VHS Revival tackles Paul Verhoeven’s cartoon commentary on military excess
In a conversation with Little White Lies in 2017, Paul Verhoeven accused Hollywood of treating the general cinema-going public like idiots. ‘Hollywood thinks audiences are stupid’, he was quoted as saying during a promotional interview for controversial 2016 Isabelle Huppert starrer Elle. The provocative Dutch director, responsible, arguably, for single-handedly reinvigorating the cinematic respectability of his home nation with auteur productions such as Turkish Delight and The 4th Man, left the Netherlands to work in America due to the backlash he received in the wake of his controversial 1980 film Spetters.
However, on arrival in the US, controversy persisted. His first satirical 2000 AD inflected effort, Robocop, was deemed to be unnecessarily violent by many critics. Total Recall, meanwhile, was dismissed as being an expensive bloodsoaked popcorn flick. Genre mash-up Basic Instinct, renowned for Sharon Stone’s infamously revealing police interview, was considered homophobic for portraying its bi-sexual protagonist as a serial killer and misogynistic for its graphic depiction of rape. Showgirls, a ridiculously excessive and campy satire on America’s obsession with money and sex, was decimated by critics and viewers alike and is only now enjoying something of a renaissance, as cineastes and film lovers come to terms with its bawdy intemperance.
Similarly, Starship Troopers, scripted by Robocop alumni Ed Neumeier, which was loosed into cinemas in 1997, was critically mauled at the time of its release due to its depiction of a right-wing Utopia in which All American military personnel secure citizenship by serving a term in the armed forces fighting bugs from outer space. The movie was considered to be proto-fascist in tone and dismissed in many quarters as jingoistic chest beating, general consensus being that it was a poorly acted, ill-advised space romp that took too much pleasure in its political juvenilia.
The film sets off at an unsettling pace following a tongue in cheek recruitment ad for the Mobile Infantry in which it is made immediately clear ‘service guarantees citizenship.’ This is followed by newsreel footage of a seemingly messy conflict, involving gun-toting humans being decimated by giant killer insects.
Jean Rasczak: This is for all you new people. I have only one rule. Everybody fights, no one quits. If you don’t do your job, I’ll kill you myself! Welcome to the Roughnecks!
The movie then jumps back a year to Earth and the viewer is dropped into a high school populated by perfectly engineered, blemish-free ‘teenagers.’ Introduced first is prototypical pretty boy Johnny Rico, played by Casper Van Dien. He’s followed by Dina Meyer as Dizzy Flores, the girl he ought to be dating but isn’t, Neil Patrick Harris as psychic buddy and future military intelligence goon, Carl Jenkins, and Denise Richards as aspirational career girl Carmen Ibanez. Patrick Muldoon as Zander Barcalow, Rico’s love rival for the hand of Ibanez, is subsequently introduced during a sports tournament that is like Rollerball without the skates.
The film maintains a glossy, gun-porn mentality that belies its satirical undercurrent throughout its high school and boot camp sections. Once the characters have been established in their respective military families, however, and the boot camp scenes reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket have commenced in earnest, focus becomes bifurcated. From hereon out the film alternates between Casper Van Dien’s Johnny Rico training to become a boot in the Mobile Infantry and Lt. Carmen Ibanez learning how to pilot a starship.
For a while, everything seems to be working out but then a Mobile Infantry training exercise goes fatally wrong. Abruptly, the film’s fetishistic attitude to destructive weaponry falters. It is at this juncture, before the fight starts properly, that cracks begin to appear in the pseudo-fascist façade. Rico et al are at a vulnerable stage in their development and extremely suggestible to the orotundity of their teachers. As such, they become the victims of a world in which black and white thinking is rewarded and endorsed. Dissenting voices, such as Rico’s parents for example, are rapidly muted wherever they surface. When Rico’s parents get killed in a reputed bug attack that flattens Buenos Aires, Rico sees this as vindication of his newly appropriated militarism, and uses their death to rationalize his bloodlust.
Ultimately, the war in which Rico serves as a Mobile Infantry boot, cloaked in the protective rhetoric of nationalistic grandiloquence is an epically futile engagement that serves little to no purpose whatever. The kids in the movie are pawns in a greater game. Who stands to benefit and what they benefit from remains uncertain for the duration of the film’s runtime.
On first pass, surface wise, the film can be viewed as an ultra violent love letter to American interventionism. However a closer look, rather than confirming this perspective, reveals an alternative assessment more in keeping with the director’s views.
Jean Rasczak: [to Rico] I need a corporal. You’re it, until you’re dead or I find someone better.
Starship Troopers is a viciously rendered send-up of American foreign policy, of perpetual war and the futility of battle. Check out the propaganda TV spots and media coverage of the war against the bugs, soldiers jokily supervising kids in the handling of assault rifles and kids jumping on bugs and recruitment drives with slogans like ‘Know your foe.’ and ‘The only good bug, is a dead bug!’
