Paul Verhoeven was on top of the world in Hollywood in de mid-90s. After scoring three big hits in a row with RoboCop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct he could do no wrong. Then came Showgirls. A movie so critically panned by critics, audiences stayed away and the movie bombed. Verhoeven received so much backlash about that movie, that it basically destroyed his career in Hollywood. Despite making two other big studio movies, he never could wash off the Showgirls stigma. It wasn’t until he started making movies in Europe again, that he was able to redeem himself.
Today I’m going to look at the movie that should have made people forget all about Showgirls: Starship Troopers.
The strategy he took was as simple as it was brilliant: go back to the origin of his breakthrough Hollywood which was RoboCop. He teamed up again with RoboCop writer Ed Neumeier and crafted a movie that takes a lot of cues from that movie. It’s a dark satire on American culture, in this case the military. They use news item segments throughout the movie. It pushes its R-rating by incorporating a lot of gore and random nudity. In fact one scene shows men and women showering together like they also did in RoboCop. That’s one way to get rid of the whole transgender bathroom discussion.
Starship Troopers is a basically a science fiction remake of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It goes through the same motions: first young cadets are trained for war by a hard as nails drill instructor. Then they are sent off to a faraway planet to kill the enemy which consists in this case of giant bugs. How did we get into a war with bugs living on a planet in another galaxy? Good question and the answer is never given directly. The propagandist movie clips paint the giant bugs as these ruthless creatures which are able to shoot plasma beams against asteroids into space slinging them towards earth.
The strength of Starship Troopers lies in picking up all the nods, tie them together and come to the conclusion that the humans are actually the bad guys here. We are the foreign invaders. Not one bug travels across the galaxy to wreak havoc on earth while we send entire fleets to their planet in order to wipe them out. The world, or at least North and South America seem to be under rule of a fascist government, which divides people between two types of statuses: civilians and citizens. The latter having much more rights like voting. At one point a female infantry member mentions she joined the mobile infantry because it will enlarge the chance for her to be allowed to have a baby.
Only those with little historical knowledge won’t notice the military costumes which are heavily inspired by the Nazi costumes from World War 2. Especially Neil Patrick Harris walks around in a costume just a skull shy from being an S.S. outfit. Yes, this movie has Barney Stinson in it. That’s a bonus point right there.
Another key element to the whole fascist undertone to the movie was the casting. All of the central cast consists of people who look like Hitler’s wet dream. As if they were taken straight from the set of Beverly Hills 90210. These characters are not just attractive, they are attractive in the middle of tense action scenes. At one point Casper van Dien’s Johnny Rico is standing on screen covered in bug blood. It’s on his helmet and armor, but his face is squeaky clean. Denise Richard’s character Carmen Ibanez is a pilot, but she looks like a stock model in every scene she’s in with an overly expressive face and a smile so bright and white she’s a walking toothpaste commercial.
Not many people have noticed this and it’s easy to overlook, but have you noticed something about the names and locations? The central cast of characters are all from Buenos Aires, which is in Argentina. Their names are Rico, Ibanez and Flores, yet they are played by Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards and Dina Meyer. Starship Troopers is probably the whitest movie ever to take place in South America.
All of these elements also provide Starship Troopers with its biggest flaw. The reason RoboCop worked so well was because the character of Alex Murphy was fleshed out very well. He was a tragic Jesus-like character for whom we rooted. We never have any sort of attachment with the cast of Starship Troopers. The characters are too shallow written for us to care. These are all pretty people with rather perfect lives who freely choose to fight bugs. Even when they’re wounded in battle I would just go “meh”.
I’m not much of a military man, let alone a strategist, but I found the approach they took was kind of dumb. There are basically two objectives for the mobile infantry: kill all the bugs, find and retrieve a much smarter bug they dubbed “Brainbug”. This leads to endless scenes in which large groups of soldier end up shooting their clips empty on hordes of Arachnids; giant bugs. It takes at least a 30 seconds of rapid fire before one is down, so when there are thousands of them storming a group of several hundred humans, you kind of know the outcome here.
Why not send drones?
A lot of lives could have been saved if drones or numerous piloted air-crafts pulled off air strikes. Now it’s possible that drones were not as common when this movie was written, but it’s a sci-fi writer’s job to think of all the cool gadgets the future has. The best these people could come up was to just send in battalion after battalion.
Starship Troopers is a smart satire contained in a dumb action movie. It has a lot of potential but never reaches it fully. The twist is that we are actually rooting for the oppressors when we are so used to rooting for the underdog. Watching Starship Troopers is like watching Rocky through the eyes of Apollo Creed. I guess, they should have called the movie Apollo then.
Still, it’s a good movie. One that was misunderstood at the time of its release but also one that was able to make its mark in such a way that DTV-sequels are still being made. Too bad they all suck.