The Verge is a place where you can consider the future. So are movies. In Yesterday’s Future, we revisit a movie about the future and consider the things it tells us about today, tomorrow, and yesterday.
The movie: Starship Troopers (1997)
The future: Two hundred years from now, Earth is governed by the United Citizen Federation, a new world order where people are defined as either citizens or civilians. To be a citizen, you must enlist in the UCF marines, which will earn you the respect of your peers and the right to vote. Not much is divulged about the lives of those not enlisted; it’s implied they don’t really matter much. Everyone wants to be a good citizen, everyone wants to enlist.
The UCF needs a steady stream of recruits, too: they’re in a seemingly endless war against the Bugs. If they have a proper name, no one is told. They’re just hostile, overwhelming, and need killing. If they were provoked, the UCF does not care.
Starship Troopers follows a group of new recruits from the end of their compulsory schooling to their enlisting in various branches of the military. All-American jock Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) becomes an infantryman, his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) becomes a pilot, and his weirdo pal Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), who seems to have psychic powers, joins the military’s Intelligence division.
Viewers see the future through their eyes, and it’s one forged on the equitable distribution of violence. Voting is violence, and those who use actual force are the only ones qualified to exercise that privilege. Women and men are equals in this militaristic future: they bleed the same, play on the same arena football teams, and buy into the jingoistic propaganda with equal enthusiasm. They don’t question their roles, the war they fight in, or the fascistic nature of their government, their uniforms, their attitudes. All that matters is that they fight, and they’ll gladly die in a war that doesn’t make sense.
The past: Upon its release in November 1997, Starship Troopers almost immediately flopped. Audiences and critics hated it. Roger Ebert called it “the most violent kiddie movie ever made” in his two-star review. Ebert conceded director Paul Verhoeven seemed to be angling for a satire of fascism but argued the film lacked humanity, considering its action soulless spectacle.
It didn’t help that the movie arrived in a tremendous year for film. Titanic would steamroll box offices a month later, and the preceding months saw more successful genre fare like The Fifth Element and The Lost World: Jurassic Park rake in millions. Perhaps Star Wars didn’t help, either: in 1997, the Special Editions had been released both theatrically and on home video, and the mean contrast of Verhoeven’s film might have been difficult to swallow.
Starship Troopers seems to be an obvious satire now, but the movie and its marketing mostly played things straight. It was an unpretentious sci-fi action film with a $100 million budget and great special effects. Why shouldn’t it be fun? And in the heady glow of late-’90s American prosperity, it wasn’t particularly obvious that the people Starship Troopers was critiquing might have been us.
The present: As Atlantic writer Calum Marsh noted in 2013, the tide has been slowly turning on Starship Troopers. Like a lot of prescient satire, the times changed until the movie’s point was made for it, and its targets became obvious — even though its story in retrospect could not have been more plain.
Revisiting the film in 2018, Verhoeven stressed how Starship Troopers consciously evoked the iconography of fascism on every level, from the casting of blond and square-jawed Casper Van Dien in the lead over known names like Matt Damon to the uniforms they wore.
“I decided to make a movie about fascists who aren’t aware of their fascism,” Verhoeven said, citing the United States’ refusal to limit firearms and the escalating number of executions in Texas under then-governor George W. Bush as aspects of American policy that could easily give way to fascism.
In a recent piece for The New Yorker, David Roth argues that the movie is especially potent in 2020, as American institutions have all but failed, with fascism the only avenue for them to persist.
“For most of Starship Troopers, humanity, in every possible facet, gets its ass kicked. A culture that reveres and communicates exclusively through violence—a culture very much like one that responds to peaceful protests with indiscriminate police brutality, or whose pandemic strategy is to “dominate” an unreasoning virus—keeps running up against its own self-imposed limitations,” Roth writes. “It’s not a realization that anyone in the film can articulate, or seemingly even process, but the failure is plain: society has left itself a single solution to every problem, and it doesn’t work.”
It’s worth noting that it’s still easy to misinterpret Starship Troopers if you’re not necessarily expecting satire. There is nothing to compare the fascistic UCF against other than the bugs — aliens shaped like things we already abhor, who don’t speak or seem to want anything other than to be left alone. It’s full of long, corny action, characters who don’t seem to think about much, and very little growth.
On this level, it’s a mindless blockbuster that’s easy to ignore, which is precisely the problem. It’s been easy to ignore our society’s very obvious ills. The atrocities of 2020 are not abnormalities or acts of God; they’re the logical conclusion to decades of careful work on the part of some and negligence on the part of others. The rot is slow, like the online propaganda videos that Starship Troopers uses for exposition that all end with a link asking “would you like to know more?” It’s a shadow of the way algorithms would serve as accelerant for radicalization nearly a decade before YouTube.
Starship Troopers asserts that the spectacle is the point. Its final act, a last, desperate push to clear out a bug stronghold, is exceedingly dull and senseless, violence made mundane. It plays it straight with no clever asides for the audience to pick up on, no character to channel the experience through, no one to ask the viewer why they have this urge to find this violence meaningful, for having the temerity to think that violence would have a meaning. I’m here to see the fireworks, and rare is the blockbuster that is interested in forcing me to question that.
Besides, would people even care? If we gave the Avengers an S.S. paint job, would people love them any less? We don’t just cheer for the “good guys” with guns anymore, but the ones with literal superpowers, and they’ve taken over the world.