The war in Vietnam changed the face of American war movies for good. War movies now show the horror, futility, and irony of nations fighting. But before, once upon a time, war was the heroic, romantic proving grounds where boys became men. By providing an inhuman enemy, Starship Troopers is able to make war fun again.
Starship Troopers is not a science fiction movie; it is a war movie (specifically, a WWII movie, according to effects-man Phil Tippett). Like Gattaca, only its setting is futuristic, giving the movie a science-fiction look and feel; the story itself breaks the sci-fi mold.
What are the conventions of war movies? A big cast. Lots of characters with names, not all of whom will survive. Caricatured people from different walks of life coming together in the military. Clear class demarcation between strategists, flybys, and grunts. Big, well-choreographed battle scenes. Characters growing from “boys” to “men.” The African-American infantryman dying first. War-inspired racism. This movie has them all.
Our heroes (Carmen [Denise Richards], Johnny [Casper Van Dien], Carl [Neil Patrick Harris], and Diz [Dina Meyer]) are just graduating high school, contemplating their futures in a world on the brink of war with Klendathu, a planet of giant insects. There are many options — college, professional athletics — but like in Gone With the Wind, “joining up” is the only real option to any self-respecting youth. Our side needs you; all your friends will be joining up; it’s the best way to prove yourself a man; and besides, this is history in the making. Being the right age at the right time in one of humanity’s greatest moments is fate and destiny and downright fun!
To really spark the characters’ (and the audience’s) interest, slickly made propaganda films (reminiscent of the commercials in Verhoeven’s RoboCop) call all red-blooded humans to action in the adventure of a lifetime. Making it even more irresistible, things at home are untouched by the war. None of the awful destructive reality of war discolors the young people’s enthusiasm for going off to kill the enemy. They’re doing it as much for fun and camaraderie as for duty (again, reminiscent of Gone With the Wind).
The movie is really well made, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the thrill of going to war. But Verhoeven doesn’t let us forget that the emotional hype has a dark side to it. For example, a newsreel tells us that a man is caught, tried for murder, convicted, and executed, all within 12 hours. Another newsreel refers to a group of “Mormon Extremists;” actually, they were hoping for a peaceful solution to the war. Another newsreel encourages war racism among kids too young to fight: cockroach stomping is a great way for little Johnny to feel like he’s really killing gooks, too. These subjects are awful, but they’re presented with all the enthusiasm of real propaganda films, and the audience is hard-pressed not to give in to the emotion of the moment. (That’s why you should see this movie during a crowded show, not when you’re the only one in the theater.)
The world of Starship Troopers is an interesting place. Details about military service, citizenship, and Earth history add to the satirically dark tone of the movie, though not very subtly. For example, a civilian (with no military service) is not a citizen, and can’t vote. Democracy failed and “the Veterans” took over politics. These details seem unnecessary at first, but they help explain many of the characters’ motives and they further distance the audience from the war-glorifying world on-screen.
Clearly, this movie is intended as a special-effects blowout, and the effects are indeed great. A bug stampede around the camera has all the tense energy of a “real” stampede. Battle scenes at an abandoned fortress are choreographed and edited masterfully (and they look like Beau Geste and Intolerance). But if you have a taste for film history or for war movies, there is more to Starship Troopers than computer-generated insects. The special effects action is a great start, but deeper, you can find lots of interesting commentary on war movies and on war itself.
A friend of mine once proposed that the nations of the world should set aside some remote island to be used for war. Any young man who felt the need to go off to kill and die in glorious battle could choose a side, hop over to War Island and engage in battle until he grew up or until he died. The rest of us could go about our lives unaffected.
Really, that’s what Starship Troopers is all about. It gives itself enough distance from reality so that our lives aren’t really affected by the horrors of war, and then it taps into that young-man eagerness for life-or-death adventure.
Intellectually, I can’t really condone that message, but I have to admit that this will be a guilty pleasure of mine for years to come.