Roger Ebert is an institution of the film industry. Not because of his particular genius (he gave Garfield: The Movie three stars), but because of his longevity. He’s been reviewing major releases for nearly thirty years. Looking back at a collection of his reviews is like looking into the history of film criticism at the end of the 20th Century.
Consider, for instance, his review of RoboCop:
Because the scene [where the OCP executive gets murdered] surprises us in a movie that seemed to be developing into a serious thriller, it puts us off guard. We’re no longer quite sure where “RoboCop” is going, and that’s one of the movie’s best qualities.
The broad outline of the plot develops along more or less standard thriller lines. But this is not a standard thriller. The director is Paul Verhoeven, the gifted Dutch filmmaker whose earlier credits include “Soldier of Orange” and “The Fourth Man.” His movies are not easily categorized. There is comedy in this movie, even slapstick comedy. There is romance. There is a certain amount of philosophy, centering on the question, What is a man? And there is pointed social satire, too, as the robocop takes on some of the attributes and some of the popular following of a Bernhard Goetz.
By way of comparison, here’s his review of Starship Troopers, a decade later:
“Starship Troopers” is the most violent kiddie movie ever made. I call it a kiddie movie not to be insulting, but to be accurate: Its action, characters and values are pitched at 11-year-old science-fiction fans. That makes it true to its source. It’s based on a novel for juveniles by Robert A. Heinlein. I read it to the point of memorization when I was in grade school. I have improved since then, but the story has not.
Heinlein intended his story for young boys, but wrote it more or less seriously. The one redeeming merit for director Paul Verhoeven’s film is that by remaining faithful to Heinlein’s material and period, it adds an element of sly satire. This is like the squarest but most technically advanced sci-fi movie of the 1950s, a film in which the sets and costumes look like a cross between Buck Rogers and the Archie comic books, and the characters look like they stepped out of Pepsodent ads.
So we have two grotesquely violent sci-fi action films by the same director, made a decade apart. Ebert praises the one as cleverly satirical and pans the other in spite of its satire.
And he wasn’t the only critic at the time to do so. Consider some other contemporaries:
“There’s nothing wrong with good satire — but it’s self-defeatingly stupid to inject it into any story that expects us to care what happens to the characters.” – Scott Rosenberg, Salon
“Starship Troopers is fatally lacking in lightness, play, invention. Human bodies are gutted and eviscerated, the limbs pulled off, the heads drilled. Are children supposed to enjoy this literal-minded, grisly bloodbath? As you watch the endless carnage, you become sure that Hollywood has gone completely, utterly mad. But how can you fight the success of ‘ironic’ stupidity?” – David Denby, New York Magazine
“What the hell is Starship Troopers? Is it a mindlessly violent slab of future jingoism:Melrose Place goes to war in space? Or is it a sly bit of leg pulling on the part of director Paul Verhoeven? Here’s what I think:Starship Troopers is exactly what Star Warswould have looked like if Germany had won World War II. Unfortunately, most audiences don’t know how to do anything but take their movies straight up, and that gives an elitist stench to Verhoeven’s little in-joke.” – Ty Burr, Entertainment Weekly
These were all people who’d seen RoboCop and Verhoeven’s other works. They knew how the man thought. Yet they didn’t give Starship Troopers the benefit of the doubt. They admitted, begrudgingly, that the pseudo-fascist future might be satirical, but perhaps wasn’t satirical enough.
In short, the critics got it wrong.
Why RoboCop Clearly Isn’t Serious
I won’t take too long here, because we all recognize that the future depicted in RoboCop has its tongue cybernetically affixed to its cheek. But let’s all begin on the same page.
You’re not supposed to take RoboCop seriously. It’s set in Detroit in the near future, where crime is rampant and TV is inane. Everything a consumer could want has been made bigger for no reason, from the Porsche 6000 SUX to the Cobra Assault Cannon (which the prop designers made by bolting useless plastic onto an anti-materiel rifle). When an OCP executive gets brutally murdered in a failed product demonstration, everyone worries about falling behind on government contracts, not about the guy with a wife and kids who just died screaming. And the most popular family board game is the naturalistic geopolitical war game Nukem.
We can all read the satire of consumer capitalism. But RoboCop also exaggerates action movies as well. RoboCop interrupts a rapist from assaulting a woman. He uses his cyborg accuracy to shoot through the woman’s dress, piercing the rapist between the legs. RoboCop’s massive weapon not only symbolically gets the girl by tearing open her dress, but it literally vanquishes the phallus of the other man. Later, in a climactic fight with gang leader Clarence Boddickker, RoboCop gets impaled on a massive metal shaft. But RoboCop triumphs by using his computer interface spike, ejected from his right arm, to pierce Boddickker’s throat. In the new information age, digital phalli triumph over industrial ones.
It doesn’t take much to read phallic symbolism in action movies. But RoboCop inflates all prior tropes to comic proportions. It elevates them past the comic and into the satirical, where you’re not supposed to laugh at them but just stare in silent awe.
Why Starship Troopers Clearly Isn’t Serious, Either
Given Verhoeven’s prior work, it should have been obvious to any audience that Starship Troopers would be over the top and excessive. But many (though not all) critics missed it. So, again, let’s all get on the same page.
Starship Troopers is a satire of war films, with the fascist rhetoric cranked up to 11. Recruitment commercials feature soldiers letting children play with assault rifles. The sole source of information, the Federal Network, uses as its logo a featureless golden eagle in front of a featureless circling globe. Drill sergeants not only humiliate but maim their recruits, breaking their arms and flinging knives at their hands. The intelligence division, a corps of eerie psychics, walk around in black leather greatcoats. Social Studies teachers laud the virtue of violence and how it’s the tentpole of modern society. And all of this gets beamed back to the civilians on Earth in a friendly, accessible media format. “Would you like to know more?”
