Fresh on Netflix, Starship Troopers remains a triumph of ’90s science fiction.
Starship Troopers is undeniably the work of Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven’s films are often divisive, walking a fine line between sly subversion and straight-up trash. At certain points in his filmography, it is hard to distinguish the two. Notably, his two films prior to making Starship Troopers were the erotic thrillers Basic Instinct and Showgirls, the former receiving a mixed response and the latter reviled. Is Showgirls a sleazy and leering example of the male gaze or a brutal capitalist satire? Is it both?
Produced following the critical and commercial failure of Showgirls, Starship Troopers marked a return to the genre Verhoeven had worked in his two films prior to Basic Instinct. Both RoboCop and Total Recall were triumphs of satirical science fiction. There was a lot to love about both films, such as their use of practical effects and their stylish production design. However, they also offered windows into hyper-capitalist dystopias that were framed as absurd live-action cartoons.
Starship Troopers was nominally adapted from Robert Heinlein’s novel of the same name. Of course, Verhoeven being Verhoeven, he would subsequently claim that he found the book “so boring” that he never actually finished it, forcing screenwriter Edward Neumeier to summarize it for him. The result is a film that borrows its basic source material from Heinlein but filters it through Verhoeven’s unique directorial sensibilities. There is a lot of violence and nudity, and a healthy dose of satire underpinning it.
This approach stands in contrast to most readings of the source novel. Heinlein’s book has been seen to suggest that “the best societies would be run by military dictatorships.” However, Verhoeven described Starship Troopers as “a movie about fascists who aren’t aware of their fascism.” Verhoeven deliberately and pointedly evokes Nazi propaganda in filming Starship Troopers, and he constantly interrupts the narrative for bite-size news coverage that now seems eerily prescient in the era of fake news.
As with both RoboCop and Total Recall, Verhoeven layers this commentary on top of an old-fashion schlocky B-movie. The script is pointedly soap operatic. The young cast is headlined by Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, and Denise Richards, actors who feel like they belong in a CW (or, at that stage, WB or UPN) show rather than a science fiction epic. Verhoeven employs a lot of CGI in Starship Troopers but also revels in practical effects that only serve to heighten the movie’s already absurd levels of violence.
This cocktail proved too much for some critics. In The New York Times, Janet Maslin complained that the film was nothing more than “crazed, lurid spectacle.” Roger Ebert described it as “totalitarian.” Reading those initial reviews, it seems as though Starship Troopers fell victim to Poe’s Law, the inevitability that at a certain point it becomes impossible to distinguish between an extreme example of a thing and a parody of that thing. Was Starship Troopers fascist propaganda or a parody of fascist propaganda?
History has been somewhat kinder to Starship Troopers, as demonstrated by a slew of retrospective pieces that enthusiastically recognized it as “one of the most misunderstood movies ever” and a piece of social commentary that was “way ahead of its time.” There is a sense in which the real world has only recently managed to catch up to the insanity of Starship Troopers, with certain aspects of contemporary news coverage and politics feeling like they’ve ported into reality straight from Verhoeven’s brain.
Starship Troopers was an underappreciated movie when it was released. However, in the two decades since, it has evolved into a boldly prescient one. Starship Troopers is a science fiction classic — now and always.
If you would like to know more, Starship Troopers is streaming on Netflix U.S. as of yesterday, citizen.