The local arthouse theater showed Starship Troopers as its midnight movie this weekend. This film is the conspicuous chief source for my first full-length novel, The Killbug Eulogies, coming out shortly. I hadn’t seen it in a couple years, so I thought it was time to give it another look.
I first saw Starship Troopers during my junior year of college. The witty satire of wartime propaganda drew me in. The scene where the children are encouraged to stomp roaches to death made me gasp: it was uncomfortably close to how the United States portrayed its enemies during the Second World War.
Yes, the anti-fascist message of the film is as subtle as a tanker bug. (I prefer not to think about how some viewers miss it.) But the campy presentation of the material has allowed audiences also to overlook the film’s refined vision and finely-crafted structure.
When the film was released in 1997, everyone from Roger Ebert to my local tv news film critic was underwhelmed by it. Over the years, it has gained a reputation as a cult classic, even the Rifftrax recorded in 2013 treats it as B material. Mike, Kevin, and Bill even passed over the combat scenes in silence, claiming they were too boring even to make jokes about.
No, not typical Hollywood action. But not boring. It feels like the soldiers are trying to hammer a nail with their foreheads. Even armed with comically oversized rifles, they are woefully prepared for the task. A half dozen infantrymen ganging up on a single arachnid have only slightly better than even odds. In a training video, Neil Patrick Harris shows us how a shot to the nerve stem will kill a bug instantly, but nobody at the front line knows this. On the battlefield, they are outnumbered and underprepared. So watching them, you feel anxious. That’s the point.
A Tribute to The Sci-Fi Genre
The film is not merely a political fable, a lot of joy went into its making too. As I rewatched it, it seemed the special effects had actually improved with time. Deemed simply low budget when it was released, it now reads as a satisfying tribute to a classic period of sci-fi production. For instance, shuttles blast down excessively long launch tunnels reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica.
The movie even makes a few playful jabs at The Empire Strikes Back, the gold standard of space opera. The tub of green goo Johnny floats in after being wounded, which Dizzy says he has only “three more days” of soaking in, raises some snarky questions about the cleanliness of a bacta tank. Likewise, Johnny’s assault on a bucking tanker bug, similar to how Luke disables an AT-AT on Hoth, suggests how absurd the iconic vehicle would be in practical use.
Great Character Drama
I love watching these folks! It’s even fun to hate Carmen and be creeped out by Carl. Genre fiction is ill with one-dimensional female characters whose only trait is “good at fighting,” but Dizzy is both flawed and resilient in a way that makes you root for her. After her tragic death, her funeral is even more soul-crushing when Johnny Rico, burying the only real friend he ever had, coldly praises her a “citizen of the Federation” before all other things.
An Elegant Dark Ending
I think the film’s strongest moment comes right at the end, closing a ring which begins with this piece of dialog in the opening scene:
[Johnny Rico answers a question in civics class]
Rasczak: The exact words of the text. But you understand them? Do you believe them?
Johnny: I don’t know.
In the film’s closing montage, the protagonists are thrown right back into the maw of the beast they just escaped. Johnny repeats verbatim the words Lieutenant Rasczak used to lead the Roughnecks. Because he is unable to formulate his teacher’s thoughts into his own words, we understand that the grand ordeal he has just survived has taught him exactly nothing.
If, as Rasczak says, the only real freedom is thinking for yourself, Johnny Rico is not free. He has no idea who is he or what he hopes for. But by imitating a rote part, he can cling to a role to play in his insane universe. At least, until he dies or they find someone better.
Revisiting the Starship Troopers this weekend, I noticed two things: 1) while I draw on at least a dozen significant sources for my novel, I rely on Starship Troopers much more heavily than I had realized, and 2) as a long-time advocate for this movie, it’s even better than I remembered.