But beneath all the (screamingly obvious) imagery, you have the (subtle but no less obvious) psychology. Consider the video above, a representative sample of media in the Federal System of the 21st century. The narrator lauds the response to the Buenos Aires attack: “sorrow, then anger.” The appropriate response to tragedy isn’t determination, or resolve, or even a desire for justice, but anger. The Sky Marshall, addressing delegates in Geneva, calls on human civilization to “dominate this galaxy, now and always.” Even the lip service paid to liberty, pride or an enlightened way of life are no longer necessary. It’s Us vs. Them, and We deserve to win by virtue of our very Us-ness.
Forgive me the rant here, but I find it appalling that so many critics completely missed the satire dripping from every still of Starship Troopers. The fascist cheerleading is obvious, but so is the ironic juxtaposition of imagery. Consider how casually the camera transitions from placidity to shocking gore – scientist Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) calmly lecturing on the danger of bugs, then opening up on one with an assault rifle. Consider the glassy-eyed vigor with which everyone “does their part,” like the mother cheering as her kids stomp harmless cockroaches. Consider the newsreel that censors an arachnid slaughtering a cow, but shows a Mormon colony slaughtered in grotesque detail.
This was a film full of fascist propaganda made by a man who spent his childhood running from fascists. The Riefenstahl callbacks and the parallels to Berlin and Nuremberg are transparent. That critics – supposedly an informed, impartial audience – could miss all this seems bizarre.
As much as we’d like to take the position that “all film critics are morons and only Overthinking It can divine the secret histories,” that’d be a bit extreme. Sure, a lengthy roster of respectable film critics missed the irony in Starship Troopers. Does this mean they were all dumb? No. Does this mean Verhoeven failed as a director? No. Then what does it mean?
Maybe Starship Troopers had a harder time of it than RoboCop. We’ll examine three reasons why this might have been the case.
First: Go To The Source Material
Though RoboCop was an original screenplay, it derived its darkly humorous tone from two sources.
The first, as alluded to by Paul Verhoeven in this Dutch interview, was Judge Dredd, a long-running British comic book of a dystopian future. In this future, Judges enforce the law and carry out sentences instantly, policing the labyrinthine towers of Mega-City One.
Judge Dredd wears a helmet with a dark visor, obscuring everything but his mouth. He wields a variety of powerful weapons. And his sentences are often terminal.
The second reference, a subtler one, comes from the Cyril Kornbluth short story “The Marching Morons.” It depicts a planet in which the sub-intelligent have outbred the intelligent to such a degree that everyone with an IQ greater than 100 must work three jobs in order to keep the rest of the population alive. Consumer capitalism has hypertrophied, with cars designed to simulate supersonic speeds while crawling along at 20 mph, churches where the clergy put on Freud beards and game shows where contestants hang shapes on pegs. The entire moronic population is tricked into going to Venus by an ad campaign boasting the planet’s “ham bushes” and “soap roots.”
And it’s from “The Marching Morons” that we get RoboCop‘s most enduring one-liner:
(And, yes, Idiocracy borrowed liberally from the same story)
RoboCop descends from two fathers: Judge Dredd and “The Marching Morons.” The former exaggerates the tendencies of Dirty Harry and other myths of legal violence to post-apocalyptic proportions, depicting a city out of control that only one faceless man with extreme methods can save. The latter satirizes the growing dimness of mass media and the race to satisfy consumer desires in the most garish way possible.
While neither Judge Dredd nor Cyril Kornbluth were hugely popular in their day, they were broadly influential. Several post-apocalyptic and sci-fi properties from the 80s, including elements of the Mad Max series and Warhammer 40,000, took their look from Judge Dredd. And Kornbluth, though he died young, was lauded as a cynical visionary by his peers, including Frederik Pohl, Damon Knight and Isaac Asimov. Audiences who might never have picked up an issue of 2000 A.D. or a copy of “The Marching Morons” would still recognize the tropes they created.
Given these two inputs, the output can’t help but be ridiculous – and sublimely so.
Starship Troopers, on the other hand, acknowledges only one source: Robert Heinlein’s novel of the same name. The film and the novel are surprisingly similar. Several lines of dialogue, major characters and key settings are taken directly from Heinlein’s 1959 story. However, there are two key distinctions. First, the Troopers in the novel wear powered battlesuits, turning them into walking tanks that bristle with weapons and communications gear. They can leap half a mile, launch nukes from shoulder-mounted missile racks and tap into a dozen radio channels at once.
Second, Heinlein was serious.
Okay, not completely serious. Heinlein didn’t think that government by the armed forces was necessarily better than government by the entire populace. But he describes the chaos that marked the end of the 20th Century and the new form of military tribunal that arose as a result. In a civics class (similar to the ones we see in the movie), a professor asks a student why this soft fascism stuck around. Several weak hypotheses are offered and shot down. Finally the professor gives his verdict:
“The practical reason for continuing our system is the same as the practical reason for continuing anything: it works satisfactorily.”
So Heinlein wasn’t touting fascism as superior. But he’s clearly saying fascism is at least workable.
And so many of the movie’s most tragic/comic moments are lifted directly from the novel. When Sgt. Zim goads a student into attacking him and then breaks his arm? From the book. Rico’s teacher telling his class that “violence has resolved more conflicts than anything else”? From the book. Of course, Verhoeven exaggerates each of these gems just slightly to turn them from morally questionable to outright satirical. And that’s the point.