Then there’s the visceral destruction of entire swathes of bright young conditioned things hopped up on tales of glory in the opening battle sequence, the costume departments use of blatantly Nazi regalia to decorate Federation formal wear, the de-humanization of a distantly located enemy and on, and on…
For a lot of critics in 1997, specifically those in America, the links between Nazism in the movie and the USA, (Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will was a big influence on film footage and newsreel propaganda for example) didn’t go down too well. Critics were concerned that the film drew ludicrous parallels between The Third Reich and the USA and struggled to objectively acknowledge the thinly-veiled satirical elements of the narrative, focusing on the literality of its presentation and dismissing it as offensive, simplistic and infantile.
On reflection it is easy to see why the film was interpreted thusly. Despite the fact that Verhoeven has gone on record a number of times to state his own personal aversion to right-wing ideologies, for long periods the film remains wilfully noncommittal in its sympathies. Unlike Robert A Heinlein’s source novel, which fully champions the organisation and continued implementation of a fully functioning military industrial complex, allegiances in the film are initially ambiguous.
Since the film does not overtly dismiss the right-wing ramblings of supporting cast members, such as Michael Ironside’s war-loving Jean Rasczak or the interventionist antics of the Nazi-inflected Federation, it proves an awkward film to decode for a lot of first-time viewers. Uncertainty as to whether the film condemns the Federation or condones it abounds. It is this impartiality that creates tension in the audience, who are uncertain who to root for as the narrative progresses.
In recent years a similar accusation has been leveled at Martin Scorsese’s non-partisan approach to The Wolf of Wall Street, which was viewed in some quarters as romanticising the deplorable behaviour of its protagonists, lacking relatable characters with which to sympathise and avoiding condemnation of their rottenness and greed.
However, in both cases the filmmakers avoid proselytising during the movie in order to devolve responsibility to the passively observant audience. Ultimately, the audience is required to think about what they have seen rather than being spoon-fed easy answers. In the case of Starship Troopers this notion of audience members questioning the veracity of events directly contrasts with the characters in the film that have been conditioned to think what the government wants them to and are incapable of questioning the validity of their actions.
Johnny Rico: Someone asked me once if I knew the difference between a civilian and a citizen. I know now. A citizen has the courage to make the safety of the human race their personal responsibility.
During his stand-up routine, the late, great Bill Hicks stated, in regard to the Iraq War, that he ‘was in the unenviable position of being for the war, but against the troops.’ In Starship Troopers the reverse is true. Sympathy is with the troops, but seemingly against the overly simplistic ultra conservative war of aggression they find themselves participating in. The troops have clearly been brainwashed by the society in which they exist into believing that violence is a means to an end and that any alternative action denotes weakness and compromise.
Whilst the blend of practical and CGI effects used to render the insect and space battle sequences continues to impress two decades on, and Basil Poledouris’s scoring continues to rouse viewers despite the futility of the conflict it dramatises, the unmitigated awfulness of Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards’ performances more than compensates for the rest of the film’s strengths. Such is the cringe-inducing hit ratio of their spectacularly woeful dialogue, even the most forgiving of fans finds it hard to gloss over. The lead performances in the film are terrifically one-dimensional and are in fact so melodramatic that on repeat viewings one starts to wonder if this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, to underscore the suggestibility and naivety of the youthful protagonists. Unfortunately, since Denise Richards would go on to play a hilariously unconvincing nuclear physicist in The World is Not Enough and Van Dien would continue in the Starship Troopers sequels, none of which was actually any good, it’s hard to say for sure whether this was the case.
It is telling that the final scenes of Starship Troopers resolve nothing. With most of his peer group massacred, his love interest skewered and his mentor shot to death after a bug rips his legs off, Rico assumes the mantel of infantry veteran, spouting the same militaristic inanities Federation mouthpiece Rasczak spouted during college and combat. The officers, fronted by a decidedly less youthful, more fascist-looking Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), meanwhile, have now captured a brain bug. However despite acknowledging their enemy’s sentience, and instead of engaging it in diplomatic discussion, in an uneasy foreshadowing of Guantanamo Bay they choose to ram a great evil-looking probe into it, subjecting it to immediate torture rather than attempting to engage it in peaceful negotiation.
Similar to the unending wars of Orwell’s 1984, in which the beginning and end of a conflict is unsure and battles take place in faraway lands, so the battle against the bugs, situated in a distant star system, is perpetuated by propaganda and manipulative marketing campaigns. There is no closure at the film’s terminus and the military industrial complex continues unabated. The utopian ideal the viewer was first presented with takes on all of the trappings of a dystopian nightmare, where fake news proliferates, right-wing militaristic ignorance is defended, and perpetual war remains the order of the day…
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