(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The MovieStarship Troopers

Where You Can Stream It: Netflix

The Pitch: 10 years after making his first blistering satire of American culture disguised as a silly action movie with RoboCop, director Paul Verhoeven topped himself. His big screen take on Robert Heinlein’s militaristic science fiction novel Starship Troopers is less of an adaptation and more of an evisceration, a shiny, big-budget middle finger to fascism disguised as a vapid blockbuster. Would you like to know more?

Why It’s Essential Viewing: I was too young too fully wrap my head around Starship Troopers when it first came out in 1997. As a youngster, it was clearly a big, bombastic action movie filled with violence and epic battles and dizzying visual effects. Watching armies of soldiers battle armies of giant bugs was a blast. But it was also lunkheaded, stupid, filled with wooden actors playing stock characters. It was all nonsense: lightweight fluff that was enjoyable enough as cinematic junk food. But Paul Verhoeven had proven himself ahead of the curve with RoboCop and he proved it again here, because Starship Troopers is the most damning, angry, brutal satire of authoritarianism ever made by a major studio. And it’s been smuggled inside of a different movie altogether. Would you like to know more?

Verhoeven famously read the novel of Starship Troopers when offered the film, found himself depressed by its right-wing politics, and decided to subvert the material rather than adapt it. The result is a movie that only bears a passing resemblance to the source material, “celebrating” its macho, fascist, idiotic politics by putting them in the spotlight and exposing them as the trite nonsense that they are. A high school teacher lectures about the failure of democracy. Only military veterans are allowed to vote. Only “citizens” (a status given to those who serve) have an easy route to having a child. Criminals are caught, tried and executed, on live TV, in a single day. The film’s cheery, cheesy tone – one part old-school propaganda film and one part teen soap opera – add both a humor and menace to all of this. It’s funny because it’s ridiculous. It’s chilling because all of the characters just accept that yep, this is the way things are and it’s pretty great. Would you like to know more?

The costuming and production design set the stage and plant the seeds early, whether you realize it or not. The Federation’s logo, a giant stylized eagle, could be representative of the United States, but it sure owes a thing or two to a certain political regime run by a terrible man with a tiny mustache. Those military uniforms sure are stylish. Do you know what other group was known for their stylish uniforms? And just when you think it could be a coincidence or that you’re overthinking things, Neil Patrick Harris shows up dressed in a literal SS uniform to take triumphant pleasure in an enemy’s fear. Would you like to know more?

Of course, Harris’ casting as a psychic military intelligence wunderkind was a joke back in 1997. He had not yet evolved into his final form, so here was Doogie Howser, space Nazi. The rest of the cast is also a big wink. Soap opera star Casper Van Dien: handsome, square-jawed, proudly blank. Denise Richards: gorgeous, wide-eyed, proudly blank. Verhoeven didn’t cast these young men and women because there were hot at the time – he cast them to reflect a society where everyone is blandly pretty, where everyone does what they’re told, where everyone reflects some kind of ideal master race. Sure, there are people of color in Starship Troopers, but not many of them. And most of the cast are white folks hailing from Buenos Aires, all of them with Latinx surnames. Where…where did all of the brown people in South America go? It’s chilling that Starship Troopers never addresses this. Would you like to know more?

Once you key into the fact that Starship Troopers is satire, a comedy, it becomes a rich and unsettling experience. In a “fist-pump” moment, one character threatens an alien leader with literal genocide. Ground forces wade into battle with no actual tactics, as if mass slaughter on both sides is the only way this society knows how to fight. And when it’s suggested that perhaps, maybe, peace is possible, a character declares “I say kill them all!” In a fascist regime, violence is fuel. Without war, without brutality, such a society loses its reason to exist. After all, Paul Verhoeven grew up in the Netherlands during World War II. He saw this firsthand. And he knows Americans will gobble down a big silly action movie rather than accept a lecture about how empty and grotesque fascism is. Would you like to know more?

That’s the dark secret of Starship Troopers: it’s a fun, funny, fluffy, and extremely entertaining science fiction action movie about something horrible, something that no one wants to talk about. It’s about how people trapped in the bubble of extremism annihilate themselves to further a needless and brutal cause. It’s about how happily we embrace darkness and self-destruction. It’s also a brilliantly staged action movie whose set pieces make its contemporaries look trite in comparison. Paul Verhoeven decided he wanted this movie to have it all. And he succeeded. The result is a film that was a curiosity 23 years ago and has now become vital. Unmissable. Important. Would you like to know more?

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