So critics knew RoboCop wasn’t meant to be taken too seriously, because it looked like a movie that wasn’t. But critics who knew about Heinlein’s novel – and most of them knew about it, even if they hadn’t read it – might not have. They might have considered the source, which, if it didn’t glorify fascism, certainly dared its readers to say that it did.
Second: It’s For Your Own Good
Calling an entire roster of professional film critics dumb doesn’t seem plausible. But calling them elitist?
Even the critics who recognized the ironic elements of Starship Troopers – Ebert, Burr, etc. – wondered if audiences would. The language may change but the concern remains constant: how should the audience take this? How will the average filmgoer interpret this? Will they snicker at the recruitment ads like we did, or will they cheer along?
You don’t think audiences will take this seriously, do you?
Many of the critics who reviewed Starship Troopers at the time recognized the satire in its TV commercials, its use of reporters embedded with the Terran Mobile Infantry, and its overblown jingoism. But they didn’t recognize that when the commercials stopped, the satire continued. Michael Ironside’s lectures to his class are part of the satire. Casper van Dien glaring into the camera and saying, “The only good bug is a dead bug” is part of the satire. Neil Patrick Harris probing the brain bug’s mind, yelling, “It’s afraid!” and drawing a cheer from the assembled soldiers is part of the satire. It’s all a gag, fellas.
But the recurring tone through these reviews is that audiences might not get the gag.
Third: It Can’t Happen Here
How many good satires of fascism are there?
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil satirizes bureaucratic totalitarianism – the all-seeing-eye of socialist states, complete with paperwork and uniform. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is a legendary spoof of Nazism and the Third Reich, but grounds itself very specifically in the elements of the day (Austria, Italy, the persecution of the Jews).
But for the idea of fascism itself – the nation-state defined by force – there aren’t as many examples. Why is that?
I’m going farther out on a limb here than I have so far; I’ll understand if you’re not willing to come along with me. But I think fascism is hard to satirize because fascism appeals to people on a primal level. And when someone of vision and energy, like Verhoeven, attempts to satirize fascism, we don’t always get the joke.
No two social scientists agree on what “fascism” really is (though everyone agrees it’s terrible!). But historical examples that most people agree to call fascist states all had in common a strong national ideology and a standing army. The State is not just the governor in a fascist country: We are the State, the State is Us.
The State is the source of polite behavior and moral instruction. And we know our State – and therefore our ideology – are better than that of neighboring States because our standing army is so much stronger than theirs. If our army is defeated, it has nothing to do with insufficient manpower or poor strategy or losing the arms race. It’s because we were sabotaged by traitors, or because the National Will at home wasn’t strong enough (see “We are the State”; above).
Such circular reasoning appeals to the hunter-gatherer instincts which ten thousand years of civilization have not yet eradicated. We want to belong to a tribe. We also want to belong to the right tribe: the strongest tribe, the one that can best protect us. And we want to provide for the tribe with which we identify so closely. Appealing to people’s desire for strength and safety can open any door.
The historical success of fascism seems to bear this out. Nazi Germany is the most recent example and the most germane to a critique of Starship Troopers. For the Third Reich to succeed in its monstrous plans, it needed the cooperation of thousands of non-combatant German civilians. These weren’t officers. These weren’t die-hard Hitler loyalists. They weren’t even all National Socialists. But they went along anyway. Even when you have doubts, you don’t want to be that one animal on the far edge of the herd.
And the appeal of the Vigorous Army and the Recognition for Service touches us, even if we’re not fascists ourselves. Consider – and I picked this out of a dozen examples – the final scene in Star Wars: A New Hope:
That scene borrows heavily from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl’s vision of propaganda mirrored the message of the Reich it served: the religious iconography in a secular setting, the display of implicit and overt power and the portrayal of visual unity. Thousands of directors and photographers have borrowed from Riefenstahl’s lessons in the intervening decades. The last scene in A New Hope is a deliberate callback to it.
And remember, these are the Rebels! The guys fighting the Empire! These are (supposedly) the anti-fascists! If they can’t avoid fascist imagery, what choice do the rest of us have?
So how does this work in Starship Troopers? Consider the last splash logo in the final recruitment vid: “They’ll Keep Fighting – And They’ll Win!” Victory over a foe is not treated as the outcome of careful planning and superior technology, but as an inevitable result of certain decisions. We have a brain bug. We’re going to figure it out. Once we do, we’ll use that information to kill other bugs. There’s no question of likelihoods or possibilities or if-thens. We’ve decided to triumph over the enemy, so we’re going to. Would You Like To Know More?
Consider the leadup to the First Battle of Klendathu:
The reporter offers, as an afterthought, the notion that the bugs were “provoked by the intrusion of humans into their natural habitat.” What is the response of Juan Rico, protagonist of Starship Troopers and voice of the film’s theme? Does he debate whether the bug’s response was proportional to any threat the humans might have caused? Does he even address the argument as an argument? No. His response is, “I’m from Buenos Aires, and I say kill ’em all!” His argument is his membership in the aggrieved party (the bombed city of Buenos Aires). Being part of the tribe trumps logic.
Consider the aftermath of the First Battle of Klendathu:
Sky Marshal Dienes, commander of the Federal Armed Forces, admits to underestimating the tenacity of the bugs, an error that killed one hundred thousand soldiers. He steps down – visibly, on camera, stepping to one side for a new Sky Marshall. She outlines a glittering generality of a New Plan. The audience unskeptically applauds.
