Analysis: Starship Troopers – A Socio-Political Satire

Starship TroopersThe business of satire is a risky one. When the concept is applied in literature, theatre, film or any other medium there is always a risk that it will be misunderstood. Satire is an ironic and sometimes sarcastic means of making an indirect social or political point, often leaving the author open to attack from those who were simply unable to distinguish their tone. Occasionally the reader/viewer will miss the point entirely or they’ll be convinced that the author believes in what they are satirising. Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film Starship Troopers was not immune from the dangers of the audience misreading the films satirical content.

Based on the 1950’s novel by Robert A. Heinlein, the plot of Starship Troopers is simple enough; in the distant future mankind fights a war with an alien arachnoid species known simply as “The Bugs”. We follow a group of friends lead by Johnny Rico (Capser Van Dien) as they leave High School and enlist in the military. Through a series of dangerous missions against The Bugs, Rico and his friends are promoted through the ranks as their superiors are killed off. But the story and the human quality of this film are neither inspired nor of great interest, Rico is caught in a love triangle between his girlfriend and best female friend and he must overcome his own failings as a leader at the start of his training to become a great soldier. These overdone clichés are nothing more than a backdrop for Verhoeven’s damning satire of American militarisation and globalisation. This satire is often interpreted in ways that both Verhoeven and screenwriter Edward Neumeier never intended. In some ways the confusion is born from the films source material; Heinlein’s novel is an example of ultra right-wing fiction, which without any kind of irony, propagates the concept that individuals must sacrifice themselves as part of their social responsibility. Heinlein’s novel (as with Verhoeven’s film) is set in a society that runs on the basis of democracy combined with elements of meritocracy, within the story space it is revered as a system that works well and is actively compared with the current systems of democracy in extended classroom scenes - even going so far as to claim that the democracies of the 20th Century failed, the foundations of the United States are criticised as unrealistic, claiming that no one is entitled to life and liberty - they must fight for them. Men and women are considered civilians unless they complete military service, after which they become citizens and are allowed to vote and teach history, and although military service is free for anyone and everyone to join, the individual is not considered a full citizen unless they do so. Liberals criticised the book for its pro-military and pro-war stance, some even going so far as to describe it as pro-fascist. Paul Verhoeven never finished reading the book claiming that he became “bored and depressed” by its content after the first few chapters. As a result Starship Troopers the film is of great interest in terms of film adaptations. The fact that it changes character names, genders and creates completely new characters and subplots is neither here nor there, for these are arguably cosmetic and surface alterations and neither plot nor character play any significant part in the original novel as Heinlein placed greater value on his political points than his story-telling. What is of much greater significance is how the film distorts and in some ways perverts the intentions of its original author so completely. Despite being faithful to the book in some respects (story, setting and political context) it is completely unfaithful to the spirit of the book, for where the author takes a pro-militaristic stance the filmmakers take the exact opposite stance by satirising the concepts and content of the book.

At the time of the release neither Verhoeven nor Neumeier made any public statements about what their intentions were with the film and thus multiple interpretations were allowed by the films content and the reactions from both audience members and critics were highly varied. Some viewers interpreted it as Verhoeven and Neumeier intended it to be interpreted, as a satire on the American military and the expansion of American cultural norms across the rest of the world. Many others viewed the film as an endorsement of fascism, either by assuming that the filmmakers would revere the author’s political persuasions or by reading the filmmaker’s condemnations to be of American democracy rather than globalisation of American values and society. As such the film is seen to have the same pro-meritocracy stance that all of the characters within the film adhere to so unwaveringly, the characters views are used as evidence of the filmmakers’ views; never considering that the filmmakers may actually disagree with the opinions of their characters. Unfortunately beyond both of these interpretations, the wider majority only saw a mindless Science Fiction Action movie - the political commentary and satire completely passing them by. As a subscriber to the poststructuralist theory, Death of the Author, I believe that all interpretations have validity even though in the years since the films release Verhoeven has stated that the films central thesis is that “War makes fascists of us all” and both the director and the screenwriter consider the film a satire of militarism, Verhoeven in particular going further by describing it as a satire of specifically American militarism.

