A review requested by Gabe, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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Starship Troopers is maybe the clearest articulation I can name of the disappointing fact that you can never, ever make satire too obvious for some people. I take it to be the case that most of director Paul Verhoeven's six American films are satires, pretty vicious, smart, and lacerating ones at that (the only exception is the last of them, 2000's Hollow Man, though I am happy to hear defenses of why I've gotten that one wrong), but I concede immediately that the satire in something like 1995's infamous Showgirls is buried pretty deep, and you have to put in the work of spelunking to find it. This is not, I think, the case with Starship Troopers. That film wears its satire right on the surface, for anyone to pluck it; it's the American Verhoeven film that I think is the most open about its intentions after the first, 1987's RoboCop (a film which it otherwise closely resembles; I think they form a matched pair just as much as Showgirls does with the 1992 Basic Instinct). It's so ridiculous and crude in its depiction of vulgar militarism, it can only be a ridiculous piece of over-the-top mockery. And yet, critics at the time of its first release were, by and large, quite hostile, viewing it as a brainless celebration of violence and machismo. I wonder if perhaps, immediately after Showgirls, they were just hunting for more tacky junk from a filmmaker they regarded as an irredeemable schlockmeister. It fits with a theory that a friend of mine once offered, that part of the reason our generation was so quick to reclaim Showgirls as ingenious, even subtle, was because the extremely goddamn obvious left-wing satire of Starship Troopers was sitting there to act as a Rosetta Stone. Because this is how Paul Verhoeven operates, this film; it is not his best American movie (though it's none too shabby!), but maybe it's the most typical.

So after that lead-up, how about the film, anyway? It's partially based off a 1959 Robert A Heinlein novel that I have never read, and by all accounts, Paul Verhoeven hasn't either; he claimed to make it two chapters in, conclude that the whole thing was repulsive right-wing imperialist propaganda, and turn away from it in disgust. I say "partially" because Ed Neumeier's script apparently started life as an unrelated project, named Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine, that was a bit too close to the Heinlein for comfort, and was retrofitted into an adaptation in large part to take advantage of the author's brand name. Whatever the case, it's a tale of life in the 23rd Century, when human civilization under a one-world government has become heavily militarised, to the point that service in the armed forces is a prerequisite for having full rights as a citizen. Which doesn't mean that everybody joins the military; it seems that for the wealthy elite, the comfort of having access to material goods takes enough of the sting out of disenfranchisement that military enrollment is still largely a lower-class preoccupation, with the promise of some nebulous post-service access to quasi-elite status letting starry-eyed kids put themselves in harm's way. If you have gotten this far without at least guessing what the satiric target of the film might be, then Christ help you.

Anyway, Earth has lately come under attack from a distant alien race derisively tagged with the slur "bugs", an account of being, basically, giant insects. They've been pitching meteors at our planet, and we've retaliated by perfecting faster-than-light travel, to go to their home planets and slaughter them in massive battles that leave acres of the dead of both species in a wasteland that makes the trench warfare of WWI look cozy. We're introduced to such combat right at the start, in the form  of a news report that keys us in pretty fast to the other big target of the film's satire: the way that a compliant media will lie right to your face about how important and effective military action is, in more or less direct contradiction to the exact same footage you're being presented with. History tells us that many smart people were able to watch this and detect not a quantum of irony in the way that the film's extraordinary quantities of gore contradicted with the gee-whiz attitude of the news announcers and the way the character spoke. For that matter, they apparently also failed to notice the irony of a single news report that tastefully censored one bloody death mere seconds before showing the dismembered remains of human bodies in a battlefield, as perfect a summary of the incomprehensible double standards of the "tastefulness" of television news. My job here is not to grab the mainstream critics of 1997 and shake them back and forth while screaming "are you fucking blind?" right into their faces. But is hard not to want to do that.

Anyway. The setting is Buenos Aires, where four friends are about to graduate high school: Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris), and Isabel "Dizzy" Flores (Dina Meyer). That they are all transparently too old to be high school students I think to be part of the joke; that they are all as lily-white as a jar of marshmallow fluff I am confident is part of the joke. Carmen and Carl are both jumping right into the military in order to make a better life for themselves; Johnny, a son of privilege, is doing it out of the ages-old desire to piss of his rich dad and pursue the lower-class girl of his dreams, Carmen. And then Dizzy does the same to chase after Johnny. It's all very swoony and melodramatic, and gets even moreso: Johnny quickly realises that he's not cut out for military life, but just literally minutes after he decides to give up and return home, Buenos Aires is wiped off the map by a bug attack. So now he's an orphan with revenge on his mind, and in no time flat, he's rising through the ranks as a super-soldier of the first order.

