How "Starship Troopers" Aligns with Our Moment of American Defeat

It has become clear, in these last decades of decadence, decline, towering institutional violence, and rampant bad taste, that American life is stuck somewhere inside the Paul Verhoeven cinematic universe.

For most of "Starship Troopers," humanity, in every possible facet, gets its ass kicked. A culture that reveres and communicates exclusively through violence -- a culture very much like one that responds to peaceful protests with indiscriminate police brutality, or whose pandemic strategy is to "dominate" an unreasoning virus -- keeps running up against its own self-imposed limitations. Once again, the present has caught up to Verhoeven's acid vision of the future. It's not a realization that anyone in the film can articulate, or seemingly even process, but the failure is plain: society has left itself a single solution to every problem, and it doesn't work.

Donald Trump didn't empty American politics of everything but violence; he's just what was left afterward. He is more an emblem of American defeat than its author. The world of "Starship Troopers" aligns with our moment in its wastefulness and brutality, and most of all in being so helplessly recursive. At the end of the film, the human survivors of the bug siege become the heroes of a bombastic military-recruiting ad. A splash of onscreen text cheers, "They'll keep fighting . . . and they'll win!" The second promise is extraneous. All that's left to win is the chance to fight more, and to fight off the realization that the fighting itself has become the point.

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25 Responses:

  1. Dude says:

    That officially makes it twice now (within two decades, no less) that Starship Troppers has served as a fun house mirror for "God's America". It was eerie enough when it practically predicted the Dubya years and the never-ending fuck-up in the Middle East.

    • len says:

      I particularly like the scene where children are stomping on a diverse collection of bugs, because it was replicated a few years later by children stomping on a pile of Dixie Chicks CDs for the benefit of local news.

      • Dude says:

        Thaaaaat's... a bit of a stretch.

        I'm old enough to remember the crushing/steamrolling of gangsta rap CDs in '93, a similar event that happened in the '80s (fueled by Tipper Gore's crusade against "adult" music), and hearing about similar events long before that - especially with The Beatles after the whole "bigger than Jesus" thing.

        Yes, I recall the Dixie Chicks backlash, but I'm not seeing a connection between that (RWNJs losing their shit because their "country music darlings" took an anti-war/anti-Dubya stance) and the smashing of the bugs in Troopers (which was the citizens thinking they were actually fighting the same enemy as the troopers).

        • Elusis says:

          You must be fun at parties.

          • Dude says:

            Yes, I'm such a killjoy because I don't subscribe to flimsy theories. Woe is me.

            • tfb says:

              I think that 'believing some mad theory' is kind of mandatory if you want a social life in fact. Either people won't talk to you because you don't believe that 5G is killing us all, or they won't talk to you because you've done the sums on space travel and worked out that we're not putting a million people on Mars any time soon, or probably ever, and they don't like it that you've spoiled their scifi fantasy. Pretty sure I've met people who want to go to Mars to escape 5G.

              • Dude says:

                Then don't ask me. "len" up there replied to my comment with something baseless, so I didn't entertain it. "len" was, at least, respectful in their comment and I was equally so.

                • tfb says:

                  Oh, sorry: I really wasn't trying to be rude to you, I was trying to make a joke about the fucked-up state of things. Everyone really does seem to believe one or more mad theories, and if you don't you get flack both from the conspiracy loons and from the Muskites.

                  Sorry it came across as rude: it really was not meant to be, I should have written it more carefully, but it was late at night and I was drunk.

  2. Galvanick Lucipher says:

    This CNN clip is so RoboCop-esque it's actually jarring. Sure Showgirls wasn't his finest moment, but Verhoeven's work was prophetic.

  3. Dave says:

    David Roth is a treasure.

  4. Pinback says:

    Heinlein being a racist, sexist, fascist, misogynist dirty old man makes ST steal what thunder there was for Verhoeven. At least for me, having read the book. The movie itself was 99% derp. In the current context, the shame more than covers the thematic shoplifting that went on. (Is this all being blithely nodded at by the cool kids, or am I just missing the point of this post and the comments?)

    • jwz says:

      I've read this three times and I have no clue what you're trying to say.

