Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997), uses a great deal of parody to comment on current American concerns. By blurring a 1950's sensibility with certain stylistic components of the 1990's, Verhoeven's film evaluates the return of so called 'family values' into contemporary American culture while also providing a critique of America's global military presence by featuring Nazi insignia in the film's mise-en-scene. In this essay I will be addressing the use of 1950's Pop Art (particularly the 'comic' works of Roy Lichtenstein), the collapse of history within the filmic text between the 1950's and 1990's and finally the fascist iconography that the film uses to portray the military. I propose that Starship Troopers uses these elements to undermine its portrayal of American military patriotism and hegemonic capitalism in a future age that looks suspiciously like our own.
Pop Art stylistics are a dominant feature of Starship Troopers and Verhoeven adopts this visual style in a manner similar to the first proponents of the Pop Art movement. In a letter from Richard Hamilton to the Smithson's1, objectives for Pop Art are laid out as follows:
[Pop art should be] Popular (designed for mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low-cost, Mass-produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big Business2.
Using this as a working definition, I will show that the film uses specific Pop Art icons to highlight the connection between these ideas and the film's parodic subtext. For, from the very beginning Starship Troopers announces itself as a form of popular and transient culture by opening with a slick blend of news and entertainment styled broadcasts filtered through a tabloid lens. These 'broadcasts' appear throughout the film and are set up as light sound-bite entertainment which make direct appeals to the movie audience with the refrain 'Would you like to know more?'. These broadcasts function as advertising and feature troopers giving guns and ammo to children and mothers encouraging children to stomp on cockroaches while captions such as 'Do your part' flash intermittently on the screen. These advertisements display many aspects of the above definition of Pop Art, in that they are designed for a mass audience and are part of mass media production. They are gimmicky and produced to seduce the young into joining the army. Finally, the advertisements are encoded in a transient form which is produced specifically for easily digestible information.
Another example that occurs within the first few minutes of the film is at the High School. Rico draws a picture on a 'magna doodle'-like screen. The image is a cartoon drawing of himself and Carmen and he animates it and transmits it to an identical screen on her desk. As the cartoon figures lean forward to kiss, Carmen sabotages the animation by making her image blow a bubble in the face of Rico. This scene can also be interpreted in relation to Hamilton's definition as it sets up a representation of Carmen and Rico's relationship that is transient and instantly understandable (both for the characters and the audience). It is mass produced in that everyone has a screen and can produce similar images and finally it is witty, sexy and aimed at youth both within the narrative of the film and within the audience attending the film.
The film continues its use of Pop Art with images reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein, one of the leading Pop artists of the 1960's. It uses these images in its representation of war and the military. Lichtenstein's images employ a formal aesthetic of flat primary colour and an emphasis on the two-dimensional pictorial plane to depict iconic representations of common cultural ideologies. His characters embody generalised visions of idyllic American beauty depicted in frozen moments of crisis and Lichtenstein selects and manipulates these images to delineate specific moments of cultural anxiety. Typical examples of these works include Blam (1962), Takka Takka (1962) and As I Opened Fire.... (1963)3. In Starship Troopers these elements are used to glamorise the military and to diminish the impact of violence. War and death are depicted with a glamorised 'objective' gaze. where the audience is never let beyond the surface of the image into either pictorial or subjective depth. The film's representation of war portrays violence on an extreme level where in the battle scenes themselves we witness countless graphic deaths. These deaths are not the quick efficient casualties of gunfire but rather the 'cat and mouse'-like games of the bugs as they toss and torture their victims to death. The violence is exaggerated and dehumanised. This is a device that Lichtenstein used to divorce the viewer from identification with his character's emotional and physical distress. In Starship Troopers cartoon-like representation makes it difficult for the viewer to identify with the character's suffering on the 'sympathetic' level usually required in traditional Hollywood narratives. Another example of the connection with Lichtenstein is in the depiction of the soldiers when they are engaged in activities other than battle. In the boot camp when they line up for a meal, a scoop of pink mashed potato is plopped onto their trays,
on the ship the team gets matching tattoos and after a battle the troops are rewarded with beer and a game of football. These small events act as comic-like vignettes throughout the film and form a basis for the Lichtenstein connection.
