Starship Troopers: One of the Most Misunderstood Movies Ever

The sci-fi film's self-aware satire went unrecognized by critics when it came out 16 years ago. Now, some are finally getting the joke.
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TriStar Pictures; Touchstone Pictures

When Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers hit theaters 16 years ago today, most American critics slammed it. In the New York Times, Janet Maslin panned the “crazed, lurid spectacle,” as featuring “raunchiness tailor-made for teen-age boys.” Jeff Vice, in the Deseret News, called it “a nonstop splatterfest so devoid of taste and logic that it makes even the most brainless summer blockbuster look intelligent.” Roger Ebert, who had praised the “pointed social satire” of Verhoeven’s Robocop, found the film “one-dimensional,” a trivial nothing “pitched at 11-year-old science-fiction fans.”

But those critics had missed the point. Starship Troopers is satire, a ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism. The fact that it was and continues to be taken at face value speaks to the very vapidity the movie skewers.

Starship Troopers is set in the distant future, when humankind has begun to colonize worlds beyond the borders of our galaxy. Earth has provoked an otherwise benign species of bug-like aliens to retaliate violently against our planet, which it suddenly and correctly perceives as hostile. Interpreting what are pretty obviously self-defense tactics as further gestures of aggression, humankind marshals its global forces and charges into a grossly outmatched interstellar war. The rhetoric throughout is unmistakably fascistic: Earth’s disposable infantrymen, among whom our high-school-aged former-jock hero naturally ranks, are galvanized by insipid sloganeering, which they regurgitate on command with sincerity as they head to slaughter. (“The only good bug is a dead bug!” is the chant most favored—shades of Animal Farm abound.)

The resulting film critiques the military-industrial complex, the jingoism of American foreign policy, and a culture that privileges reactionary violence over sensitivity and reason. The screenplay, by Robocop writer Edward Neumeier, furnished the old-fashioned science-fiction framework of Robert A. Heinlein’s notoriously militaristic novel with archetypes on loan from teen soaps and young adult-fiction, undermining the self-serious saber-rattling of the source text. Even the conclusion makes a point of deflating any residual sense of heroism and valor: We see our protagonists, having narrowly escaped death during a near-suicidal mission, marching back to battle in a glorified recruitment video—suggesting that in war the only reward for a battle well fought is the prospect of further battle.

Over the nearly two decades since the film’s debut, the critical reputation of Starship Troopers hasn’t especially improved. But you can feel the conversation beginning to shift; it rightfully has come to be appreciated by some as an unsung masterpiece. Coming in at number 20 on Slant Magazine’s list of the 100 best films of the 1990s last year (a poll in which, full disclosure, I was among the voting critics), the site’s Phil Coldiron 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. It fared well in The A.V. Club’s ‘90s poll, too, appearing in the top 50, where it was praised as a “gonzo satire destined, even designed, to be misunderstood.” Scott Tobias, former editor of the A.V. Club’s film section, lauded Troopers a few years earlier as “the most subversive major studio film in recent memory,” observing that it “seems absurd now to write it off as some silly piece of escapism, as its detractors complained.”

But the original misperceptions still persist. On October 4th, RiffTrax—a series of downloadable comedy commentary tracks from the creators of Mystery Science Theater 3000—released an episode in which they mocked Starship Troopers, a movie their website describes as “dumb and loud” and a “goofy mess.” Mike J. Nelson and his RiffTrax co-stars Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett heckle the film with about as much insight and wit as they misperceive the film to have. Sample humor: At one point, a bomb destroys a giant bug, and the three of them yell “Oh no, Raid!” Later, Denise Richards smiles, and someone says, in a robotic voice, “Smile-o-tron 3000 engaged.” It goes on like this. The tagline for RiffTrax is “Your favorite movies—made funny!” What they don’t seem to understand is that Starship Troopers already is funny—and smart.

Troopers, of course, is far from the only instance of a film being popularly misinterpreted. Given enough distance even the most fervently reviled movie may one day find its legacy resuscitated, earning decades later its long overdue acclaim. Maybe that time is near for Troopers; hopefully, at least a few Rifftrax listeners newly introduced to the film picked up what was really going on. If you’re open and attuned to it—if you’re prepared for the rigor and intensity of Verhoeven’s approach—you’ll get the joke Starship Troopers is telling. And you’ll laugh.

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Calum Marsh is a writer based in Toronto. He has contributed to EsquireSight & Sound, and the Village Voice.

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