Some combinations, like peanut butter and chocolate, are self-evident. No one needs to tell you those two are going to work great together; it’s obvious if you’ve tried them both. Others, like chicken and waffles, are a little weirder, but just as great once you try them. Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 masterpiece Starship Troopers is a combo platter of the latter sort: Pulpy sci-fi action and wry, bleak satire of America’s fascist leanings sound like strange bedfellows, but they combine for one hell of a sublime film.
Loosely adapted from Robert Heinlein’s classic novel of the same name, Starship Troopers follows a group of friends who join the various military organizations of Earth to fight against alien bugs at war with humanity. The film capped off a near-perfect trilogy of sorts with Verhoeven's two prior science fiction classics — RoboCop and Total Recall — which also managed to sandwich some witty and incisive social commentary into their explosion-laden sci-fi shootouts. All three films are near perfect in their own way, but it’s Troopers that twists the two strands of his work up so neatly that the seams are invisible.
It’s possible to enjoy Starship Troopers as a straight military space opera. From beginning to end, it’s full of epic battles in outer space and on alien planets. Giant starships cruise in a deadly ballet of weapons fire, while down below alien monsters battle hopelessly outclassed space marines. Heroic rescues are staged. Climactic battles are fought. There’s even a little love story thrown in, because, hey, Hollywood! Show it to a ten-year-old who loves to pretend he’s Master Chief from HALO and you’ve probably just introduced him to his new favorite movie. (Note: if you do this, be aware there are some boobies.) For that matter, if you just need a good dose of bug-killing bang-bang in outer space, pull up a seat! It works perfectly on that level.
If, on the other hand, you’re the kind of person who likes to go hear Noam Chomsky speak about America’s misguided military adventures, and spent the early ‘00s wondering how the hell the U.S. had become a prisoner-torturing, war-mongering shitshow virtually overnight, well, you get to enjoy it on a whole different level. Don’t worry, though — this isn’t a “message movie” in the way that Michael Moore films are, and there's no preaching to be found. It’s not that the message is subtle in any way — holy shit, is it unsubtle — but it’s so woven into the fiber of the film, and so goddamn funny, that it’s easy to miss if, for example, you think George W. Bush was awesome and America can do no wrong.
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It all works as a beautiful illustration of the famous Internet maxim Poe’s Law, which states that parodies of extremism are almost impossible to tell from the real thing without a clear statement of intent. Anyone with a shred of self-awareness and a tiny bit of familiarity with world history should recognize the relentless, propagandistic sloganeering, worship of the military and beautiful, if bland, sameness of the people in the film as markers of a fascist wet dream brought to life. If not, maybe the Nazi SS fashions on the higher echelon officers will tip you off? If you recognize the horrific reality of fascism, it’s clearly a parody. For people who are ready to bomb the next bastard that so much as looks at us wrong, then torture anyone who questions that decision … maybe not so much, but that’s part of the joke, isn’t it?
The final result is a movie that is dumb in all the right ways, smart in all the right ways and a ton of fun to boot. You get to watch humanity triumph over the creepy bugs, then squirm a bit yourself when you realize all the uncomfortable parallels between the relentlessly cheery and murderous “Do You Want to Know More?” sequences and, say, a couple of hours of FoxNews. There aren’t a lot of films that can pull off such a combination at all, much less so seamlessly, and this one has only gotten better with age — the pokes at American fascism were a little broad when it was made, but are almost too real in the current War on Terror. Plus, it’s one of the only fascist takedown films you can take your Tea Party uncle to without ending up in a two-hour shouting match afterward, which has to count for something.