Playing Wed April 18 at 7:00 at 92YTribeca [Program & Tix]
The Iron Mule Comedy Film Series celebrates its 10th Anniversary with another misunderstood Paul Verhoeven masterpiece. Also screening: Jake Armstrong’s 2009 short “The Terrible Thing of Alpha 9!”.
Alt Screen Head Editor Paul Brunick, for L Magazine:
The intergalactic military epic Starship Troopers may be the most analytically exacting critique of Fascist aesthetics this side of Susan Sontag, but for director Paul Verhoeven “the essence of the movie is really young kids fighting giant bugs.” It’s a characteristically smartass description of his slyly subversive blockbuster, but what makes the gloss so funny is that it’s also perfectly sincere. Buzzing with armies of CG insects and enough high-school drama for an outer-space spin off of The O.C., Starship Troopers is at once an anti-imperialist allegory and a mindlessly satisfying piece of schlock. And therein lies the brilliance of Paul Verhoeven, the bastard son of Jerry Bruckheimer and Bertolt Brecht. And let me add only that its straight-faced subversion of gung-ho militarism is a satire worthy of Swift’s A Modest Proposal.
Gavin Smith for Film Comment:
Verhoeven’s seemingly indefensible gross-out authoritarian sci-fi war flick seems, in retrospect, like one of last year’s most adroit, prescient enterprises. Perverse, lurid, and willfully shallow, it is a precise summation of the alienated and berserk sensationalism of mass entertainment. David Denby put it well: “As you watch the endless carnage, you become sure that Hollywood has gone completely, utterly mad.” In one interview Verhoeven went as far as saying, “The question is not why am I using so much violence, but why are others not?” For all its goo and splatter and screaming, dismembered torsos hurtling across the frame, the film maintains an unprecedented tone of hysterical parody – of militaristic fascist sentiment, of sadistic, libidinal spectacle, of the brave new world of digital imagery. Starship Troopers is strangely immune to conventional criticism: every objection you can make against the movie seems to confirm it in its deranged integrity. The glossy, cosmeticized or airbrushed visuals, cipherlike All-American Aryan cast, perfunctory titillations and painstakingly banal emotional values are all unmistakable elements in a deliberate satiric strategy. Consumed though he is with a kind of sardonic decadence and cynicism, Verhoeven, for all his preposterous, amoral excesses, has at the same time an uncommon, profound understanding of death, of physical destruction as morbid, erotic spectacle – he handles it with complete, unnerving conviction.
High school graduates Johnny Rico, Dizzy, Carmen and Carl enlist in the armed forces of the Federation. Training takes its toll, and Johnny is on the point of throwing in the towel when space insects wipe out his home town Buenos Aires. The infantry are despatched to the outer limits of the galaxy to give ’em what for, but…you guessed it. An adaptation of a Robert A Heinlein novel, this replays World War II as sci-fi spectacular – and this time we’re rooting for the fascists. Presumably director Verhoeven meant it as a sour, ironic joke. If so, he’s kept an admirably straight face. His totalitarian utopia looks like a daytime soap: bright, clean, empty. And his lead players might be caricatures of Aryan perfection. It falls to Ironside’s motivational teacher/commander, Rasczak, to whip them into shape (‘If you don’t do your job, I shoot you!’). It says a lot about the director that the movie only kicks into life when the carnage starts. The bugs make up in numbers what they lack in charm, the scale of the battle scenes takes the breath away, and the violence is unremittingly gruesome. On the surface, this is grotesque, reactionary trash, yet by the end, when Verhoeven turns a giant brain-sucking maggot into an object of pity, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer perversity of the enterprise.
Kevin B. Lee for The House Next Door:
A commercial and critical flop upon its release, the virtues of Paul Verhoeven’s satirical take on Robert Heinlein’s Cold War sci-fi novel are stunningly clear in the context of 9-11 and the Iraq War. Few recent films tap into the underlying forces shaping today’s world as piercingly as Verhoeven’s vision of a thoroughly Americanized global civilization that exploits media and youth culture to wage endless war against an appointed enemy. With perverse, knowing affection, Verhoeven mashes cliched elements from 1940s war movies (”Come on you apes, you wanna live forever?”) and 1990s teen soap opera (football game, senior prom) and splashes them with a futuristic paint job in an effort to link together the past, present and future of youth cultural propaganda. Most prescient is the framing device of an internet-type visual console that bombards the viewer with requests of “Would you like to know more?”, paving a perpetual rabbit hole of Information Age captivity.
