Sci-Fi Film Review: Starship Troopers (1997)

Hello again, all! Sorry for the unannounced hiatus, these last few months have been godawful. I’m finally back on my feet again, though, and ready to resume blogging—so here’s that review of Starship Troopers I promised. Fair warning, this is one of my favorite movies. Expect some gushing.

Poster and other screenshots provided here under fair use. Hopefully the studio won’t mind, since I am telling people to go watch their movie.

Starship Troopers was directed by Paul Verhoeven, and based very loosely on Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel of the same name. There’s… a lot to be said about that book; at the risk of oversimplifying it, I’m just going to say that it presents a very militaristic view of things, creating an idealized society in which one must earn the right to vote by serving in the armed forces. Or, as they say in the movie: Service Guarantees Citizenship!

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Paul Verhoeven’s movie takes the implicit fascism of the book and runs with it. Countless gallons of ink have been spilled debating whether it’s satire, and I’m not going to touch that issue here—because it is satire, one hundred percent, and good satire at that—so instead I’m going to evaluate Starship Troopers as a science fiction film, looking at interesting aspects of the setting and analyzing how well it holds up. Let’s get started!

We begin our story in Buenos Aires, in the 23rd century. Humanity is ruled by the interstellar United Citizen Federation, a regime where aliens are distrusted, executions are broadcast on live television, and service guarantees citizenship. Despite the fascist overtones, this appears on the surface to be a prosperous and efficiently run society. Everyone appears to be well-off, happy, healthy, and good looking (and white, which has earned this movie a bit of well-deserved flak). Enter our main characters: Johnny Rico, Carmen Ibanez, Dizzy Flores, and Carl Jenkins.

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Left to right: Johnny, Carmen, and Carl. Couldn’t find a picture that also had Dizzy in it, but three out of four isn’t bad, right?

Johnny and Carmen are dating, though Dizzy has the hots for Johnny, and Carl is a psychic. I’d say more about these characters, but they’re all pretty cliche and not the focus of this movie. Anyway, they all enlist in the military and go to different branches. Carmen goes to flight school, Carl ends up in military intelligence, and as for Johnny and Dizzy, they end up in the Mobile Infantry—the toughest lot of the bunch. Their training is… difficult, to say the least.

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The enemy cannot push a button, if you disable his hand!

After a meteor destroys Buenos Aires (allegedly it was launched by the Arachnids from the other side of the galaxy, which is as implausible as it sounds, and probably a dead giveaway that the whole thing was a false flag operation), the United Citizen Federation goes to war against the “Bugs,” mounting a military expedition to the planet of Klendathu. Thus the way is paved for a battle scene with an absolutely bombing soundtrack and visuals. The fleet arrives in orbit, the dropships launch with their cargoes of eager recruits, the Mobile Infantry makes landfall on a hostile world… and carnage ensues.

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Here we see the fearsome Mobile Infantry, mounting a reverse tactical advance away from the enemy. 

It’s a rout. Not since the Bay of Pigs has an invasion failed so spectacularly. The ground troops get massacred, in no small part due to their frontal assault tactics, lack of armored support, and terrible rifles which take about thirty shots to bring down a Bug, and the fleet, too, is devastated, thanks to plasma fire that was expected to be “random and light.” Turns out that human wave tactics don’t work so well when you’re outnumbered by tougher opponents. Also turns out that maybe it’s a bad idea to position your ships so close together that they collide like dominoes. The news networks list the deaths at 100,000 in the first hour alone—for comparison, about 19,000 British soldiers died during the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

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The space battle above Klendathu. You’ve got to admit, the visuals in this movie have aged like fine wine. Just don’t ask how a race of giant space bugs manage anti-orbital weaponry.

Rico, Dizzy, and Carmen are all involved in the battle, the former two planetside and the latter fighting up in orbit; they barely get out alive. As the United Citizen Federation licks its wounds and prepares for a protracted fight, Rico and Dizzy are reassigned to a new unit, Rasczak’s Roughnecks, where they serve under the command of their former high school ethics teacher (played by the spectacular Michael Ironside). So begins Rico’s rise through the ranks; without bogging down in a pure plot summary, the film plays out like a conventional war movie, except for the fact that it is set in space, with the enemy being giant bugs. The militarism and human chauvinism is so over-the-top (from a pacifist director, too) that there’s no way it isn’t satire. There are many, many silly moments, too, which some of the actors play straight, and some of them run away with.

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“They sucked his brains out” is an actual quote from this movie, and it’s awesome.

So, time for the meat of the review. Is Starship Troopers campy? Yes. Is some of the acting wooden? Absolutely. Are the characters cliche, the plot silly, the scientific accuracy laughable? Without a doubt. This movie was panned by critics upon release, and I can almost see why. However… it is great fun to watch. I enjoy (nearly) every second of it, and the production values are incredible—more than 20 years later, the effects hold up wonderfully. While the science is ridiculous (there are numerous unrealistic sci-fi tropes, like sound and fire in space, and the Bugs somehow shoot plasma into orbit without any kind of machinery), at least it doesn’t pretend to be a rigorously scientific film, unlike some I’ve seen *cough* Ad Astra *cough*.

Starship Troopers also does one of the most important things a science fiction film can do, which is establish its own distinctive world. The uniforms are instantly recognizable, as are the ships—fun fact, at my old university someone 3D-printed and assembled a model of one of the spacecraft from this film—and it made enough of an impact in the genre to spawn four direct-to-video sequels, following the adventures of Johnny Rico, Carmen, and Carl as the war against the bugs continues. Now, they’re not good sequels, but they are entertaining enough.

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The third film even has a musical number.

I think Starship Troopers should be regarded as a classic. It is a well-produced, over-the-top, explosively fascist movie that subtly (or less subtly) critiques the culture of militarism and national chauvinism, forcing the discerning viewer to wonder if our own society is headed the same way. In that regard it is certainly much better than the book, which is frankly bland. Do I recommend this movie? Of course! And remember: service guarantees citizenship!

Rating: 10/10.

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