Starship Troopers is exploding onto Netflix this month, and it’s a film that I believe should be required viewing for all Americans. I’m not kidding. They should show this movie in school and have SAT questions about it. That’s because Starship Troopers is a cautionary tale about the decline of western society, a tale that director Paul Verhoeven tried to tell us in the 1980s with the eternally-snubbed-by-the-Academy-Awards film RoboCop. Indeed, Starship Troopers is the RoboCop 2 we deserved, and not the steamy pile of garbage that actually is RoboCop 2, a movie about RoboCop fighting a slightly more insane robot.
RoboCop was an indictment of the Reagan ‘80s, a dystopian sci-fi story about the dangers of unrestrained capitalism told at the ground level. It managed to shine a light on how trickle-down economics and the exaltation of corporations would damage regular people and society at large, while simultaneously being about a cyborg cop who stabs drug dealers with his dagger fist and shoots a competing law-enforcement automaton with a rocket launcher. The film has levels, is my point.
Starship Troopers is Verhoeven’s ‘90s counterpart to RoboCop. It’s a condemnation of American imperialism and exceptionalism, and a sharp critique of the Vietnam War if anyone cares to look out for that kind of thing. Basically, it’s about a bunch of young people being indoctrinated by rabid jingoism and getting tossed into a meat grinder of a conflict that they can’t even articulate to shore up the monolith of blind devotion to the government. Also there’s a lot of cool action scenes and plenty of gore. This movie rules. But I think RoboCop and Starship Troopers are two of the most misunderstood films ever made, which is the constant danger of satire – that someone will take it seriously.
Both Starship Troopers and RoboCop have spun off entire franchises of sequels, action figures and cartoon shows that take the original films at face value. But RoboCop exists on the principle of, “Hey, what if we made a movie called RoboCop, isn’t that the dumbest fucking thing you’ve ever heard?” The very idea is satirical at its base – America’s glorification of both police and the military in the 1980s teaming up to create a robotic fascist superman who storms into a hostage situation to punch through a wall to grab a guy wielding a machine gun, because it looks super badass and punishing criminals is way more important than protecting civilians. (American movies have trained us that there is no worse thing than being a victim, but that’s a rant for another time.) The police, a public service, are literally owned by a private corporation, OCP. RoboCop’s prime directive is that he cannot arrest or harm any OCP executives. He exists to protect wealth and brutally attack anyone who commits any crime. It’s not by accident that the movie takes place in Detroit, a city famously destroyed by corporate overreach and capitalist implosion. He is not the good guy. RoboCop is essentially Verhoeven making The Great Dictator for people doing too much cocaine to recognize the message.
Let’s examine all the ways RoboCop is a terrible peace officer. RoboCop thwarts a rape by firing a bullet through the victim’s legs to detonate her assailant’s crotch, because you absolutely do not negotiate with terrorists. Then he leaves the woman alone in the alley. He tells her he’s notified some other people to come deal with all the bullshit like actually making sure she’s safe and taking the suspects into custody, and then he just fucks off. In that montage of his first night on patrol, RoboCop does not make a single arrest. He just metes out justice on a street level, which is the exact thing Rodrigo Duterte is doing in the Philippines right now. That’s fascism, folks, and it’s meant to be read as such. The celebration of RoboCop is so cartoonishly over-the-top that it looks exactly like the scene in Borat where he sings the national anthem at a rodeo.
The entire plot of RoboCop is built around the idea that the police can strike, which is drawing attention to the fact that there are certain services that are meant to be indelible because they serve the public good. But RoboCop is constantly intercut with commercials, the messengers of capitalism, to assure us that everything is going fine by normalizing the barbarism. He’s Batman, if Batman existed in real life and was sponsored by Google.
Meanwhile, the heroes of Starship Troopers are a bunch of 90210 teenagers playing weird ass arena football to decide who gets to have sex with each other. Then they’re shipped off to war to get chopped apart by angry alien insects, because that’s the only way you can become a citizen. You can’t vote unless you serve in the military, because you’re less than an actual person if you don’t contribute to the machine, which is a cornerstone of facism. It’s implied that the entire Earth is under this single government, and Johnny Rico’s bougie parents are framed as elitist cowards. Literally every single character in this film is dressed like a Nazi. Neil Patrick Harris shoves a speculum into a giant grub while wearing an SS hat. It couldn’t be more clear that Verhoeven is using a traditional war film to point out America’s gradual decline into hawkish fascism. You can’t even have babies in this universe without applying for federal service. This is a thoroughly fascist society in every sense of the word, and the absurdist commercials that connect several scenes bolster this fact. When they aren’t advertising public executions, they’re sensationalizing nationalist tropes like heroic soldiers and virulent otherism (look no further than the scene wherein a bunch of elementary school students are being encouraged to kill bugs that have no relation to the alien race with whom the Earth is currently at war). There’s even a dash of Vietnam-era hubris provided by the camera crew that follows Rico on his first mission and is subsequently massacred by the technologically inferior but no less formidable aliens.
The commercials are really what tie Starship Troopers and RoboCop together most concretely. They’re satirical shorthand ways to communicate the state of society and what people are willing to accept and what people are willing to be a part of. Verhoeven has a very specific view of America, and the fact that he defined the 1980s with RoboCop and the 1990s with Starship Troopers should be alarming to us all. He predicted our decline into fascism, to the point where the commercials in both films probably don’t seem that ridiculous to young audiences watching the films for the first time in 2020. Every commercial is like a monster truck rally, appealing to the lowest common denominator in all of us. And while the original intent was to point a finger at the rabid nationalism brewing in the United States, those sentiments have been so normalized that it’s admittedly hard to recognize RoboCop and Starship Troopers as satire. That’s why the RoboCop remake didn’t work, and that’s why any remake of Starship Troopers won’t work.
All of the sequels for both films take the original’s language at face value as over-the-top action movies. That’s not what RoboCop meant and that’s not what Starship Troopers meant. They’re films about how fascism corrupts entire societies from the top down, so gradually that the majority of the population won’t even notice it happening. Both stories are alarm bells about the inevitability that America as it existed in the 80s and 90s and as it exists now will result in a fascist regime. And it’s hard to argue with that. But they’re also two totally bitchin’ sci-fi action movies with hilarious gore and over-the-top performances that are entertaining at a purely base level. So when you watch Starship Troopers on Netflix, remind yourself that Jake Busey’s neon violin and Michael Ironside’s hamboneist-of-hambones delivery of the line “NUKE IT” are in service of the future of humanity.