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.