One might abjectively dismiss Verhoeven’s send-up as another case of Hollywood having its cake and selling it. Further complicating the issue of satire, Verhoeven isn’t adopting a scorched-earth approach to his subject matter; instead there’s an odd, loving attention paid to the innovative special effects and the straight-faced execution of ersatz melodrama. Reflecting a more complicated – and honest – fascination with Hollywood genres, Verhoeven interrogates both the seductive fantasy surfaces and the horrific real world outcomes of its mythmaking. In other words, this may be one of the few Hollywood blockbusters that functions as a work of film criticism as art.
Kent Jones, also for Film Comment:
Digital film technology changes the consistency and texture of the image by giving it a uniform smoothness, with a bonus side-effect: the entire world seems to be composed of a single synthetic substance. Now that digital effects are ominously encroaching on the film image (just like the way that CDs gradually replaced records), dare we ask whether it’s such a hot idea after all? Paul Verhoeven makes astonishing use of digital effects in the supposedly fascist Starship Troopers, the most misunderstood Film of the holiday season. in that truly terrifying longshot of the bug invasion. Verhoeven’s semi-brilliant portrait of a fully functioning fascist utopia is way too double-dealing to achieve the kind of popular success it guns for so stealthily, but its digital effects are seamless – probably because he flattens and smoothes out the entire world into a Fifties sci-fi illustration, and gives it a bold, cartoonish physics. Like Toy Story, which hilariously recasts the entire world in hard plastic, Starship Troopers makes poetic use of digital textures by foregrounding their feeling of unreality.
Jonathan Rosenbaum reconsiders his original assessment, for the Chicago Reader:
I accorded two stars to Starship Troopers (1997); I was fascinated with what wasn’t American about this allegedly all-American blockbuster, but I may have underrated some of the ways it was actively anti-American in its ridicule of American clichés, tastes, racial preferences, and archetypes. Comparable ambiguities can be seen in Verhoeven’s considerable talent as a pop artist, fully apparent in his decorous billboard compositions and their clarity of line. What often registers in Verhoeven’s work as mockery or irony, with all the trappings of satire, can also be read as just yarn spinning and gross-out mongering by a gifted comic-book artist, and much of the fascination of Starship Troopers rests on this sustained ambiguity.
Michael Atkinson on “the most misunderstood and underappreciated sci-fi blockbuster of all time,” for Turner Classic Movies:
What didn’t dawn on everyone at the time of Starship Troopers‘s abbreviated theatrical run was that it was a comedy – a vicious, all-barrels-firing piece of social satire and by far the funniest Hollywood film of 1997. All satire runs the risk of evading an inattentive audience and being mistaken for the very thing it mocks, but few American movies have been as extreme in their methods and at the same time as miscomprehended as Verhoeven’s. In this film’s pointed but absurd idea of the future, the world has one fascist government, society is divided between the rabble “civilians” and the elite, vote-bearing “citizens,” and the former can become the latter only by performing a term of service with the Mobile Infantry, an interstellar army devoted to battling “bugs,” an alien race of house-sized arachnids who hurl their spore into space and thereby direct meteors toward Earth. If all that isn’t ludicrous enough, our protagonists are idealistic high schoolers hot to do their part: the jock, his bodacious girlfriend, the nerd, the opportunistic schemer, the dumb goofball, the girl who loves the football star but who stands silently aside. They train, travel the galaxy, combat monster-bugs, mature, experience casualties, triumph.
Verhoeven gave the film a purposefully flat, overlit look, which accentuates both the actors’ almost creepy architectural perfection and their believable proximity with the computer-created bugs. (Which are simultaneously silly and fearsome, and the violence they wreak is so fast, hairy and gory that it, too, becomes a running gag.) But the most flagrantly satiric aspect of Troopers, the relentless presence of which makes it difficult to fathom how people didn’t “get it,” is its TV-online advertisements for itself, popping up in the film as recruitment commercials, Web info sites (you must love, after seeing an announcer get shredded in two by a bug, the ubiquitous prompt bar calmly reading “Do You Want to Know More?”) and government-controlled live news, which is outrageously bald-faced propaganda. “DO YOUR PART” the ads scream at us, while school kids display solidarity by stomping on real roaches, and fight over laser rifles to the amusement of nearby soldiers. The schtick almost pokes you in the eye, especially today during a dishonest war fought by a glorified-but-reluctant-&-dwindling volunteer army.
