Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

Starship Troopers is director Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of the 1959 sci-fi novel of the same name by Robert A. Heinlein. I must confess, I’ve always disliked this movie, but I was never really sure why. I suppose I should start by comparing it to Verhoeven’s previous excursions into science fiction: the masterworks RoboCop and Total Recall. Both of these films, like Starship Troopers, had great production values, not to mention moments of extreme violence. But neither of them would have worked were it not for the performances of their lead actors, Peter Weller and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In RoboCop, Weller plays an instantly likable policeman who’s savagely gunned down in the line of duty. He’s then resurrected as the title character, now with superhuman strength and cool powers such as the ability to look through walls. But this resurrection story has its downside, as RoboCop begins to remember the family life he lost. The most moving scene in the movie is when he flashes back to his loved ones as he walks through the home they once shared.

Likewise, in Total Recall, Schwarzenegger plays an average working man who suddenly realizes that the life he’s been living is not his life at all. For me, this is the movie that proved for all time that Arnold truly can act, because while there are action scenes aplenty, Arnold mostly wins us over with his determined and frantic performance as he maddeningly searches for answers.

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It’s these performances that help make both RoboCop and Total Recall unique among the great science fiction movies, and therein lies the main flaw of Starship Troopers. It’s got lots of action and lots of beautiful women, but its cast is mostly made up of wooden actors, with the most wooden of the bunch (Casper Van Dien) as our lead, despite possessing no actual screen presence whatsoever.

Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

Starship Troopers was likely meant to be a dark satire in the same vein as Verhoeven’s other sci-fi action pictures, but our central actor is just so blank and lacking in interior monologue that you can’t help but take the whole story at face value. And if the movie was truly meant to be satire, as many of its fans insist, it’s poorly done satire, because there’s very little in the way of actual wit or insight that might distinguish this film from other entries in the genre.

The film opens with a military recruitment film explaining how humanity has colonized other worlds in the future, but alas, this has led to contact with malevolent, gigantic bugs from the planet Klendathu. There’s a war going on between bugs and humans, with the bugs’ weapon of choice being meteors that they pull from their local asteroid belt and send hurtling to Earth.

Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

One person who wants to make a difference in this war is Johnny Rico (Van Dien), who’s finishing up high school in Buenos Aires. He and his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), along with their friends Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) and Dizzy Flores (Dina Mayer) plan to enlist in the military after graduating. Heinlein’s original novel featured many characters of various ethnicities, but despite the Argentinian locale and last names like “Rico”, “Ibanez”, and “Flores”, the movie’s central cast looks like your typical whitewashed all-American homecoming court.

We get the gist of Rico and Carmen’s relationship from the beginning, as they clandestinely flirt in class, much to the annoyance of their one-armed history teacher and soon-to-be comrade-in-arms, Lieutenant Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside). Rasczak is truly a barrel of laughs here, as he praises the bombing of Hiroshima and makes blanket proclamations like, “Naked force has resolved more conflicts throughout history than any other factor!”

Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

Later, Carl shows us that he’s even more annoying than Doogie Howser when he broadcasts Rico’s low test scores to the entire campus. And if this school isn’t fun enough for you, we next get a scene in (what I assume is) biology class where students are gleefully dissecting—what else?—bugs! Specifically, “Arkellian sand beetles”. The instructor is going on about how intelligent they are, as Carmen becomes more disgusted with the entrails she’s holding, until she finally throws up and bolts.

Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

Rico later leads his high school team in a game of Jump Ball, which appears to be a hyper-violent version of arena football that occasionally involves somersaults. He then gets pissed off when he sees rival player Xander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon) trying to chat up Carmen. This leads to a brief scuffle between the two before Rico’s team wins the game. The two men get into another tiff over Carmen during the subsequent dance. Just what we didn’t need: science fiction with a dash of Melrose Place (ironically, both Richards and Muldoon made appearances on that show). Also at the dance, we find out Dizzy has been pining away for Rico for years, but he coldly rebuffs her.

Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

After graduation, our four main characters follow through on signing up for the military: Rico joins up with the Mobile Infantry, Carmen goes to Flight School, Carl goes into Military Intelligence (where he’ll be able to put his psychic abilities to good use), and Dizzy decides to join up with the Mobile Infantry too, just to be closer to Rico. There, they make friends with a recruit named Ace Levy (Jake Busey), who can really play a mean neon green electric violin, but the less said about that, the better.

Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

In the middle of Rico’s training, Carmen sends him a Dear John video letter (which arrives in the form of an ultra-futuristic mini-CD). She intends to pursue a career as a pilot, which means they can’t be together. And as an added bonus, she’ll be serving under Xander (ouch!).

