“Violence – the supreme authority from which all other authority is derived” – Lt. Jean Rasczak, Starship Troopers
RoboCop. Total Recall. Starship Troopers. Paul Verhoeven has made a career out of films that appeared unspeakably awesome to children, even if the deeper politics went completely over their heads. Even now it’s tempting to just sit back and watch the body counts stack up, but that’s not so easy in a Verhoeven film. The violence is always deeply connected to the film’s themes, its gratuity only driving the point home further – whatever the ideals of the people involved, they take them pretty damn far.
20 years old this year, Verhoeven’s misunderstood sci-fi film Starship Troopers presents a society obsessed with military might – only people who fight are considered full “citizens” fulfilling their civic responsibilities, while the rest are docile creatures, or naive cowards. Teachers are all war veterans with one or two screws loose; young people are totally jazzed about joining “the meat grinder” and going off to war forever. Played so straight-faced that people thought it actually promoted fascism, fascist imagery is rampant in Starship Troopers; and when the film was released, the filmmakers didn’t tell anyone that it was satire. Verhoeven’s reasoning was that no one would listen to the film’s message if he simply decried the ways of the far right – instead, he had to show them what fascist ideals look like when fully realised. People willingly sacrifice their lives for the bodypolitik, and anyone who doesn’t take this risk is a second-class citizen.
The narrative, by contrast, is simple, and filled with plenty of Hollywood action clichés to enjoy. This makes it a more complicated watch: we find ourselves swayed by what’s essentially a sci-fi Nazi propaganda film, in which good-natured, attractive characters willingly fight and die for a fascist regime. As with Verhoeven’s past works like Robocop and Total Recall the satire is fairly broad, so unfortunately we can still see a lot of our own society reflected back at us in these films. Recent movements by the far right can be compared with the fascist state and the gung-ho, kill-all-aliens attitude on display in Starship Troopers. The rampant commercialism in Robocop (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”) has rung true for decades.
Here, the highest honour is to devote one’s body to the military, in whatever form that is. Do anything else, and you don’t matter. Citizenship is only achieved through serving a military that looks, at least visually, a hell of a lot like the Nazis. The best example of the regime and its propaganda’s corrupting influence can be seen in the evolution of Neil Patrick Harris’ Carl Jenkins, who starts as a fresh-faced friend of Rico and Carmen, and quickly becomes a ruthless, high-ranking officer who basically wears an SS outfit. This isn’t the only overt visual callback to Nazi Germany, either: Verhoeven makes liberal use of propaganda throughout the film – in the opening propaganda video, Verhoeven takes shots wholesale from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
Authority is asserted by violence in a fascist state, and this is displayed by pretty much every character in Starship Troopers. Diz attempts to display her worthiness as a new recruit to the unit and potential squad leader by kicking some ass, the Drill Sergeant frequently mutilates his recruits to make a point, and there’s definitely no negotiating with the “bugs”.
By framing the events of Starship Troopers as something “normal” to the characters, the film stands apart from other popular satirical films. Rico and Carmen aspire to be part of the military regime. The blending of this insane society, with its tropes and images of American war films, with the fascist imagery drives home how disturbingly close the USA’s obsession with military power is to the world of Starship Troopers: take the use of Aryan-looking actors (just look at Rico’s jaw), or the superhuman sportsmanship on display in that ridiculous American football game that’s about 80% bodyslams and front flips. Continuing on the Nazi parallels, we have the idea of schools brainwashing in favour of military service and a desire to kill foreigners – a self-sustaining cycle that turns the fresh-faced idealists from the beginning of the film either into cynics or copies of their teachers.
Verhoeven loves the form of the broadcast. The most memorable parts of his more direct satires on America, RoboCop and Starship Troopers, are the broadcasts littered throughout each film. Instead of propaganda, RoboCop confronts us with capitalism at its very extreme – twisted versions of teleshopping ads present wonderful products such as the Magna Volt, which sidesteps all that pesky law-enforcement nonsense and simply electrocutes car thieves to death. The salesman steps over the corpse of the deceased would-be thief, and cheerily tells us that it doesn’t even make any noise (how convenient!). Both films take aim at different targets with their satire, but they are connected by their concern with humanity’s inherent violence: whatever the motive, all roads seem to lead back to violence
While often disturbing, there’s always an urge to laugh during a Verhoeven film due to the ridiculousness of it all; RoboCop’s insane amount of blood squibs and (incredible) one-liners give it a blackly comic edge, and Starship Troopers isn’t exactly a film to take entirely seriously – the tone is something similar to David Wain’s They Came Together in its straight-faced silliness. But it’s important that Verhoeven’s films are funny too. It makes it all the more easy to realise how ridiculous the topics that he covers can be – and how people completely buy into their rhetoric.