Starship Troopers is not an action film.
Yes, there is gratuitous, over the top violence. Yes, there is a phenomenal body count, blood-drenched sets, the near constant sound of gunfire and roaring spaceships, and exploding, gribbly aliens.
But that’s all superficial – what Starship Troopers really is, is an intelligent, well thought-out social commentary of a post-World War II culture dealing with fascism, xenophobia, desensitisation of violence and utopianism.
Paul Verhoeven, raised in the Netherlands in the 1930s and 40s, was deeply affected by bombings in 1943 when his family moved to The Hague, near a German military base – especially when his parents were nearly killed by Allied bombs that hit his street.
Starship Troopers, Verhoeven’s 12th feature film, reflects his personal thoughts about the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during the War. Based on Robert A. Heinlein’s controversial novel, every aspect of the film is well thought out, from the sharply ironed script to the very deliberate art direction. Following the military careers of several young friends as they fight the alien race known as ‘The Bugs’ (itself a derogatory term, similar to the offensive way the term Jews was used in Nazi Germany) to avenge the destruction of Earth, the film explores the futility of war and the imposing spread of fascism.
The casting of the main characters was a particular choice – Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer and Neil Patrick Harris are certainly not the first people on the list of actors to call when faced with an ultra-violent science fiction film. In fact, at the time the film was made, most had little experience in the genre, instead being known for soaps such as ‘One Life to Live.’ This intentional decision was used to emphasise the normality of the soldiers, breaking away from the traditional action hero caste like Willis or Schwarzenegger.
Another focused decision was the costumes. With the Terran Federation a metaphor for Nazi Germany, and their xenophobic war against the the Bugs a metaphor for the Holocaust, the uniforms worn by members of the military, namely the higher ranking officers, bear a more-than-coincidental resemblance to the uniforms worn by Hitler’s own guard – the S.S.
Notice the similarities between the uniforms and the emblems?
At the time that Heinlein’s novel was written in 1960, The US Army still used conscription which is reflected in the Terran Federation, and while the social commentary was intended to mock the military, the novel and the film alike were slated for being excessively pro-militaristic. The Federation itself holds firm in its belief that humanity is superior to the Bugs, and is being hindered by them in spreading through space. The very portrayal of the Bugs as being uncoordinated, feral and of very low intelligence is particularly noticeable in being a metaphor for the Holocaust.
The special effects hold up well today – aside from some edgy flying sequences – which is in no small part thanks to the $110 million budget.
The messy, aggressive tactics of the Terran Federation military are shown to be ineffective and driven purely by anger at the Bugs for destroying Earth which makes them no worse than the creatures they despise. The gung-ho attitude of the brash soldiers dedicated unswervingly to the cause really brings home the fascist connotations. This is all bound together by an overall witty satirical atmosphere, helped by the mock propaganda adverts that break up the narrative.
Verhoeven has managed to create, on the surface, an entertaining, action-packed sci fi film reminiscent of similar films such as James Cameron’s Aliens – but underneath lies an intelligent blend of black humour and a image of the world had Nazi Germany been victorious, influenced by his own childhood experiences.
What is often dismissed as an unoriginal, convoluted action film is in fact thought-provoking and relevant, and something that should definitely be considered as having a lot more brains than people make out.