Next, we find Rico leading the recruits in a training exercise using live ammo. This tragically leads to the death of one of the recruits, and somehow, Rico is blamed for it. As a result, he’s flogged publicly and resigns his commission.

Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

But then the bugs send a meteor that destroys Buenos Aires, including Rico’s entire family. Naturally, he wants to be let back into the Mobile Infantry so he can personally fight the bugs. The ensuing battles mostly involve Rico and his fellow soldiers running around in a huge pack and shooting at anything that moves, which seems like a less than ideal strategy. Eventually, Rico is wounded and presumed dead, which I think means we’re supposed to feel bad for Carmen. But whether it’s due to the kinetic tone of the movie or just lame characterization, we don’t care at all what she, or any of the others, feel about Rico’s alleged “death”.

Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

Rico is brought back to health without much fanfare, and he and Ace and Dizzy are reassigned to the Roughnecks, commanded by Rico’s former teacher Rasczak, who’s now been fitted with a mechanical arm. Here, the three recruits bond with another soldier named Sugar Watkins (Seth Gilliam). The group travels to “Planet P” in response to a distress call, and another tired cliché is trotted out as Dizzy confesses her love for Rico and they have sex just before the next big battle, which surely means somebody’s about to die.

Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

Alas, said distress call turns out to be a trap set by the bugs themselves. The soldiers find corpses with their brains sucked out, and slowly realize the bugs are acquiring human intelligence. Just then, the team is swarmed by bugs, and both Rasczak and Dizzy die before Rico and the others are rescued by (what are the odds?) Carmen and Xander.

Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

At Dizzy’s funeral, Rico, Carmen, and Carl reunite. The latter, who’s now a high-ranking intelligence officer (geez, way to be a prodigy at everything, Doogie) informs them that there’s a super-smart “brain bug” which has been the one sucking out brains and directing the other bugs. Carl tells Rico that he has to go back to Planet P and capture it. Despite seeing both his mentor and his one night stand become bug fodder, Rico is more than willing to get onboard with this plan.

Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

During the next battle, Carmen’s ship goes down, and she and Xander get into an escape pod. They crash land on Planet P near some tunnels and end up getting captured by the bugs. Carl uses his psychic powers to divert Rico, Ace, and Watkins to their location.

Carmen and Xander are brought before the huge, disgusting brain bug (which was clearly designed to look like a giant vagina). It promptly makes short work of Xander by sticking one of its tendrils into his skull and sucking out his brain (not that he was using it, anyway). Carmen proves luckier as she cuts off the tendril with a knife before she too can get her brain sucked out.

Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

Just then, Rico arrives, and with a small nuclear bomb as leverage, the humans are given free passage out of the tunnel. The bugs then give chase, and Watkins heroically blows himself up with the bomb to allow the others to escape.

After they make it to the surface, there’s an anticlimactic moment where we learn the brain bug has already been captured. This somehow means that the bugs are no longer a threat, so I guess there’s only one brain bug, then? Carl then makes physical contact with the thing (eww!) to read its thoughts, and he triumphantly announces, “It’s afraid!” Duh, and that makes two of us, but not for the same reasons.

Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

The movie ends with clips showcasing the brain bug getting experimented on, and Rico, Ace, and Carmen showing off their military prowess in order to encourage others to recruit. What makes this outfit unique is that the grunts are so damn shiny.

This leads right back to what is, for me, the film’s Achilles’ heel: the characters. The main characters in RoboCop and Total Recall were instantly likable, so the viewer was immediately drawn into their plights. But all the characters here do is either blow shit up or engage in silly teenage theatrics.

Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

Starship Troopers has it fair share of defenders who claim the whole film was meant as a satire of war films. The recruitment ads shown throughout the film (each concluding with the tagline, “Would you like to know more?”) seem to bear this out, but there’s one problem: The “satire” in these ads is painfully unsubtle and just plain silly. For example, one ad shows kids “doing their part” as they stomp bugs into the sidewalk. And these are small bugs here on Earth, not the giant ones that humanity is at war with. Another ad has a captured alien slashing up a cow, a lá Jurassic Park. If this is supposed to be satire, it’s not terribly clever satire.

Starship Troopers (1997): Satire of bad movies, or just bad satire?

And outside of the recruitment ads, this movie gives us almost nothing in the way of humor. It’s been argued that Verhoeven deliberately added stupid war-movie clichés and intentionally elicited terrible performances from his actors as a way to play up the satire. But if that’s true (and I certainly have my doubts), in the end we’re still watching a dumb, badly-acted, cliché-ridden film that’s mostly indistinguishable from the movies it’s supposedly satirizing.

