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.