09 January 2014

"War makes fascists of us all"

Casper Van Dien & the Mobile Infantry, Starship Troopers, 1997
A week or so ago I caught a TV screening of Paul Verhoeven's 1997 military sci-fi actioner Starship Troopers, which was inspired by the 1959 Robert Heinlein novel of the same name. I expect like many people, I saw the film when it was on cinematic release and was somewhat disappointed in its curious conclusion, which seems predicated on a follow-up big budget sequel that never eventuated. (There were several straight-to-video sequels though, which I haven't seen).

The film is certainly exciting enough for war film buffs - if you took out all the scenes with gunfire it would probably only run about 40 minutes long. Verhoeven, a stalwart of Dutch cinema (Soldier of Orange, Black Book) who also built a successful mainstream career in Hollywood, has always been keen to include extreme aspects of violence and sex in his films, including such well-known successes as RoboCop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct. He's also famed for the epically misjudged Showgirls, but had the good grace to turn up in person to accept his Razzie award for it.

Starship Troopers certainly shows the Verhoeven trademarks, in that it's hugely violent. The alien 'arachnids', implacable foes from the far-flung planet Klendathu, are fearsome opponents but display a worrying lack of self-preservation as they are slaughtered wholesale by the massed automatic gunfire of the grim-faced Mobile Infantry, and specifically our jut-jawed hero Rico (Casper Van Dien).

War is certainly not sanitised in Verhoeven's sci-fi world - aliens and humans alike meet grisly fates at every turn, with the carnage wrought by the MI assault weapons being illustrated with then-cutting-edge CGI, and the unluckiest of the troopers being rent asunder by the merciless claws and jaws of the alien beasts. Much shrieking and wailing ensues, but at least it's made clear that war isn't pretty and it certainly isn't hygienic.

All that gruesome excess isn't my cup of tea, but I still enjoyed aspects of Starship Troopers. In a way it's refreshing that the film doesn't bother with petty internal rivalries within the MI as Rico rises up the ranks - instead, the real camaraderie that military units exhibit is depicted. And the psychological effects of combat are slyly hinted at too, as Rico's suspicions are confirmed that he and his grunt buddies' sole purpose is as expendable pawns in some grander scheme, and as the ranks of his cadet school comrades dwindle as the KIA count skyrockets. Rico's response to this is to emerge a virtual clone of his death-or-glory military tutors, but at least he knows his life is worth next to nothing to his superiors.

Verhoeven points out that Starship Troopers is a satire on American militarism and the gung-ho idolatry of warfare, observing that 'war makes fascists of us all'. It also harks back to the German occupiers of Verhoeven's Dutch childhood, with the film's heroes serving a global human government that is clearly some form of military dictatorship. It is no coincidence that one justification for military service in the world of Starship Troopers is to qualify for the vote, i.e. this is no democracy Rico is fighting for, or at least not one we would understand today. (The authoritarian politics on display in Heinlein's novel are even more grim, and are best taken with a grain of salt).

The satire is hammered home perhaps a little unsubtly but certainly memorably in one of the film's latter scenes in which the film's three main stars - Van Dien, Denise Richards and Neil Patrick Harris, meet at a military funeral for yet another mangled comrade. All are resplendent in their military uniforms (mobile infantry, naval pilot and military intelligence respectively) and they are all clearly Nazi-influenced in powerful grey and black. Harris' black leather trenchcoat and peaked cap is perhaps the most over-the-top Nazi reference since 'Allo 'Allo, but he manages the scene without smirking unduly.

Harris, Richards, Van Dien
It's the Gestapo!
The caps are a bit excessive, no?
Perhaps this satirical element was one reason that Starship Troopers wasn't a major success, as it ended up only just breaking even on its large budget. Action fans tend not to relish intellectually nuanced material. Perhaps the duff ending put cinema-goers off too, stifling word-of-mouth recommendations. But at the very least, Verhoeven gave cinematic history the most distinctive Nazis-in-space moment until last year's tongue-in-cheek indie effort Iron Sky. And on the plus side, all those costumes helped when it came time to film Joss Whedon's 'Firefly', when they were used to outfit the dastardly Alliance.

See also:
Military: Norway's greatest resistance hero, 7 September 2013
Military: Bronies with guns, 30 July 2013
MoviesSoderbergh's Contagion, 13 November 2011
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