In Defence Of... is a new series of articles where we'll step in and try defend - operative word is 'try' - films that have been unduly lambasted and unceremoniously dumped by critics and audiences alike. So far, we've attempted to defend The Phantom Menace, Con-Air and Batman Forever. This week, the film described by critics of the time as an "empty videogame of a movie about interplanetary pest control" - Starship Troopers. Would you like to know more?
Paul Verhoeven grew up in Nazi-occupied Holland as a child and, for a period of time, he lived right next to the launching area of V2 rockets fired by the Nazis. The area in which he lived was repeatedly targeted by Allied bombers. His only respite was, at the time, watching what he called "German propagandistic shit," namely the films of Leni Riefenstahl. Later, when the war ended, Verhoeven was ordered into mandatory military service. Coincidentally enough, they wanted Verhoeven to go to Germany to study rocket science, owing to his skill with mathematics and physics. He instead opted for filmmaking, and made documentaries for the Dutch Navy.
Propaganda and lies is something that's informed all of Verhoeven's American films - from Robocop and Total Recall, up to Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers. Robocop was about a corporation lying to a man about his own identity. In Basic Instinct, Michael Douglas was lying to himself that he wasn't a violent person. In Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger was being lied to for what seemed like all of his life. His life was one big lie. In Starship Troopers, it's about kids buying a lie - the lie that war is great, the enemy is out there, and that only they have the moral authority to destroy it.
Neil Patrick Harris, as Carl Jenkins. The officer uniforms were specifically designed to look like SS uniforms.
Verhoeven understood propaganda and its effect so well that, when Starship Troopers debuted to American audiences, not everyone clocked that it was all a lie. They looked at the cheesy dialogue, the gratuitous action, the campy visuals and the vaguely fascist iconography and either dismissed it as too on the nose, or simply ignored it altogether and accepted it at face value. Most accepted it at face value. There's a story that during the initial screening of the film, an executive from the studio pointed to one of the flags and remarked that it looked like a Nazi flag. Verhoeven looked at it, and then replied that the colours were different. The executive shrugged and moved on. That was all it took to convince them that it wasn't outright Nazism - the colours were different.
Starship Troopers is easily one of the greatest satires ever made. The best satires deal with their subject as clearly and as truthfully as it possibly can. In Starship Troopers, fascism and military rule is lain bare and without remorse or question. Everyone's beautiful, everywhere's clean, there's no crime or poverty and justice is swift and merciless. There is no dissent in this society because why would anyone fight against obvious perfection? People are executed in public, society has no purpose beyond improvement, nuance is removed in favour of bite-size information. The entire reason for fighting the Arachnids is summarised into a single news item at the top of the film and provides enough context for our characters and why they're there. Even the promotional trailers and imagery for the film was direct and to the point. That kind of simplicity of storytelling and narrative, that they can be convinced to fight on the most basic of reasons - and without examination or introspection - happens in the real world all the time. Why wouldn't that happen in the future?
In an interview with Adam Carolla, Michael Ironside - who played the homely teacher-turned-platoon leader Mr. Razak - discussed his time on set with Verhoeven. Ironside asked him why he wanted to make a film that seemed to be promoting right-wing, fascist ideology when he grew up in Nazi-occupied Holland. Verhoeven's response sums up the film perfectly. "If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn't work, no one will listen to me. So I'm going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it's only good for killing fucking bugs!"