Even when the movie does not explicitly advance the notions of fascism – military rule, territorial expansion – it channels the idea of Us Vs. Them as the sole moral arbiter. Membership in the tribe determines what’s right. Unity equals strength. The decision to conquer means that we’ll conquer.
What baffled many critics when Starship Troopers was first released, I suspect, was the seamless melding of fascist satire with action-movie heroism. “There’s nothing wrong with good satire — but it’s self-defeatingly stupid to inject it into any story that expects us to care what happens to the characters,” Scott Rosenberg of Salon.com said at the time. But it wouldn’t be fascist satire unless we were supposed to cheer for the characters – regardless of what they did. In a good bit of fascist propaganda, like Triumph of the Will or Starship Troopers, what makes the heroes heroic is the color of their uniform and their ability to channel rage in the service of the Nation. That’s it.
So the critics were right and they still got it wrong. Starship Troopers is fascist propaganda – for a fascism that does not yet exist. The problem isn’t that Verhoeven got his fascist propaganda all over your action movie. The problem is that your action movie springs directly from fascist propaganda.
And just to keep you (and myself) from sneering too much at the critics who missed the point of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, ask yourself the following: how would you have reacted to the film if the humans lost? If the Federal Armed Forces had responded to the errors of Klendathu with a new plan fraught with even more errors? If the human race had sent wave after wave of young men and women into the unstoppable maw of arachnid warriors, until Earth was a decimated husk, waiting for the first bug dropship to land?
It’d be depressing, right? Because that would be the end of the human race. Even though that would also mean that the fascists lost, and that fascism was not a workable political system, and that the Will won’t necessarily Triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. But audiences would hate that ending, no matter how well executed. We would hold out hope that some desperate band of rebels might unify and drive back the arachnids, carving out one last niche for humanity.
And that’s what makes Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers a work of satiric genius. It forces us to cheer for an ideology we know is wrong.
Nothing to add to this one, John.. it’s brilliant.
Wow, that was an utterly awesome article.
Good article, inaccurate title.
The article shows that everyone gets robocop, and not starship troopers, but does not offer an explanation of why this is the case.
“They admitted, begrudgingly, that the pseudo-fascist future might be satirical, but perhaps wasn’t satirical enough. In short, the critics got it wrong.”
This statement is unsupported by the quotes from critics preceding it – Ebert says the satire is the only redeeming feature of a train wreck of a film, Rosenberg attacks the satire as lacking in wit, David Denby also criticizes the execution of the satire. Ty Burr was arguing the opposite of what you said, he said it was too satirical and modern audiences don’t get any amount of satire.
hmm. while Starship Troopers the movie is certainly enjoyable on its own merits, one of my ongoing arguments with Ebert’s infamous review is that the film is far from faithful to the source material. in almost every case, it reverses the meaning and intent of individual scenes and the overall plot. it creatively edits the philosophical interludes to portray them as something Heinlein did not write, would not have written. it is as though the film were written for another story and became attached to the Starship Troopers story for marketing purposes (in fact, according to the DVD commentary, Verhoeven never finished reading the book, only having read the first few chapters).
one example among many of the divergence of the two works is the portrayal of the characters as Sincere White Men and Women in the film, with all the overt overtones of racism that implies. in the book, the lead character is Filipino. another is the scene in which the Drill Instructor breaks the arm of one of the characters. in the book, it is clearly an accident (“I’m sorry. You hurried me a little,” says the DI, while getting the recruit to medical attention quickly), while in the movie, it is done with relish and intention as a part of a supposed brutality of military life and training.
i could go on, but there’s no point. i just hate to see Ebert’s assertion about the faithfulness of the film to the book published yet again with no rebuttal. while both works have their value, they are not the same, they do not have the same themes, and they do not ask nor answer the same questions. each is very much a product of its own driving creative mind.
Goddamn bugs whacked us, Johnny.
Everyone gets Robocop because it was done well. No one gets Starship Troopers because it was a steaming pile. Just because they had the same director doesn’t mean that they’re going to be equally well done.
@lewis and @donn: I tried to tackle a bunch of different points in this article – probably too many – so I might have lost the thread of my own thesis. Lemme regroup:
Ebert calls Starship Troopers a “violent kiddie movie.” Rosenberg calls Starship Troopers “self-defeatingly stupid.” Denby says it’s evidence of Hollywood’s “complete, utter mad[ness].”
Each of those critics recognizes that the recruitment commercials are satire, but they think the rest of the movie is dumb, grisly or immature. My point is that the whole damned movie – not just the commercials – is satire.
By saying, “Yeah, those newsfeeds were clever, but the rest of the movie was just uncomfortable,” the critics missed the point.
I know I’m late to the party on this, but I’ve thought the critics missed something about this movie for years. One thing I noticed during a re-watching is that the bugs themselves don’t seem to be technologically advanced. All we ever really see from them are defensive actions. Sure, an asteroid destroys Buenos Aires, and everyone assumes the bugs sent it. What if they had nothing to do with it? Consider the unseen leadership of the Federation. We experience their propaganda, their “us vs them” fascist philosophy. What better way to focus a population and suppress dissent than to find an “other” that poses a threat and must be destroyed? The bugs, in my view, are simply a cause which to rally around. Blaming the Buenos Aires tragedy on them is an easy way for leadership to galvanize the public into action. It would seem that the Federation is ill-equipped to deal with the bug “threat”, but winning isn’t the point. Keeping the battle going and the populous distracted is their actual goal. Who cares if kids get fed into the meat grinder? Watch the movie again with this in mind and it gets a whole lot more interesting.
