The opening of Starship Troopers tells you everything you need to know about the world that these characters live in. The military recruitment video shows young, attractive faces smiling in unison, seemingly enjoying their situation. The pitch isn't to be an army of one, or to make a difference, but to save the world, and what young, aimless adult wouldn't want to do that? Isn't that what we grew up with watching Star Wars, playing with Power Rangers, or hearing about in history class? The traditional hero is fetishized in all cultures, and in the real military as well as the one presented in Starship Troopers, it is a place to achieve your dreams. Even when we may disagree with a particular conflict, we are harshly reminded to support our troops, as if there was someone native actively wishing for their death in the first place. It is that kind of proto-fascism that defines the world of Starship Troopers.
We are dropped into the first invasion battle on Klendathu, and are given little in the way of context. We hear that the bugs sent "another" asteroid at the Earth, but why? Why is this at least the second one? The movie, and the media apparatus of the film, are not interested. This is a culture that loves violence; where we have reporters embedded with platoons, here a news reporter is on the front lines. He dies for his job, and even the cameraman stands there, filming until the last minute. In a world where military service is required for citizenship, cowardice is not an option.
It is a subtle but important decision to show the battle where our hero is injured first, only to pull back and reveal his origins. He is a rich white teenager with rich white friends, but the setting is Buenos Aires. The classroom shows a black student and an Asian student, but it looks like an American classroom. One of the more redundant aspects of science-fiction is that distant worlds tend to have only one or two races, and tend to speak the same language or worship the same gods. This is done out of laziness and accessibility to the plot, but here it is about a little bit more. Buenos Aires is not an accidental setting; it is an expression of the American dominance, through military might, of the world. As traditional democracy is discarded and the veterans take over, American might realizes its potential the way Germany, with its smaller size and resources, never could.
There are other things to note in the high school portion. Grades are not private; that comes from a more wimpy era. Shaming is essential in a fascist society, just like it does in boot camp. All of the schooling we see is to teach students how to be effective for warfare, from biologically examining their enemy to being brainwashed into the prevailing military point-of-view. The science teacher brags about how the bug has no fear or ego, while any American student is taught an irresponsible amount of individual self-respect. We can see how the constant brainwashing affects the students; Carmen is obsessed with the military success of others and hopes to be that way, while the military in any contemporary society is something primarily populated by people with less post-secondary school options than others. If you want to be somebody in the world of Starship Troopers, you have to join the military. After all, Johnny Rico seems to be borderline idiotic in mathematics and is only fit for infantry, but his father still believes Harvard is a realistic option. Of course it is; the best and the brightest join the military the day after high school.
Immediately after the prom, we see our main characters signing up for military service. We catch a quick but important point; although they are signing up for two years, they can be retained indefinitely as long as the Federal Service requires them. Years before 9/11 and the War on Terror, this is an interesting piece of information. The recruits saying the pledge think nothing of it, but it is a dangerous oath to take. In a war against an enemy with astronomical numbers, an endless war could keep these young people indefinitely.
A second military commercial looks eerily similar to situations we see in our own lives. Soldiers pass around their guns for children to play with and ammunition to take home, not entirely different than combat trucks being brought to high schools or field trips to docked warships. A second piece of the interlude, played for laughs, is about a Mormon mission on a bug planet that happened to end with the slaughter of the entire colony. It is a jab at religion and its desire to push itself in all direction regardless of whether or not people want it. The narrator states that everyone should have known these dangers, and it is the clearest sign in the film that religion has been pushed to the margins in this society.
There is no gender discrimination in the world of Starship Troopers. Not only do women serve, but they are also involved in the infantry, taking front-line combat missions. Men and women are even in the same boot camp squadron, bathing and housing together with no difficulties. It is not a sexist, 1984 society; we see sexual relations several times throughout the film. Is it an evolution of our own military, where soldiers have learned to co-exist with black and homosexual soldiers throughout the last few decades, or is it the primacy of Federal Service that makes this possible? The film does not say because the film sees no issue with such a situation. We do learn, though, that some sort of license is required to have children, which is the motivating factor for at least one female recruit. In a war that is costing such a ghastly number of lives, why would a society do this? While the technological advances makes their warfare often more remote than our own, done from the sky or in space by a handful of skilled pilots, we still see the need for infantry on the ground. Given the American colonization of the entire Earth, and likely other countries, it is most likely both a population control and a form of selective breeding, requiring physical and mental acumen for the procreation of two people. It is also worth noting that we never seem to see anyone overweight or handicapped, unless that handicap comes from combat. It is not explicitly stated that they attempt to breed out or plainly eliminate undesirable qualities, but the film makes it a valid question.
