Retrospective Look at Starship Troopers
By Ally Stuart (@allyxstuart)
Confession: I love Paul Verhoeven and Edward Neumeier’s Starship Troopers. Unabashedly and passionately. I’ve seen it enough times to be able to quote most of the film (which I did while watching it for for this piece… both times) and meeting Casper Van Dien and Dina Meyer at 2013’s Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo was definitely a nerd-life highlight me (for the record, they were both completely lovely and Van Dien was very kind about my sudden, mortifying inability to form complete, intelligible sentences upon being faced with meeting one of my childhood heroes).
Now, I’m fully aware that the only thing Starship Troopers shares with the Robert A. Heinlein book of the same name is its title and the names of the main characters. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve purposefully never read Heinlein’s book, because I didn’t want the differences to taint my love of the film. With that in mind, note that I’ll be looking at the film as its own separate entity and will not be making any comparisons to the book.
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The film’s opening introduces one of its most effective storytelling devices: the ‘in world’ propaganda broadcast by the Federal Network. The first–an ad for the ‘Mobile Infantry’ that our protagonist, Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) eventually joins–immerses the audience in Starship Troopers’ military controlled, fascist regime. The device is used again and again within the film, to supply the audience with more details about the world and foreshadow events later in the film.
In my opinion, the propaganda clip that runs about the execution of a convicted murderer being broadcast live on every, single channel, is the most telling about the world that the characters live in. The Federation impresses itself on every aspect of the characters’ lives, from their schooling, where they’re made to dissect bugs under the tutelage of Rue McClanahan, to the media they consume, and ultimately to the choice that they make to serve in the military in pursuit of guaranteed citizenship.
When we first meet him, Rico doesn’t seem to have a feeling one way or another about citizenship. He grasps the concept, able to recite the definition from the textbook perfectly when asked by his teacher, Mr. Rasczak (Michael Ironside), but he doesn’t come across as someone committed to earning what’s not a given right in his fascist society. In fact, Rico seems doesn’t seem committed to anything more than spending ‘quality time’ with his girlfriend, the ambitious Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), hanging out with his friend, Carl Jenkins (the legen–wait for it–dary Neil Patrick Harris), and playing futuristic football with Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer).
His aimlessness makes him relatable. An almost typical teenager, even in the however far flung future. Rico is, to begin with, a boy who loves a girl. Sadly, this love is doomed from before he even ships out after deciding to follow Carmen (and Carl, but mostly Carmen) into the military. The sky is literally the limit of her ambitions, setting her on a path to pilot a ship in the Federation’s fleet, while Rico’s firmly grounded on Earth after his placement in the mobile infantry (“MI”).
The gap between them only widens while Rico is at basic training alongside Ace (Jake Busy) and Dizzy (who may or may not have followed her unrequited affections for Rico there). They both excel, with Carmen quickly finding a seat on a flight team with Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon), whom she’d previously encountered as Rico’s rival on the football field, and Rico rising to squad leader of his fellow recruits, under the eye of their brutal drill sergeant, Zim (Clancy Brown). However, where Rico is proud of his achievements, Carmen is always looking forward. Her decision to ‘go career’ inspires her to put an end to their relationship and plays a big part in Rico’s decision to leave the MI after a fatal training accident and the ensuing punishment.
(Disclaimer #2: We’re about to reach a whole other level of nerd…)
I’d like to take an aside here, to draw attention to the physical world building of Starship Troopers, especially in the basic training scenes. The props, costumes, physical sets, and the committed extras in the shots around Rico’s squad all feel realistic. Everything, from the sweatsuits worn by the recruits, to the details of the bunk they live in (future pillows!) feels like it belongs in the world that the design team has created. It all seems purposeful and utilitarian, as it should in the military setting, but at the same time, it feels just futuristic enough to enforce the time period, while being familiar and recognizable to any viewer who’s watched a movie or television show about the military (eg: Forrest Gump, Band of Brothers). The attention to detail that went into the mise en scène will always make me wonder how people can dismiss this as just a ‘90’s B movie action flick’.
While I’m on this aside, I’d also like to mention the visual effects. The film’s action sequences on Klendathu, and on Planet “P” depend heavily on computer generated effects that were not the norm in 1997 the way they are today. The CGI in Starship Troopers has stood the test of time. There are moments, of course, when some things look a little dated, but they’re few and far between, even in the closeups of some of the bugs. (I would even argue that the CGI in this movie looks better than some of its modern counterparts, but, as I stated at the outset, I love this movie). The visual effects are outstanding, which is the reason that Starship Troopers was nominated for an Academy Award in the category.
That being said, let’s get back on track…
After the destruction of his hometown, Rico commits to the MI and to being a soldier. As in training, he excels. He proves himself not only a good soldier, but also a good leader. We, the audience, like the soldiers who follow him, first as a corporal, then as a sergeant, and finally as a lieutenant, believe in him. Each loss he suffers (first, his former teacher, Lt. Rasczak, then the better part of his unit, and finally, Dizzy) pushes him to commit further to the cause of destroying bugs and preserving humanity. By the film’s conclusion, he’s a very different man than when we first meet him, an exemplary, hardened soldier, fit to be held up as an ideal in the film’s final propaganda clip.
And that, my friends, is probably the most clever bit of satire in the entirety of the film: Rico, once a purposeless young man seen as ‘meat for the grinder’, has become an essential gear in the ‘grinder’ itself and we, the audience, are glad, because we’ve followed his journey and applauded his heroic rise to ‘success’.
After the credits rolled on my rewatch, I can still say that I love this movie. However, I appreciate its cleverness far more now that I could ever have done as a child or even as a teenager. Starship Troopers is more than a ‘B movie’. It’s a cutting satire of fascism with great effects, that holds the test of time and is definitely more nuanced and relevant than most people might give it credit for.