In the film the asteroid is clearly the one that sneaks up on the ship Carmen is piloting. While yes it doesn’t show it coming from the bugs, they were in the bug system at the time, and it was a surprise to their sensors. Ironically, its Carmen’s ability which leads to the destruction of her hometown; in the encounter the communications equipment tower is clearly shown being ripped off the ship as she dodges it around the asteroid. So, the asteroid was probably meant for the ship, and had it hit them, may have dissipated or not hit earth at all. Since verhoeven loves to throw biblical references in his stuff, I’m just gonna go out on a limb and wonder if she’s some Eve personification.
Part 3 was a commentary on religious fanaticism, how people use it as an excuse to completely suspend (or escape) reason, their willingness to become martyrs for God and how easily and willingly people can be controlled by religious dogma.
It wasn’t very subtle about it either. Terrible movie, frankly.
Hmm, even with that clarification Ebert seemed to get that the whole thing was intended as satire. His statement is pretty clear that by staying close to the source material, the source material becomes satirical to modern eyes:
“The one redeeming merit for director Paul Verhoeven’s film is that by remaining faithful to Heinlein’s material and period, it adds an element of sly satire.”
Ebert for the most part probably agrees with you on what constitutes an attempt at satire in this film. The problem Ebert has with the movie is that it’s a terrible movie, and I can’t think of a reason to disagree with him.
@donn: Yes, but at the risk of being redundant, the terribleness is the point. I don’t think Verhoeven picked Casper van Dien because he gave great line readings; he picked him because he had a strong jawline. He’s the Volk ideal.
(Directors do that sometimes – they pick people whom they know are sub-par actors but look so perfect for the part. My high school theatre director admitted to doing it on several occasions. Never with me, though; I was a natural. ;) )
Could you elaborate on what specifically you thought was bad? I can’t go so far as to say that everything that was bad about Starship Troopers was a deliberate artistic choice – though that would be awesome, in a sick sort of way. But let’s make sure we’re addressing the same content.
@Rooker: yeah, #2 and #3 go farther afield.
#1: “Human culture can go astray in its worshipping of badasses.”
#2: “WHOO! These guys are BADASS! Also, TITS!”
#3: See #2.
I’m surprised no one has mentioned yet how 9/11 and the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have done a lot to rehabilitate Starship Trooper’s reputation. I saw this movie for the first time recently and was shocked by the parallels between Buenos Aires/Sept 11 and the Bug War/War on Terror.
I don’t know if I’ll go so far as to call Verhoeven a prophet, but his critique of a hype-militarized, blindly jingoistic society cuts pretty deep to the American core of the earlier part of this decade.
I’m also surprised by the folks who are calling this movie a “terrible” “steaming pile.” Those are words that I typically reserve for insipid trainwrecks like “From Justin to Kelly” or “Terminator: Salvation.” Okay, that last one is probably a stretch, but you get the idea. I’d say that at worst, “Starship Troopers” is an flawed satire that compromises itself by its ridiculous parts, particularly the 90210-esque teen drama parts.
Speaking of which, is there any way to plausibly bring “Glee”/”Gossip Girl” into this analysis?
Maybe this is too much overthinking it, but an can’t stop seeing parallels to to modern day USA (and Denmark where I am from). Stay with me, “Arachnid” sounds awfully much like “Iraqy” and the desert planet the war is fought on look a lot like those pictures from operation desert storm. I am not saying that USA is fascist, but there are subtle staps at the militarism that is a part of American culture (in fact most western countries). And before someone misunderstands me I will say it again. I do not think USA is fascist and I agree that the prime target of the satire is fascism itself and those elements a probably part of the book as well, but as a modern audience those are the kinds of meanings we get from it and I suspect Verhoeven knew that.
So I’m watching this again on Netflix and it is just as bad as I remember it from when it came out. This was released within a year of Men in Black, The Fifth Element, and Independence Day, they spent $100 million making it (which at the time was a huge amount), and it looks like it was made before Robocop.
If Verhoeven’s point was that fascist societies make people into shallow people with bad dialogue in relationships that you don’t care about where you can’t get past them being actors on a film set, he succeeded, but that means he’s made a movie with characters that you don’t care about and don’t want to watch. Watching Denise Richards and Patrick Muldoon interact is painful, and at no point watching Casper talk to his ‘parents’ does it seem like anything other than three people giving line readings.
Almost every aspect of this movie other than the CGI for the bugs looks cut rate – the music, the shot selection, the costumes, the spaceships. The bugs still look great, but the rest is just terrible. If there’s any prescience here it’s in anticipating the font used by lolcats and overusing it do death.
The satire in this doesn’t work for me because a) the film has squandered whatever good will it might have had with its dialogue and production, and b) there’s a lack of subtlety, wit, and originality in the satire itself. Full Metal Jacket contained more effective powerful satire in any five minute stretch than this film contained in its full run time.
@donn: those are fair points. Just because a movie’s satire doesn’t necessarily mean it’s smart. And I’d agree with you about Full Metal Jacket being a superior tragic/comic take on the brutalizing effects of war.
I think if Verhoeven had some Strangelove-calibre actors, this movie would have been universally lauded as a classic. The dialogue in RoboCop isn’t much better, for instance, but casting Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer and Kurtwood Smith made those roles work. But with the cast Troopers has, one really has to dig to find the gems. QED.
(Speaking of Strangelove: the rumor goes that nobody told Slim Pickens, who played Major Kong, that the movie was supposed to be comical. Do you think anyone told van Dien in Troopers?)
Agree with all the detractors — if you can’t get past how generally awful everything is, it doesn’t matter just how satirical it might be… it’s just awful.
re: the acting: it’s not just van Dien, it’s EVERYONE. When your veteran, go-to actor is Michael Ironsides… you’re in BIG trouble. Everyone is bad, top to bottom. Maybe van Dien, like Pickens in Strangelove, wasn’t in on the joke — but NO ONE in Troopers was in on it either. What’s worse are when the supporters of Troopers claim the horrible acting is intentional on the actors’ parts, as if in mankind’s future, we will lose our ability to do anything but smile dumbly at everyone we see and give uninspired line readings.
Worse than the acting are all the unintentionally ridiculous moments throughout. Before Buenos Aires is destroyed and van Dien is on the video-phone with his parents, and it starts getting dark on the parents — “Why is it getting dark all of a sudden?” I believe they ask — hilarious. (I would have preferred Verhoeven really gone 100% comedic and had them open umbrellas over their heads a la Wile E. Coyote.) And yet I don’t think that was ever intended to be a moment you’re supposed to be slap yourself in the forehead as to how stupid it is. Or their idiotic version of football. Or take the fact that apparently we’ve evolved to the point where some humans are psychic. Okay, whatever. Is there anything interesting done with that plot point? Nope. When Doogie Hitler, M.D. shows up at the end to read the bug’s mind, what’s so funny isn’t the troopers’ gleeful reaction to “It’s afraid!”, which I’m sure supporters claim is smartly satirical — it’s the fact that NEIL PATRICK HARRIS (!) is putting his hands all over a giant rubber prop, trying to read its mind like Mr. Spock. I’m sorry, but everything is so unbelievable about that scene, whether or not there’s any satire in it is besides the point — it doesn’t matter. It’s just stupid.
So, yeah — I’m a fan of Verhoeven’s, I’m a fan of sci-fi, I love satire… and yet there’s nothing good I can say about Starship Troopers. I saw it once on opening night, and that was enough. (I came across it on cable in the middle of a van Dien/Richards dialogue scene, and two minutes was enough. Painful — any time you don’t have an effects-laden battle scene to watch, it’s painful.) Give me Robocop any day — well-acted, thoughtful and funny, a movie I can watch over again every few months and have it hold my interest for two hours each time.
Jumping in 11 years down the track, some of the major actors did get it. Michael Ironside point-blank told Paul Verhoeven he knew it was fascist and couldn’t believe it was being made, to which Verhoeven responded with something along the lines of, that’s the point of the movie, to make the perfect fascist film in order to criticise it. Hence his serious portrayal of Rasczak.
It should be pointed out that Neil Patrick Harris was the only young actor who was, for want of a better expression, smart enough to see the fascist overtones because the other young actors just assumed they were performing in an action movie. He ensured to play his character as a “good little fascist”.
I think you can tell who’s in on it and who isn’t.
Sorry, I just find it silly to compare Starship Troopers visually to something like Independence day, which is one of the blandest-looking blockbusters ever.
I think the issue with Starship Troopers is that with the exception of the newsfeed sequences, Verhoeven doesn’t spell out for the audience when he’s playing it straight or when he’s being ironic/campy/satirical. Robocop lets the audience in on the joke from the beginning; Starship Troopers dares the audience to guess if there is a joke or not.
“EVERYONE. When your veteran, go-to actor is Michael Ironsides… you’re in BIG trouble”
Them’s fighting words. Ironside is the Man.
And if you can’t find the joy in watching Jake Busey play a neon electric violin, what CAN you enjoy?
Oh God — I had forgotten all about the neon electric violin… NOOOOOOOOO!
@Theodore Ruxpin III – You said, “Starship Troopers dares the audience to guess if there is a joke or not.” and claim this is “the issue” with the movie. Yet, it sounds awfully similar to what Perich says of the book: “if it didn’t glorify fascism, certainly dared its readers to say that it did.” I think this ambiguity is probably the number one place where the movie gets it right.
I don’t for a minute buy that the satire in the movie was expected to be painfully obvious to all viewers. The audience isn’t “in on” the joke (a la Robocop) because the audience is *part of* the joke. Just like the source material, it’s not just a commentary on society, but on human reaction to society… and without blurring the lines between enjoyment and understanding, without the element of looking around the theater and wondering whether the person next to you has been sucked in by the fascism, then that just doesn’t work.
If it had “Strangelove-caliber actors” then there would *be* no question. As Perich said, it “would have been universally lauded as a classic.” That would’ve killed it. That would’ve utterly missed the point, by making the point too clearly. It would’ve been a movie that TELLS us what to think (“Fascism is Bad;” “War is Bad”) rather than *making us think* (“What does my enjoyment of this movie say about me? What does my *neighbor’s* enjoyment of this movie say about *him*?”)
I find it interesting that so many people are talking about the bad acting. In the discussion of Showgirls, it was implied that perhaps the bad performances were elicited intentionally, and I see no reason not to believe that to be the case here, as well. After all, if it were any better, then people would have an excuse. I think Verhoeven wanted his audiences to have NO excuse whatsoever for liking this movie, so that when people asked themselves or were asked by others why they liked it, the only possible answer would be “because the good guys won!” which would be followed by the utterly necessary follow-up question, which is the point of the entire film and the book as well, “Why are they the good guys?” (plus, I LOVE NPH and have a hard time believing his performance was unintentional…)
It seems like it’s almost time for a chart here…
Genevieve and the last paragraphs of the piece are closer to the truth imho.
