Starship Troopers is a movie that manages to be both subtle and in-your-face at the same time. It has a satirical core that goes through the entire movie, but even though it gets close sometimes (like the Verhoeven signature cutaways) it never fully winks at the audience. This somewhat to its decrement. If we take a look at the Rotten Tomato (not the most scientific measurement but it helps the point), we can see it got a 63% and several of the critics that gave both a positive and negative rating. Thought the movie to be nothing more than its surface levels and saw it as an overblown and shallow sci-fi gore fest. And even though the movie is those things, it’s done with a purpose, function and self-awareness.
This movie is a façade. The creators decided to instead of taking the easy route and wear its satire on its sleeve. They rather critique fascism, war, perpetuating violence, propaganda and several other things through the use of its structure. This movie is made like an old wartime propaganda piece, and it asks of the audience to look through the façade and read the darker story that is hidden underneath. A great example of this is the opening scene.
The first scene takes place in a classroom where we are introduced to two of our main characters. This scene is mainly to establish the flirt that is going on with them and setting the tone for the basic high school movie that will dominate the first half of the movie. But this is also where you start seeing the critical and more sinister undercurrent of the story. If you look past the vapid young adult romance that is presented at face value and instead takes in the information that is presented at the class. In this class, the teacher is telling all the students that violence solves all problems and uses the bombing of Hiroshima as an example for ending wars (can be argued but it’s presented as fact by the teacher). And we also see the last glimmer of humanity in our main character when he is unsure if he believes in the system or not. A piece of humanity that will be destroyed by the end of this movie. And this also serves as a good introduction to just what this movie is. A broken and fascistic society that is glorified and presented as just through the lens of propaganda.
This is something the movie never slips up on and contains as a through-line throughout the entire movie. It paradoxically criticises this society and how it operates by falsely glorifying it. And it also creates an interesting meta-narrative by being a movie that this universe would have created itself. So it is a movie where the director plays the role of the unreliable narrator.
Even though this movie never winks at the camera about what, it’s doing. It gives the audience several clues to what it’s doing. And the most prominent is the cutaways propaganda pieces the movie have become somewhat known for. The clip is a direct parody of propaganda pieces and also serves as bits of world-building to show you more of this problematic world. But when you look at these clips and the movie outside them, you can see that they both use the same cinematic language. What Verhoeven is essentially saying with these seemingly random clips is “this is what I’m doing with my movie.”
When we compare the movie with the direct propaganda parody clips, we can see how they are similar in their presentation. The first thing I noticed was the lighting of the movie. The movie itself is throughout lighted by a flat almost TV-esque production quality. And since this was a blockbuster and the director have shown that he can light things professionally in his other movies, I believe that this is on purpose. Especially since the lighting is the thing that doesn’t change the film and the parody clips. Some of the things that are more subdued in the movie but still very much present in both are the campy and hollow acting, the plastic feeling everything gets from the façade put on and one of the more important things, it’s portrayal of the bugs. I have mainly talked about how the movie goes about its discussion, but I haven’t touched much on what it’s saying with these techniques. And the bugs are a good starting point.
An interesting idea that the youtuber Renegade cut brings up in his video on the movie is the idea of dehumanising the enemy through the means of propaganda. Which this movie does quite literally by having the enemy be aliens that are as far removed from humans as possible. They have no human in their appearance except one thing, their eyes. Throughout the movie, they never show us the eyes of the alien except for two moments. The first time we see them is when the humans are going through the battlefield of their first victory and slaughtering the wounded survivors, then we see a short glimpse of the eyes of one of the bugs, visibly in pain and afraid. But we only see it for a brief second before one of the side characters come in and shoot it with great anger. Eyes are the one outwards humanising aspect of the species that the propaganda wouldn’t show you.
The second time we see eyes are when we meet the brain of the hive mind for the bugs, and it’s also when we find out through telepathy that it was afraid. This is something that is quite sad when the movie makes it pretty clear that the humans were the ones that started the war by colonising and invading in on their territory. And throughout the movie, we constantly see them on the defensive. Every battle is brought by the humans into their territory and the only offensive attack they did throughout the movie (the bug asteroid). Can be seen as an act of self-defence. This was brought up by one reporter but were immediately shut down by the main character. What followed the asteroid impact was several of the propaganda clips twisting the happening as an act of aggression and further facilitation the “us vs them” mentality of this society.
I would like to go into a bit more about what the movie is saying, but I thought I would try to keep this more focused on the interesting way it goes about saying it (but if you want a good overview of just what the movie is criticising then I recommend the aforementioned Renegade Cut video). This movie took a book that genuinely holds many of the beliefs that this movie is criticising. It then proceeds to tell the same story of the book, but presents the opposite belief through clever use of cinematic language and some additional world-building titbits. This is not a movie that will hold your hand but asks of you too look through the façade and see this society for what it is. And to end this, I will leave you with a quote by Verhoeven from an Adam Carolla interview when he was asked why he was making a fascist film.
“If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn’t work, no one will listen to me. So I’m going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it’s only good for killing fucking bugs!”