I sit here on the morning of another election day, one that almost certainly promises to be more vicious than any other in my lifetime. I’ve seen domestic terrorist cells arise in attempts to kill people over simple medical realities, where the abbreviation “Antifa” (which stands for anti-fascist) is being used to condition people to stand up for…well, fascism, and where a good chunk of the country is defending a bloodthirsty child (that openly stated how psyched he was to kill people) went and murdered protestors. It’s ugly and has made me woefully aware of the destruction my country is seemingly headed towards, wondering how I could have seen it sooner. I was raised in an environment that was part of what led to this bleak existence, and I wonder how I didn’t see it sliding into this stage when I was a child.
Do you know who DID see this coming? Paul Verhoeven. This crazy Dutchman directed such wonderful films as Robocop, Showgirls, and Elle, but as a boy he grew up near the Hauge. A young boy that suffered through Nazi occupation, through watching brutal and murderous antisemitism in the streets, through watching his parents come up to the edge of death during bombings and raids, would grow up to code his films with strong antifascist messages and the desire to do his part in preventing that type of monster from ever resurfacing.
I first came to Starship Troopers, perhaps his most brilliant film, in the year 1998 when we snagged it from a VHS rental store near my childhood home. It was advertised as a Star Wars-esque adventure, purportedly full of beautiful new computer animation and a pretty (if not always super-talented) cast. We got about 40 minutes in before the excessive violence and graphic nudity frightened my mother out of allowing us to finish it. I wrote it off as a bad movie, unable to really understand what it was trying to do and still completely in the grip of the ultra-conservative values programmed into me from birth. Later, when I was 18, a buddy brought it out on DVD and told me it was a fun, campy B-movie. I enjoyed it as such without seeing its meaning, but I felt a profound need to get why I was so disturbed by a movie like this.
Older now, I’m shocked that more people don’t understand what’s happening with Verhoeven’s satirical masterpiece. The entirety of it is shot like a feature-length military recruitment video, something common amongst the Nazis (their head of propaganda was a filmmaker and obsessed with using it as a recruitment tool). It’s poorly acted, much like many recruitment and training videos we see in corporate hiring sessions. It’s lit like a television set in many places. So much of it seems so silly and cheap despite the huge budget and wild amount of work put into creating an original world. It’s just…weird.
Everything came to be when a little script titled Bug Hunt at Outpost 9 began its journey to the screen with Paul Verhoeven and writer Edward Neumeier. The latter was a cocaine-fueled nutjob, but Verhoeven had wormed his way into the Hollywood system by making films with a bite. He made a film about a cop destroyed by capitalism, only to rise and actually walk on water (he cites RoboCop as “the American Jesus”). He created the film Total Recall, one that imagines the typical male action fantasy as something programmed into us and so insane that the separation from reality should be more evident. The guy is on the edge of crazy, but he wanted to poke holes in what America saw as exciting and point out what made them bitter beneath the surface in a way that was mad enough to work. In 1997, after the financial disaster of Showgirls, studios somehow saw fit to give him $100,000,000 to make a film that was openly about the Nazis and how government propaganda fuels hatred when used in their fashion.
From the beginning we see how much propaganda is involved with it, always satirical. The military is glorified but…there’s something very wrong. We are quietly told that citizenship isn’t something that is given to those born into this world of the Federation, but earned through military service only. It’s a world where the right to have children requires a license and the only easy way to get one is through service. Buenos Aires, a Brazillian city with a rich heritage, is now an Aryan paradise full of people that look like Barbie and Ken dolls. Even classes like Home Economics is used to push the idea of a brutal world, one where anything outside of Federation-approved history is stamped down by violent force. Football is now a brutal indoor sport, one that is specifically used to physically train everyone into being gorgeous Übermensch that can then take these skills into battle.
The small, silly propaganda videos that charmed me in my younger days are now horrifying. Soldiers handing massive pulse rifles, ones that pierce the natural armor of the Federation’s enemies, are treated as toys in a way that adults seem to find adorable (the kids wrestle and fight over the gun). As the enemies are insectoid, the children are also taught to gleefully stomp bugs on their own world despite them having nothing to do with the true enemy. Hate is bred into each person from birth.
And let’s talk about the enemies, deemed “bugs” in the script. The characters know nothing about them other than the Federation wants their territory and the bugs don’t like that. They’re taught to hate them even as they’re told to be cautious. It’s dehumanizing, reminiscent of the way the Nazis talked about Jews and the way I’ve heard more modern political entities describe societies outside the idea of American Exceptionalism. We have starships, all this new wireless technology, and high powered weaponry, all only good for killing bugs as the Earth unites to simply wipe out anything that isn’t what its citizens are told is acceptable. There are small hints throughout the film that suggest Earth has encroached on the bugs’ territory, hostilities only in full sway because we decided we wanted what they had. The final, triumphant moment involves capturing one of the bug leaders and, in a moment that makes my skin crawl, the Federation soldiers gleefully cheer at the simple fact that the bug is afraid. Hell, a Fox News-esque television commentator screams over a guest (supposedly brought on for an opposing opinion) that the idea of an intelligent bug is offensive.
I suffer severe anxiety most of the time anyway, but the recent events in American politics have significantly added to this. My takeaway from Verhoeven’s film is that no matter what we have to stand up and keep the brainwashed, hateful future he envisioned from coming to be. In the end it isn’t vicious defeat of anyone that disagrees with us or looks different from us that will create an ideal country. That way leads only to pure, open hatred and the destruction of all we hold dear.
Give it a watch. Starship Troopers has become a top ten film for me in the last 5 years. If you come out of it inspired that’s great, but consider what parts of it are inspiring you and whether or not you’ve been roused by something that is meant to mock the ideals of angry, hateful people.