Let me just state my position up-front: I have really come to bury Starship Troopers, not to praise it. I think Starship Troopers (the movie, I’ll rant about the book some other time) is gradually being reassessed in all the wrong ways. Starship Troopers is junk by any measure, and always has been.
In the past few years, a number of critics have come out with revisionist-themed pieces on Starship Troopers lauding its value as satire. Here’s a recent one by Calum Marsh of The Atlantic.
Mr. Marsh rightly castigates viewers who want to take the film at face value. But what his, and most of these attempts at reassessment fail to grasp is that many of us who saw the film when it first came out always understood it to be satire, and still think it’s a terrible film.
The problem with Starship Troopers is that it utterly fails to be good satire. Director Paul Verhoeven‘s filmography is overstuffed with luridly violent trash with satiric subtext. But where the satire mostly works in say his own Robocop, it doesn’t in Starship Troopers because Verhoeven’s obsessions and fetishes overwhelm the thin satiric content. Robocop featured a strong performance by Peter Weller that helped ground its violent satire on 80s consumerist society and policing in a basic humanism. In contrast, the acting in Starship Troopers is limited and wooden throughout, so all we’re left as an audience is either to revel in the violent spectacle or enjoy a “knowing” chuckle at the ham-fisted satire.
Mr. Marsh, like many contemporary critics, characterizes Starship Troopers as “…a ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism.” He also quotes fellow critic Phil Coldiron who “…described it as ‘one of the greatest of all anti-imperialist films,’ a parody of Hollywood form whose superficial “badness” is central to its critique.”
Funny? Starship Troopers features barn-broad satiric touches such as a military flogging shot like sweat-drenched S&M porn, screamingly obvious recruiting ads, vagina-mouthed aliens, and military scientists who dress like SS monsters. None of this is at all subtle or in any way a unique statement—it’s parody without the moral high-ground that true satire requires. Verhoeven has nothing to say in Starship Troopers except fascism is bad and Hollywood loves sex and violence. The trouble is, Hollywood loves sex and violence only slightly less than Verhoeven himself, so who is he critiquing exactly? And I’m not sure many people are lining up to defend the cartoonish fascism in the film as a viable political system.* But to say that the politics of Starship Troopers provides a fun-house-mirror-style understanding of our own politics is like saying The Honeymooners provided an enlightening window onto domestic relations—broad caricature is not good satire.
One of the greatest of all anti-imperialist films? Really? So, Starship Troopers is up there with classics like The Man Who Would Be King,** Lawrence of Arabia, The Mission and The Battle of Algiers? If we can’t all agree that sounds ridiculous then I’m not sure why I’m bothering. It doesn’t measure up to any of these films in terms of plot, script, art direction, cinematography, editing or performances. Starship Troopers exhibits a reasonable level of film craft, but only as an efficient delivery system for flat, brightly lit blood, bare-chests and sledgehammer-like campy humour.
I think Starship Troopers could be reasonably embraced by an audience as a semi-self-aware trash-art work—a slick, high-budget camp-fest that wants to make fun of jingoistic military clichés while simultaneously reveling in violent, sexy spectacle. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy Verhoeven’s ultra-pulpy The Fourth Man under those terms.
But, accepting that premise makes Starship Troopers a decently executed, hyper-garish b-movie with ardent fans, not an unrecognized cinematic classic.
*Heinlein might have been the exception here, but again, I’ll save that rant for another day.
**A true example of largely misunderstood satire.