Robocop and Kubrick’s satirical work was satire about our society. Starship Troopers is a satire about our “art”/the stories we tell ourselves about our society. ST is mocking action movies and showing them to be inherently fascistic (anticipating Inglorious Basterds by a decade). This may be a reason the critics missed it, just as so many of them missed Basterds. A lot of the mass-media crits still don’t do “meta” very well, not to mention being generally pig ignorant about politics.
It is important that the performances in ST are bad, the drama insipid, and that it looks like crap except for the SFX because that’s what’s terrible about action movies. Gen’s last graph is on point: it’s impossible to like this movie (on a surface reading) BUT WE STILL DO. (Although I disagree with Perich that this is intrinsic to human nature and fall more on the side of it being a result of endless cultural conditioning, especially pronounced in the US.)
Couple random things:
An extended comparison of Verhoeven to Tarantino needs to be done, punch-bowl pissers extraordinaire that they are.
By way of expanding the Perich thesis to a general critical blindness to fascism, it would also be interesting to note the critical response to 300. IIRC everyone panned it, but not for its fascism. 300 is the most unironically fascist movie since Triumph of the Will. It’s practically a greatest hits of the key themes and tropes of fascist art.
Can anyone explain why ALL of the fascist allegory was taken out of the new “V” and what that means for the world?
If anyone hasn’t read Michael Moorcock’s essay “Starship Stormtroopers” definitely check it out. It’s fantastic.
I gotta take exception with the end of the article. Had the movie ended with the bugs winning, it would probably be one of my ten favorite movies of all time.
But as Genevieve suggests about the quality of the acting, that too would have given the game away. Fascism isn’t a Bad Thing based on its won/loss record.
Having both read Starship Troopers and suffered through the movie, I’m going to have to also get on board with the “Claiming this movie stayed true to the book is laughable” bandwagon.
Especially when you consider that the director didn’t even READ the book, and the majority of people working on the film at the start didn’t even know it -was- a book first.
“According to the DVD commentary, Paul Verhoeven never finished reading the novel, claiming he read through the first few chapters and became both “bored and depressed” is not a statement that I take to mean that he was trying to recreate the mood and theme of a great classic novel.
If I had to characterize the point of the novel, it was, if taken seriously, that loyalty to the state is a very important quality, and that people should be willing to give over what they’d prefer when the group as a whole has need of you to do something else. Whereas the primary message I got from the movie was “Check out the special effects, also, guns are cool, also NPH is hilarious.”
The only way you could, in my mind, say anything good about STarship Troopers (movie) inside the context of Starship Troopes (novel) is to suggest that he was making a deliberate satire -of the novel- except that, you know, he didn’t actually read the whole book.
Well done Perich
I am so glad that someone else thought the same as i did regarding this film. truly a satirical masterpiece
I always thought of Starship Troopers like this: the entire MOVIE, start to finish, including the commercials and what not, was one big recruiting film, a send up of the jingoist military mindset. It only makes sense if you think of all of it as some sort of two hour documentary on the early days of the war with the Bugs, with the advertising and news inserts included as historical reference. In short, all of it was satirical. I mean, it had DOOGIE HOWSER IN A NAZI UNIFORM. How could you take it seriously?
It reminds me of the lengths that Normad Spinrad went to when he wanted to illustrate the implicit fascism in sci-fi and fantasy; he wrote The Iron Dream, a novel written by Adolf Hitler, where the Second World War was turned into much the same Us vs. Them tale that the film version of Starship Troopers was. That’s the most clever reading of fascism in Sci Fi you can get; Starship Troopers isn’t that good, but it plays by many of the same rules.
I haven’t watched Starship Troopers lately, but this has inspired me to watch it again.
I think the real problem is the way people view and treat Heinlien’s own work on the subject. To say the book and film are anywhere near similar. Heinlien’s work an allegory to the responsibilities and burdens of citizenship and making a democratic nation work (as well as mobile suits). Verhoeven’s work is, in part, a product of his own imagination (he didn’t read the book to the end), and his satire is not so much about fascism and the absurdity of militarist ideology, but post cold war US foreign policy. He is using fascist imagery because he wants to put the crowd in the strange predicament of rooting for the fascists, but for Americans to realize they are living IN a fascist state. Why must humanity prevail and spread, not because it is Us vs. Them, or Us wills to destroy Them, but because Us are civilized and Them are barbarous savages. Its the lament of a European asking where is the peace dividend of the Soviet collapse 8 years before the movie was produced. The movie is a warning to Americans about their culture and where it is going. Just think back to the jingoism before and during the first gulf war, when death and destruction was on TV, in real time. Think about the villianization of the Serbian faction in the Yugoslav civil
war, how different is it from the mass media propaganda in the Starship Troopers? Their objections are irrelevant and the culpability of our allies (and by extension Us)is not relevant, because Them are barbarians. If the existence of a fascist America was not apparent in 1997, it has become painfully clear since 2001.
My personal theory is that Verhoeven is a good but not great director and he knows it. Even if he had a cast of the caliber of Strangelove, he could never have created the masterpiece that Kubrick did. But, he has a knack for finding societal satire in anything, and a gift for metacinematic insight. So how does a guy who is really smart and really loves making movies but not all that talented make a name for himself among the great directors of the world? He makes provocative, shocking films that are deliberately shitty in every aspect.
So shitty in fact that there is no way to interpret their shittiness as anything other than intentional. This serves the double function of hiding his lack of talent (and I don’t mean to demean him here; every director can’t be Kubrick) while at the same time distilling his films down to pure ideas: a critique of fascism, a critique of feminism, a critique of police violence, a critique of the sex industry.