Another way of examining these examples is to look at an opposing view that there is depth beyond the superficial exterior of the text, for, like the Pop Art on which it is modelled, Verhoeven's film is 'low art' that makes a serious point. Accordingly, Starship Troopers problematises the opposition between 'serious critique' and accessible low culture parody by creating a text that can be read on two levels. It may be read both as a 'straight' action film and as an ironic text that undermines the ideology portrayed. Although the film seems only concerned with surface, its focus on certain aspects (in this case warfare and representation), direct the viewers attention to its underlying subtext. Although the military advertisements can be interpreted as flippant and disposable, they nevertheless seduce the audience into enjoying the film. They can also be read as a serious critique of American cultural imperialism. The cartoon image of Rico and Carmen points out the 'representations' hidden within the film form - that of stereotypical gender roles and idyllic attractiveness. Another important aspect of the film is its humour. In the sequences featuring the soldiers on leave, we can see the irony invoked by their 'buddy' behaviour. While these details provide the light-hearted 'relief' from the battle scenes, they may also further disconnect viewer identification. The team butt their helmets together and get matching tattoos. The characters' actions betray their 'dumb' sheep-like group behaviour, and reveal the unthinking nature of a group of soldiers about to fight a battle, the politics of which they do not fully understand. Humour is an almost essential element of the critique that Pop Art invokes, for, if the audience does not find the material humorous it is unlikely they will have sympathy for or an understanding of the 'argument' that the text presents.
Starship Troopers is a problematic text in that it can be seen to be complicit with the disconcerting ideologies which it represents (fascism, sexism, hegemonic capitalism and racism), and this accusation has been levelled at the Pop Art movement since its beginnings, however, an 'active' reading of the film reveals the superficiality of this position. That the film makes its political comment in a humorous way does not cancel out the uncomfortable connections which it draws, and in some ways this makes them more powerful by drawing in a larger audience and creating an anxious position for the viewer who must ask: "Is this supposed to be funny?" or "Is it safe to laugh at Doogie Howser in an S. S. uniform?"
In the film's characterisation there is an apparent blurring between a 50's and 90's setting. The characterisations are clearly stereotyped and the plot is clichéd. In the early scenes at the high school, 50's binary gender roles are played out in the costumes of a 90's high school drama. Although the costume is reminiscent of 90's high school dramas such as Beverley Hills 90210, it also suggests 50's teen wear. Twin sets, bright shiny shoes and socks and fresh faced smiles abound. Characters are stereotypical and two dimensional. The 'good girl' Carmen is a silicone breasted facsimile of clean cut, attractive, vacuousness. Although intelligent, she retains traditional feminine qualities. Repelled by a gory class dissection of a bug, she embodies 50's notions of the 'good girl'. She is Rico's girlfriend but she's 'holding out' on him, and plays him off against another athlete in the end of year football game. Even when she finally suggests that he come home with her, she retains her coyness (Dad's not home tonight), and the film does not reveal the presumed consummation of their relationship. 'Bad girl' Dizzy is a typical tom boy, who is also quarterback for the football team and harbours a very public passion for Rico. When later on in the film Dizzy and Rico consummate a sexual relationship, this on-screen behavioural transgression is ultimately punished with her death. The portrayal of this romance mirrors a 50's comic style reminiscent, once again, of Lichtenstein. We see the abbreviated flirtation, the coy smiles, the senior prom and the sexual moralisation, but there are no 'sordid details', no apparent depth beyond the surface. In this way the film resists 'realistic' characterisation. When emotions are portrayed it is through a formulaic 'sign' of that emotion: a grimace, a wrinkled brow, or a brilliant smile.
On the other hand this collapse of history can be read as a parodic critique of contemporary American society. The film produces the 'textual collapse of history' that Leighton Grist discusses in Moving Targets and Black Widows. In relation to Blade Runner Grist says that:
the undifferentiated presence of signifiers of past and present (generic conventions, architecture, etc.) results effectively in a temporally indeterminate, mythic narrative space4.
Grist's essay criticises this 'collapse', observing that it produces an 'ideological complicity with the period', but in Starship Troopers this 'complicity' does not occur. The film's overlapping of 50's and 90's cultural signification and moral values creates a critique of current American ideals concerning gender behaviour and moral 'purity'. The comparison or blurring of history that the film presents in the high school scenes, echoes the use of pop iconography (as a cultural product based in the 50's). This reflects a return to 50's moral values within the American society that the film portrays (which is implicitly our own). By appropriating conservative contemporary icons such as the football game and a 'good girl-bad girl' binary, the film indirectly critiques these icons and invokes an ironic reading of the text.
