Greetings comrades and welcome to The Revolution Will Be Televised. Every month I am going to dissect a piece subversive filmmaking and discuss how it connects to the world we live in. I’ll cover a range of movies from teeny guerrilla-style acts of cinematic rebellion, all the way to Hollywood behemoths with more radical themes than you might expect.
For now, I’d like to touch base with one of my personal favourite pieces of satire: Paul Verhoeven‘s Starship Troopers. I’ll be engaging with the text under the assumption that anyone reading this is familiar with the film, not because Starship Troopers is something I’m hesitant to spoil, but because if you haven’t seen it then this is going to sound like a lot of rambling.
In fact, if you’re already a fan of Starship Troopers and you’re in a hurry, then feel free to skip to part two. For the skeptical and the uninitiated however, allow me to explain myself.
PART ONE – A DEFENCE OF STARSHIP TROOPERS
En lieu of a summation of the Starship Troopers plotline, I’d like to quote from renowned film critic Roger Ebert’s 2-star review.
“Early in the next millennium, mankind is engaged in a war for survival with the bugs, a vicious race of giant insects that colonize the galaxy by hurling their spores into space… Human society recruits starship troopers to fight the Bug. Their method is to machine gun them to death. This does not work very well.”Roger Ebert, Starship Troopers Review
Roger calls the action scenes interminable, joyless, and lacking entertainment, and he’s right. I would recommend reading his full review of Starship Troopers because his disdain for the film is pervasive, yet I get the impression Ebert missed something.
Familiar with the source material – Robert A. Heinlein’s eponymous 1959 novel, a genuinely fascist tale by a renowned reactionary sabre-rattler, and familiar with Paul Verhoeven, who grew up in occupied Holland and is known for his critiques of reactionary ideologies, Ebert read the 1997 film as a conventional work of satire.
“[Verhoeven] faithfully represents Heinlein’s militarism, his big brother state… we smile at the satirical asides, but where’s the warmth of human nature?”Roger Ebert, Starship Troopers Review
I believe there is a misunderstanding here. It is my opinion that Verhoeven isn’t simply making a satirical version of the Starship Troopers novel, he is instead making a Hollywood action film that would be made by a society built on the novel’s ideology. Verhoeven created a piece of media to be enjoyed after a football game in 23rd century Buenos Aires under a stable, centuries-old fascist regime. What’s scary – and I believe this was Verhoeven’s intent – was that Starship Troopers wasn’t that far off the Hollywood normal.
The assertion that Starship Troopers exists as a piece of media beamed back at us from a fascist future is not uncontroversial, however I believe the decoder ring for this assessment comes threefold.
Firstly, look at what is censored in Starship Troopers. For the most part this is two hours of rosy-cheeked teens being torn limb from limb with the camera revelling in all the gory detail. When something is censored then, we can assume that it is with artistic intent. There are two acts of censorship in the film, the first in a newsreel where a cow is annihilated by an arachnid, which is tastefully blurred to avoid upsetting the perceived audience. This is quickly followed by unobscured footage of a camp of “Mormon extremists” who had been massacred by bugs and scattered all over the place; the juxtaposition here rendering the censorship frivolous.
In another newsreel at the end of the film, the “brain bug” hive mind has been captured for experimentation, and we see scientists prod the creature with harpoon-like devices. Two spikes are inserted into the bug’s sides, before a third is rammed into its intentionally vaginal mouth. The latter is slapped with a large “CENSORED” obstruction. Again, through selective censorship the artistic intent asserts itself.
This reads as Verhoeven’s satire of Hollywood censorship – specifically how Hollywood is quicker to censor nudity or sex than horrific violence, which, as a Dutch filmmaker, Verhoeven found to be counterintuitive. By taking this to such a ridiculous extreme, the implication is that Starship Troopers has passed through a board of certification that is not our own and is released to an audience accustomed to such practices. This hypothetical censoring body is recognisably aligned with modern Hollywood sensibilities, but the extreme prudishness contrasted against unflinching bloodshed feels alien to us.
