The movie Starship Troopers from 1997 directed by Paul Verhoeven is, in my opinion, one of the most underestimated pieces of cinematography. Although the movie has very few things common with the original book from great American sci-fi author Robert Heinlein, the general idea of the hostile alien race of bugs and the patriotic ethos are present in the movie, with the rest being pure Verhoeven. Moreover, that is probably the best thing that could happen to the adaptation of the book. That might be the very unusual thing to say about the adaptation of anything, but while the book is quite a rigid glorification of the military, duty, and patriotism, the movie is much more open to different interpretations. For someone, it was simple sci-fi war movie with lots of flying limbs and intestines, but one can also find a satirical element and many metaphors in contemporary (in 1997) and historical context. When I first saw the movie, I was very young and didn´t really comprehended the ideas (but I sure enjoyed the action scenes), but when I watched it again two years ago, I was quite awestruck since I realised how timeless the movie becomes. In the text below, I will try to prove my point by using some contemporary parallels and compare them with the movie.
The movie is set in the 23rd century, and the humanity (under the banner of the United Citizen Federation) has become capable of interstellar travel and has expanded through the galaxy, where they found the alien race of bugs called Arachnids, who were, according to the official reports, extremely hostile against human settlers. The main character, John “Johnny” Rico from Buenos Aires, is graduating high school student (as a archetypal high school jock), who under influence of his teacher decides to enlist (to the resentment of his father) in the Federation military service along with his friends Carmen Ibanez (his girlfriend) and Carl Jenkins (his best friend), since the joining the Federation military service is the only way to obtain a full citizenship. Johnny joins the Mobile Infantry where he undergoes the training under the brutal drill, Sergeant Zim. After being promoted to the squad leader, Rico causes the death of one of his squad mates during live-fire exercise and is demoted and punished by public flogging, after which he decides to resign. After a call with his parents in Buenos Aires is cut off, he finds out that the entire city was wiped out by asteroid shot from Klendathu, in Arachnid Quarantine Zone and he reenlists so he can fight in the upcoming war.
After the first attack on Klendathu, which was an utter failure, Rico (along with his friends Aze and Dizzy) is reassigned to the “Rasczak Roughnecks” commanded by his old high school teacher (who influenced him to join the service) Rasczak. The mission to investigate lost contact with Federation outpost on planet “P” turned out to be a trap and Rico´s unit is forced to retreat with heavy casualties (including Rasczak and Dizzy). Rico, now Lieutenant and commander of Roughnecks are ordered to return to the planet “P” and capture the brain bug (for intelligence purposes). The mission is a success (although the bug was captured by no other than ex-drill Sergeant Zim, now private) and the movie ends in the very optimistic impression of humankind finally changing the tides of war.
For the Federation, I will give my life!
The Federation in the movie is depicted like a central government of the entire mankind-controlled space, that consists of lots of different agencies and branches and the only way to serve in the official positions, to vote or to have more than two children, is to serve in the Federation military service (and survive), which is the only way to become full citizen. Although these perks present decent incentives, it is obvious, that non-citizens are basically equal with citizens, since Rico´s parents (both non-citizens) are wealthy and educated people (with the intention to send Rico to Harvard and vacation to the different solar system).
The Starship Troopers brings the entirely new definition of citizenship (with a much stronger focus on citizen´s responsibilities) that is truly unprecedented in today´s world with a prevailing system of democracy, with the main idea of equal rights (especially the franchise) for everyone. There are obviously exemptions, but the liberal democracy is the main ideology in most of the developed world (generally known as the Western world).
With the different concept of citizenship, it is hard to compare contemporary national states with the spacefaring global government, but in certain examples, we can find some parallels even today. One of those is Israel.
Although the military service in Israel is mandatory[i] (with some exemptions) and not serving does not make a person a non-citizen, there is one segment of the population, that can benefit a great deal from enlisting even while they are exempted from the military service. The segment I am talking about is Israeli Arabs.
