Starship Troopers: A Misunderstood Satire

Paul Verhoeven’s anti-fascist message is often overlooked.




Paul Verhoeven’s Hollywood films are an amalgam within the Hollywood system and transcend traditional, formulaic cinema. I absolutely love his films, and had the pleasure of meeting him recently (where I totally geeked out and got a vinyl of the Robocop soundtrack signed!).


I’ve always thought his films were visually really interesting (and no, I’m not just talking about that scene from Basic Instinct) and what drew me to Starship Troopers initially was the sci-fi violence and the interesting future presented to us. Admittedly, I was also in a Neil Patrick Harris phase, which drew me to it even more! However, It was only after reading the original novel of Starship troopers where I realised how genius the film truly is. It gets berated a lot for its excessive violence and fascist characters but this is used in order to shock the audience and help strengthen its anti-fascist message.


As a European director, Verhoeven took discourses from art cinema (mainly satire) and targeted it to a mainstream audience. Verhoeven’s film skews Heinlein’s source material, which remains controversial as it promotes a militarised dictatorship. Starship Troopers also relies heavily on Verhoeven’s collaboration with Ed Neumeier. Neumeier states that he keeps the original tone of the book, displaying a fascist society where democracy has failed thus conveying a functional world based upon a military dictatorship. By disguising it as a regular Hollywood film, Verhoeven then uses his overt narration as an auteur to add in a satirical element.


The seemingly perfect functioning dictatorship put forward by the Federation in the film is a highly militarized state, but it is seemingly free from racism, sexism and ethno-religious conflict. Yet this world with no imperfections is riddled with irony: a black man whips Rico, a black woman slaps Ace and a black female skymarshall takes over from a disgraced white male. The director uses the mise-en-scène as his authorial pen to mock the fascist themes presented by Neuemier’s script.


For instance, in a deleted scene on the DVD we see that Verhoeven places a pyramid subtly in the background (see clip below). This represents the pyramid of society, similarly to how he used it in his earlier sci-fi flick, Total Recall. The mockery is based on the fact that there are obviously no pyramids in Buenos Aires. Understated mise-en-scène is also used on the uniform of the mobile infantry by having bug wings on their badge, critiquing the agenda of the humans who want to be the dominant race in the galaxy as opposed to the insects, who they are at war against.



Verhoeven also achieves this by briefly taking the viewer out of the narrative with the use of propaganda broadcasts as a commentary of war – again, he used news broadcasts to a similar effect in Robocop. These illustrate the nation’s fascism and one of them even shows a public execution of people who oppose the war effort. Furthermore, in one of the broadcasts, someone asks whether the war is the humans’ fault, but the fascist narrative immediately dismisses this because our protagonist, Johnny Rico, interrupts him by stating his own personal vendetta against the bugs. By implementing a double entendre here, Verhoeven creates a double plot as Rico’s personal problem takes precedence over the social problem, the controversial war. This hides the film’s true agenda, which is affirmed to us with the good feeling one gets at the end of the film, following in the narrative of classical Hollywood. It even features the last shot of the classical Hollywood film where the man and the woman are celebrating the achievement of their personal goals whilst the public problem is not theirs to solve. The aesthetics of a double plot follow a classical narrative, proving the strength of current Hollywood classicism. Simultaneously though; it uses this classicism to shape the film’s presentation of controversial political issues.


The film introduces these teenage characters in a high school setting. We follow Rico through the film, as the main protagonist and follow his descent into fascism as he easily rises through the ranks of the military. He initially is reluctant to sign up but during the finale of the film, he copies Razcek’s - who is portrayed in the film as fascist - catchphrases. Verhoeven confirms that his mimicking of lines, originally said by his army instructor, such as ‘do you want to live forever’, is intended to generate support for the characters. By using a classical narrative, we root for these characters that resemble Nazi ‘poster-boys’. Verhoeven is thus commenting on the power of pop culture and its ability to mask noxious ideologies.


The newfound credibility gained by Starship Troopers after September 11 stemmed from the initial media reaction. This confirmed the propagandistic potential of the media thus reiterating Verhoeven’s notion that war can make people resort to fascism. The media reacted instantly to the September 11 attacks, however some facts were hidden and distorted. The press also promoted fear after 9/11 as everyone bought into the assumptions of the Bush Administration’s “war on terror”. This prompted propaganda that eventually led to the country backing the Bush Administration to go into Iraq on what turned out be completely false premises. Since then, it has been compared to Starship Troopers, which can be seen as a popular cultural projection of a rebuke to American power and globalisation in its depiction of a meteor striking Buenos Aires. A heightening of domestic security anxiety then follows. Verhoeven also featured the trailer of Pearl Harbour on the DVD of Starship Troopers and the media reaction post-Pearl Harbour was very similar - culminating in America joining the allied forces in World War II. This can be read as part of contemporary auteurism as it revolves around interrelated texts. Thus, the inclusion of the Pearl Harbour trailers is used to understand Starship Troopers as a product of Paul Verhoeven.


One could argue that Starship Troopers is a warning to American audiences about the dangers of fascism. It is warning about an American totalitarian government, it has characters that will seem more relatable to Americans thus confirming Verhoeven’s point regarding the film possibly depicting an American society. The insistence on the film being assembled in Hollywood and targeted towards a teenage audience also implies that he is warning the youth of America.


Verhoeven has persistence towards his directorial vision. This devotion, similarly to art cinema, places emphasis on the issue that the film regards and doesn’t just assemble itself in terms of Hollywood marketing conventions. This emphasis, for Verhoeven, takes precedence over popular taste. Writers have been critical of the apparent fascism derided by Verhoeven as the film simultaneously descends into the aesthetic spectacle such a political ideology deploys. However, being a self-reflective film, it undercuts Heinlein’s novel and formally seduces the audience’s expectation to convey Verhoeven’s satire that, ‘war makes fascists of us all’.


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