Like any totalitarian society, the conventional rules of military training do not apply. A drill sergeant breaks the arm of a recruit on the first day, stabbing another through the hand on another. The brutality is meant to toughen the soldiers up, of course, but it is also to increase the disconnect between citizen and non-citizen; the training these people go through is not only meant to make them a soldier but a member of their society, where birthright is not the only requirement. The lead character is subject to public lashings for his transgression; earlier in the film, his father had suggested taking lashings in the Public Square instead of military service. We learn that this is not a fanciful analogy; public shaming by lashing exists despite the technological advances of their society. While our civil society controls the excesses of the military, the military is the civil society here, and that is why there is little to no questioning of these tactics. When high school teachers actively mock the non-violent teachings of a students' parents, it is hard to imagine an ACLU or other such organizations in Starship Troopers.
The rest of boot camp tends to go as conventionally as any other film, with competition and camaraderie ruling the narrative. It is near the end of this sequence that the central conflict begins; we learn through the state-run media that the bugs have launched an attack on the hometown of our heroes, killing at least twelve million people. The lackadaisical attitude is gone; our hero goes from quitting the military to becoming a hardened soldier who wishes to stay; our drill sergeant proclaims his desire to be on the front lines. Commercials show us that the Federal Council has voted unanimously to launch an offensive on Klendathu, the home planet of the bugs. Further commercials show the medical experiments on bugs, trying to learn how to kill them more effectively. In our society, this would be called torture, but after twelve million dead, no one would dare raise such an objection in theirs. It would be akin to suggesting that invading Afghanistan was a mistake in the aftermath of September 11th. Vitriol and apoplectic responses would ensue. School children are shown smashing domestic bugs at the bottom of their shoes while a teacher cheers them on; the futility of such a gesture is not commented upon, but it reminds us of the harsh treatment of domestic Japanese in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and also foreshadows several attacks against native Arabs in the weeks following the events of September 11th. In a time of crisis, the emotional centers take hold; only here, it is actively encouraged. Before the battles even begin, the Federal Network sponsors the headline Countdown To Victory, which is an even more dramatic rendering of President Bush's Mission Accomplished fiasco. The Federal Network itself gives no explanation to why the bugs attacked in the first place, our only indication coming from a reporter attempting to verbalize what may have been the cause, namely the colonization of their planets by humans. Johnny Rico overhears this and will have none of it. They destroyed his city and it is time to kill them all. Post-9/11 America had no time to discuss why fundamentalist Muslims would attack the United States; lies about hating us for our freedom rather than conflicts over support to the Saudi royal family or aid to Israel are too complicated to talk about in war mode. The central characters show no fear about going into combat, but are excited about it. They are either oblivious to the dangers or they do not fear death; both stupid but both desirable from their citizens.
It is a testament to Verhoeven's talent as a director as the sequence where the soldiers load up onto their ships is so thrilling. The swelling music and the gung-ho attitude of the soldiers makes the whole situation as attractive as possible. Our leader tells us that if you remember your training you will come back alive, but it is he who dies first when they start their battle. It is a myth told to so many about combat. You can only die if you fail, and if you follow orders honor will be yours. The battle, where the film began, quickly turns against the platoon; rather than the easy and painless victory that everyone expected, the platoon is badly defeated and forced to retreat.
It is not coincidental that all of the bug locations we see in the film are desolate and arid; the allusions to the Middle East are obvious. The news reporter calls it an ugly planet, similar to how many people perceive the worthlessness of the Middle East. Buenos Aires was lush and technological, while the bugs live as primitively as bugs do on Earth. Some have commented on the similarities of the words Arachnid and Iraqi, and the the quasi-Middle Eastern setting enforces this. It is unknown if other bug planets are green and developed, but the Federal Network would not tell us if they existed. You would not know that Tehran or Baghdad are complex and advanced world cities if you listened to our media, either.
The media is not shy about showing death in Starship Troopers. While steps have been taken to bar even the photography of American coffins in our conflict, dead bodies cut in half are shown in mass numbers. The head of the military is forced to resig after one costly battle, a degree of accountability that is often one of the positives of a one-party state. An important part of the society's psyche is revealed on a debate show. One scientist argues that the bugs have gotten smarter throughout generations and there may be more advanced bugs than the current science understands, but her opponent shouts her down. He reminds us of a more obnoxious Tucker Carlson, and proclaims that since he has never seen one walking around, it must not exist. The reasoning is anti-intellectualism at its finest, seen when people deny evolution because they reason monkeys should not still exist or deny global warming because it snowed somewhere. We are not given enough context to know what side the audience falls, but it is likely that the blowhard is the one who wins.
After the heroes are assigned to a new unit, the second battle begins. The fleet is supposed to drop explosives throughout the planet and the infantry will clean up what is left. This is one of the least interesting segments of the film, developing the advancement of Johnny Rico and his relationship with Dizzy.