Starship TroopersHow does Verhoeven’s film contort Heinlein’s novel? In this case it is almost entirely achieved through tone and content. As stated, much of the novel takes place in the classroom debating political and sociological theories; within Verhoeven’s film only two scenes take place in the classroom, one being a biology class where students dissect one of the bugs, their teacher admires the bugs efficiency and single-mindedness and dismisses human achievements like art, music and interstellar travel as excesses and luxury. The other lesson is a political class where Mr. Rasczak (Michael Ironside) teaches three of our central characters about the value of their current political system, those paying attention to him learn about the differences between citizens and civilians. He endorses the use of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima, claiming that naked forces have resolved more conflicts than any other tool in history, and although not all of the characters instantly agree with this, it stands as the truth as the scene concludes (even though the reality is that this statement is far from the truth). This is possibly the most important scene in the film in terms of political context, but it is a short scene and whilst it runs, the aforementioned love-triangle is explored through stolen glances and secret messages, if you’re not paying attention then you may miss this important information about how the society in Starship Troopers works, information that any pro-democratic viewer should be instantly repelled by. Verhoeven doesn’t judge the society using his characters; no one questions their political system, more over, the one character who truly advocates their political system is Rasczak who is a stern but positive character and a respected authority figure. The only person who makes any negative remarks about this system is our protagonist’s father - protecting his son from the dangers of military service seems to be his only motivator. The father is portrayed in a negative light, not understanding his sons desire to serve and unfairly cutting his son off when he disobeys him. In a non-satirical film the views of positively portrayed characters are usually associated with the filmmakers, whilst the views of negative characters demonstrate the opposite. If a films protagonist has a world view contrary to those of the filmmaker then as a rule the films narrative will usually centre on how the protagonist overcomes these views. In Starship Troopers this rule is deliberately ignored. But how is the audience made aware of this? Anyone who has seen Verhoeven’s other American films, RoboCop and Total Recall, will be aware of his tongue-in-cheek attitude towards Americanism; RoboCop in particular is punctuated by television adverts which spoof American consumerism and pro-violent attitudes. RoboCop satirises corporate greed, mocks the modern justice system and never entirely take its battle between good and evil seriously, the films rather ham-fisted Jesus-metaphor satirises how seriously Hollywood action movies take themselves. Starship Troopers is the culmination of these films, the satire has so much more bite than either RoboCop or Total Recall, and his primary tool in this film is use of propaganda infomercials which regularly break-up portions of the story and help move the characters and plot forward but also include brief glimpses of life throughout the rest of Federation. The tone of the Infomercials is mockingly humorous, like the patronising infomercials of the 1940’s and 50’s, often using staples of American life and cleverly taking them to their most extreme. One such infomercial proudly announces that a man has been caught after committing murder, he was charged, tried and found guilty within a 24-hour period and his execution is scheduled for later that day, to be broadcast on all channels. Such a rapid system of justice could not possibly work in reality without serious miscarriages, but the celebration of the death penalty as a form of televised entertainment is not so far fetched considering the way that television has developed in the past thirteen years since this film was released. The infomercial announcer has no qualms about these events, the speed at which this man has been brought to justice is seemingly a regular occurrence, but anyone with even an ounce of common sense watching the film will surely know that this can not be a fair system of justice. Some of the infomercials show pro-military propaganda; these are always chirpy, happy and family friendly. Kids being taught how to use a soldier’s weapon and a school teacher delighting as her class of children indiscriminately squash random bugs beneath their feet. With these scenes Verhoeven deliberately references the propaganda films of the past whilst simultaneously parodying how the modern military in America advertises on television. Mixing contemporary recruitment advertisements with the propaganda films used by the Americans, the Nazi party and the Communists, such as Why We Fight (1943) and Triumph of the Will (1935). The propaganda is mocked and by extension the whole operation is mocked. However, these infomercials are largely abstracted from the main narrative meaning that their relevance may not be understood as only the ‘news’ sections directly add to the story. Even subtler than this is the resemblance the tone of these Infomercials have to the tone of the entire film, meaning that Starship Troopers the film could be interpreted as one feature-length propaganda film for the Federation. During the film, and in particular the climax, our central characters are also featured in the infomercials. The final caption: “They’ll fight, and they’ll win!” is telling as this is where we leave the narrative – the war is righteous and we will prevail. This interpretation is backed up by casting, an element that is frequently interpreted as poor casting. The casting of the all American boy and girl at the centre of this film (as played by the square jawed Casper Van Dien and the plastic expressions of Denise Richards) are very deliberate on the part of Verhoeven to satirise the notion of the American hero – so bland, so boring, so humourless – they’re like Ken and Barbie. This aspect of the production was frequently interpreted as straight laced unimaginative casting of weaker actors in an already expensive film which couldn’t afford star names. The majority of performances in Starship Troopers are lacking, Van Dien is particularly dreadful as Johnny Rico and the extremely attractive nature of our four protagonists supports the argument that the entire film is actually a piece of pro-military propaganda made by the Federation within the story space. All of the characters sacrifice personal relationships and some of them sacrifice their lives for the good of the society they live in, none of them ever stopping to question why they’re fighting and any anti-war arguments put forward by social commentators during the film are dismissed as unpatriotic. Anyone who refuses to take up arms and defend themselves are cursed with an early grave; one of the Infomercials reveals what they describe as ‘Mormon extremists’ who ignored Federation advice and colonised a planet near the Bugs territory and abandoned weapons - they were slaughtered by the bugs. The corpses on this news footage are the most gruesomely mutilated of the entire film, which not only renders the sequence grotesquely humorous but also rams home the point that the Federation are correct in all things and you ignore their advice at your peril. An overriding theme of the film is the relentless arbitrary violence committed without any sense of remorse or thought to the consequences, violence committed in the name of survival for the human race. As the film continues the violence slowly escalates to the point of saturation. Although characters may object to the campaigns they’re sent on, ultimately they are proven to be necessary even if a great many soldiers die along the way (which they frequently do). On the surface the film is one-sided in its portrayal of the military and war (both are shown not only in a positive light but are also deemed to be absolutely necessary to preserve our way of life). This is why so many viewers read Starship Troopers as the same sort of pro-military treatise its source novel was. If Verhoeven’s mocking tone is missed by an audience member then there is no other way to interpret the film and the danger of satire becomes all too clear.