In the plus column, Michael Ironside, who was a great villain in Total Recall, is terrific as a tough-as-nails sergeant. The film also understandably turned both Denise Richards and Dina Meyer into sex symbols, and the Carmen-Rico-Dizzy triangle (which wasn’t in the book, where Carmen is just a friend and Dizzy is male) may have been more interesting had these characters possessed more personality.

Another positive is the movie inspired the less-gory, but more-enjoyable animated series Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles, which aired from 1999-2000. But then again, the movie also inspired, at last count, three direct-to-video sequels of diminishing quality, so perhaps we should call it a wash.

As is customary with Verhoeven’s movies, the violence here is extreme, to say the least. Now, I’m not the sort who gets turned off by a movie just because it has gore. For instance, I can happily enjoy a meatball hoagie while watching The Fly. But the gore here is simply off-putting, mostly because it doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose and just feels gratuitous.

But the movie is never boring and, one could say, more exciting than the 1959 book of the same name, even though Verhoeven freely admits he didn’t finish reading it before making the movie. Both the movie and the book have vastly different takes on fascism. Whereas Heinlein has been accused of glorifying war and fascism, one can pretty easily see where Verhoeven stands on the issue, with obvious Nazi allusions throughout (Doogie Hitler MD dressed up like the Gestapo, Riefenstahl-esque propaganda in the recruitment films), but allusions on their own do not make a movie great. Starship Troopers is still a mostly silly film with a weak cast, and while it does entertain, I can’t quite list it as a favorite.

[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is The Thoughts of a Proud Nerd: A Story of Hope, available now from Amazon.

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  • I was rather lukewarm about this film when I was younger, but in recent years I’ve come to see it as almost prophetic in a way. The American military in Hollywood films has been getting more and more glorified of late to the point where some moments are almost indistinguishable from the over-the-top bits of Starship Troopers.

    Peter Berg is the worst for this. The opening credits of Lone Survivor was basically a ST recruitment advert minus the text and voiceover and Battleship’s climax (and I swear to god I am not making this up) involved the heroes teaming up with real-life ex-soldiers in their sixties to fight off the alien menace.

    To me at least, Starship Trooper’s is the military’s equivalent of Network (although not quite as good).

  • Thomas Stockel

    I remember being entertained when I first saw this movie in theaters. I liked the action and it made me laugh. The problem is, unlike your examples of Total Recall and Robocop there is nothing memorable about this movie, nothing that would make me want to watch this movie ever again, let alone own it. And insanely enough, this movie has two sequels! I have no idea who was asking for them.

    On the other hand, I actually liked the CGI series Roughnecks. And at least there when the characters seemed inhumanly wooden there was an excuse.

    • Nothing memorable? I am shocked “Would you like to know more?” hasn’t become an internet meme tacked onto every insane political story out there.

      • Clint Eastwood

        It hasn’t become meme because it’s not as memorable as “I don’t want chemicals in the water turning the frogs gay!”

  • David F White

    Starship Troopers Made me Stronger and tougher both physically and mentally!!!

    • Sardu

      I would like to know more!

  • Dennis Fischer

    *sigh* Satire is what closes on Saturday night in the U,S. an old studio exec once observed. STARSHIP TROOPERS is a great movie which sets out to do exactly what it wants to do (which wasn’t, to the disappointment of many SF fans, adapt Heinlein’s classic novel as he wrote it), and that was to parody the kind of propaganda movies Verhoeven was exposed to in Nazi-dominated Holland during World War II. The central plot tent-pin was a love triangle between bland, but Aryan-handsome soldiers who all achieve glory on the battlefield. The wooden acting reproduced that aspect perfectly.
    (In Heinlein’s original novel, Johnny Rico speaks Tagalog and is Filippino, but here he is made an Aryan to punch up the fascist underpinings of the source material. Rascak’s opening speech is the one thing that is taken purely from Heinlein’s novel).
    Somehow Rico gets blamed for it? He is totally responsible as squad leader, especially as a soldier never points a gun at anyone unless he or she has already made the decision to fire it (unless some mighty convincing circumstances convince him otherwise).
    What is truly innovative about the film is the way it create exposition through entertaining propaganda pieces that pop up and ask us if we wish to know more. These fully limn the ideals behind this fascist, militaristic culture and how they try to manipulate reality. It was both very fresh and very funny.

    • Sean Tadsen

      “Somehow Rico gets blamed for it? He is totally responsible as squad leader, especially as a soldier never points a gun at anyone unless he or she has already made the decision to fire it (unless some mighty convincing circumstances convince him otherwise).”

