Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven pulls out the water bottle artillery

Fascist, even neo-Nazi”, decides the “Wall Street Journal”. “Ultrapatriotic and violent”, abounds the “New York Times”. As for the “Washington Post”, it “is not sure if the film adores or denounces the IIIe Reich’. We have known better press returns to start a promotional campaign than those of “Starship Troopers” in 1997. Paul Verhoeven’s feature film will not recover from it and will fail at the box office (120 million dollars in international receipts, the film having cost 105 million, excluding the promotion budget). Before, later, acquiring the cult status of one of the biggest misunderstandings in the history of cinema.

How could journalists have screwed up so badly? Back in 1997. Paul Verhoeven, sulphurous Dutch filmmaker who arrived in Hollywood at the end of the 1980s, is no longer in the odor of sanctity with critics. His latest film, “Showgirls”, a satire of Las Vegas, was slammed two years earlier. But the return of the “violent Dutchman” to science fiction arouses enthusiasm: after all, the filmmaker signed two sacred pieces of the genre, with “Robocop” (1987) and “Total Recall” (1990). For “Starship Troopers”, Paul Verhoeven adapts a new SF novel, “Stars, Attention! », published at the end of the 1950s. A controversial book, signed Robert A. Heinlein. Humanity is in a stellar war there against the Arachnids, an insectoid alien species. Evolving in a society without individuality and entirely collectivized, these spiders from beyond space are, for Heinlein, a metaphor for the communists, whom it is a question of eradicating (he nicknames them “the cockroaches” or “the parasites”) , by opposing them a strong, virile, patriotic and militarized America.

Paul Verhoeven hates the book, which he found “dumb and boring”. On the other hand, the basic plot interests him, provided that he can divert it to make a new satire of it, this time of militarism, fascism… and American propagandist cinema, which barely comes out of the Reagan years. He even has a sequel in mind. But the failure of the film will decide otherwise: outraged, Paul Verhoeven slams the door of Hollywood and then returns to Europe to pursue his career.

Ken and Barbie vs the Communist Spiders

In “Starship Troopers”, humanity, unified in a single world and military government (the Federation), left to colonize the stars and entered into conflict, at the edge of the Galaxy, with the Arachnids, an alien species capable of projecting meteorites on Earth. At least, that’s what state television claims… Verhoeven approaches the first part of the film as if it were a work of propaganda. “I decided to make the film as if I were shooting it in the 1930s or 1940s, with young people full of ideals as heroes,” says the filmmaker. This bias in staging allows the film to be both a great piece of action and a political rant as long as we are interested in the subtext.

The American criticism of 1997 therefore misses the point. At the source of the malaise, perhaps this choice of Verhoeven to hybridize fascist codes with those of the Californian ideal. Thus, the first act, which presents the cadets of the military academy, piles up the clichés of the “teen movie” of the West Coast: the cheerleaders, the handsome kid captain of the football team, the prom … The filmmaker goes so far as to choose two young stars from the popular television series “Beverly Hills” in the main roles. Casper Van Dien, his square jaw, his tanned complexion, his blue beads and his blonde haircut, camp Johnny Rico, the hero. Denise Richards, her big doe eyes and supermodel height, plays Carmen Ibanez, his girlfriend. If the film sticks to the usual codes of the time, the spectator is supposed to identify with these perfect Ken and Barbie fascists.

Desire, sexuality and mobile infantry

But very quickly, the postcard cracks. We discover that, in this society, we only become citizens after having done our service in the army. It is only then that the inhabitants of the Federation obtain the right to vote and to procreate. In Heinlein’s book, this element was positive in the eyes of the anti-communist author, who considered that citizenship should be earned rather than obtained. Paul Verhoeven, in reverse, is ironic. “It was the mobile infantry that made me the man I have become!” says a veteran, for example… who turns out to have had both legs and right arm amputated.


The incursions of commercials – already present in “Robocop” –, praising a live execution on TV or the arming of children, come to support this absurd side of a society completely turned towards violence. In a scene that has remained famous, the recruits, women and men, shower together. But rather than ogling each other, they talk about the war and their advancement in the hierarchy. Fascist ideology has permeated the bodies to the point of neutralizing all desire. However, desire and sexuality are what move the characters, with Verhoeven.

The director does not miss the opportunity, in the second part, to afford the cap of a state governed by badernes. The first battle against the Arachnids turns into a game of massacre of the Troopers, the filmmaker taking malicious pleasure in shredding his GI Joes low on the forehead. For good reason, humans rush into the heap without organization or knowledge of the enemy. A metaphor for Vietnam? Everyone will be the judge, but it’s obvious that the strategists of “Starship Troopers” have been sneezing their brains out for a long time, sending legions of kids to the ditch and repeating the same mistake in the next battle.

The Arachnids, on the other hand, repulsive and slimy in appearance, prove to be more complex as the film progresses. They feel fear and empathy. Like a mirror held up to humanity: it is indeed a society turned towards war that kills individual freedoms as much as individuals. Therein lies the genius of “Starship Troopers”. The film says, in essence, that the cinema which fetishized war, under Reagan among others, is no better than the worst totalitarian propaganda of the 1930s and 1940s. And that here, as at the other end of the Universe , the monster is not always the one you think.


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