Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers is one of the best movies ever made.
That's an awfully big statement to make and some of you are probably shaking your head, eyes narrowed, your mind full of disappointment. But some of you are just nodding your head, because you have watched Starship Troopers properly and know exactly what I'm talking about. And you know what? It's okay that different people have different reads of the film. It's okay that some people think it's junk and some people think it's an undisputed masterpiece. The people who think it's lousy are completely and totally wrong in every conceivable way, but that's part of the movie's utterly insane charm. It tricks you into thinking it's a bad movie whenever it has the opportunity. It plays the role of a silly action movie. It's Laurence Olivier playing the village idiot.
Which is why "comedy" (using the term loosely) groups like RiffTrax have been so deliriously wrongheaded when they've chosen to mock it instead of countless other truly bad movies. Starship Troopers doesn't need you to make fun of it -- it's too busy making fun of itself. Sorry, you ironic doofuses who make a living talking over bad movies. Starship Troopers knows exactly what it is and is already 10 steps ahead of you by the time you make your first wisecrack.
To be fair, the film is rarely sold as what it really is. The trailers and the DVD art make it clear that this is a science fiction action movie from the director of Basic Instinct and RoboCop. It's sold as serious business... but that's the film's first joke. It's an unintentional meta gag. People who are new to the film will expect a serious science fiction story about futuristic human soldiers at war with a race of vicious alien bugs. They may not be prepared for a deadpan sci-fi parody that's also a vicious, satiric skewering of American politics that's also a disturbing riff on the Nazi propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl that's also a handsome, action-packed adventure that's filled with legitimately entertaining action and stunning special effects.
In the years since its 1997 release, word has gotten out: Starship Troopers feels like 10 movies in one package, with each movie complementing the others. It's simultaneously grim, angry, exciting, hilarious and intentionally stupid; a self-aware propagandistic B movie in disguise as an overblown blockbuster. Laugh at the hammy dialogue. Groan at the dumb jokes. Shake your head at the fact that a portion of the cast is made up of daytime soap opera actors. It's all part of the movie's game plan. There's a reason the main characters are all from Buenos Aires, Argentina but are all blank-faced, wooden, lily-white model types. It's intentionally weird casting; the kind of people you'd expect to see in a movie like this instead of the people who should be in it.
Of course, the casting choice can be read in a darker way. Although the movie constantly shows its sci-fi world as a utopia where no one complains, the surface-level context clues paint this as a nightmarish future. We hear casual references to the failure of democracy. Basic rights are extended only to "citizens," a status that is earned through military service. Government logos and military uniforms are blatantly based on those of German army and the Nazi party. if you see precomeback Neil Patrick Harris wearing a black trenchcoat as an intelligence officer and think to yourself "Why is Doogie Howswer dressed like a SS officer?", you're on to Starship Trooper's pitch-black, evil plan.
Verhoeven openly admits that he never finished Robert Heinlein's source novel, saying that its militaristic bent depressed him. So, instead, he chooses to mock the novel that his movie is based on, exposing the book's politics as fascism. This is a movie where a character creates a psychic connection with an enemy, declares to the crowd that "it's afraid" and everyone cheers as the music swells. Starship Troopers asks you to celebrate the capture, imprisonment and torture of an enemy combatant. That's all kinds of messed up. Sure, it's "just a bug" and it surely doesn't feel and think like humans do, but guess who else said that about their enemies? Verhoeven would later tackle World War II in a more serious manner with the excellent Black Book, but Starship Troopers remains his most disturbing and damning portrait of fascism because he presents it casually and asks you to get swept up in it and to laugh it off.
As dark as Starship Troopers' core is, it's still hilarious. Sure, the Nazi satire will give you those intellectual guffaws, but the film isn't afraid of easy jokes. In fact, the film is downright (and deliberately) tacky. Verhoeven uses his penchant for extreme violence to create tableaus of gory slapstick, taking the decimation of the human body to such ridiculous extremes that you just have to laugh. He unleashes violence at the drop of a hat and rarely do the characters act like this isn't something they've seen before. When a loudmouthed recruit gets knifed through his hand by his drill sergeant, the reactions from everyone watching are almost droll. When major characters get split in two or impaled by bugs, they survive for long enough to make impassioned speeches and have one final macho moment. As gross as Starship Troopers is, the violence is as in on the joke as everything else in the movie.
Of course, the dialogue knows what's up as well. Virtually every line in the film is stilted, with characters bouncing between cliches and insane off-the-wall proclamations. If everything else in the movie hasn't showed you that Starship Troopers is first-class comedy, then any dialogue scene should clue you in. Laugh all you want, because the movie wants you to laugh. Those cookie-cutter characters and their hilariously by-the-numbers lines are all part of the plan. You see, when you combine everything that Starship Troopers does, you realize that you're watching a propaganda film from this future world, a movie built to get kids to join the military and fight those evil bugs. Like the Nazi propaganda films of the '30s and the American propaganda films of the '40s, it's an experience that avoids subtlety at all costs. The delivery is big, because the message is big: "Join the army, save the world." The film literarily ends with this order, but watch it again with this conclusion in mind. That's why no one is bothered by this awful fascist world. That's why everyone is so pretty. That's why everyone dies so heroically. That's why everyone gets to make those big rah-rah speeches.
This is a damn smart movie, a comedy that wields tacky comedy like a sledgehammer while quietly using satire like a scalpel. As impressive as the action and special effects are (and it's a shame that I don't talk about them more here, because they hold up great), this is not a typical science fiction adventure. It's science fiction that that wickedly lampoons other genre stories, tearing them apart, exposing their dark innards and presents it in such a goofy package that you think it's one of the movies it's making fun of. If you think this movie is mockable, if you think it has earned a commentary making fun of it, congratulations: Starship Troopers has beaten you. You've fallen for it. You've missed the point. You aren't laughing at Starship Troopers, Starship Troopers is laughing at you.
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