The film is playing a meta-game, which is the literal only excuse I have for why anybody could possibly miss its satire. Basically, the story of Starship Troopers - the love triangle, the need for revenge turning a helpless rich prettyboy into a top-tier military man - is being told from within the film's universe, so to speak; it's the kind of "we can do it!"/"life goes on!" cinematic propaganda that you always see from countries during wartime (the basics of the Carmen-Johnny-Dizzy triangle, adjusted for conventional gender roles, is found in movies contemporaneous to both World Wars. And, for that matter, later movies about both World Wars; four years later, it was part of the fuel of the stillborn Pearl Harbor). The trick to it is that, much as happened in Showgirls, the actors weren't let in on the game; they are, in fact, the butt of the joke (as in that movie, one cast member figured out the joke, and played along accordingly: then it was Gina Gershon, here it's Neil Patrick Harris. This makes perfect sense in retrospect, though at the time, when he was still best known as Doogie Howser, I imagine it wasn't so extremely obvious that he was the smartest & savviest member of this cast). Van Dien and Richards get the worst of it; most of the reason the latter is in the movie at all is because she's so transparently not equipped to be one of the human race's most able pilots, able to quickly strategise and plot out complicated courses and do basic mathematics on the fly (for a perfect example of missing the joke, see the perfectly sincere casting of Richards as a nuclear scientists two years later, in the misbegotten James Bond film The World Is Not Enough). Van Dien, called upon to be the film's emotional center, instantly reveals his complete lack of even incidental quantities of skill and charisma: he is an actor whose extremely brief moment in the sun revealed him to be not much more than a sharp chin, a set of teeth gritted so hard that your own jaw starts to ache in sympathy and bright, steely eyes with an eerie tendency to not blink. He looks less like a handsome movie star than a terribly misguided parody of same, an attempt to create a smoldering hunk in a lab that went wrong when they accidental stuck a serial killer's brain in the body. When he glances at something, he glares; he embodies, simply by doing the only thing he ever did as an actor, the film's conceit that the prettyboy war hero and the psychotic murdering fuck are one and the same thing.

With its nightmarishly ineffective "underwear models anchoring a teen soap" casting mentality, Starship Troopers has already played one of its two biggest jokes. The other, borrowed pretty much without alteration from RoboCop, is to indulge in as much violence as the rating system knows what to do with. This is a sublimely gory movie, watching with rapt attention as CGI bugs (which hold up pretty well, by the standards of 1997 VFX) and practical humans alike are exploded, dessicated, ripped apart, or otherwise left as contorted husks dripping fluid. It is an extravagantly gross movie, which is one of the things it mostly came under attack for when it was new; this is probably the most characteristic thing Verhoeven did during his American years. What do we claim to love, in the U.S.? Sex and violence, baby? What do we, in the U.S., actually find awful and repulsive, and do everything in our power to puritanically censor them, whether from leftwing or rightwing motivations? Sex and violence, of course. The only time Verhoeven combined these two things in a sustained way was in Basic Instinct, but at least Starship Troopers has the violence down pat. It's the perfect fit for the CGI-loving '90s in the same way that RoboCop was for the sci-fi & cops-loving '80s: taking the cool new thing, giving it to us until it gets numbing, and them giving it to us some more. Starship Troopers errs on the side of being gross rather than amusing, unlike RoboCop; but it's also trying to rub our noses in the hideousness of war. And oh my, do our noses get well and truly rubbed.

So we're back to where we started: anti-miltary satire, and anti-media satire. Most of how it gets there, I've already pointed out: by having the war heroes played by vacant-eyed idiots cast more because they are absently pretty than because they remotely fit their parts; by having a hugely ineffective human drama get snapped off at the knees by the extreme violence. There are other, more specific things. Like the big, controversial co-ed shower scene that was, at the time, talked about like it it was just another example of Paul "Vaginas" Verhoeven getting his rocks off by showing naked people, but I think it's a pretty brilliant focused attack on the newly-in-vogue idea of a "progressive military", nominally blind to gender discrimination. The scene presents several soapy bodies from front and back (there are no penises, because of the rock-hard rules of the MPAA ratings system, but you can tell from how two specific shots are framed that Verhoeven really wanted there to be), stripped of any eroticism, stripped of any sex at all. Sex is not, after all, something these bodies are meant for; they are meant for dying. All of these naked people parading around in front of each other is perverse precisely because there's no lust: these people have lost all their identity, dignity, and humanity to become meat puppets in a war. The implication is that gorgeous people, showering together, ought to be all horned-up, and the fact they aren't is a problem with this society, not one of its strengths. The anti-right-wing angle of attack in Starship Troopers is all over the place, and obvious; that it takes the time to, however briefly, point out that the liberal ideal of what a "good" military looks like still requires dehumanising soldiers who are about to become cannon fodder is one of the places it moves towards genius.

Of course, the vast majority of the film is anti-right, from demonstrating over and over again the fundamental hollowness of traditional machismo (all of the rugged military vets have conspicuously missing body parts), to critiquing the need for a Faceless Other in any wartime environment (the bugs are as profoundly unsympathetic and inhuman as a creature could be, and the film keeps sneaking in references to how much more sophisticated and evolved they are than we humans), to, of course, lambasting the media that dives headlong into gung-ho jingoism the instant it's called upon to do so. Like RoboCop's omnipresent TV commercials, the shiny, sound-bite driven news reports all throughout Starship Troopers are closer to being a transcription of contemporaneous media culture than an exaggerated parody; sensationalist headlines are recited without a hint of nuance or reflection, facts are presented as self-evident despite making no sense on their own at all. That these news reports also serve to limit how much of the exposition we get for this movie is one more of the film's sick jokes; Starship Troopers expects its viewer to be smart enough to see how unfairly we're being limited in our knowledge and understand that the characters in the movie are just like us only without the awareness of their own ignorance. Perhaps placing that amount of trust in its audience's sophistication in the body of a film so easily marketed as a messy, violent sci-fi spectacle is why the film opened itself up to misreadings. But it's also why it's such a damn smart satire, one of the very best of the 1990s, if not beyond.