Starship Troopers certainly faced the problem of any satire of political war-mongering – that the vivid depiction of militaristic chaos can be so exciting that the scolding intention of it is obscured by the mayhem. And make no mistake, the film is vivid and appalling in ways that few films have been before or since. Verhoeven may be the bravest and most assured satirist in Hollywood, insofar as he succeeds in making big genre movies no one knows whether to take seriously or not. However you slice it, Verhoeven has gotten a bum rap as a directorial miscreant, because there’s nothing misjudged or self-indulgent about Starship Troopers. It’s pure laughing gas.
J. Hoberman for The Village Voice:
Not for the arachnophobic, this intergalactic Raid campaign is surely on Verhoeven’s wavelength. After RoboCop and Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Showgirls, the transplanted Dutchman has become something like our Fritz Lang-Hollywood’s comic-book artist deluxe, the suavely brutal purveyor of hardcore pulp. Verhoeven may lack Lang’s visionary conviction and cultural pessimism, but he has a boldly cartoonish graphic sensibility and a corresponding gusto for caricatured postmodern shibboleths. Somewhere beyond irony, Starship Troopers’s clever opener dares the viewer to position the movie as kissing cousin to a Hitler Youth recruitment ad.
An altogether more stylish, sardonic, and efficient entertainment machine than Independence Day, Starship Troopers substitutes gender equality for ethnic balance. Showgirls go to war. The army is coed. Male and female soldiers get to shower and, on at least one occasion, bunk down together . . . in the name of species solidarity? The most intense sci-fi combat film since James Cameron’s Aliens, Troopers subsumes a plot-driven class struggle between infantry and air force in the visceral excitement of all-out, hand-totendril interspecies warfare-most spectacularly in the sensationally animated, artfully corpse-splattered, nerve-wracking attacks of the scuttling, screaming crustacean-spider hordes.
That the movie has no more depth than the early-’80s video games that were based on Heinlein’s novel is Verhoeven’s ultimate joke. Every planet not only resembles the Dakota badlands but has an earthling-compatible atmosphere. Oxygen is everywhere. Considering that the spider-monsters are apparently capable of targeting earth cities with meteors launched from deep space, it takes the Terra Federation a remarkably long time to realize that the Bugs might actually be intelligent.
Scott Tobias inducts it into “The New Cult Canon” for The Onion AV Club:
Creators of science fiction are by nature forward-thinking and occasionally prescient, but after rewatching Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers—to my mind the most subversive major studio film in recent (or distant) memory—I now wonder if Verhoeven and his screenwriter, Ed Neumeier, had access to a time machine. Because even though it was produced in 1997—and based on a Robert Heinlein novel from 1959—Starship Troopers is such a clean, strong, almost direct post-9/11 allegory that Verhoeven and Neumeier had to have seen what was coming. Then again, Starship Troopers isn’t a satire about any specific war, it’s a brilliant dissection of how all wars work—how they’re packaged and sold via propaganda, how the enemy is (in this case, literally) dehumanized, how young people are sent eagerly to sacrifice on the front lines.
As much as Starship Troopers concerns itself with satiric speculation over what a fascist society of the future might look like, it’s also about the gears of war and how the young and beautiful become “fresh meat for the grinder.” One of my favorite running jokes in the movie is Rico’s meteoric rise through the ranks of Mobile Infantry, which happens partly because he shows courage and initiative, but mostly because the men above him keep getting killed. (“I need a corporal,” says Mr. Rasczak. “You’re it until you’re dead, or I find someone better.”) For the men and women on the ground, the war against the bugs is not only pointless, but never-ending: The biggest battle scene in the film, a showdown at a fortress overwhelmed by the enemy, ends in a retreat, with a lucky handful escaping a horizon filled with infinite waves of arachnids and flies. The bugs are not only more efficient killing machines than humans, but by all appearances, they can reproduce faster, too. When some brave soldiers capture the “brain bug” at the end, it’s a hollow triumph, because it’s a senseless war they’re biologically and militarily doomed to lose. For the suckers going for citizenship, their greatest hope is to sacrifice a limb or two, and get back home; otherwise, the best and the brightest can expect the high honor of being ceremonially jettisoned into the vast nothingness of outer space.