What makes Verhoeven so great is that he doesn’t let his audience off the hook. As someone above pointed out, we, by enjoying his films, become part of that crititque if not the very essence of it. In Starship Troopers, despite the bad acting and writing, despite the over-the-top satire, despite the bad lighting and pedestrian camera work, we are cheering for the fascist bastards to kill the bugs no matter what. We love watching Robocop take out that huge-ass gun and blow peoples balls off. We are caught up despite ourselves, and depsite what we know to be “good” filmmaking practice. This thought alone has many implications that question the nature of the filmmaking craft, the nature of performance, the role of the audience, you could go on and on. I mean, the dude is a genius. Just not a great director.
In becoming a master of shitty films, Verhoeven’s managed to make a name for himself. If not admired for the quality or intelligence of his craft, he has, through limited ability and, ironically, a lot of brains, made himself universally discussed and difficult to dismiss, like directors such as Russ Meyer, John Waters and David Cronenberg. The amazing thing is that critics, even those that have seen all of his films, don’t always seem to get it. Seeing how many times he has done the exact same thing in the past, you’d think they’d come to expect it by now. They certainly seem to let the directors above off the hook now and then. I wonder if maybe critics, like any group of intelligentsia, hate to be lumped with the common man, and when they watch a Verhoeven film they are implicated along with everyone else by its thesis, and they resent it.
I’m a little stunned by all the people saying “You don’t get it — he’s TRYING to make his movies suck because ultimately the joke is on the moviegoer!” Because not all of his movies have sucked. Robocop? Fantastic. Total Recall? Eh… silly, but good on its terms. Basic Instinct? Not actually terrible, though not something I’d ever care about watching again.
But then you get to the crap trifecta of Showgirls-Troopers-Hollow Man where everything falls apart. Sure, I’ll let you make the argument that he’s playing an elaborate joke on everyone with those movies, DARING you to like them. But he did so well playing that joke, he essentially worked his way out of Hollywood. Is it any coincidence that his three worst movies had the three worst screenplays? I think not. But no one told him he had to make them. And whether by bad luck or design… by making movie after movie that were slammed by critics, no one liked and didn’t make enough at the box office? That’s right — no one wanted to hire him.
re: Troopers — if you make a movie that’s offensively stupid, why on earth would anyone but the most imbecilic teenagers give a damn about seeing humans blowing up bugs? Again, it all goes back to story — if you don’t got one, NO amount of visual effects or pyrotechnics are going to save you. You might as well watch ILM’s demo reel over and over again and get the same enjoyment out of it. Without investment in the story, there’s nothing to get you to care about what’s going on. Even if you think it’s all working on some ultra-meta level where he’s trying to show how inept a film can be. So yes, while there were lots of explosions to look at in Troopers… why would anyone think that was remotely entertaining? There’s no “cheering for the humans” involved.
Here’s the problem with the “Verhoeven as crap auteur” theory: it proves the old adage “Fool me once…” Having made that aggressively stupid movie, I had absolutely no interest in seeing Hollow Man. I like sci-fi/horror movies — that was my kind of project — but I was so annoyed by Troopers that I didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt when it came to the tons of negative reviews for the movie. And when I caught some of it on cable, I considered myself lucky. That movie’s terrible (and it’s interesting — and understandable — that no one has rushed to defend it). So Verhoeven, by “winning” the battle — to prove he could make terrible genre pictures — lost the war.
It’s funny that for weeks, no one’s brought up his German movie Black Book either (after the six-year, post-Hollow Man drought) — I assume because most readers haven’t seen it. But guess what? It’s actually a fantastic film. Involving story? Check. Well-acted? Check. Well-shot and directed? Check! So there he was with great elements to work with, and guess what? It made for a great movie. There was no intent to purposefully make a crappy film — while it definitely plays with the genre, it also works on its own terms.
So people are giving Verhoeven FAR too much credit. Besides those three movies, his films generally have compelling ideas at their core, and work on multiple levels. You can’t make the same argument about the crap sandwich in the middle of his career.
@Kevin: I actually saw Black Book a few weeks ago and was hoping another writer would cover it. I reviewed Black Book on my own blog, if you want to compare notes.
To tie it into the main theme: Verhoeven’s message in Black Book seems to be that “war makes monsters even of the good guys.” Starship Troopers has the same message, albeit without as much subtlety.
“And just to keep you (and myself) from sneering too much at the critics who missed the point of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, ask yourself the following: how would you have reacted to the film if the humans lost?”
Avatar? The blueskins don’t reduce Earth to a decimated husk, but everyone is cheering for Them against Us.
It’s worth noting, given the repeated generalisations about “most critics”, that ‘Starship Troopers’ had a very different reception in Europe, where “most critics” grasped the satire immediately and so did most audiences. In fact, it got such great reviews in such highbrow publications as the Financial Times and Sight & Sound that the film’s British distributors took out an ad specifically highlighting those.
I suspect we were more in tune with Verhoeven’s sensibility, especially the way he was clearly satirising American culture and values alongside more obvious targets like Leni Riefenstahl.
When statistics are released about a country, I think it would be helpful if along side populations stats, annual rain fall, ethnic break downs, they listed how critics from that country view Starship Troopers. I feel that would offer greater incite than information about GDP.
Wanted to add that some people evidently dislike this movie because they actually hold the views that it’s satirizing, and they don’t like being made fun of.
You’re quite right. There are two strains of people who don’t like to be laughed at in this context: Heinlein fans (“but the movie isn’t true to the source material!”) and nationalists (Trump supporters, “my country right or wrong”; all the people who didn’t learn that the lesson of WWII was that nationalism is evil).
Starship Troopers is a documentary!