      So you’re going to completely ignore the fact that the recruits have had maybe a few months of training, and that the targets shoot energy bolts that cause muscle spasms if you get hit, which is *exactly* what caused that accident in the first place. The girl didn’t “decide” to point her gun at another recruit – she got hit, fell down, and accidentally fired her gun because of the aforementioned muscle spasms. It wasn’t Rico’s fault – it was a flaw in the exercise. I’m surprised more recruits didn’t get killed.

  • Muthsarah

    Yeah, the movie just didn’t go far enough, in any direction. While I found the recruitment/propaganda videos to be pretty funny, they’re really the only humor in the movie, and they’re just not enough. They lend the impression that the movie is SUPPOSED to be funny, though. If they wanted to make a goofy, campy Nazi-sploitation-by-proxy film, they shoulda gone all out. Not surprised it didn’t work, though. Maybe if Verhoeven had done it a few years earlier when his cache was a bit higher, and, yes, got a better cast to play some slightly older characters. Coulda helped to make it more cartoonish, too, instead of trying to be dark and somber at times (as no propaganda film would actually have done if it was trying to make the military life look appealing to impressionable kids, i.e. the film’s supposed target audience). But after Showgirls, I wouldn’t be surprised if no studio was willing to give him that much slack.

    Since there just isn’t enough satire or even attempts at laughs, the movie devolves into a basic action movie, with, yes, a pretty weak cast (and with one of their better young actors – NPH – sitting in the background). I remember the movie getting less interesting as it went along, and my wishing it had more fake propaganda and explored elements like the perks of citizenship and what kind of inevitable underclass it would have created. Dunno why they even brought that up if not to either delve into that, or somehow play the fascism for laughs.

  • jbwarner86

    I saw this movie a few times on TV when I was about 12 or 13, before I even knew what the word “satire” meant. So naturally, I didn’t understand a thing. Was it a comedy? A drama? A horror movie? I had no idea how to feel about it. I just remember not liking any of the main characters at all. If the movie was meant to be a satire, then it paled in comparison to the Futurama episode that parodied it.

    Still, I would not go out of my way to watch this movie again now. I’m not a fan of stories that try to demonstrate why war is bad by brutally killing the characters in as many grisly ways as possible and putting the survivors through the emotional wringer so they’re shell-shocked bundles of PTSD by the end. I already know that I don’t like war. I don’t need to be beaten over the head with it.

  • Gallen_Dugall

    This movie came out after a long period, at least two years, of pro-Robert A. Heinlein hype including a massive publicity campaign that saw his works reprinted for the first time in decades in most cases. Let’s be honest here. Heinlein was writing books he thought would sell. As the American fascist movement reinvented themselves in the wake of WWII (eventually becoming the modern two party system) Heinlein wrote this to pander to their sensibilities. He also wrote crap pandering to every insipid, shallow, authoritarian fad as it came and went in the youth culture scene. As a result he became the darling of the hippy fad and closely associated with the counter culture “movement” with all its sub cultures, but he himself never bought into any of it. It was all about capitalizing on popular trends to make money. If he were alive today he’d be praising the bullying SJW fad, but he did die and the youths he had impressed grew up and jumped on the marketing bandwagon to promote him as the greatest science fiction author ever! It was deeply annoying so I for one enjoyed the hell out of this movie which brilliantly mocks the man’s works, his fans, and a book which is about as close to saying “Hitler was right” as anyone can get without being called out on it.

    • Sean Tadsen

      There’s just one problem – there’s almost no connection between this movie and Heinlein’s book. I do see the movie mocking quasi-fascist military-dominant culture (which Heinlein’s book was kind of in favor of), but apart from character names, the film has nothing in common with the book.

      • Gallen_Dugall

        It’s a solid argument that stuff from the books isn’t there, but that’s just props and set dressing, it has nothing to do with what the book is actually about. The film nails the themes and tone. The overly pretty young cast, shallow who’s sleeping with who sub-plots, and so on all play into that pandering to audiences theme and tone. Appealing to superficiality is what the book is really about.

        • Sean Tadsen

          Let me clarify – I don’t think this movie is a satire of Heinlein’s book because all the stuff from the book got slapped on part way through pre-production. Yes, the movie is a satire, but of the Nazis and fascism in general. If Verhoeven & co. hadn’t been told about the superficial similarities between their movie and the book, the movie would be exactly the same. If the movie is a satire of the book, it’s only by sheer coincidence.

    • Capt. Harlock

      If you think Heinlein was a pro-Fascist, you don’t understand Fascism and probably never read, or did not Grok, any of Heinlein’s works.

