One of the most hated science fiction movies upon its release is recognized today as a sharp, scathing classic. And maybe for all the wrong reasons. Though rooted in a 1959 novel that was unabashedly pro-fascist and celebratory of American right-wing ideals, the cult 1997 movie is entirely self-aware and purposefully evocative of Nazi imagery. Even the white-washing of its central protagonist is making a statement.
Starship Troopers, from director Paul Verhoeven, is the movie you need to watch before it leaves Netflix at the end of September.
Based on Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 novel, Starship Troopers is a coming-of-age war movie set in the 23rd century. Johnny Rico, a boy from Buenos Aires played by the very white Casper Van Dien, rises up the ranks from infantry grunt to hardened lieutenant in an ongoing war against alien bugs known as Arachnids.
In this dystopian future, where everything is clean and people are healthy and prosperous, privileges like the right to vote are only earned through military service. (Made more explicit in Heinlein's book, freedom of speech and the right to assembly are still granted to non-veteran civilians, but to vote and hold office is only for citizens post-service. Yeah, it's dark!)
Starship Troopers exists in a world where the military class rules, and while everything looks nice and everyone is beautiful — Neil Patrick Harris, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Clancy Brown, Michael Ironside, Brenda Strong, and Amy Smart round out the cast — there's an ugliness that leaks through the cracks. Propaganda reels (which aid in story exposition and flesh out world-building) resemble both Fox News and Triumph of the Will. A veteran commends Rico for joining infantry because it "made me the man I am today." He has a synthetic arm and no legs.
The genius of Starship Troopers, though, is how appealing it is as a movie. It visibly draws parallels between a future western civilization and fascistic rule, and it's fun. The action is riotous, the actors are hot, the soldier costumes are ripe for cosplay, and traveling in space is full of sweeping shots that feel like a comic book. The CGI, though dated, gets the job done; the bugs are still gooey and gross 23 years later. "I've heard this film nicknamed 'All Quiet on the Final Frontier,'" Verhoeven said in the movie's DVD commentary, "which is actually not far from the truth."
Of note is the white-washing of Johnny Rico. Heinlein, who wrote Starship Troopers before Star Trek and legislative gains for the civil rights movement in the mid-'60s, purposefully obscured his protagonist's Filipino race. In writing for a majority white 1950s audience, he made readers inhabit the eyes of a "Johnny" who had no clear racial identity until the end— in the epilogue chapter, Johnny reveals his native Tagalog tongue. For a mid-century sci-fi writer, it's a stroke of pure genius to make white readers empathize with ethnic minority characters.
But that was for a book. A book in 1959. For the movie in 1997, Verhoeven, uncomfortable with Heinlein's pro-right wing tones (Verhoeven admitted he only read two chapters and quit because "I just couldn't read the thing") cast Casper Van Dien, as well as the other actors, on the basis of their handsome white looks to emphasize the fascistic imagery of an Aryan hero.
"I wanted them to look like the people you see in Leni Riefenstahl's movie The Triumph of the Will," Verhoeven said in a 2017 interview with Digital Spy. "So it was a ploy, but more based on a visual aspect."
Did Paul Verhoeven white-wash the protagonist of Starship Troopers from Asian to white? Yes. Did it have a point, to satirize fascistic messaging? Also, yes. Said Verhoeven in 2017: "All the way through we were fighting with the fascism, the ultra-militarism. All the way through I wanted the audience to be asking, 'Are these people crazy?'"
When Starship Troopers opened in theaters in 1997, it received a lashing from critics. In his two-star review, the late Roger Ebert said it was "the most violent kiddie movie ever made." But time has been kind to Starship Troopers — or perhaps time hasn't been kind to us as we creep towards authoritarianism. In positive retrospectives, Starship Troopers is hailed as "ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism." In June 2020 for New Yorker, David Roth remarks, "American life is stuck somewhere inside the Paul Verhoeven cinematic universe."
Starship Troopers is a special movie. It is entirely aware of its baroque depiction of military heroism, an illusion that goes away when the bugs ruthlessly bite and tear into soldiers as they scream helplessly. (If Verhoeven had time and space for it, I would love to know about the troopers in therapy. Does that even exist in the Federation?) It is the most polished B-movie ever, a smart and sharp action film that roasts the baked-in propaganda of Michael Bayhem while technically outperforming most action movies made even today. When Van Dien's Johnny declares he will "kill them all," it becomes harder to figure out who the monsters are.
Starship Troopers is streaming on Netflix until September 30.