Cult Classic: Starship Troopers
Starship Troopers is a big budget 1997 American military science fiction film from subversive director Paul Verhoeven. Would you like to know more?
“Really, Starship Troopers?” Admit it, that’s what plenty of you were thinking when you seen director Paul Verhoevens sci-fi blockbuster in our ‘Cult Classic’ section. That dumb movie with Denise Richards is now considered a ‘classic’?
We don’t blame you for questioning our choice and indeed, when we first saw the film in our teenage years, we weren’t too impressed either. Awful acting, a hokey script and the aforementioned ordeal of watching Richards in a lead role do not a good movie make.
Let’s explain our choice. Imagine that it's 1997 and you’re running the studio that has just coughed up a production budget of $105 million for the latest big-budget sci-fi effort from the man behind genre classics such as Total Recall and RoboCop.
That budget was a whopping $40 million greater than Independence Day from the previous year, a film which ended up grossing $817 million worldwide. With sci-fi clearly a huge draw at the time and a master director behind the camera, you would think that you’re onto a winner, right?
Sadly, due to the trio of flaws we mentioned earlier, Starship Troopers received a critical thrashing and limped out of the multiplex with a measly $127 million earned worldwide. So why is the film so revered today?
The reason is that Starship Troopers has a barely concealed subtext that flew over our teenage heads and the critics at the time – the heroes of the film are Nazis. Yes, you read that correctly.
That looks like a Nazi jacket to us
Although director Verhoeven (whose subversion of big budget releases was first seen in his scathing social commentary on the dumbing down of media in RoboCop) stayed silent on his intentions behind Starship Troopers upon release, he’s been extremely candid ever since.
On a basic level, the film follows a young soldier (the wooden but swoonsome Casper Van Diem, no doubt unaware of any undercurrents of fascism in the film) who enlists to be part of a futuristic military to battle an arachnoid species known as “the Bugs”. He gets caught up in a silly love triangle and gets to have a few heroic scenes amid impressively orchestrated action scenes. That all sounds very similar to any blockbuster, you’d care to mention, right?
However, what has turned Starship Troopers into a cult classic is that the entire film could seemingly be re-watched as a piece of propaganda produced by the fascistic human military itself. For example, if the movie’s heroes live in Buenos Aires, why does everyone have blonde hair and blue eyes?
Scenes throughout the film are interspersed with intensely fascist wartime newsreels, which perfectly display the xenophobic nature of the military’s recruiting, while the symbols and clothing styles of all military personnel were closely modeled on those of the Nazis. Verhoeven has even said that the very first scene in the film was modeled shot-for-shot on a similar scene from the infamous Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.
Once you discover the subtext, the film becomes an entirely different watch. Why is it that only those that enlist in the military are allowed to vote? Did the bugs even start this war or should we actually be rooting for them? And how did the filmmakers convince How I Met Your Mother’s Neil Patrick Harris to don what is obviously an SS suit?
As Verhoeven has explained since, he somehow convinced a major film studio to part with $105 million for war movie that explains how “War makes fascists of us all… of course, the movie is about 'Let's all go to war and let's all die.'"
It’s a mystery how he managed to craft an intensely anti-war message into a film that would sate the appetites of action lovers and even those of a fascistic bent, but somehow Verhoeven did it. If you haven’t seen Starship Troopers since its original release fifteen years ago, you simply must rewatch it for a new appreciation of “that dumb 1990s action movie.”
For more cult films, check out the Jameson Cult Film Club.