      • Gallen_Dugall

        If you don’t see it you haven’t gotten past the patina on his works. Heinlein was pro-totalitarian be it blended communism or fascism all of which today get labeled socialism because it never could sell itself under the same name for long and so has been continuously stealing other names since its conception as legalism. If it denied the individual in favor of the sanctity of the state Heinlein was for it. Even the juvi stuff is just the same recycled shallow rant against individual free will and the ultimate role of citizen as fuel to light the glory of the state barely concealed under a patina of sex and violence.

  • Sir Raider Duck, OMS

    The reviewer could have watched the movie a little more closely: Rico is punished because, as a squad leader in Basic Training, he told the unfortunate cadet to remove his helmet when there was real ammunition flying around (and his commander points out that Rico couldn’t fix helmets, so he had no reason to order someone to remove it in a dangerous situation). Later, it’s explained that Rico was MISTAKENLY listed as dead, an easy thing to do when there were 100,000 dead in one hour or whatever.

    A few things that are poorly explained in the movie: Heinlein’s philosophy of soldiering = citizenship comes from the idea that the only people qualified to exercise the ultimate control over society (in terms of voting in leaders) are the ones who have made the ultimate sacrifice to that society (becoming a soldier and risking death). The novel goes out of its way to state that the army is volunteer-only, and nobody can be turned away: if you’re not mentally able to learn a skill or physically able to go into combat, they have to find something else for you to do and they’ll deliberately make it as much of a tedious chore as they can. Every citizen in this society (so the thinking goes) appreciates their power because they’ve suffered to earn it.

    Also, Rico’s whipping was “Administrative Punishment,” which meant that after it was administered, there was nothing entered in his record about it. The idea is that you’re punished and then it’s over: it won’t come back to affect your military career or later life.

    Mind you, I’m not saying I agree with Heinlein’s philosophy, but if it’s going to be debated, it should at least be correctly given.

    As for the movie: I love it because it (like Verhoeven’s Total Recall and the TV series “The Shield”) can legitimately be watched two different ways: You can turn off your brain and go “YEAH! FEDERATION! WOOOOH!” and it fits together perfectly that way. Or you can leave your brain on, notice the hints Verhoeven keeps dropping throughout the film (the bugs only kill us but we TORTURE them, Doogie ends up in an SS uniform, the graphic at the beginning that shows our planet and bug planet at complete opposite ends of a huge galaxy and then says “Of course this means they must all die” or whatever) and realize that we’re actually the bad guys.

  • SithSmurf

    I though the movie was disappointing.

    If Verhoeven wanted to have people judge the book, he should’ve made a film of the actual book, and let people make their own judgements.

    As it is, it’s just Verhoeven wasting a lot of my time to say “I really hated this book” over and over again.

    I think I would’ve enjoyed the movie a _lot_ more if they’d just dropped the whole tenuous connection to Starship Troopers and kept the “Bug Hunt” title.

  • JD

    Im wondering if just forgetting but I seem to recall when i 1st saw this movie ( at the theater) none of Ricos High Schools scenes were in it.

  • Wizkamridr

    IMO, the anime is better. I believe(could be wrong) it is more faithful to the book. It was done by the same company that produces mobile suit gundam.

  • JD

    I Actually liked the book. A privileged kid follows his GF into the military and finds out he has no skills they need so his only option was the infantry.He joins up and learns about life,friendship the horrors of war ect…
    the movie was Meh,should have been more like Platoon then Alien. lots of action and bug killing but you would have thought 100s of years in the future the would have had better weapons then automatic rifles.

  • Lee Presson

    It’s not just a satire of war movies, it’s a satire of war propaganda movies. Specifically WWII propaganda movies. Check one out sometimes and you’ll see how spot-on it really is. The performances are wooden because that’s the way the old movies were. The symbolism is blatant because the symbolism in the old movies was blatant. And if satire isn’t your game then there’s always the “Yeehah, let’s kill us some giant bugs!” part of the picture.

  • chachi

    Having never watched WWII war propaganda movies from the 1940s, I always viewed this movies a hyper-war movie. Since I watched it just after getting out of the military, I can attest that it didn’t miss a beat about the military experience or the military mindset (even though it was written fifty years ago and set hundreds of years in the future). IF you see this movie as satire, you probably think Full Metal Jacket is an absurdist comedy.

  • Jay Drummond

    When I first saw Starship Troopers I didn’t care for it much, but then somehow I saw it a few more times and now its one of my favorite movies of all time. I’ve always found Casper and Denise’s acting to be pretty terrible and can make the movie a chore, but once I got past that it was cool.