Each viewing seems to yield a new revelation—this time, Carmen asking Rico to “write her” via video message, suggesting an illiterate society—or something else to discuss, like the co-ed showers and military units, an intriguingly progressive sign that the battle of the sexes ended in a draw. I suspect its future is bright: The line between the world of Starship Troopers and Sarah Palin’s Twitter feed gets thinner every day.
Suzanne Scott for Reverse Shot:
Oft-cited Nazi allegory and meditation on the post-Gulf notion of purportedly “clean” warfare, Starship Troopers remains both relevant and revelatory in our currently tenuous post-quasi-war environment. Get past the bugs, the blood, and the boyish phobias (anyone who tries to deny the decidedly vaginal presence on the “brain bug” of the film’s climax should be locked in a closet with a copy of Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis), and Starship Troopers remains perhaps the most affecting commentary on the interaction between the fictional tendencies of the news media and the blunt reality of war. Serving as an intergalactic Greek chorus of sorts, the all-encompassing global Federal Network, a fictional amalgam of network and cable news, is woven throughout the film’s narrative in the form of reports, updates, and so on, all regarding Starship Troopers’s constructed war against the hostile Arachnid bug species of Klendathu (which, it should be noted, is a veritable melting pot of bug species….take that, all encompassing Other!). These brief and overwhelmingly cautionary glimpses into the evolving nature of our news media truly sets the film leagues apart from its giant bug-busting drive-in predecessors. Strangely enough, the warning is directed not at the potential savagery of future military conflict, but the increasing sensitivity of the news consumer for clean, compact coverage of inherently complex world events. “Would you like to know more?”
To show or not to show, that is the question. The modern news media has essentially drawn the shades on America’s “window on the world” in its vehement disassociation of war and gore, a fact which Starship Troopers not only picks up on, but openly mocks and ultimately criticizes. This “if it bleeds (and is ripped end to end by giant predatory bugs), it leads” mentality that manifests itself so blatantly in the film is obviously an extreme, though one that is seemingly countered by our current media environment, in which death is conveyed only in statistical graphics. In the narratological construct of Starship Troopers’s portrayal of the news media, knowing is tantamount to showing. There’s something to be said then for the more viable form of journalism that the beheaded reporter represents. Though Americans’ thirst for knowledge seemingly does not extend to the depiction of reality as reality (thus the removal of such things into a safe, sci-fi context here), there is a purity to the news reports of FedNet that transcends not only the contemporary media, but offers the promise of a restored sense of honesty. Imagine that. Informative news. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for bug warfare for Starship Troopers to fulfill its promise.
Ed Howard for Only the Cinema:
Starship Troopers is at once a thrilling, ultra-violent, energetically paced sci-fi action flick, and a viciously clever, uncompromising satire of exactly the kind of movie it purports to be, and of the militaristic, proto-fascist attitudes and assumptions underlying such films.
And there’s certainly plenty of action. The film is swarming with fierce, terrifying bug creatures. There’s surely a lot of CGI at work here, but these aliens feel real and physically tangible when it counts; the close encounters with the bugs have a messy, sticky, gory emphasis on viscera and bug-goo that is reminiscent of the best of David Cronenberg’s body-horror special effects. Verhoeven focuses equally on the casualties of humans and aliens alike; neither is spared horrible, bloody deaths in which limbs are shredded apart and hacked off, and blood sprayed everywhere. The human carnage is often harrowing (though in its aftermath, the dead strewn around frequently look more like discarded crash test dummies than real corpses), but the deaths of the aliens are often felt less intensely, since the obvious impulse is to root for the humans.