      • Pinback says:

        Most of the content that Verhoeven is given credit for in the film, arguably should be credited to the writer instead. But the author arguably wasn't trying to be ironic in inventing a dystopia. He was expousing a viewpoint in earnest, that I'd argue was flawed. Admiring flawed thinking, and acting like it is ironic, or insightful just seems dumb.

        • Dude says:

          Or... self-aware satire?

          • Pinback says:

            I am not aware of any aspect of Heinlein's work, or his life for that matter, that gives me a reason to think he worked at the level of self-aware satire. From The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to Stranger in a Strange Land, the guys stayed 100% in his own lane.

            • Dude says:

              ...................Verhoeven's satire. The guy grew up in Nazi-occupied Denmark, where Nazis intimidated his family on a daily basis. Coming across a fascist work like Heinlein's, of course Verhoeven's gonna take the Great Dictator approach and make the fascists look foolish? (He used the same screenwriters from Robocop, for chrissake.)

              Ever see the documentary The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing? Verhoeven is one of the talking heads interviewed. When the documentary covers Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, Verhoeven mentions - and comparative footage is shown - how he intentionally mimicked Riefenstahl's tribute to Hitler as a way to mock Heinlein's troopers.

              • Pinback says:

                "He is more an emblem of American defeat than its author." If the author of the original blurb didn't intend to bring Henlein into the fray, they should have said 'director' or even 'screenwriter'.

                • Nick Lamb says:

                  The line you quote is talking about Donald Trump. Here's the context you snipped:

                  Donald Trump didn't empty American politics of everything but violence; he's just what was left afterward. He is more an emblem of American defeat than its author.

                  That quote, like much of this piece, expects you're a confident navigator of English and have seen these idioms before so it doesn't hold your hand very much, and as a result it seems you ended up expanding "its author" as "Robert Heinlein" even though that reading doesn't end up making any sense.

                  Donald Trump is more an emblem of American defeat than Robert Heinlein.

                  Didn't you stop and wonder why somebody would write something that made no sense and consider re-evaluating your understanding of the sentence?

                  Let's try again noticing that the pronoun "its" refers to the phrase "American defeat" earlier in the sentence rather than jumping out to refer to the novel that the movie is based on.

                  Donald Trump is more an emblem of American defeat than the author of American defeat.

                  The claim is that Donald Trump is an emblem (symbol) of American defeat and not in himself the cause (author) of that defeat.

                  The word "author" here is figurative, like when we say "Be the author of your own destiny". We don't mean "Write a bad novel and then try to act it out".

                  • Pinback says:

                    Yes, I let my fondness for Heinlein color both my appreciation of the movie, and my mis-reading of the blurb this thread is based on. The points I tried to make were mostly or completely wrong. Thanks to everyone in the thread for the insights you brought up, and for the thoughtful discourse. Thanks to jwz for posting interesting and thought provoking stuff.

        • Narf says:

          "Most of the content that Verhoeven is given credit for in the film, arguably should be credited to the writer instead. But the author arguably wasn't trying to be ironic in inventing a dystopia."

          Did we read the same book and watch the same movie? The movie has only passing similarity to the book.

          FTA: "Ed Neumeier, the screenwriter of “RoboCop,” adapted “Starship Troopers” from the 1959 science-fiction novel of the same name, by Robert A. Heinlein; that book, which the director found “militaristic, if not fascistic,” was dedicated “to all sergeants anywhen who have labored to make men out of boys.” Verhoeven told Empire, in 2014, that he couldn’t finish reading it."

          I'll grant Verhoeven was not going for irony. Rather, he was taking Heinlen's ideas from the part of the book that he could wade through and extrapolate to it's natural conclusion. He wrapped it in a ton of satire to show how absurd/horrible those ideas were.

          I would argue Heinlen thought he was writing something of a utopia and Verheoven showed it for the dystopia so many would find it.

          • Pinback says:

            Fair enough. But why did they feel compelled to crank out turd 2 and turd 3?

            • Narf says:

              Verhoeven does not seem to be involved with those. I don't see how the sequels matter, in regards to any of your points. I would guess they were made because someone thought they would make money, but that seems like a derail.

              • Pinback says:

                The same writer has credit on 3. But yes, that was just an attempt at humor, as I can see Verhoeven wasn't involved in the later films/videos.

  5. Pinback says:

    If Heinlein were still alive and writing, would he think of the current world as a dystopia, or would he be a huge Trump supporter?

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