Johnny, Carmen, and Carl are high school best friends about to graduate and join the military. Right from the start, they’re led in different directions: Carmen will enter flight school, Carl is mysteriously placed into military intelligence, and Johnny’s substandard math scores lead him to the mobile infantry, the grittiest of occupations. They’ll likely never see each other again, Carl says. That doesn’t matter to Carmen. “Let’s make a vow,” she says. “No matter what, we’ll always be friends.” They clasp hands as a triumphant burst of music swells up, and the Dawson’s Creek level of corniness is almost unforgivable until the bizarre ebullience of the promise—on the eve of being drafted into an intergalactic war—becomes apparent.
But Starship Troopers is a study in contrasts, despite its B-movie trappings: satire mixed with pleasure, subtlety contrasted with decapitation. Based off a novel by sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein, director Paul Verhoeven ran roughshod with his vision of the future. Even though Heinlein’s original text has been criticized as fascist, the world we’re introduced to is visibly led by elements of liberal utopianism. Multiculturalism has swept the planet, as political borders have been consolidated into a global federation. (There’s no confusion when we realize our whitebread heroes live in Buenos Aires, with no trace of an accent.) Gender equality also appears to be further realized: Dizzy, the firebrand redhead with a crush on Johnny, plays quarterback for the high school football team, and apparently has an offer to go pro for Rio or Tokyo. (The NFL’s draconian rules regarding underclassmen jumping to the league have apparently been revised.) Later in the movie, we even see the male and female soldiers showering together, with no wink or conscious awkwardness.
That said: This is definitely a militarized society. Most people on the planet are “civilians,” while those who join the military are upgraded to full “citizen” status. Citizens are allowed to vote, have children, run for office—to serve at the vanguard of humanity. In the beginning, a citizen is explained as someone who takes the safety of the republic into their own hands, the idea being that you aren’t truly devoted to society unless you’re willing to kill for it. This undercurrent of violence seems to exist in everything. “When you vote, you are exercising political authority. You’re using force,” Johnny’s soldier-turned-teacher-turned-soldier explains in the opening scene. “Force, my friends, is violence. The supreme authority from which all other authority is derived.”
But this gung-ho attitude isn’t presented to us without question. Verhoeven’s script pokes a lot of fun at the military, most overtly through the propagandized public service announcements that are interspersed throughout the film. In those P.S.A.s, a number of goofy situations are shown: children excitedly handling assault rifles in a public park, stomping on cockroaches in the playground as an onlooking teacher cackles with overwrought glee, stepping out from a platoon in full gear to declare, “I’m doing my part!” All of it is unified with a request for knowledge: “Would you like to know more?” Though these satiric elements could never be described as subtle, it’s a little bit jarring when juxtaposed against the explicitly gratuitous action scenes that would seem to announce a boilerplate blockbuster rather than nuanced commentary. That was a concern of the generally positive reviews the movie received upon release: whether the target demographic of teenage boys would be clued into the critique of action culture.
Watched in context of a post-9/11 world, the commentary seems even more pronounced. Though it’s a bit too convenient to connect the terroristic tactics of the asteroid-deploying arachnid opponents to the sneak attacks of Al Qaeda, the Federation’s response of all-out war after Buenos Aires is destroyed is immediately recognizable. As the soldiers head to battle, a reporter suggests something retroactively obvious: “Some say the bugs were provoked by the intrusion of humans into their natural habitat. That a live-and-let-live policy is preferable to war with the bugs.” But this isn’t seriously considered at first — even as the reporter speaks, Johnny immediately appears in the background to say, “I’m from Buenos Aires and I say kill them all!” It’s only when the initial assault fails that the military gurus concede that they should’ve given their opponents more credit. A war predicated on emotional response can only go awry, even if the motivations seem righteous.
Almost lost in the conflict with the bugs are our so-called heroes. It isn’t easy to connect to the characters, though not for lack of trying. Understandably, smart dialogue is never at the forefront of Verhoeven’s action films —aside from the fact that he isn’t a natural English speaker, he’s always allowed the action to do the storytelling. Still, intentional dearth of characterization isn’t why Johnny (Casper Van Dien) and Carmen (Denise Richards) come off wooden and anodyne (Carl, played by a post-Doogie Howser, pre-gay icon Neil Patrick Harris, quickly disappears into the secrecy of military intelligence, making appearances here and there).They’re too all-American, too perfect-looking, too incapable of communicating the readily apparent horrors of war with anything less than an overly expressive bug-eyed gawk. In one particularly under/overwhelming moment, Johnny watches as a soldier under his command during a training camp skirmish gets shot in the head, and reacts with an iron-jawed grimace that’s sustained for five seconds before giving way to a harried cry for a medic.
There is actually no way to watch this moment without laughing. But in a way, this lack of empathy feels intentional on Verhoeven’s part, so as to emphasize how individual action and feeling are ultimately irrelevant in the grander context of war, no matter how ugly that seems to our humanist sensibilities. After one mission goes disastrously wrong, Carl tells Johnny that the odds of survival were low from the beginning. When Carmen reacts with shock, he refuses to apologize. “You don’t approve. Well, too bad,” he says. “We’re in this for the species, boys and girls. It’s simple numbers. They have more, and every day I have to make decisions that send hundreds of people to your death.” It’s a little bit on the nose, but it illustrates that simple truth: to the men in charge, war is about brutal calculus, not about honor or the will to win. Johnny and his squad are just interchangeable pieces on a chessboard—it’s even more obvious when you consider he’s called Johnny, the most traditional and generic of all soldier names. Yeah, it’s a little hard to connect with the everyday people doing the dirty work. Sadly, that’s the point.