What the hell is Starship Troopers? Is it a mindlessly violent slab of future jingoism: Melrose Place goes to war in space? Or is it a sly bit of leg pulling on the part of director Paul Verhoeven? Here’s what I think: Starship Troopers is exactly what Star Wars would have looked like if Germany had won World War II.

You have a clean-cut group of young heroes who graduate from high school sometime in the next millennium and who join up to fight a vicious race of alien arachnoids bent on overrunning the universe. While there are faint stabs at romance — rich boy-turned-foot soldier Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and flyboy Zander (Patrick Muldoon) vie for the heart of buxom pilot Carmen (Wild Things‘ Denise Richards) — the movie is more interested in hair-raising battle scenes, astonishing special effects, and a sort of future fascism for mall brats. The spiffy uniforms are Third Reich as reinterpreted by the Gap; the politics are spartan in every sense (you get to vote in this government only if you’ve served in the military); the coed showers are, like, cool. Ayn Rand might have dug it. So might have Goebbels, Patton, and Louis B. Mayer.

Robert A. Heinlein certainly did: The renowned sci-fi author wrote the original, dead-serious 1959 novel perhaps as nostalgia for an early military career cut short by tuberculosis. But Paul Verhoeven is a far trickier man, and to take this film at face value — as either kick-ass ride or moronic junk — is a mistake. The tip-off is in the absurdist newscasts that pop up throughout Starship Troopers: Blandly inquiring ”Would you like to know more?” (you don’t have a choice, really), they’re WWII newsreels as retooled by the corporate mediacracy. And when good guy Neil Patrick Harris — a.k.a. He Who Shall Forever Be Known as Doogie Howser — shows up in an SS trench coat, it’s clear that Verhoeven is out to subtly parody everything Heinlein holds dear: not just sci-fi action but the whole happily lying genre of wartime propaganda.

Unfortunately, most audiences don’t know how to do anything but take their movies straight up, and that gives an elitist stench to Verhoeven’s little in-joke. But then, this director has never played according to the rules of either the art house or the megaplex. He was as controversial in his native Netherlands as he has been in Hollywood, and curiously, many of his early films have their later, American analogue. Basic Instinct (1992) is a bluntly obvious reinvention of his best film, 1984’s The Fourth Man: same blond fatal femme, same flummoxed male victim, same kinky sense of play. 1981’s Spetters (a crass, unpleasant tale about three guys on the motocross racing circuit) was as savaged by Dutch critics as 1995’s Showgirls (a crass, unpleasant tale about two women on the Vegas show circuit) was in the U.S.

Following that logic, Starship Troopers could be read as Verhoeven’s Hollywoodization of Soldier of Orange, the 1979 WWII Dutch Resistance drama that helped bring him international notice. Both films are about upper-class kids hardened by wartime experience, and both — realistically or sadistically, take your pick — mow their pretty young characters down one by one. But the predations of Nazis cut emotionally deeper than the carnage of F/X-derived insects, and Soldier‘s lead character, Erik (Rutger Hauer), comes to a more adult understanding of the world’s complexities than the comic-book triumph of Johnny Rico.

Of course, maybe that’s because the ”heroes” in the later film are the Nazis. Verhoeven loses his feeling for tone toward the end of Troopers: It becomes more plainly satirical, especially when the Earth scientists start gleefully torturing an agonized-looking Brain Bug. Only a particularly twisted sensibility would spend $100 million to kick moviegoers in the keister while telling them it’s entertainment, but Verhoeven is even more perverse than that. He’s serious on both levels — and on neither.

Lord, how do you grade such a thing? For the first time in my tenure at this category-happy magazine, I can’t. A letter grade would do a disservice to a movie that sees relentless entertainment and brilliant pop-culture fraud as two sides of the same media coin. So let’s give it a title instead: The Most Ironic Hollywood Blockbuster Ever Made. See it for yourself and decide: Would you like to know more? I’m afraid I would.

Starship Troopers
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