion of Klendathu, could have been one big set up for the “Federation” to take over a new inhabitable planet they just found, all they have to do is kill all the bugs first. The “Federation” knows that they will find very little public support if they sell the war with their true intentions so of course they lied. That’s where the “Brain Bug” comes to play; the “Federation” needs to sell to their citizens the idea that these bugs are evil and are purposely out for their destruction. The “Brain Bug” setting a trap for the troopers was the best way to sell that idea, it proves that the bugs are evil and must be destroyed before they destroy us. Now if you can’t read between the lines and figure out what the movie is truly talking about, I do not know what to say. I find the message to be loud and clear now. To make a nation of people believe they were attacked, when no such thing happened, is a very dangerous idea and one that has a prominent ugly solid track record in human history.
The hardest thing for me to understand about “Starship Troopers” is the fact that it was not a box office success. Maybe it was because it had no real star power or just bad timing but as a film for action fans I don’t think it gets any better. The film’s craftsmanship is impeccable, the tone is perfect, the acting never really falters, but instead I think it hits all the notes that Paul Verhoeven planned to hit. The special effects at the time were the best there was and it was actually one of the few hardcore action movies around. The film’s box office failure will always be a mystery to me but the film has continued to gain respect year after year. It has so much to offer. The melodrama in the story works great, we get a great sense of camaraderie and once we get to know these characters we start to like them in all their simplicity. Casper Van Dien, does a great job of transforming from naïve young man to rugged solider. Michael Ironside, makes me laugh with lines like “Here’s the entertainment! Here’s the beer!” I love how smart the filmmakers are right from beginning, as there is no score in the high school scenes which forces the audiences to truly pay attention to the dialog. This technique gets you deeply involved in the story as there is no other notion to hold on to. You got Clancy Brown screaming “Solider put your hand on that wall”. The film is very funny; Paul Verhoeven has a very unique style which is primarily based on attitude. An attitude that is in all his films, whether it’s pushing the threshold of film eroticism, or strange jokes like, why did he chose a black man to give Johnny Rico 10 lashes? Paul Verhoeven has a very controversial approach to cinema, but it also has purpose and it is not just for show. With “Starship Troopers” he shared with us the dangers of propaganda in a very brilliant way, so brilliant most people didn’t even notice. He got to ask us, where does our belief in war as a righteous way to solve our problems come from and question if the origins of those beliefs are true at all.
ABOUT RCM: RUTZ Classic Movies is dedicated on writing film essays for films that in Rutz's opinion, have not gotten the credit they deserve. Next Essay: Paris Barclay's "Don't be a menace to South Central while drinking your juice in the hood"