Randomly flipping on Starship Troopers with my dad, I wasn’t hoping for much, but I did expect a few things. I expected it to be a dumb, loud Verhoeven (that is, Paul Verhoeven, director of Robocop, Basic Instinct, and more) sci-fi action flick. I expected it to have tons of ridiculous R-rated carnage. Heck, I even expected it to satirize the military, as many online had been claiming. What I wasn’t expecting, however, is for my feelings on that particular film to be as split as they are, to the point where even thinking about it leaves me incredibly frustrated and confused.
Now, when Starship Troopers is trying to be a satire of military propaganda (as many of its devotees claim the entire movie is), it succeeds surprisingly well. Sure, it may make its points with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but I couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of young children toying with enormous guns and long bullets, or “doing their part” in the war against Bugs (giant, insect-like alien creatures that destroy any humans they encounter, and attack Earth itself later in the film) by stomping small insects to death while their mother cheers them on.
The film’s vision of the 23rd century is a curiously dystopian, almost totalitarian one, where military service is what “guarantees citizenship” in the eyes of many, and troop sergeants cruelly injure anybody who breaks the rules, even publicly whipping them if they do anything worse. These themes of brainwashing and control, which apparently parody exactly what was celebrated in the original source material (Robert A. Heinlein’s children’s novel of the same name), are quite captivating, and had the film leaned into them more, it might have been the biting, pitch-black parable it was clearly aiming at.
Unfortunately, Starship Troopers soon loses its way, becoming a messy, indulgent trifle that doesn’t really know what it is, or what it’s really trying to go for. After the first half’s limp, melodramatic attempts at developing its central characters (more on them later), the second half devolves into a fairly routine Aliens clone (the only thing the marketing made it out to be, unfortunately) that throws a lot of blood and severed body parts at the screen, but forgets to actually say anything in the process.
Watching the evil Bugs impale, dismember, and generally mutilate their human opponents (the surviving members of which shoot and blow them up in return) may hold a certain thrill for gore-craving genre fans, but doesn’t take long to get very repetitive. At least we get some variety when an especially nasty creature impales a character’s head, then sucks all his brains out like a large smoothie.
And yet, many have argued that this over-the-top mayhem is all part of Verhoeven’s point, citing an earlier scene where a school teacher literally argues that violence is “the supreme authority from which all other authorities derive”. I have an idea for how this message could have been more effectively communicated: have the main characters in situations where they could’ve potentially chosen peace over violence, yet promptly rushed into the latter because they’re so stupidly trigger-happy*. Instead, most of the combat is entirely the Bugs’ fault anyway, and they attack humans so vigorously that any potential commentary of this sort is entirely lost.
The main characters themselves are all high schoolers, all thoroughly wooden, and all glitzed-up to the point of looking more fit in a 90210-type rom-com than a grisly sci-fi actioner. Trying to take them seriously is impossible. Trying to see them as another element of the film’s satire is far easier, although it spends so much time trying to develop them that I couldn’t tell if Verhoeven was trying to go for that or not. It’s all pretty bewildering, to be honest.
Perhaps if Starship Troopers had been cut down by 20-30 minutes, its intent might have come through a lot better, and it wouldn’t have been dismissed by folks like Roger Ebert as “the most violent kiddie movie ever made”**. Perhaps on a second viewing, I’ll actually understand it better, and laud it as the misunderstood masterwork everybody loves to call it now. Perhaps not, though.
*In fact, the film could’ve ironically treated this needless killing as the “right” option for its characters, the only possible solution for any of the conflicts they may have run into. It’s just a thought.
**Ebert goes on to say “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’s what it was actually trying to satirize, but whatever.