Throwback Thursday: The Alien Menace Is Real in Starship Troopers

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

In a newsreel that takes a page out of the Triumph of the Will playbook, 1997’s Starship Troopers opens with a clip for military service and citizenship, and it doesn’t let up on the jingoistic propaganda for the rest of its runtime. While a modest success at the box office, most of the audience that went to see it couldn’t quite figure out if it was a straight-up shallow action film or a cunning over-the-top satire of right-wing militarism.

Teaser poster for Starship Troopers. Tagline reads "A New Kind of Enemy. A New Kind of War."

Theatrical teaser poster for Starship Troopers.

Director Paul Verhoeven was born in Amsterdam in 1938 and his family moved to the Hague during World War II. He almost lost his family in an Allied bombing raid, and even says in the audio commentary on the film that “War makes fascists of us all”. While he certainly likes violence and action on screen (RoboCop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct), he seems to have a clear eye for satire and irony. If Showgirls taught us anything, it should have taught us that.

Kids squashing bugs with superscript reading "Do Your Part!"

Even your kids can get into xenophobia.

With propaganda clips peppered throughout the film, we follow standard beautiful people joining the military and going to war. There’s a bit of a love triangle, co-ed showers (which to make the cast feel more comfortable, Verhoeven supposedly also shot in the nude), and lots of bug explosions. Propaganda always tries to make the enemy feel like the “other.” Different from the norm. Instead of showing that the enemy has similar characteristics, they are treated as vile, contemptible, and dehumanized as much as possible. Taken to an extreme, why not make the enemy giant bugs? Humans have nothing in common with bugs. They don’t talk or communicate like us. Increase a bug to human size or larger, and they look even more alien. They are the perfect enemy to wage war against. There’s no humanizing them.

Van Dien screaming about an incoming bug.

Casper Van Dien always looks like this.

Admittedly, Verhoeven does not have a strong track record getting great performances out of actors in his American films (even Basic Instinct is a little over the top). Some of his Dutch films have felt much more down to earth. It seems like on his heavier satires, such as Starship Troopers and Showgirls, he purposefully casts and directs poorly to highlight how silly it is. In Starship Troopers we’re given a lead in Casper Van Dien, who certainly looks the clean-cut top part, but his performance is so wooden it’s best to steer him clear of any termites. Denise Richards (who was probably one of the worst Bond women ever in The World is Not Enough) certainly is not given much to do but look pretty and cause gut pain in Van Dien’s Johnny Rico. Blink and you’ll miss Amy Smart as a friend of Richards onboard the ship. Rounding out the love triangle is a game, but underutilized, Dina Meyer. It’s the bit parts that are filled with stronger actors chewing the scenery. We get Clancy Brown (Highlander), Seth Gilliam (The Wire), Michael Ironside (everything), and a still-growing-into-his-adult-body Neil Patrick Harris. This is unfortunately the middle years between Doogie Howser and How I Met Your Mother, and Harris is working hard to shed the stigma of his younger years. The best way to do that is to lean into playing a psychic military officer that calls to mind Himmler mixed with Mengele. It’s no small visual cue that the outfits of this secretive branch of the Human Army resembles Germany’s SS.

Neil Patrick Harris explains his plan to Denise Richards and Casper Van Dien.

They’re so clean cut and white.

Taken at face value, Starship Troopers is a fun ride with the requisite gore fans of Robocop and Total Recall loved. The acting is deliberately stiff and melodramatic. The CGI mostly holds up twenty years later, and while the deeper theme of how ludicrous fascism is can be somewhat overlooked, it is there. Not a perfect film but definitely worth checking out if you’re looking to fill in gaps of over-the-top space opera.

Michael Ironside being pulled from a pit, missing his legs.

It wouldn’t be a Verhoeven action film if someone didn’t lose half their body.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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