Starship Troopers

(Paul Verhoeven, USA, 1997)


Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers is an odd and most distressing film.


Distressing not so much for its relentless procession of gory dismemberments of helpless humans by giant bugs, but its fundamental ambiguity: is this a neo-conservative, neo-fascist ad for the military, or a hipper-than-thou parody of media propaganda and youthful, patriotic fervour? Time – and this inherent ambiguity – have, in a few short years, transformed Starship Troopers into a cult classic among intellectual cinephiles.


After a brief burst of violence at the very start, the film zips into flashback, settling into its best and most humorous section: a mock teen movie in which an assortment of dopey, clean-cut types resemble kids from 1950s family flicks rather than citizens of the future. In point of fact, the very term 'citizen' has a strange, new meaning in this world, because citizenship is no longer a natural birthright – it must be won by serving the system.


Once it stops being SpaceCamp (1986) on a mega-budget, the film drives full-speed ahead into combat mode. The bugs – pure killing machines, multiple and anonymous – themselves resemble alien-monsters from ‘50s cinema. Verhoeven swiftly drops the irony and pastiche as he endeavours to elicit our old-fashioned sympathetic involvement in the effort it takes to wipe out a threatening species. The film's campaign hits one big glitch: our young, beautiful heroes never stop being unlovely, neo-Aryan dopes.


Verhoeven is doubtless trying to have it both ways – aiming for both knowing laughter and gung-ho thrills. As a progressive, sci-fi comedy it is way below Mars Attacks! (1996); but as a combat movie it is far superior to G.I. Jane (1997). In the main, for me on a first viewing, it resembled Star Wars (1976): an attempt to jazz up a corny old genre for a modern audience, spiced with a disturbing tribute to Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935).


But, as Verhoeven’s critical star has risen, so has the potential complexity of this strange and singular movie.


MORE Verhoeven: Elle

© Adrian Martin October 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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