The second clue that Starship Troopers was made as an artefact of another society is the melding of the traditional narrative with the in-movie propaganda. The acts of the film are punctuated with newsreels about the threats to society and how every member of that society has some part to play in the war against the bug, be it children taking up arms and squashing cockroaches in the schoolyard or teens sacrificing their minds and bodies to the meat grinder.
This is all part of the fascist need for an enemy and eternal warfare; the bug planet of Klendathu is on literally the other side of the galaxy, so in order to foment fear and manufacture public consent for the invasion, the propaganda bombardment must be relentless, and the threat must be exaggerated.
In a manner eerily reminiscent of the full cultural mobilisation – the “let’s roll” attitude before the invasion of Iraq – the media of 23rd century America exists as a propaganda arm for the Federation, with all facets of government and culture lockstep marching to the beat of the war drum. By directing this propaganda straight to the audience without the filter of context or point of view, we essentially become the real target of this messaging, i.e., the American public in the Troopers universe.
It makes clear that in this culture, even their cheesy pop entertainment media is crammed full of pro-military propaganda. My next point can likely be assumed but it’s extremely interesting that in our own timeline our most popular Hollywood film franchises receive millions in funding from the Pentagon to ensure they show the US military and intelligence agencies in a positive light, and that film, TV and videogames are fair game for military recruitment.
For our final clue we return to the fact that the action in Starship Troopers is completely uninspired. Often levied as a criticism of the film, it is my belief that this is one of its strongest hints of its true nature. Verhoeven is a very well-regarded director, spoke highly of by former cast member Casper Van Dien for his dedication and hard work, and with ample experience shooting action scenes, so the idea that he just forgot how to do his job or that he decided to take the day off frankly doesn’t pass the smell test.
The action we see is the result of the film being made by and for a society that has long forgotten the virtues of artistry, creativity or humanity. This lack of creativity on the part of the film’s hypothetical director takes form in a few ways, the most amusing of which being when Johnny Rico (Van Dien) takes down an enormous bug on his own. Rico jumps onto the bug’s abdomen and fires a magazine of bullets into the creature’s shell, creating a gooey well into which he deposits a grenade, blowing the enemy up from the inside as his comrades and commanding officers watch in awe.
This is the moment Rico proves himself to lieutenant Rasczak (Michael Ironside), but it contains no more tactical genius than any of the other battles – more bravery to be sure, the instillment of which is, after all, the goal of the film’s fascist propaganda – but nothing that would suggest Rico is special in any way.
Starship Troopers is filled with subtle hints that suggest it to be more than simple parody; that it exists as both a critique and as an earnest representation of Heinlein’s work. To coin a phrase that I’m sure will not catch on, it is mono-metatextual: the film exists as a critical commentary, of itself. Verhoeven has alluded to this during interviews, claiming to be “doing battle” with the text of the novel (thus the plot of the movie) throughout the film.
There is more to delve into in this regard, but this is already going to be a long piece and I feel for the editors’ sanity as it is, so from herein I’ll assume I’ve converted you to the cult of Verhoeven and that you are onboard with my hypothesis.
With all that out of the way then…
PART TWO – STARSHIP TROOPERS AND AMERICAN FASCISM
It has been something of a contentious topic for the last four years – what is fascism? It is easy to point at Nazi Germany or Italy under Mussolini and feel like you have a pretty good understanding of what fascism looks like, but most scholars agree that the answer is not as simple as that. The advice from many who study the issue is to think of fascism in Germany and Italy as strains of the ideology rather than definitive examples.
In The Anatomy of Fascism, historian Robert Paxton denotes that fascist governments are ideologically fluid and take on characteristics of their countries and rulers, so if Hitler’s neo-pagan, traditionalist Ethnostate and Mussolini’s quazi-catholic, black-shirted death cult fall under the same definition, what would fascism in the United States look like?
