Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi satire hit theaters 20 years ago today
Paul Verhoeven spent his Hollywood years making florid, violent, sexy movies, all R-rated except for that one lap-dancing NC-17 number. You want to call them B-movies, but no one who was ever young in Verhoeven’s America actually lived through B-movies. RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers, Hollow Man: These were steadily bigger-budgeted Hollywood products, with big-time movie stars and then later with the expensive digital effects that were already replacing movie stars.
Verhoeven’s Hollywood work has been reclaimed by academics and scholars, refracted through -isms, celebrated for themes that put entire films between quotation marks. But there can be a too-cute, back-patting quality to the modern takes on Verhoeven: “Can you believe all the hidden depths we found in this popular movie everyone knows about?” Or maybe it’s simply the justifying nature of our encroachingly self-important age of cultural connoisseurship: “This fun thing is serious, too!”
No subtweets intended; throwing self under the bus now. Verhoeven’s Hollywood work is all essential viewing, thought-provoking even at its worst (hello, Hollow Man!). But it may be time to reconsider Verhoeven’s Hollywood work for its profound surface pleasures, or maybe, to appreciate the lighthearted human comedies hiding above the deep-seated satire. Sure, RoboCop needs to be watched just once as a completely sincere Christ story, with all the blood-bucket gore of an old-school Passion play. And there is that one shot of RoboCop from the final bad-guy showdown, the cyborg revenant walking on the dirty water defecated by a broken-down Detroit factory, a gray-brown image so foreign to our cultural memory of the neon ’80s, too beautiful to be just gritty, more real than realistic. Galilee in the gutter:
Total Recall lives in memory as the progenitor of late-millennium dream theory — he never left that brain chair, man! But like all fan-theory dream explanations, that feels too limiting, too inhuman. It avoids the implications of the stunning, endearing mutant prosthetics conceived by Rob Bottin, the big foreheads, the old-man baby symbiote open your mind-ing from a middle-aged man’s stomach. In Total Recall, the poverty-stricken freaks are more human than the rich, corporate-citizen “normal” humans, a notion that only ever gets lip service in superhero movies and Stranger Things seasons, which always end with the cute superpowered people who feel sad sometimes deciding to fight the latest reptile-insect freaks from the latest death dimension, said villains inevitably rendered purposefully inhuman so that they can pleasantly deserve to die.
Basic Instinct could be reviled by a hundred ideologies, not least because Sharon Stone seems to willfully personify a hundred paranoid nightmares mediocre men have about powerful women. But a recent rewatch confirms that Stone’s Catherine Trammel is also the most relatable character in the movie, cheerfully sex-positive in a world full of leering authoritarian men. She might be a murderer, but everybody in Basic Instinct seems like a murderer, and at least Stone’s having a good time, whole practiced air of la-dee-da cool rendering her as a much more modern figure than, like, Michael Douglas as a beset-upon reformed-cokehead cop who keeps accidentally shooting people. (You wouldn’t call Catherine Trammel a role model, but you do want to see her Instagram account.)
But let’s pull the -ism lever just once, because Starship Troopers is one of the funniest movies ever made about fascism, and it’s turning 20 today, and our fascist world could some humor.
One of the more good-humoredly fascistic scenes in Starship Troopers is the coed shower scene. Like a lot of on-screen ’90s nudity, this was a key talking point in a long-ago era before you could google any sex act that anyone has ever imagined. From the director of Showgirls and Basic Instinct, it vibed transgressive. The rumor was that Verhoven had been naked behind the camera while his cast was naked up front, a fact confirmed by Verhoeven himself in a 2012 interview with Empire. This sounds prurient, but the effect of the scene isn’t really voyeuristic, and it’s certainly less weird than all those times Michael Bay introduces female characters underbutt-first. The nudity might even be part of the movie’s illusion: a way of getting you to focus on everything besides the point.
The shower scene arrives early in the movie, after apparent lead character Johnny Rico (Caspar Van Dien) has joined up with the Mobile Infantry, the sci-fi army that fires cool future weapons and does awesome space stuff. “JOIN THE MOBILE INFANTRY AND SAVE THE WORLD!” is how one newsreel advertises this career option, which sounds like funny only-in-satire hyperbole until you remember that 1998 ad where a marine fights a lava monster with an Arthurian super-sword. “SERVICE GUARANTEES CITIZENSHIP!” is the odd postscript to that newsreel, one last advertisement promise that sounds more insidious every time you hear it.
It’s tantalizingly unclear what a “citizen” is in the movie’s context. The original Robert Heinlein book went more in-depth, but Verhoeven barely read the book and hated what he did read, so don’t get too hung up on canon. Johnny’s parents don’t want him to join the army and seem to be doing just fine for sub-citizens. Actually, they live in Buenos Aires, a fact that’s only strange because Johnny and all his friends are played by Americans so white they all had guest arcs on Beverly Hills, 90210.
It’s possible that the beginning of Starship Troopers is meant to be a fun utopian future, where the world peacefully formed a global government and then decided to make American english the lingua franca. All that military drapery makes you doubt that anything was peaceful, though. You start to wonder: Are Johnny and his friends growing up in some long-established totalitarian uber-regime? Is this what daily life would look like in some 400-hundred-year-time-jumped Man in the High Castle where America used its brief span as World’s Only Superpower to take the whole thing over?
This is the stuff of dark-future terror, but part of the fun of Starship Troopers is how Verhoeven keeps recoding our perspective. There are visual references to Leni Riefenstahl, and half the hero’s plot depends on a high school romantic triangle. The upper-level government spooks wear uniforms that recall the SS, but the different branches of the military have no-bull gender equity (Space Captain Brenda Strong!!!) Actually, the most immediately despicable soldier is Jake Busey, a white dude so white-dude-ly that he was in Shasta McNasty.
Busey’s just been abused by a drill sergeant, taught a lesson that involved a knife going through his hand. The scene that follows is, broadly, the “getting to know the squad” scene, plot-sacred since the days of Sands of Iwo Jima, introducing all the soldiers who might die gloriously in the fifth reel. Team chatterbox Kitten (Matt Levin) walks into the group shower, clearly the sarcastic one. “We all have one thing in common,” he moans. “We were all stupid enough to sign up for the Mobile Infantry.”
He goes around the horn, asking his squadmates what led them to sign up. A farmboy wanted off the farm. A dude smart enough to get into Harvard needs scholarship money. A woman named Djana’D (Tami-Adrian George) says, “I’m going into politics, and you know, you gotta be a citizen for that, so here I am.” Another women named Katrina (Blake Lindsley) says, “I want to have babies,” which earns an eyeroll from Djana’D, but nobody blinks an eye when this second woman says, “It’s a lot easier to get a license if you serve.”
And then Kitten asks Johnny why he joined the Mobile Infantry, and Johnny refuses to say why, but his old high school pal/acrobat-football teammate Dizzy (Dina Meyer) knows he joined because he wuvs service-obsessed Carmen (Denise Richards), so she tells the squad Johnny’s here for a girl, and all the naked young soldiers laugh like this is the most hilarious thing they’ve ever heard.
But two big statements were just said here, which fly by so quickly that you’re still trying to understand them when someone slaps Caspar Van Dien’s butt. You need a license to have babies? Running for political office requires some time in the armed forces? “You gotta be a citizen for that,” we’re told, and what else do you gotta be a citizen for? This sounds like a full-blown military dictatorship we’re looking at, or at least a government where federal service grants you power that mere civilianhood cannot, which in the long tail of history equals out to around the same thing.
But this is also, weirdly, a reflection of a peculiar strain of ’90s action jingo. In Independence Day and Air Force One, Bill Pullman and Harrison Ford played presidents with enough military background to fire missiles at aliens and beat up British Russians. Both films reflect the ever-lingering influence of Top Gun, which mixed the vaguest Cold War propaganda with the most sanitized version of the MTV style and helped to redefine patriotism as a swagger-y performance of action hero coolness.
Top Gun‘s influence is basically everywhere — actual American presidents have taken PR cues from it — and you can maybe watch Starship Troopers as a kind of far-future direct sequel, all the tough young lovely soldiers fighting unknowable antagonists. The enemy MIGs in Top Gun are precisely as nefarious and vague as the bugs in Starship Troopers, and both pairs of uniformed good guys receive their missions like dutiful, unquestioning gamers anxious for the next level to begin. We’re done with the Top Gun program and now we have to fly here to shoot these guys in black helmets? Got it, cue the music. An insect race from across the galaxy with no apparent spacefaring ability fired a meteor through a wormhole at Buenos Aires? Sure thing, boss, that sounds plausible. We’ll nuke first and ask questions later!
Weirdly, though, nothing in the Starship Troopers coed shower scene is half as sexy as the volleyball scene from Top Gun. It’s kind of cute, actually? All these badass co-worker people bantering about 10-year plans, sans clothes, like they’re citizens of a commune that only accepts Highly Effective People? (The badass space soldiers of Aliens were casually coed too, but didn’t seem to have career ambitions.) That wasn’t the intention, maybe. In that same great Empire interview, Verhoeven said that the weird nonchalance of the scene was part of the subtext.
“The idea I wanted to express was that these so-called advanced people are without libido,” he said. “Here they are talking about war and their careers and not looking at each other at all! It is sublimated because they are fascists.”
Maybe? Verhoeven bangs the drum a lot for his films’ deeper themes, maybe recognizing (like Hitchcock in his later years) that there’s a young generation hoping to enrich the culture of their youth with the philosophies they learned about in college. And stamping “Fascism” across Starship Troopers genuinely enriches the film’s later parts, when the triumphalist military tries to stage a battle like the kind of heavily mediated aesthetic “event” that could make Brian Williams lick his lips while Baudrillard does whatever the French do instead of crying. The film will end with the great big battle still ongoing, like a distant Middle East conflict or whatever they’re fighting about in the new Star Wars trilogy. “THEY’LL KEEP FIGHTING, AND THEY’LL WIN!” is the final onscreen promise of the movie — a tease for a sequel, or a hint that all franchises depend on a state of neverending battle, on a world where all that matters is that there is a new enemy to fight.
But so weirdly, the coed shower scene is the most human moment in Starship Troopers. Someone wants to go to Harvard, someone wants to make a difference in politics, somebody wants to crank out dem babies, and somebody just hates farming. Nobody seems to care about whatever the Mobile Infantry’s mission is, and maybe this suggests some deeply embedded fascism, or maybe this implies all the possibilities life can offer when there’s no world-ending nemesis to focus on.
By comparison, Johnny — the film’s protagonist! — seems ridiculous, because he joined up for a ridiculous reason. Soon enough he’ll get a message from the woman he loves that she loves her career more, because everybody who’s 18 years old will be different when they’re 19 years old. The best joke in Starship Troopers is that the hero is kind of a dumbo. When his parents die in the aforementioned meteor crash, he’s an ideal blunt instrument, willing to travel to the far corners of the universe. Jobs, higher education, parenthood: That all fades away. The film assumes a familiar propagandistic tactic where anyone with yearnings beyond the heroic-governmental-militaristic dies hard and bloody. Johnny has no dreams, so he is an ideal citizen. All that matters is he can kill bugs good.