The third battle sequence takes us to Planet P, where a distress call has been launched from. Here traditional military intelligence has failed again. The planet was supposed to be empty of life, but is full of bugs who have wiped out the colony by burrowing underneath the heavily guarded facility. We learn that the bugs are sucking the brains out of dead soldiers and manipulating the soldiers by controlling their brains. It is a type of advanced society that most were convinced did not exist, because a fascist society always regards their enemies as weak and primitive. On cue, the bugs attack our heroes as they fall for the trap at the colony. The bugs display the type of selflessness and dedication that is both expected from bugs and desirable to the Federation. The film portrays this sequence event as a savage attack on the part of the bugs, but let us not forget that this is a bug planet that was colonized and attacked to the point where the inhabitants had hidden underground. The dual point-of-view is important to the film, but one that less sophisticated viewers of the film would likely miss out on. While the primary focus of the conflict is the deaths of Rico's lover and his mentor, we are really seeing an aggressive defense of the bug's homeland. Surely the bugs lost brothers, sisters, lovers, and children in the conflicts on the planet, but neither the film nor the Federation would give any care to this.
After the conflict, Rico's request to bomb the planet is denied because the Federation believes that the brain bug may exist and is located on the planet. The cost of lives for returning to the planet is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, and it is even revealed that the military intelligence knew that the bugs were planning a trap for the unit. To make matters worse, it is Rico's best friend from high school, last seen as a brainiac kid, who gave the order. Other films have commented on how war makes monsters of everyone, but here Rico takes no slight to his friend sending him to his likely death. It is a portrayal of what both warfare and their society has done to the soldiers.
The brain bug has been compared to a vagina many times, and although crude, it is easy to see where the imagery got its inspiration from. If the film had been patriarchal and made less of its attempts to show complete gender equality in their society, this would pass for commentary by itself. There is something more sinister, though, what with the tentacle that comes forth from the brain bug's mouth-as-vaginal-canal. It is difficult to reasonably argue that Verhoeven was making an allusion to vagina dentata, just like it is difficult to pull anything substantive about the fact that by the end of the film, that mouth is inserted by a harsh, sharp rod after its tentacle has been cut off. It is likely more of a cheeky reference by Verhoeven than an attempt to delve into sexual politics.
Rico breaks the orders of his superiors by mounting a rescue mission to retrieve Carmen from her bug prison, but since the mission turns out to be a success there are no consequences. It is an absence of traditional bureaucracy that allows these unilateral decisions to be championed rather than chastised despite its success. The subsequent myth-making after the brain bug has been captured overrides everything else, whether it be mourning the death of Carmen's lover or Rico's close friend. Everyone is in high spirits because the only important objective in the world of the film has been achieved: military success. The fact that the brain bug is perceived by military intelligence to be capable of experiencing fear is something to cheer. Psychological warfare is something to be admired.
The final commercial interlude is not likely real in the context of the film, but instead a portrayal of how the remaining central characters see themselves. Heroes of combat and someone to be admired rather than anyone dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or heartache over the death of their loved ones.
References to psychic ability are made several times in the film; Carl is shown to be a child prodigy in being able to read animal minds and perhaps people, and Rico ascertains that Carmen is still alive by Carl's transmission to him. It has been said that certain aspects of the Nazi Party experimented with aspects of the occult and other forms of mysticism, and that seems to be what is being referenced.
Starship Troopers was a fantastic satire of both warfare and the ways the news media distorts information when it came out, but after more than a decade it stands as a strong foreshadowing of the conflicts in the Middle East. The strong notions of us versus them, the ways the media hides the brutality of conflict to keep domestic support high, and the seemingly never-ending conflict. High school students that are being pushed to join the war effort in Afghanistan were in kindergarten or younger when the war began. The military in Starship Troopers says the war will not end until every bug is killed, but how can that be possible? They colonize many planets, and are said to be able to breed in vast numbers and there are many more of them than us. Just like a war on "terror" is abstract enough to go on forever, this bug conflict can never satisfactorily end. The idea of joining a conflict that predates your own birth seems unconscionable, but they will reach that milestone in Starship Troopers and we may very well see the same thing happen in our occupation of Afghanistan.
Starship Troopers is misunderstood by most people who see it. If you focus on the "bad" acting and the cheapness of some of the computer effects, it could very well be read that way. Verhoeven is using the setting and the plot for something bigger, and he is making the type of film all of mainstream cinema should attempt to be, both an entertaining and well-paced narrative and a smart and interesting commentary on current events. Gregory Weinkauf of ▄berCinÚ, when talking about the film, remarked "I went to lunch a few times with a girl who despised this movie. I was forced to conclude that she's not very smart.", and this is a definitive explanation of how the film should be viewed.