When Starship Troopers was released, people didn’t quite get it. The cheesy dialogue and characters who resembled department store mannequins were criticized, and at best no one assumed it was anything more than a fun B movie. Since its release, that’s how many people still view it, in spite of embracing the now obvious satire that Verhuven infuses his film with. While many have fond memories of this film, to me it was a deeply upsetting experience. While the film has it’s share of pulp fun and humor, Starship Troopers is still a film about war crimes told from the perspective of the criminals.
Before we continue, it should be noted that for the purposes of this piece, we shall ignore Heinlein’s novel and focus solely on Verhoven’s film.
The story seems straightforward on the surface. Johnny Rico joins the military to protect Earth from a supposed threat by insectiod inhabitants of Klendathu. After his hometown is destroyed by a meteor impact the bug’s supposedly caused, Rico embarks on a quest to avenge his loved ones. Sounds simple, right? Remember however that this story is satire. Nothing is as it seems. Knowing that, a far bleaker picture emerges not only involving the destruction of Rico’s hometown, but the ultimate fate of Rico’s soul.
The first thing worth mentioning is the supposed reason for the war. The heroes fully commit to fighting the Arachnids after they supposedly sent an asteroid towards Buenos Aires, killing millions. According to the United Citizen Federation, the Arachnids, who come from the world of Klendathu, don’t posses the technology for interstellar travel, and are thus trying to seed the Earth with egg filled asteroids. Give this any meaningful thought, and it falls apart.
Without ships or technology, the Arachnids have no means to transport asteroids over such long distances. Klendathu is shown to be so far from Earth that any hunk of space rock sent from there would take trillions of years to traverse the distance between worlds. Some fans point to sequels and other expanded media claiming the Arachnids used wormholes to transport the asteroid. However, Verhoven had no involvement in later entries, and those who did make them failed to realize that this apparent discrepancy is actually deliberate. In the context of the original movie, the Arachnids are not responsible for the Buenos Aires tragedy. The United Citizen’s Federation is. Film critic Jon Zelanzy elaborates.
The story’s own logic tells me that it was the Earth government that screwed up: their snazzy anti-meteor satellite failed and Buenos Aires was destroyed. The government needed a scapegoat. They’ve been fighting skirmishes against the natives in faraway colonies, so they announced that the bugs “propelled” the meteor all the way across the galaxy to hit the Earth. Even by sci-fi standards this is blatantly ridiculous. When we see the bug world, there’s nothing to even remotely suggest they have the technology to attack Earth; they don’t even use tools.
Verhoven’s film is generous and blatant with these clues. Only the film’s satirical nature keeps it from telling this to the audience directly. The film is told from the perspective not of those at the top of the chain of command who would know this. Rather. it’s told from the eyes of impressionable youngsters who are kept in the dark.
HOW RICO LOST HIS SOUL
At a glance, one might assume Johnny Rico’s story is a rather typical hero’s journey, but the truth is not so pretty. We first see Rico in school, where he playfully jokes around with a female classmate and hangs out with his friends. This is Rico at his most human. It’s also where his humanity starts to dwindle. Rico’s more optimistic and freethinking worldview is challenged by his professor, Jean Rasczak. Rasczak injects a poisonous idea into Rico, that violence and competition are key to a functioning society. These ideas persuade him to join the UCF.
In military school, Rico is thrust into an abusive environment, where intimidation and torture are used as teaching tools. In response to showing his individuality, Ace Levy, played by Jake Busey is stabbed in full view of his classmates. Following the accidental death of a soldier, Rico is publicly flogged. It’s no coincidence that the sadistic drill sergeant is played by Clancy Brown, who played a similar bully in The Shawshank Redemption. These acts leave the recruits confused and demoralized, and make them extra vulnerable to suggestion and manipulation. Rico does see a way out, but potential escape for him is short lived.
The best aspects of Rico are embodied in his parents, two peaceful scholars who dream of a better life for their son. In spite of disagreeing with his choices, the pair are never cruel and always supportive of Rico. The pair are willing to welcome him home following his flogging. Rico’s parents are killed when the asteroid strikes Buenos Aires, taking with them Rico’s ability to think for himself. Like most caught in an abusive relationship, Rico does the only thing he can think to do once he’s cut off. He returns to his abusers, and joins them in the fight against an imaginary enemy.
Those criticizing Rico’s lack of character were right. He has none. He becomes puddy in the hands of his superiors, enduring all their punishment and poor decisions. Even after barely surviving a botched land assault on Klendathu where poor leadership resulted in a massacre, Rico never once raises any objections. He’s so determined to avenge his parents, he’s become a machine for those who truly are responsible for their deaths. Before that first assault, he angrily snaps at a reporter about his hatred for the Arachnids. It’s a line that lays bare just how ugly Rico has become.
I say kill ’em all!
It’s no secret that humans tend to dislike things that are different, and we’re also not fond of insects. For the moment, let’s put our biases aside and imagine life from the perspective of a Klendathu native. Imagine the day when strange outposts filled with grotesque, otherworldly creatures start appearing in your home. Naturally your first instinct would to to defend it. Suddenly those same creatures begin dropping from the sky by the thousands. With a primitive society and no advanced technology, you have no idea what’s happening or why. The Arachnids are designed in such a way that we’re already biased against them, and are more accepting when they’re treated with wanton cruelty. A scene of a weapon’s power being demonstrated on a caged Arachnid becomes far less amusing when you imagine a person in it’s place.
Like Rico, we see our heroes gradually become more monstrous. Perhaps the most tragic example is that science buff Carl Jenkins, played by Neil Patrick Harris. At the start of the film, Jenkins is a bright an inquisitive prodigy, but little by little he’s transformed by the United Citizens Federation into a sadistic mad scientist. By the end of the film, he’s literally clad in something resembling an SS uniform. By now, Jenkins’ gifts are no longer used in the search for prosperity and peace, but setting up Klendathu’s inhabitants for extermination. For the natives of Klendathu, he may well be the beginning of the end.
Perhaps no moment sums up the film more than its ending. When the so called Brain Bug is captured by the UFC. Carl Jenkins uses his psychic abilities to read the creature’s emotions. He discovers it’s afraid. When he reports this to Rico and the other soldiers, their response is to cheer. These are not the actions of heroes. If one really looks beneath the surface and understands what Verhoven was saying with this film, he makes it very clear who the real monsters are. When reflecting on this film, Verhoven remembers it with heartbreak.
They’re very happy to continue at the end to more war. It’s a very depressing movie!
Paul Verhoven A MISSED MESSAGE
At the time, and even today, people often view this film as fun schlock. While there’s no denying its humor, to me, this is one of the most disturbing films in Verhoven’s filmography, in part because it does it’s job all too well. You’ll still find people who insist that the Arachnids did attack Buenos Aires and that Rico and the others are the gallant defenders of Earth. That Verhoven made a satire of fascist propaganda films and that some people un-ironically embraced its warped views is, to me, the most disturbing thing of all. Make no mistakes. The utopia this film promises, like all other promises that fascism makes, is a lie.
Dreamlike fascism is a dream that fascism proposes to you. In reality, the dream is a nightmare.
For the natives of Klendathu, nothing could be truer.
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