Still, Verhoeven keeps subtly reminding his audience that the aliens are not simply expendable cannon fodder: a bombing raid on their planet emphasizes the way huge swaths of the creatures, who are seemingly doing nothing aggressive for once, are simply obliterated by the waves of fire. It’s the bug equivalent of a civilian massacre, and Verhoeven’s composition deliberately recalls popular representations of the Pearl Harbor attack and of American napalm bombing raids in Vietnam. The bugs also cease being quite so intimidating in the film’s increasingly lurid final sequence, in which the troops are tracking what’s known as the “brain bug,” the central intelligence driving the creatures. This turns out to be a massive, nearly immobile lump with a nakedly vaginal face, a row of curiously soulful black eyes surrounding its labial, muscus-squirting mouth. Once the troops capture this creature, Carl reads its thoughts, triumphantly declaring that “it’s scared” to the cheers of the soldiers, who rejoice at the revelation that their enemy can feel emotions, and that they’ve frightened it. Finally, the scientists who study this captured bug complete the vaginal metaphor by inserting metallic probes into the creature’s mouth, accompanied in the media propaganda by censorial black bars, a subtle joke that links top-secret military intelligence and low-grade smut. The victors complete their victory by literally fucking the enemy, a final act that definitively establishes Verhoeven’s sympathy for the bugs rather than humans. At the same time, the human specificity of the film’s actual protagonists is de-emphasized, not only by the wooden acting but by the way that human life is so casually expended in pointless battles. At one point, the military commanders knowingly send a small group of soldiers onto a planet where they’re pretty sure the troops will be slaughtered — “that mission had a very low probability of survival” is the euphemistic explanation — just to prove a theory. The film is all about the low value of life in militaristic and totalitarian society, and the high costs of pointless wars fought by a docile, brainwashed populace.
John Perich has a great rant on why critics didn’t get the film, well-worth a read, for Overthinking It:
Starship Troopers is a satire of war films, with the fascist rhetoric cranked up to 11. What baffled many critics when Starship Troopers was first released, I suspect, was the seamless melding of fascist satire with action-movie heroism. “There’s nothing wrong with good satire — but it’s self-defeatingly stupid to inject it into any story that expects us to care what happens to the characters,” Scott Rosenberg of Salon.com said at the time. But it wouldn’t be fascist satire unless we were supposed to cheer for the characters – regardless of what they did. In a good bit of fascist propaganda, like Triumph of the Will or Starship Troopers, what makes the heroes heroic is the color of their uniform and their ability to channel rage in the service of the Nation. That’s it.
And just to keep you (and myself) from sneering too much at the critics who missed the point of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, ask yourself the following: how would you have reacted to the film if the humans lost? If the Federal Armed Forces had responded to the errors of Klendathu with a new plan fraught with even more errors? If the human race had sent wave after wave of young men and women into the unstoppable maw of arachnid warriors, until Earth was a decimated husk, waiting for the first bug dropship to land? It’d be depressing, right? Because that would be the end of the human race. Even though that would also mean that the fascists lost, and that fascism was not a workable political system, and that the Will won’t necessarily Triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. But audiences would hate that ending, no matter how well executed. We would hold out hope that some desperate band of rebels might unify and drive back the arachnids, carving out one last niche for humanity. And that’s what makes Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers a work of satiric genius. It forces us to cheer for an ideology we know is wrong.
Joseph McBride speaks with Verhoeven for Industry Central:
Basic Instinct was a terrific film noir and a vivid portrayal of contemporary American society. But you got flak for having a lesbian villain, the homicidal novelist played by Sharon Stone. Making science-fiction films solves the problem of the villain, doesn’t it? Whoever you have as a villain today, some group will be upset, but if you have bugs–
We were very well aware of that. At least we had a politically correct enemy here. We could all say, “These guys are really evil, and killing them is good.” We cannot say that about any human enemy anymore, because everybody is seeing the other side now, at least a bit more than they did forty years ago. But Starship Troopers is reflecting a little bit the situation in the second World War, when the Americans were fighting the Japanese and the Germans. Basically, the enemy was evil and had to be destroyed. Nobody had time or even could bring himself to [face] the fact that these were also human beings, motivated by other thoughts, but as human as ourselves. People had a strong tendency and inclination to deny that. The line in the movie, “The only good bug is a dead bug,” was applied to the Japanese, wasn’t it?
