Was I Wrong?: Starship Troopers
The purpose of this column is to revisit a movie and see if my opinion has changed years later. It might be a movie I liked or, as is the case here, a movie I hated. Often, a different perspective or expectations can make for a very different movie experience. Almost 15 years later, will that be the case for Starship Troopers? Was I wrong to hate it?
If I am honest with myself, I have to admit I didn’t give Starship Troopers a fair viewing the first time around. I’m not really much of a sci-fi fan. My geek sweet spot is superheroes. Sure, I love Star Wars and old school Star Trek. But I’ve never been able get behind “generic” science fiction like Stargate. And as you can see from the movie poster above, Starship Troopers had the smell of generic science fiction all over it.
So, the movie had one strike against it going in. Still, it could have won me over. Instead, the movie earned me ire with over-the-top violence and 2-dimensional characters who were just plain unlikeable. Plus, there was something about Starship Troopers that just reeked of fascism. Sure, I could tell that director Paul Verhoeven was going for an anti-war satire. But I felt like the satire was so dry that it managed to come across supporting that which it sought to condemn.
Was I wrong? Well, not entirely. The characters are flat. And I’m pretty certain Verhoeven specifically cast Casper Van Dien as his lead in no small part due to his utter lack of charisma. As played by Van Dien, Johnny Rico is a dim bulb. The entire cast is full of impossibly good-looking knuckle-heads who would be ideally suited to a pro-Nazi propaganda poster.
And that’s kind of the point. A point Verhoeven drives home none-too-subtly by dressing them all like the Hitler youth. All the imagery comes right out of WW2-era Germany.
Even back in 1997, the fact that this was intentional wasn’t lost on me. I just didn’t think it made for a very compelling movie. I was rooting against the protagonists. It was like if someone had made a version of Star Wars from the stormtroopers’ point of view. (Actually, that makes it sound kind of awesome.)
Watching Starship Troopers today, I have to admit it is kind of awesome. In fact, it feels like a completely different movie from the one I hated so much nearly fifteen years ago.
Why so? Well, I think the biggest reason here is my expectations. I went into Starship Troopers expecting to hate it for its big, dumb generic sci-fi action. I was hoping to be surprised by something tense and thrilling like Aliens. But when I saw a bunch of unsympathetic two-dimensional jerks being graphically ripped apart by bugs, it confirmed all my worst expectations.
Going into Starship Troopers today, I know I’m not supposed to like Johnny Rico. I’m not supposed to root for him to get the vapid bimbo of a love interest. I’m not even supposed to care if Johnny lives or dies. Knowing that, it was fun to watch Johnny fail at every turn. And I laughed to myself every time one of Johnny’s superior officers was graphically eviscerated. Every time Johnny advances in his career, it’s because someone ahead of him got ripped in half by a bug.
Freed from the expectation that I was supposed to be invested in things like the hackneyed love story, I was better able to appreciate the dark satire of Starship Troopers. Verhoeven plays it so straight you could almost take Starship Troopers for a pro-fascism propaganda film. But then he shows soldiers handing out giant weapons and ammunition to smiling school kids and you know that he’s just being subversive.
One of my favorite moments in the film is a small one and it’s easily missed. Johnny Rico has finally assumed command of his unit (the Roughnecks) due to the death of his lieutenant played by the always-great Michael Ironsides. (In fact, Johnny shot the lieutenant himself after his legs got ripped off by a bug.)
Johnny and his buddy Ace (played by a grinning Jake Busey – son of kooky Gary) inspect their troops. Ace notes that most of them are fresh out of bootcamp. We see a glimpse of the recruits and they are kids. Usually in movies, you don’t see teenage soldiers. Most of the actors here are in their 20s. But for one moment we’re reminded that in real war, it’s usually the young who pay the price.
Which brings me to the next thing that changed my perspective about Starship Troopers. Although it was originally released in 1997, it’s impossible to watch it today without seeing the eerie parallels to 9/11 (the destruction of Buenos Aires) and the war in Iraq. Most of the battle scenes take pace on a desert planet that looks like the middle east. And the soldiers hunt the bugs in caves. Plus all the pro-war jingoism sounds a lot like “shock and awe” America.
With that in mind, Troopers plays like a whip-smart satire that was way ahead of its time. In fairness, Verhoeven and screenwriter Edward Neumeier were satirizing war in general. So there would likely be comparisons to be made to any subsequent war that may have broken out. But there’s no shaking the fact that Starship Troopers feels more timely today than it did in the 1990’s.
So, was I wrong to hate Starship Troopers? I’m going to answer with a qualified “yes”. There’s a lot to like about Starship Troopers and I was wrong not to appreciate it. Having said that, I think my original reasons for disliking the film were valid ones. However, once you’ve embraced the satire of the film, those criticisms feed into the film’s strengths.