This Tuesday, June 26th the Enzian Theater in Maitland is showing Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 classic Starship Troopers. Like every film in the Enzian’s Cult Classic series the admission is $5 and they screen a 35mm print (none of that digital nonsense).
Fifteen years ago Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers hit theaters. Arriving post-Showgirls, Starship Troopers was another financial failure for the Dutch director, only bringing in half of its $105 million budget. The critiques leveled at Verhoeven ranged from favorable to labeling him a “fascist,” a comment the director vehemently denies in the DVD’s audio commentary (“It is not fascist!!!”). Verhoeven only directed one more American movie before returning to his native Netherlands, joining the Jesus Seminar and returning to Dutch cinema. It is unfortunate, especially since Verhoeven’s perspective, exhibited in such films as Robocop or Showgirls (yes, the film is intelligent and a strong criticism of American sexuality), is fresh and unique. Seldom does a director work within a foreign culture, lambast it and receive accolades for doing so.
Even with its economic shortcomings Starship Troopers managed to eke out a profit through home video and overseas revenues. It spawned a few direct-to-video sequels (which Verhoeven did not direct) and an animated series. Yet Verhoeven’s commentary about America overshadows any portion of this franchise, except for the overwhelmingly graphic violence; supposedly there are 128 human deaths in Starship Troopers and even more bugs die. But what is so great about Verhoeven’s adaptation is that Heinlein’s original is staunchly conservative. The fascist culture in Verhoeven’s version is a vehicle for exploring America’s hegemonic ambitions whereas Heinlein thought bestowing civil rights based on military service was a good idea, taking a warped view of Plato’s Republic and reappropriating it for the 20th century. It is probably a good thing Heinlein died years before Starship Troopers hit theaters because he probably would have flipped out.
That is one of the best jokes in Starship Troopers—it turns the author’s original intention on its head. Sure, Verhoeven keeps Heinlein’s social parameters, but he turns them into a comedic device. Starship Troopers is a film filled with violence and nudity but devoid of profanity, poking fun at the authoritarianism imbedded in the novel and using it as a device for anti-establishment criticism. It makes fun of America’s “peace through superior firepower” ideology, showing that answering violence with violence just perpetuates violence; it also shows how Americans allow this mindset to prevail by accepting imperialism as entertainment. This is why all the lead protagonists in Starship Troopers (except for Neil Patrick Harris) are generally regarded as terrible actors—this was intentional, showing how absurd America’s propaganda machine truly is. Why would anybody care about a war or changing America’s trajectory when they can watch Melrose Place or Beverly Hills 90210 (the original, not that reboot from a few years back)?
It is no secret science fiction, when used correctly and intelligently, is a vehicle for social and political criticism. Look at Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show about the 24th century but in actuality an exploration of contemporary issues (in addition to the timeless discussion of the human condition). The episode ‘Ethics,’ where Worf (Michael Dorn) is crippled and asks Riker (Jonathan Frakes) for help killing himself, is obviously discussing Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his suicide machine but under the guise of space problems. In a time when television’s top ten shows included Full House, Roseanne and Home Improvement (1992), Star Trek: The Next Generation was discussing assisted suicide, censorship, fascism, and countless other issues about being human in the 20th century. While Starship Troopers is much more violent and action packed than Star Trek the common link is science fiction’s ability to transcend genre and make a bold statement and nothing beats watching that pronouncement on a two story movie screen.
Even if you ignore Verhoeven’s political and social messages, Starship Troopers is a fun movie, filled with action, high quality special effects and more violence than both Total Recall and Robocop. One thing Verhoeven can do is craft a solid, thrilling film–regardless of his politics–and seeing that on the silver screen is worth the five dollars.
Here is the trailer if you are not yet convinced: