Everybody’s Into Weirdness: Starship Troopers (1997)
The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.
The twenty-eighth entry into this disreputable canon is Paul Verhoeven’s hyper-violent, gory space melodrama, Starship Troopers…
“Join the Mobile Infantry and save the Galaxy. Service guarantees citizenship. Would you like to know more?”
Upon initial release, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers was a joke almost nobody in America seemed to get. Even Roger Ebert, who previously praised Verhoeven’s super violent, satirical masterwork, RoboCop, called Troopers “one-dimensional”, stating it was aimed at juveniles barely able to comprehend science fiction. Janet Maslin panned the picture’s “raunchiness”, agreeing with Ebert from halfway across the country that Troopers was “tailor-made for teenage boys.” Yet to damn Verhoeven’s deep space, Sirkian melodrama for being over the top or crass seems to miss the point entirely, as the film is only heightening the laughable aspects of the right wing culture it’s skewering with glee. It’s no wonder there were reports of hysterical walkouts during the movie’s disastrous US theatrical run, where it grossed back barely over half of its $100 million production budget. Verhoeven’s practically giving the finger to a country that enabled a military industrial complex to charge into WII, Vietnam and the Gulf War (all of which the psycho Dutchman borrows imagery from) under the guise of silver screen escapism. War became a national past time, rooted for or jeered against from behind television sets in the same way Americans would enjoy their local baseball squads.
A sped up evolution of the “not too distant future” RoboCop ham-fistedly created, Starship Troopers takes that movie’s squib-laden approach to genre sarcasm and injects it with a horse syringe full of anabolic steroids. Humankind has begun to colonize worlds beyond our galaxy and, in turn, angers a species of rampaging arachnids, who see no choice but to repel the macho invaders with as much force as has been exerted upon them. Much how homo sapiens interpret any sort of hostility, humankind sees these blatant acts of self-defense as nothing more than naked aggression, launching into an interspecies war that they can’t possibly win (but are too stupid to admit possible inadequacy for). Earth rallies behind a fascistic rhetoric that adopts Nazi fashions and repurposes WII-style propaganda, calling for all young people to join the fight against the “bugs”. It’s as absurd on screen as it sounds on paper, rendering America’s inability to recognize such a broad work of batshit satire all the more baffling.
Perhaps the most glorious aspect of Starship Troopers (outside of Phil Tippet Studios’ mix of practical and CGI FX work) is the utterly brilliant script by RoboCop writer Ed Neumeier. Taking the notoriously bellicose source novel and subverting every bit of its cock-of-the-walk saber rattling, Neumeier injects the movie with teen archetypes that would feel more at home in Days of Our Lives episodes or John Hughes knock-offs. The drama is no different than one would find in your average daytime soap: declarations of love shouted at full volume, love triangles formed and dissolved, jocks fighting over beautiful girls who can’t make up their mind regarding which man they want to be with. Of course, Verhoeven embraces the inherent corniness of these scenarios and then presents them to us with a completely straight face, filming a fistfight between two soap stars in a warp speed spaceship while Mazzy Star’s quintessential '90s ballad “Fade Into You” blares on the soundtrack. This is Douglas Sirk filtered through James Cameron, grinning and nudging your ribs in-between monstrous set pieces where the “bugs” decapitate and dismember every futile flesh suit that tries to mow them down with puny automatic popguns.
Frankly, none of this would remotely work if it weren’t for the fact that Verhoeven continues to amp the sex and violence to levels that seem ludicrous even by his nutso standards. Fountains of gore punctuate every charge into battle, as both soldiers and their beastly counterparts are nothing more than blood-squirting targets for a rather eye-popping shooting gallery. It’s shocking how well the spectacle work has held up, as the marauding hordes still look incredible on the big screen; swarming from the hills and out of caves like parasites awakened in the universe’s bloodstream. As the film progresses, the creature design only gets more and more grotesque; the discovery of massive beetles and brain-devouring “smart bugs” adding layers of '50s monster movie laughs as well as odd psychosexual overtones (the vaginal openings from which the grey matter-hungry tubes emerge pulsate with Verhoeven’s usual perversion). This is top tier entertainment; only the alternate dimension we’ve been beamed to is one of hawkish horror. By the end, as we watch our “heroes” march back into battle via a brand new piece of propaganda, it’s unclear who in this galaxy we’re supposed to be rooting for. War is a never-ending cycle – sport for dumb high-school kids who buy into the marketing they’ve been spoon-fed by their government for years.
Despite the inherent hilarity some of these aesthetic choices lend Troopers (and make no mistake, you ARE supposed to be busting up at particular points), that doesn’t stop the movie from retaining an odd emotional core and sense of visceral excitement. It’s no mystery that Verhoeven is a natural when it comes to directing action; his sense of geography and ability to communicate an almost childlike feel of “playing war” tapping into the lizardry sections of any adrenaline junkie’s brain. Thrills aside, the heightened romantic relationships and bro down comraderies shared between these Roughneck Marines once they’re thrust into battle is downright infectious. You care about these lug-headed goons, wanting them to stay alive, even if their moral compasses have been irreparably damaged through years of unbeknownst brainwashing. The moral codes passed down from commander to grunt (particularly when it comes to “mercy killing” in the face of certain anguish) suddenly have an all-to-real poignancy when you watch a soldier have to execute his freshly brutalized mentor. In this way, Starship Troopers becomes a marvel of immersion; so committed to creating a world and viewpoint that you can’t help but connect with it on a base, heartfelt level.
It’s uncertain whether or not Verhoeven cares about the audience getting on board with his gag. Much like his previous dive into debauchery – the positively riotous Showgirls – Starship Troopers is a slice of celluloid that proudly wears an anti-reality artifice on its sleeve like a badge of filmic honor. This is the kind of potential blockbuster we rarely receive any longer – smart, rebellious, and full of unblemished artistic vision. Maybe its failure shouldn’t be viewed as a surprise, after all. Instead of offering up distraction from the dullards constantly knocking down your door with their dubious messages, it drags your nose through a pile of accusatory dogshit, unconcerned that you definitely hate the smell of its lesson. Nevertheless, once you peel back Verhoeven’s layers of deliberate plasticity, a core of devious intent is discovered, festering with a smug sense of self-satisfaction. It’s a shame that the back-to-back failures of both Starship Troopers and the EszterhasOverdrive stripper anthem signaled a temporary end to Verhoeven’s Hollywood storm (though Hollow Man threatened to bring it back). We need to enable cinematic psychopaths like him more often.
This Week at Weird Wednesday: Message From Space
Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie; Gone With the Pope; Fright Night; Aliens; Future-Kill; Ladies and Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains; Pieces; Last House on the Left; Pink Flamingos; In the Mouth of Madness; Evilspeak; Deadly Friend; Don’t Look in the Basement; Vampyres; She; Dolls; Alice, Sweet Alice