According to the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (US Department of State 2004), Israeli Arabs who did not serve had less access than other citizens to social and economic benefits for which military service was a prerequisite or an advantage, such as housing, new-household subsidies, and employment, especially government or security-related industrial employment.
Another perk of citizenship in the Starship Troopers is lower or no tuitions while attending a college and this one, for a change is a common practice even today. The G.I. Bill in the United States allows veterans to attend a college for free, on behalf of Uncle Sam (US Department of Veteran Affairs 2015). The USA and the Federation share another aspect of the service, and that is a possibility to acquire citizenship for a foreigner, through service in the armed forces (USCIS 2014).
Generally speaking, the wealthy, developed and quite militarised societies in the US and Israel are probably the most similar to the Federation (also relatively wealthy and militarised societies) from all the nation states of the contemporary world.
It´s a good day to die!
This non-citizenship (and prerequisite to serve in the military to become citizen) is one of the main reasons why the Federation might seem slightly fascist, which was exactly what authors of the movie wanted, since the uniforms of intelligence officers are very similar to the Gestapo uniforms, first scene (the military advertisement) is based on the Nazi movie Triumph of Will, and the architecture is very similar to style of Albert Speer (Svetkey 2015). The main hint about the character of Federation (at least in my opinion) is represented by the possible fabrication of war with bugs based on the alleged bug asteroid attack, but the truth behind this incident is slightly more complicated.
In one of the propaganda clips that can be seen in the movie, there is a suggestion, that humanity intentionally provoked bugs by establishing an “unsanctioned” colonies on planets (in this specific case it was a Mormon colony on planet Dantana which was massacred) that were already taken by Arachnids. Because of the noticeable negative sentiment against the Arachnids early in the movie, it is quite obvious, that Dantana was not the first case of humanity´s attempt to colonise already taken the planet. These incidents did not cause much of the warmongering moods among the Earth´s population since they were happening far away and a certain pacifistic segment of the population[i] probably believed that the Arachnid´s hostile activities were justified (to some extent) since humans invaded their territory. Moreover, then the Buenos Aires happened. Everyone was shocked and the when confused Rico asked his fellow soldier what is happening while following the mob of soldiers running to the TV screen, the answer was erratic yell “War, we are going to war!”.
Although the 9/11 happened four years after the movie was released, the parallel with the Buenos Aires is apparent, since both incidents were used as pretexts for war. Personally, I do not believe that the US conspired and caused 9/11 attacks, and I still believe that jet fuel (and high-velocity impact of an 88-ton airliner) CAN melt steel beams, but many people are convinced, that the 9/11 was clearly an inside job. Unlike 9/11, the Buenos Aires was, according to my opinion much more obvious “inside job” that was orchestrated by either highest echelons of Federation´s leadership or just by certain elements of the military establishment.
The most evident hint is based on the distance, since Klendathu is on the other side of the Galaxy then Earth, and even with speed of light it would take tens of thousands of years[i] before the asteroid would reach the Earth and what´s more, it is clearly said that the asteroid was shot by bug plasma (and it can be later seen that it moves nowhere around speed of light). Another question is how the Arachnids knew the exact location of Earth[ii], and especially the exact location of Buenos Aires. The general possibility that bugs shot plasma to the asteroid belt and send asteroid through half of the galaxy and hit the target of the size of the city is pretty much zero.
The second possible interpretation of what might happen is pure coincidence. The random asteroid that just hit Buenos Aires in the very convenient time and Federation was all in to exploit this opportunity.
The reaction we can see in the movie is very similar to the situation in the USA after Pearl Harbour or 9/11. The recruitment offices were full, and people were willing to fight for the just cause (or the vengeance off course), and the governments (and the military establishment) were ready to use that kind of opportunity. In the movie, the main motivation was the territorial gain of habitable planets and eventually in the case of the USA it was great opportunity to invade Iraq without any justifiable reason (all of them fabricated).
