Why you should care

Beyond the blood and bugs lies a social commentary that’s still relevant today.

When Starship Troopers was released in 1997, audiences were polarized. Not knowing exactly what to make of it, many went with the obvious: dumb, pretty teenagers shipped off to fight giant bugs in space. It is certainly that. Others, especially the European press, saw it as a glorification of fascism; its Triumph of the Will-style imagery and gleeful authoritarianism rattled cages. But what too many people missed was what made it so brilliant: It’s an irony-laced satire disguised as a popcorn blockbuster.

Director Paul Verhoeven made both subtle and obvious nods to the Nazis, the Soviets and America’s own past of blind obedience during wartime. The scale of production on the estimated $100 million film was huge: gargantuan sets, hundreds of CGI effects, giant models and a cast of thousands. The carnage is cartoonishly over the top — never will you see quite so many bodies sliced in half — and Verhoeven employs every bellicose war movie cliché in the book, all in the service of delivering some pointed social commentary. And while being a hell of a lot of fun.

C’mon you apes! You wanna live forever?!

— Officer in Starship Troopers

Based loosely on Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel, Starship Troopers follows the lives of Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his friends as they graduate from a high school where a civics lesson is summed up by “Violence is the ultimate authority.” Set in the not-too-distant future, this one-world government is run by the military, and rights and privileges like voting are only granted to veterans: “Service Guarantees Citizenship,” the slogan goes. Pumped up by omnipresent recruitment hype (and eager to impress his girlfriend, Carmen), Rico signs up for the Mobile Infantry.

In the film’s opening and in between acts, the main story is framed by interactive TV news breaks that report on battles and attacks with Fox News-esque bombast, mixed in with news reel-style propaganda for the civilians back home. For a film made before the 24-hour cable news cycle became the 24/7 Internet news feed, it is eerily spot on in its manic, any-image-goes style. A click of a pointer takes the viewer through recruitment commercials, sensational local stories and lots and lots of dead soldiers skewered by the “Arachnid Threat.” Scrolling beneath the footage flashes clickbait in its most primitive, yet purest form: “Would you like to know more?”

Neil Patrick Harris in the movie Starship Troopers.

Neil Patrick Harris in the 1997 movie “Starship Troopers.”

Source TriStar Pictures/Everett Collection

Soon after boot camp, Rico and company are exposed to the horrors of war at the hands (legs?) of the Arachnids, a never-ending supply of giant bugs that can make mincemeat out of a soldier in seconds. The troops charge at the hordes of bugs as a leader shouts, “C’mon you apes! You wanna live forever?!” It takes untold blood, guts, explosions, a million muzzle flashes and a particularly disgusting climax with bugs that think before — spoiler alert! — the humans are triumphant. Their victory validates the hypermilitary society, confirming that their fascist government works. Everyone celebrates. And they keep fighting.

Do yourself a favor: stay away from the sequels. They will only confuse and frustrate. They lack all of the wit and charm of Verhoeven’s original and replace its intelligence with obtuse action and poor writing. No matter. As long as I can watch the real deal, I’m a happy man — especially if I’m wearing my original screen-used Mobile Infantry jacket and cap. True story. Check out the original trailer below and you’ll understand Troopers’ cult following. Saddle up!

The complete film is available on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.

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