Science fiction stories have entertained audiences for generations. Its origins as a genre can be traced all the way back to Thomas More’s Utopia with its depiction of an idealized society. The truly great works of science fiction always have their roots in the real world. Aliens and its depictions of corporate greed, Godzilla and the horrors of nuclear destruction, and works like Pandemic theorizing humanity’s response to deadly plagues. The latter story is one of the relevant and pertinent examples of science fiction not being too far off from reality to the point where it’s hard to consider a work like Pandemic science fiction and not just a straight drama.
Paul Verhoeven is considered one of the all-time greats of the genre. Perhaps his most celebrated work, RoboCop (1987) depicts a dystopian world ruled by corporations and militarized police. Verhoeven has had other deep dives into sci-fi, and one of the films that dives even more heavily into these themes is Starship Troopers. Released in 1997 to mixed success, the film would go on to become a cult classic. It’s a strange movie for first time viewers. The premise sounds like basic sci-fi and begins akin to a Disney Channel high school film. Soon however the film becomes a violent and gritty look at the fascist war machine and how it turns eager young people into instruments of war and death.
The film starts with a flash forward depicting dozens of soldiers locked in a bloody battle with alien creatures simply known as “Bugs”. When the film moves back in time, we see life in a Buenos Aires high school where we learn that in this world, citizenship and the right to vote is only earned through military service. The classroom is full of bright eyes students many of whom want nothing more than to eagerly go off to war and become citizens. The cult of personality surrounding the military is very in line with fascist governments. In these societies, there is a fascination and glorification of the individual, where there’s no greater role than to be a warrior and martyr for the state. These horrifying discussions are happening in the film and it’s treated with laughs and smiles. This is the satire on full display, only compounded with how the film is shot and paced. In addition to visually resembling a standard teen high school piece, the characters are more concerned with the “big game” or the upcoming school dance, while glossing over the horrific nature of the military’s role in this world. This is further addressed by having nearly every military veteran in the film missing at least one limb and still talking about how the military was the best thing to ever happen to them.
An aspect of the film that is glossed over in the narrative is the presence of this predominantly white school and community smack dab in the middle of Buenos Aires. In this world, humanity is unified under the United Citizen Federation and is directing its colonization efforts towards other planets and species. The origins of this new world order are never elaborated on, but one can infer that colonization or conquest played a role given how Earth treats the alien species. The population is almost entirely white, and despite the film not touching on the subject of race, the predominantly white is certainly no accident on Verhoeven’s part. After all, fascism is directly linked to racism and white supremacy. It’s a more understated, but very intentional move by the director.
The true nature of the fascist war machine is best depicted by the journeys of three of the characters throughout the film. Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris), and Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer). Rico is the main character of the piece, and starts off the film eager to join the military and get away from his home and parents. A brutal accident at boot camp shows him the true nature of war but before he can leave the force, the war comes to Earth and Rico joins the fight against the aliens. His commanding officer is Lieutenant Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside), his former high school teacher. As they fight in various battles, Rico learns from and takes after Rasczak and eventually taking his place after he’s killed in action. By the end of the film, Rico has become the same type of stone cold killer Rasczak was. The cycle of violence continues on and on.
Neil Patrick Harris’s character Carl is perhaps the most obvious example of the push towards fascism. More of a thinker than a fighter, he joins Military Intelligence and isn’t seen for most of the film, instead working on a secret project to give humanity an edge in the fight against the Bugs. When he returns towards the end of the film, he is not-so-subtly decked out in a trench coat and hat reminiscent of Nazi Germany. After one of the intelligent “brains bugs” is captured, Carl triumphantly announces that the creature is afraid, much to the joy of the military. Carl’s desire to rule and dominate enemies through fear and intimidation is right in line with fascist ways of thinking. The brain bug is the first of the aliens to depict complex emotions and its fear is a cause for celebration in this society. The reason for the war between humans and Bugs is never fully explained. For all the audience knows, humanity could have provoked them and they simply reacted in self-defense. The response from humans was to double down and absolutely crush any and all opposition, very in line with brutal fascist dictatorships seen in the real world.
Dizzy is perhaps the most tragic character in Starship Troopers. In the high school portion of the film, she’s a hopeless romantic pursuing Rico. She only joins the military because of her feelings towards him that tragically go unrequited. As the story progresses the bond between the two grows and eventually they do sleep together and confess feelings. Shortly thereafter, Dizzy is tragically killed in a battle against the Bugs. Rico oversees her funeral as the acting commanding officer in the wake of Rasczak’s death. Despite his previous feelings, her funeral ceremony is mostly devoid of emotion and passion. She’s just another casualty in a long line of suffering. Rico doesn’t have a moment later where the full weight of her death hits him, he instead laser focuses on wiping out the bugs, speaking the same violent rhetoric Rasczak had previously. Dizzy is an example of how humanity is lost in the fascist war machine. Deaths at best are just seen as statistics and at worst are seen as glorious sacrifices for the good of the state. She lived a tragic life cut short by a brutal war outside of her control, and she didn’t even receive the type of respect she deserved in death.
When Starship Troopers initially released, it was met with criticism from some audiences saying that it was glorifying the fascism on display. Looking at it from a very surface level, it could be easy to make that assumption, even with the incredibly over the top propaganda pieces that play throughout the film. One must look at it through a satirical lens to see what Verhoeven was going for. He described the message of the film being “war makes fascists of us all” and that certainly rings true for all the characters in this story. You’re not supposed to see these characters as heroes, but instead as either monsters or victims of the system.
Perhaps the reason the satire was difficult for some to read is that we’re numb to it. There are countless war movies that do glorify warfare and aspects of fascism, and many people to this day still see war as some sort of glorious quest. The tenets of fascism are much more present within the United States than most would care to admit, and so much media out there glorifies it that it becomes hard for some people to recognize it being satirized. Starship Troopers nowadays has a cult following and one can only hope that as more people see it, they recognize the horrors of its world and see the real world connections it has. Despite this, there are still many who see the film as nothing more than a fun action movie and refuse to look beneath the surface. Starship Troopers depicts a world of fascism and a cult of death, and we the audience must take it as a constant reminder of what to avoid.