My last point revolves around the film's appropriation of Nazi iconography in its portrayal of the military. Scenes of the mass grouping of soldiers mirror scenes from Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935), the official film of the Nazi National Party congress in 1935. Riefenstahl is regarded as the major film and image maker of the Nazi party and her films personify the 'ideal racial type' of the Third Reich. In many ways the characters in Starship Troopers personify an 'all American' ideal. They are all perfect teeth, silicone breasts and bronzed muscle, yet when viewed against the Nazi's 'ideal racial type', we see that the cast of Starship Troopers fit just as easily into this Nazi model. The main characters are of an indefinite racial type and have well tanned and toned bodies and strong features which conform to Nazi physical ideals. In the later scenes we notice the introduction of younger soldiers into the ranks which is reminiscent of the images in Riefenstahl's films of endless lines of youthful boy soldiers and images of the Hitler Youth, Hitler's indoctrinated army of children.
Starship Troopers makes comment on this Nazi connection by linking the American global army to fascist ideology with uniforms, flags and other symbols. As Andrew O'Hehir points out in Sight and Sound:
With his Aryan cast for whom we're meant to root, Verhoeven seems to be commenting on the power of popular dramatic forms to mask noxious ideologies5.
The American patriotic ideal is undercut by the introduction of Nazi insignia which links American nationalistic pride with extremist undercurrents, revealing the 'American dream' as a facade for fascist tendencies. Like the Hitler Youth of the 1930's, the children in the infomercials are seen as indoctrinated by society through mass media and by their mothers when they are encouraged to stomp out the cockroaches, tand this scene gives an implicit critique of the banal activities of every-day life, and the ideological effects of family values.
Other children are handed guns and ammunition in preparation for their future roles as protectors of the human species, a role that incorporates the ulterior notion of eradicating all other perceived threats. Protection of the human race becomes, not an act of pure self-defence, but rather a pro-active reaction to any perceived threat. In this instance Starship Troopers presents this threat as a swarm of insectiod creatures who colonise and destroy worlds and yet who appear to have no origin or homeland other than the temporary site of Klandathu from where they plan their invasion of Earth. Assuming that the army presence in the film is a parallel to America's current culture, this construction of an outside threat has a resonance in the characterisation of the Jewish race by the Nazi's of the 1930's which suggests that Starship Troopers presents a highly critical picture of contemporary American culture. We see this critique also, in the character of Carl who is involved with military intelligence and who disconnects himself from his friends which leads him to have little respect for individual human life. After the disastrous raid on Planet P he says, 'we're in it for the species'. This reminds us, again, of Nazi preoccupations with race and global domination and the implicit parallel of this historical moment with current American culture, a point underscored by Carl who is played by an actor from a popular American TV programme.
To conclude, the three points I have made show that Starship Troopers uses surface representations to highlight ideological concerns and to develop ironic and parodical depth. The features of Pop Art, the collapse of history and fascist iconography, are superficially represented but they are used ironically to make serious points about American contemporary culture. Just as the original Pop Art movement of the 50's and 60's relies on irony for its critical interpretation and evaluation, the film relies on irony for its ideological critique. By linking American Hegemony with fascist ideology Starship Troopers creates a powerful comment on contemporary American society.
Cameron, Ian, ed. The Movie Book of Film Noir. London: Studio Vista, 1992.
The Institute for Contempory Art. Modern Dreams: the rise and fall of Pop. London: The MIT Press, 1988.
O'Hehir, Andrew. 'Starship Troopers' Sight and Sound. January, 1998.
ART WORK REFERENCES
Roy Lichtenstein. Blam. 1962. Oil on canvas. 68x80. Collection of Richard Baker, New York.
Roy Lichtenstein. Takka Takka. 1962. 56x68. Collection of Peter Ludwig, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, West Germany.
Roy Lichtenstein. As I Opened Fire... 1963. Magna on Canvas. 68x168. Collection of Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
1 All members of the Independent Group, the first wave of Pop Art in the 1950's.
2Hamilton in Modern Dreams: the rise and fall of Pop, p. 32.
3See appendix 1.
4Grist, p.275. The Movie Book of Film Noir.