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In Praise of the Hidden Genius of Starship Troopers

by Ash Bishop

“Pay attention!” Johnny Rico’s teacher tells him as the movie begins. Only History teacher Jean Rasczak isn’t actually talking to his students, he’s talking to you. Sitting on your couch, munching on your favorite snacks, you’re the main character of the movie. It’s you that has the opportunity to move along the character arc and learn important lessons about yourself.

The thing is, like Rico, you can’t pay attention. There’s too much going on, too many beautiful people, too much intense gore, too much bad acting. From your spot on the couch, you manage to miss all the important details. For example while Rico is making googly eyes at Denise Richard’s Carmen Ibanez, Rasczak continues to speak in the background. Here’s what he says:

“This year we explored the failure of Democracy, how the social scientists brought our world to the brink of chaos. We talked about the Veterans, how they took control, and imposed the stability that has lasted for generations since.”

Do those words bother you? I hope so, but maybe the modern reader is better equipped to notice the fact that the movie takes place in Buenos Ares, and lily-white Denise Richards is playing a character named Carmen Ibanez.  Casper Van Diem’s character is named Johnny Rico (Juan Rico in the novel).  Hollywood has taken a lot of grief in the last decade for white-washing, but there’s something far more sinister afoot here. 

Juan Rico and Carmen Ibanez, obviously.

In this strangely white version of Buenos Aires, Rasczak explains to the viewer that only “citizens” are allowed to vote, while “civilians” are not.  What’s the difference between a citizen and a civilian Rasczak asks his classroom?

Rico gives the answer:  “A citizen accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic, defending it with his life.  A civilian does not.”

In other words:  Citizens are soldiers, civilians are, well … civilians. Only soldiers can vote.

Are you bothered yet

How about when Rico joins the military to become a “Citizen” and starts to mix it up with violent drill instructors dressed like this? 

Director Paul Verhoeven was born in the Netherlands in 1938.    His family moved to The Hague in 1943.  As his Wikipedia explains, The Hague was the location of the German headquarters in the Netherlands in WWII.  Verhoeven witnessed firsthand the power of Nazi propaganda, their films, their speakers, their movies, and, perhaps more importantly, their ability to effectively wield the fallacy of distraction.

You see, even if you’re trying your best to pay attention, sometimes the distractions are just too much.  Once Rico finishes his first day of training, his coed team of good-looking soldiers hit the shower.  This is possibly Verhoeven’s best moment.  He’s well-known for employing copious nudity in his films (Showgirls, et al.) so when all the central characters strip down and strut around in the water we’re unsurprised by what we think is gratuitous nudity.  We’re also exasperated, titillated, and a little embarrassed. 

We feel the rush of conflicting impulses, and it’s a very effective distraction.  If we were still listening, we’d hear what the characters are saying about why they joined the army:

“I’m going into politics and you know you gotta be a citizen for that so here I am.”

If we were paying attention, we’d probably be thinking to ourselves, wait…not only can’t you vote if you’re not a soldier, but you also can’t serve in the government?  How do civilians get representation?   

“I want to have babies, and you know it’s a lot easier to get a license if you serve, so…”

Wait!  You need a license to have a BABY and you can’t get one unless you’re a soldier?!  Are these even the good guys?  I’m starting to really question the ideology of… of… oh, hey, boobies!

Verhoeven is pulling a fast one on us.  He’s trying to teach us something about our own ability to not notice the danger directly under our noses. We’re quick to enjoy the spectacle and freely surrender our own facility for critical analysis.  We ignore that small tickle in the back of our brains that keeps insisting, maybe the “good guys” shouldn’t be giving those fully-automatic assault rifles to all those grade school kids. 

“I’m doing my part!”

For its entire run-time, Starship Troopers tap-dances furiously to keep us from noticing what Verhoeven is also desperately hoping we’ll see.  In cheering for Rico and his squad of hapless soldiers, we’ve traded every one of our core values. We did it in exchange for a misleading familiarity.  Because these “good guys” look like (some of) us, because they’re wearing the masks of heroes in a sci-fi movie and because they’re handsome, charismatic, smiley and naked, we completely miss the fact they’re also the perfect embodiment of a neo-imperialistic Nazi Germany.  

When I first saw the film at a theater in Santa Barbara in 1997, I endured it’s two-plus hour runtime still rooting for those “good guys,” cheering for Buenos Aryan John Rico in his Nazi greys. I even remember nodding during the mid-movie commercial for the galactic justice system:

A murder was captured this morning and tried today. Execution tonight at six!”

…I thought to myself, “finally a justice system that serves actual justice.”

I was either totally won over by the films’ subversion of Democracy, or I was simply young enough to still be a little hazy on concepts like “due process” and “Civil Rights”.

Mind you, I didn’t actually like the movie — not on first viewing anyway. The climactic battle is between Rico’s squad of heavily-armed, hyper-masculine soldiers and a giant, sentient insect with a vagina for a mouth. The soldiers don’t want to kill the vagina, just pacify it so it can’t control their minds. “It’s afraid,” Neil Patrick Harris’s character announces just before the credits roll.

And as the lights of the theater came back on, I recall a wave of critical disappointment washing over me. I could not believe that the mastermind behind Robocop and Total Recall had made such a turkey of a movie.   

Somewhere, Verhoeven was probably chuckling to himself because I’d ignored his advice. I’d failed to “pay attention,” failed to travel along the character arc the movie had set up for me.  I’d been facing my criticism outward, judging the movie without noticing that the movie was quietly judging me. 

If only I’d taken old Rasczak’s advice, I might have been better able to understand how seductive the fallacy of distraction can be.  I might have understood the weakness in myself and not been swept under by the spectacle, walking away from my own most precious ideals without even realizing I’d done it.

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