I believe it would look a lot like Starship Troopers, by which I mean All American. To quote Paxton:
“No swastikas in American fascism, but stars and stripes and Christian crosses. No fascist salute but mass recitations of the pledge of allegiance. These symbols contain no whiff of fascism in themselves, but an American fascism would transform them into an obligatory litmus test for detecting the internal enemy.”Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism
Starship Troopers works a little differently in this regard. The star-spangled banner has been replaced by the eagle-crested flag of the Federation and there is no hint of religiosity to be found. The church and nation have been superseded by the state, however there is Americana in abundance. Most notably, the beginning of the movie resembles a bizarrely ideological version of a John Hughes film, with all the cheesiness that entails. There is a prom night dance with pop music, a football game, love triangles and angsty rebellion against parents – it is filled with all the banalities of the American high school experience.
In fact, for such a violent movie, the first act of Starship Troopers is exceptionally tranquil, which may have been part of the reason why the film’s meaning slipped by so many. We imagine fascism as being locked in heated battle against enemies both foreign and domestic; as fighting invading armies in defence of the metropole, or as the holocaust and the imprisonment of detractors. When the enemy is distant and we experience fascist society in relative peacetime, the ideology becomes harder to parse.
There is a pervasive notion in Starship Troopers, of everything being finished – that this is a time long after dissent or conflict. This is because Verhoeven imagines something scholars like Paxton or Umberto Eco (whose essay Ur-Fascism I highly recommend) never did. He imagines a centuries-old fascist empire, without a Fuhrer or conspicuous purge of internal enemies. He extrapolates on works such as Ur-Fascism, in which Eco outlines the core structure of the ideology from his experience growing up in Mussolini’s Italy, and asks what needs to change if fascism is to avoid cannibalising itself.
What is left is a totalitarian, militaristic and hyper-violent society where state ideology impregnates all aspects of culture and education. There is a shadowy intelligence branch calling the shots for a bloated and over-eager military who are locked into a needless and bloody forever war in a faraway desert. He imagines a capitalist society, rife with papered-over class divisions, in which certain individual freedoms exist in theory but less so in practice, and where the right to franchise is heavily restricted to push out undesirable and inconvenient populations. Allowing for some (minor) exaggeration this is all recognisably American.
I previously mentioned that Starship Troopers was crammed full of American banalities, but I only really spoke about the high-school Americana. This isn’t for lack of evidence, but because I wanted to highlight how seemingly innocuous pastimes like prom night and sports could be co-opted by a fascist state. There are far more examples of fascist Americana in Troopers, yet these examples are rather less innocent.
The thing that stands out above all else is the media/military industrial complex on display. The fascist state requires eternal warfare, so they must invade the bug planet. They manufacture consent for the invasion by driving propaganda through the news, creating pretences for war and urging people to enlist, whilst hyper focussing on the awesome weaponry at their disposal. They send news cameras along with the invasion, capturing the gruesome horror and fomenting fear and anger. More enlist and the cycle continues: “They’ll keep fighting… and they’ll win!”
This runs in almost exact parallel to the media ecosystem of American cable news and the US military. There, professional pundits with shady financial backing appear on Fox News and CNN, laying out seemingly dispassionate rationale for why invading Iraq is a grim necessity if national security is to be protected. Anchors play video of tomahawk missile launches and MOAB detonations ad nauseum, giddily reading off statistics and fawning over the beauty of the US arsenal. They idolise the American soldier and demonise entire ‘enemy’ cultures to drive recruitment. They foment anger in the painful retelling of instances where their forces met dishonourable resistance.
The specifics are less cartoonish as in Starship Troopers, but the framework is present and operational.
Verhoeven is in a uniquely advantageous position to satirise fascism, especially an American variety. He grew up in Nazi occupied Holland where his house bordered a military base which was shelled regularly. He mentions that as a young boy he was surrounded by danger and destruction, but that it became almost an adventure for him. Michael Ironside, who plays Lieutenant Rasczak, calls Verhoeven a “battle rat”, relaying a story of the young Verhoeven using a hammer to fire 88mm tank shells in the ruins of his hometown.