When the bugs attack the fort in Starship Troopers, it’s just like a scene in a Western, such as the scene in John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk when the Indians are coming over the walls of the fort and the pioneers are trying to stop them.
It is a Western. It’s a classical Western situation, absolutely. A lot of these cues were taken from Westerns and from movies like Gunga Din and The Charge of the Light Brigade. We studied these films. That is really American thinking, going back of course to the scriptwriter [of Starship Troopers, Ed Neumeier], who is American. I probably wouldn’t have even thought about it that way. I know these movies, but it’s a stronger part of his culture than mine.
Jon Davison, one of your producers, started his career with Roger Corman, and Starship Troopers plays like a gigantic Corman movie.
It is, yeah. We studied the giant ants and the giant crabs and all that stuff. It’s an upgraded B-movie. It’s saying, “Okay, this material is as important as The People vs. Larry Flynt.”
Normally with a Hollywood film the audience wants to root for the young heroes. Here it’s disturbing because they’re part of a fascist war machine and it creates a strange feeling in the audience. How much of that did you intend as satirical?
I tried to indicate that without making it into the essence of the movie. Because I think the essence of the movie is really young kids fighting giant bugs. And of course, [the fascist nature of the society] was indicated in Heinlein’s book even more than we did it. On the other hand, I think a lot of elements in the film put question marks around that. That was my intention. Young kids starting at three already using guns–is that really what you want?
For the record, Jacques Rivette scoffs to Senses of Cinema:
Starship Troopers doesn’t mock the American military or the clichés of war – that’s just something Verhoeven says in interviews to appear politically correct. In fact, he loves clichés, and there’s a comic strip side to Verhoeven, very close to Lichtenstein. And his bugs are wonderful and very funny, so much better than Spielberg’s dinosaurs. I always defend Verhoeven.
Alt Screen editor Nathan Lee, for one of the few publications that seemed to understand – Film Comment:
Only a dunce could accuse Starship Troopers of unexamined fascism-hello, scene one!-but only a fool would claim satire as the sole objective. There’s no critique of macho militarism in the rolling tide of napalm that floods a bug-ridden valley, just the unabashed orange ecstasy of power. Yes, but-please suppress the yawns-aren’t we being “implicated” in the spectacle? After all, remember this line of dialogue, slipped in by a war correspondent: “Some say the bugs were provoked by human attempts to colonize within the AQZ [Arachnid Quarantine Zone], that a ‘live and let live’ policy is preferable to war with the bugs.” The thought festers, even as the movie delivers the thrills promised by Johnny’s answer: “Yeah, well, I say kill ’em all.”
The viewer of Starship Troopers is as bereft of a sympathetic surrogate as the audience of Shivers. Both summon cold-blooded frenzies for our contemplation while denying a respectable vantage from which to participate. Cronenberg, analytical auteur par excellence, speaks of assuming the virus’s point of view, but who/what can we latch onto in Spetters (80) or Flesh+Blood (85)? There is a sense in which the Canadian theorizes conditions (psychological, cultural, biological) while the Dutchman operates to some extent within their Weltanschauung. To some extent: he’s not oblivious to subtext, but there does seem a blank at the core of his conceptions. David Thomson isn’t wrong when he finds “the basic instinct toward which he may be working is that of lustrous impersonality.” Yet there is impersonality and impersonality, and Verhoeven’s is of a different strain than, say, the adept corporate vacuity of Michael Bay. His detachment, to whatever extent consciously cultivated or essentially instinctive (and the mystery of that proportion is key to his fascination), results in the construction of vortexes. The vortex, as defined by another disreputable virtuoso tainted with fascist tendencies, Ezra Pound: “a radiant node or cluster . . . from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing.” If that sounds like the definition of any artwork, it becomes useful insofar as we can calibrate degrees of velocity and radiance. Verhoeven burns fast and blinds. Compare the hard, bright light of Showgirls to the woozy mush of Dreamgirls, the rapacious acceleration of Basic Instinct to Notes on a Scandal, the rocketing of Starship Troopers to everything. Yet there are vortexes and vortexes, and the modernist variety refined by Pound & Co. aspire to clarify values and trace constructive contours, whereas Verhoeven’s sink in the sludge of postmodern perplexity.
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