The idea of a big bad external enemy that is used for the unification of the home front is another classical method of the authoritarian regimes.
Do you want to know more?
Of course, the main point of the entire movie, when we actually focus on the core – propaganda. The entire movie is Verhoeven´s propaganda exercise. There are six clips of now legendary “Do you want to know more?”[i], every one of them full of very obvious, but well-manufactured propaganda centred around Arachnids, war, and moral and mental superiority of the mankind. However, that is just superficial layer. If we notice the colours and set designs in Starship Troopers, and especially the battle tactics of the mobile infantry (and also the fleet that didn´t change the tactics after the fiasco at the Klendathu), they are all very plastic. Fake. Nothing looks real. A lot of the sets and props look close to functional, but nothing looks gritty (and Verhoeven can do gritty, just look at Robocop). Everything is way too clean. You can tell that all the alien planets are obviously sound stages, and the Roughnecks‘ battle tactics, when you finally see them in action, make zero sense when you realize that they’re all armed with high-caliber, fully automatic rifles (for example the scene just before the big fire-breathing beetle comes up out of the ground. The troopers in the background have surrounded a pile of dead bugs and are shooting inwards). The entire movie looks basically like propaganda stunt made by the Federation itself.
I would say that today´s western propaganda is a bit more subtle than that, but at the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was very clear who is the enemy and why we should hate them. Not many broadcasted videos of bodies torn apart by artillery shells or high-calibre ammunition. Not many pictures of burned kids. Instead lots and lots of videos and pictures of brave American/Coalition soldiers fighting for the victory, although after 2006 and especially after the battle of Fallujah, the sentiment began to change drastically.
The movie ends with last “Do you want to know more” video, that shows captured “brain bug” as a great achievement and almost victory of the war. I could not help myself but think of G.W. Bush´s “Mission Accomplished”.
While the satirical character of the movie was lost on the critics in 1997, today, after the 9/11 and two wars in the Middle East, it is accepted as one of the most “spots on movies” that, without an intention of doing so, predicted (in a way) the future. It is not entirely impossible that in several decades we will witness an actual emergence of something that will gravely resemble the Starship Troopers fascist Federation, as we can see some crucial common ground in some topics today. The similarity of Buenos Aires attack with 9/11 is also quite hunting along with the extremely destructive wars that followed. This is what, in my opinion, makes the Starship Troopers movie timeless.
[i] Interestingly, the service is mandatory for both men and women (same as the Federation).
[ii] From the scene during the high school class with professor Rasczak it is clear that pacifistic ideas existed. The resentment about the service of Rico´s father also indicates a certain pacifistic conviction.
[iii] The topic of the realistic interstellar warfare where it takes hundreds of Earth years just to get to the enemy is well covered in the series Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974).
[iv] That could be actually explained by „brain bug“ draining the brain of a human, who had access to the exact coordinates of Earth (and Buenos Aires). Information like that was probably part of every navigational computer.
[v] The most ridiculous (and entertaining) Federation propaganda stunt, the music video “It´s good day to die” can be seen in the third Starship Troopers movie (2008).
HALDEMAN, Joe. Forever war. S.l.: St Martin’S Press, 1974. ISBN 0-312-29890-0.
SVETKEY, Benjamin. “Starship Troopers“ relies on Nazi imagery. 2015.
USCIS. Naturalization Through Military Service: Fact Sheet. 2014.
US Department of State. Israel and the occupied territories. 2005. http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2004/41723.htm
US Department of Veteran Affairs. Post -9/11 GI Bill. 2015
Starship Trooper. 1997. [movie]. Directed by: Paul Verhoeven. USA. Adaptation of novel by Robert Heinlein Starship Troopers
Starship Troopers 3: Marauder. 2008. [movie]. Directed by: Edward Neumeier. USA, South Africa, Germany