He is painfully familiar the ideology and the violence, but he is also in tune with the thrill that danger brings. This, paired with the fact that Verhoeven had been living and working in Hollywood for over a decade by 1997 and thus had his finger on the pulse of American psychosis, makes his work sing with prescience.
While a less inventive and more clinical satire may very well deduce that fascism is an evil, inherently flawed and contradictory system which could only take hold of the weak-minded and cruel, Verhoeven does not shy from the reasons many normal people become attracted to it.
There exists in Starship Troopers an apparent libidinal thrill in surrendering one’s personhood to the state. This runs counterintuitively to traditionally American values of liberty and self-actualisation, however the indoctrinated inhabitants of 23rd century America offer themselves freely into servitude. Johnny Rico is a fascinating protagonist because I don’t think he makes a since decision of his own throughout the entire film.
When we first meet him, he is screwing around in class and is called upon by his teacher, Rasczak. He regurgitates the word-for-word federation textbook definition of the difference between a citizen and a civilian in their society:
“The difference lies in the field of civic virtue: a citizen accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic, defending it, if need be, with his life. The civilian does not.”Johnny Rico, Starship Troopers
His ideology is spoon fed to him. He only joins the military to be with his girlfriend, Carmen. He gets promoted to squad leader on the back of Dizzy Flores’ (Dina Meyer) tactical ingenuity. He re-enlists after deciding to quit the military after his hometown is destroyed in a decision completely guided by hatred. He only decides to follow an unassuming trail to rescue Carmen after he is effectively mind controlled by his friend Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) who works in military intelligence.
Nothing Rico does is of his own accord, because Rico is not a character, he is a blank face and a conduit for propaganda. He doesn’t even have sex with Dizzy until Rasczak tells him to!
The film, especially for Verhoeven, is amazingly unsexy. There is a co-ed shower scene wherein attractive young people are stood literally cheek to cheek, yet the tone is completely neutered. The soldiers are so engrossed with their role in the body politic that the libidinal desires or their physical bodies never occurs to them.
The idea of a people becoming faceless and without personality is usually a heavy-handed critique of soviet communism and the creeping Red empire, yet the sense of becoming a cog in the Starship Troopers state feels more like relinquishing the burdens of consciousness than being mind-controlled by nefarious foes. This is likely because the critique of communism is that any differences between people must be erased as it’s a bourgeoise concept or whatever, whereas fascism trains everybody to be the same by indoctrination into the cult of heroism where every member of society is expected to be heroic, brave and loyal to the state.
Those who aspire to live up to this ideal are no less pawns of the state than the commie zombies, yet they feel more empowered. Disempowerment is, after all, how average people are swept up into fascist movements. When the bulk of society feels alienated socially and politically, and when basic needs aren’t being met, there is always the risk of democracy backsliding into fascism. It is important to recognise the creep of fascism in the moment, but more important is the necessity to respond to those basic needs before evil has a chance to fester and metastasize.
Curiously, as Verhoeven relays in a more recent interview, the creeping American fascism he was concerned with at the time was the fact that George W. Bush had been extremely heavy-handed in his use of the death penalty while Governor of Texas. It is almost quaint in contrast to the imperial horror show of the Iraq war which Bush enacted shortly thereafter, or the exploits of Donald Trump in recent years.
I write this on the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration, a day on which many both in America and around the world breathe a sigh of relief and share in the sense that a bullet has been dodged. It is imperative that people understand why that bullet was fired, lest another be shot in four years’ time.
If Starship Troopers has a lesson for us it is that America is not yet a truly fascist empire, at least not to the extent that we are culturally familiar with the term referencing. It is, however, in ways that are difficult to notice in daily life, not a million miles away.
Header courtesy of WarIsBoring.com.