7 Blog

Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

Is it time to rethink Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Starship Troopers’?

My friend and former Spokesman-Review colleague Kevin Taylor spends a lot of time on Facebook. How do I know this? Because I spend a bit of time there myself. If you have interesting friends, you waste a lot of time on social media. You can also get turned on to some fairly intriguing stories.

One that Kevin posted this morning struck me as particularly noteworthy. It was a piece from The Atlantic on Paul Verhoeven's 1997 movie "Starship Troopers," which Verhoeven (and screenwriter Edward Neumeier) adapted from sic-fi writer Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel. Writer Calum Marsh's point is that the many critics who panned "Starship Troopers" when it hit the theaters simply didn't understand what Verhoeven was trying to do.

"(T)hose critics had missed the point," Marsh wrote. "'Starship Troopers' is satire, a ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarismThe fact that it was and continues to be taken at face value speaks to the very vapidity the movie skewers."

Well, maybe. In some cases. But maybe not, too. Only an idiot would fail to see what Verhoeven was trying to do. As he did in other films of the same period — "Total Recall," "RoboCop," even "Showgirls" — Verhoeven took shots at everything from Madison Avenue advertising to gender roles in what, for him, became almost a genre unto itself.

The question was, and remains, does Verhoeven's intent make a difference? Satire is probably the hardest art to pull off. Just as Jonathan Swift discovered when he suggested that starving Irish people could solve their financial problems by selling their children, as good, to the rich. Many readers didn't get the joke.

And my fear at the time — a fear that has proven correct — was that many mainstream viewers wouldn't get Verhoeven's joke either. Some did, of course (even critics). But many others just exulted in the catharsis that any exercise in fascist glorification can provide. It doesn't take an MFA in film studies to enjoy Verhoeven's version of "Starship Troopers" on its most basic level, which misses the larger, satirical point completely.

As the years have passed, I've come to appreciate "Starship Troopers" more and more. It is brilliant satire. As one of the characters in "RoboCop" famously says, "I'd buy that for a dollar." But I still worry about the effect that such powerful messages have on the overall culture, the same kinds of messages we see every day on our television screens.

Either way, any claim that those of us who had concerns about the film when it first came out just "didn't get it" is a massive overstatement.

Update: An earlier version of this post attributed the essay "A Modest Proposal" to Daniel Defore instead of Jonathan Swift. The University of California, San Diego, was about to rescind my bachelor's degree in English and American Literature. But my friend Buck Sterling interceded on my behalf. Thanks, Buck.