Starship TroopersAt times it is difficult to see how Starship Troopers can interpreted in such a negative way, the earth-bound sequences, for example, are largely set in South America – yet all of the inhabitants are white - all played by Americans. They have South-American names like Ibanez and Rico yet their appearance, attitudes and accents are clearly of the USA. This is a clear attack on American expansionism, American culture taking over the rest of the world one nation at a time, one continent at a time. Another point later in the film is Verhoeven’s most blatant attack on the pro-militaristic stance of the novel as several senior military figures arrive; their uniforms have a distinct and deliberate resemblance to the uniforms of the Third Reich. If the other satirical tools Verhoeven uses in this film are too subtle, these must surely counteract them?

Arguably worse than interpreting the film as pro-military and pro-fascist is how the largest portion of the films audience miss the point entirely. Some viewers are distracted by the elements of Science Fiction parody at play within the film, when lines like “They sucked his brains out” are delivered so sincerely by Michael Ironside or moments of exaggerated brutality and overacting seem to point towards Verhoeven attacking the very genre he’s working within. But most viewers saw a Science Fiction action movie with lots of violence, nudity and special effects, given that the film was marketed towards teenage lads this is not too surprising, more obvious at least than attempting to sell the film as a socio-political satire, you need only watch the theatrical trailer for Starship Troopers to see how the marketing branch of the studio portrayed the film as a straight-laced action adventure with no hint of satire. The fact that most of these young viewers were oblivious to the films themes and messages is a sad reality, instead they gobble up Starship Troopers as if it were any other piece of Hollywood pop corn fodder, taking it completely straight and not even stopping to ponder why the ethics, actions and aspirations of the central characters are so dubious, or worse still, never even noticing the rancid amorality at the core of the film. If this is what the majority of viewers took away from Starship Troopers does that make the film a failure? I’d argue it makes the film a monumental failure. Verhoeven was brave enough to attack Heinlein’s political outlook, perverting his own story against him, but ultimately neither man won this battle as the majority of viewers did not recognise either Verhoeven or Heinlein’s socio-political message.


Superb work, though I'd

Superb work, though I'd argue that Verhoeven's oft-ignored humanist streak (and his considerable talents as a shot-maker) are crucial to Troopers' proper satirical impact, far from merely "cosmetic" concerns. As much as Verhoeven and Neumeier are spoofing American militarism and globalist expansion, they're savaging a conspiratorial relationship between the state military and the ostensibly private media that serves one purpose: keeping the kids in line.

To paraphrase Donald Sutherland in JFK, the power of a state rests in its war powers. You insightfully argue that misdirection is key to Verhoeven's satire, that the plot acts as a "backdrop" to his political points--ellipses are vital. To my mind, the single greatest ellipse in Starship Troopers is historical. What caused the switch-over from our current troubled democracy to this gleaming fascist meritocracy? It's glossed over in that early classroom discussion, which, as you point out, is concealed visually by budding romance. The system is perfect, free of the rebel movements common to satires such as Brazil. Yet surely it wasn't always so. How is this precarious position maintained?

It's all contained in that one sweeping shot of hundreds of young people swearing an oath to die, repeated later in that crucial shower scene. Again, we are distracted, this time by perfect naked bodies, as yet undamaged by the horrors of war. Again, it's easy to miss the point. For all these beautiful kids' wonderful dreams (politician, parent, rags-to-riches Harvard student, reporter--a nod to the slavish media in this film), they've all been gathered up to feed the machine. This is how the Federation maintains control over the very ideas of its people. Verhoeven and Neumeier don't just point this out, they feel it, with all the attendant anger and sadness. Dina Meyer as Diz is the film's toughest and most emotionally resonant character. Her death means something, but it's immediately covered up in the film's propaganda-glory ending: three best friends stand around, having been brought together again as if nothing's changed. And speaking of ellipses, notice a shot Verhoeven left in, something he never would have needed to include. A recruit gets killed in a training exercise under Rico's watch, by another recruit using live ammo. As Rico is chewed out, we see the soldier who accidentally killed a comrade dressed in civilian clothes--the visual contrast with the anonymous Nazi-style uniforms is sublimely jarring. She's weeping. She offers a final glance to Rico before walking away from the base.

Then, of course, we cut to Rico being brutalized, the sound of which carries over to Carmen's pristine starship ride. But that moment of heartbreak is real, and vital. The machine's killed one kid, and broken another--but, presumably, she survives (assuming she didn't live in Buenos Aires). Diz doesn't. It's moments like these that make Troopers so vital. Never smug, always aware of the tragic behind the farcical, in a manner borrowed by Shyamalan for his equally misunderstood masterpiece The Village. I love what you wrote, but Verhoeven's humanist work deserves credit alongside his satirical acumen.