25 Years Ago: 'Starship Troopers' was Another Prescient Parody of Fascism by Verhoeven | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

25 Years Ago: ‘Starship Troopers’ was Another Prescient Parody of Fascism by Verhoeven 

In 1987, Paul Verhoeven made Robocop, a great movie that’s been frequently misinterpreted throughout its history. A lot of people probably remember Robocop as the movie about a badass robotic cop who successfully fought criminals, when in fact it had a pretty clear message of anti-fascism, with the main villain an evil corporation who wanted to privatize law enforcement. 

A decade later, Verhoeven did the same thing with Starship Troopers, which was similarly misunderstood; it was even written by Edward Neumeier, who also co-wrote Robocop. Sure, Verhoeven was adapting a Robert Heinlein novel from the 1950s that has been described as right-wing and even fascist, but the movie was pretty clearly satirizing that viewpoint rather than endorsing it.  

The director said as much in an interview years later:

“I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring,” Verhoeven told an interviewer. “It is really quite a bad book. I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn’t read the thing. It’s a very right-wing book. And with the movie we tried, and I think at least partially succeeded, in commenting on that at the same time. It would be eat your cake and have it. All the way through we were fighting with the fascism, the ultra-militarism. All the way through I wanted the audience to be asking, ‘Are these people crazy?'”

The Plot

Verhoeven’s first movie after 1995’s much-hated Showgirls, Starship Troopers is set during a futuristic war between humanity and giant alien bugs. The strong impression given is that the war is being fought at a stalemate and is likely to continue indefinitely. 

In the movie, this war is clearly meant as a Vietnam allegory, even though it’s from source material that predates Vietnam. And while there was nothing like that going on in 1997, within a few years it looked a lot like an Iraq allegory, too. The other main thrust of the plot is an inert, chemistry-free romance plot between Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards‘ characters.

Big Flop

Unlike Robocop, Starship Troopers was a flop upon its release in November of 1997, which was 25 years ago this month. There was that misunderstanding of the viewpoint, and while the mid-’90s was a big time for pop culture about aliens — Independence Day, Men in Black, and the heyday of The X-Files were all in that era — this specific angle didn’t seem to hold much appeal. The film was also without stars, with its cast headed by Van Dien, Richards, Neil Patrick Harris, and Melrose Place actor Patrick Muldoon

The film arrived at a very different time for film discourse from today, so it took longer for the film to develop a following. That lead character Johnny Rico — Filipino in the novel — was played by a white actor is something that would likely raise more eyebrows today than it did in 1997. 

Post-Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers would be Verhoeven’s last big Hollywood blockbuster, although he’s continued to direct. He made Hollow Man, with Kevin Bacon, three years later, although his 21st-century output has leaned more towards artier, European fare like Black Book, Elle, and last year’s lesbian nuns drama Benedetta, directed when Verhoeven was past his 80th birthday. In the fine Verhoeven tradition, the film drew pickets when it showed at the New York Film Festival. 

Starship Troopers is streaming on Paramount+.

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