Paul Verhoeven's film, Starship Troopers (1997), has become the subject of much controversy and debate. There has been a mixed reaction from viewers, some who claim that the film is pro-military, and others who believe that the film is a parody of such tendencies. In this paper I discuss these responses to the film and consider how both interpretations are problematic. I argue that the confusion over how to interpret Starship Troopers comes from the fact that the style and effect of this film cannot be contained by realist or modernist interpretations and that such confusion is symptomatic of an urge to view films through past critical methods. This paper will argue that to view Starship Troopers as pro-military is to apply a realist mode of thought just as to see this film purely in terms of parody is to apply a modernist interpretation of filmmaking. Both of these readings are unsatisfactory and I will suggest that to understand Starship Troopers it is necessary to place the film in the context of postmodernism.
If one were to read the content of Starship Troopers literally, then there would indeed be grounds for believing the film to be fascist and pro-military, for the film privileges the view point of those soldiers fighting to save Earth from the invasion of an alien race. Apart from one brief moment at the end of the film when we are told that the "brain-bug" is scared, the viewer is only given the point of view of the soldiers who delight in attacking and destroying the alien bugs. "Shoot a nuke down the hole and that's a lot of dead bugs", one soldier says, demonstrating the bravado characteristic of the mobile infantry. This attitude takes on an even more sinister tone, however, when later on in the film Carmen's flight partner tells the brain-bug moments before his death that "Some day, someone like me is going to kill you and your whole fucking race!" At this point the soldier's tone shifts from that of macho arrogance to an overt expression of racial hatred implying that the human army will annihilate an entire race of beings. While this statement suggests that the actions of the army have genocidal consequences, the audience is nonetheless invited to identify with the human forces by the construction of the film.
For instance, all the information we are given concerning the bugs is provided by the military, at times via the mass media form of informercials. Battle scenes are shot from the soldiers point of view and the audience never gains the bugs perspective as is the case in James Cameron's Aliens when, for a moment, the audience views Ripley aggressively attacking the mother alien with her flamethrower. By maintaining the human perspective on events, the bugs are constructed as an anonymous and impersonal mass threat whose story is never revealed, and whose motivation for invading Earth is never fully explored. In contrast to this, the narrative of Starship Troopers follows the exploits and relationships of attractive, good-looking, fit, and fun-loving soldiers with whom we are invited to identify. At the end of the film they are presented as role models on a television blurb and the desirability of these characters can be read as glamorising war and the military.
For Starship Troopers to be interpreted as pro-military it is necessary to see this film as a realist text with a narrative that takes itself seriously and which attempts to present a form of objectivity to the audience. It is, however, problematic to look at Starship Troopers in terms of realism. On a number of occasions Verhoeven draws attention to the film's constructedness and an example of this reflexivity is evident in the use of cinematography. Often there are sudden and fast-moving pans of the camera which draw attention to the film as a mediated construct. The use of lighting and film stock also heightens this sense of artificiality as the film has the glossy quality associated with television. Another example of the self-reflexivity of this film occurs in the instance when the main protagonist, Johnny, enters into a fight with Carmen's co-pilot who is also Johnny's sexual rival. At this point Verhoeven inserts a pop song by the contemporary band Mazzy Star which is a direct appeal to an audience of movie goers familiar with current music trends and which serves to further highlight the constructed nature of the film. This insertion of present day music distances the viewer from the futuristic narrative world and disallows any serious audience identification with this world.
Clearly Starship Troopers is not interested in presenting a story that the audience can enter into and accept as a version of reality and this disruption of any pretence toward realism continues in the use of exaggerated violence. For example, the drill commander in the military training camp where Johnny trains for combat, encompasses and extends to the point of parody, the generic traits of the hard-nosed, macho army trainer normally associate with military-based film. The drill commander indulges in gross acts of violence such as breaking a recruit's arm in a demonstration and nailing a soldier's hand to a wall with a knife, and these moments of excess invite the audience to laugh at such gratuitous violence. However, this violence is exaggerated to the point where the audience can begin to question the desirability of violence in military films and this parodic element of the film undermines any notion of a pro-military reading.
Another example of a parody of the conventions of war films occurs towards the end of Starship Troopers when a dying soldier tells Johnny that he will stay behind and set off a bomb while the others escape. The soldier is almost jubilant when he states that " I'm going to kill some bugs sir." The level of enthusiasm shown by this soldier is incredible considering that he is about to die and the fact that he still addresses Johnny in formal terms at his death demonstrates an absurd level of loyalty to the army and the unreasonable subordination of his own life to the concerns of the military. This parody of loyalty and self-sacrifice seriously questions the level of worth the military places on individual life and the kind of patriotism required by those who wish to serve the Armed Forces.
However, while there are certainly parodic elements in Starship Troopers, problems arise when one attempts to read this film purely in terms of a parody. If, for example, one is to read the film as a parody of the military then one must question seemingly feminist elements of the film. Women occupy a large proportion of the top military positions in Starship Troopers; Carmen enters into the high profile flight squadron and excels whereas Johnny is assigned a position in the lowly mobile infantry. Throughout the film women are shown to be intelligent and capable, such as in the incident when Carmen skilfully prevents her ship from crashing into an asteroid. Yet if women are succeeding in a field that is being seriously challenged and undermined by parody, what must the film be saying about women's achievements? If the film is to be read purely as a parody then there are going to be clashes with other elements of the film. One must raise the question, for instance, how does the romantic element - the suppressed then realised love affair between Johnny and Dizzy - fit into the parody of the film. At times Starship Troopers appears to be enjoying itself simply too much to be parodic. When the large numbers of bugs begin swarming in to attack the mobile infantry, the film appears more concerned with generating a sense of excitement and giving the audience a thrill than seriously challenging any ideology. After all, this is an entertaining and fun film. It might be this sense of fun that concerns some viewers and leads them to believe that the film is glamorising and promoting a pro-military stance.
If there are difficulties in reading the film as a straight narrative with a pro-military agenda (and there are elements which send doubts as to whether this film is purely parodic), this may be because the film is trying to do something different that is not aligned with either realism or modernism. Starship Troopers is best viewed as a postmodern film, for, only then can all the elements of this film be understood. Fredric Jameson has written of postmodernism as providing works that are "empirical, chaotic and heterogeneous" (Jameson 1984: 54). This definition certainly works well alongside Starship Troopers, which is a film containing a number of different texts joined together in a disjunctive manner and lacking the coherence necessary for a definitive reading of the film which would explain why the parody of the military and feminist angle clash. Some of the texts evident in Starship Troopers include the western film (for instance in the besieged circular military base attacked from all sides), the teenage high school film, the war film, science fiction, the melodrama, the sports film, the documentary and the infomercial.
Accordingly, the eclectic nature of Verhoeven's film frustrates any attempt to find an absolute or conclusive interpretation and invites the viewer to explore other ways of reading the film.
Jameson states that modernist styles have become postmodernist codes (1984: 60). This can explain the use of parody in Starship Troopers. Rather than seeing this film as a parody, it may be more suitable to see parody as a modernist style, one included in the number of styles and texts that Verhoeven has used disjunctively in his film. Due to the modernist period of filmmaking, audiences have become familiar with the use of parody and this form has become a language in itself. It is therefore possible for elements of parody to be used within an overall strategy of pastiche which is the imitation of past forms (Cawelti: 193). Pastiche causes the "disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequences" and an increasingly "unavailability of personal style" (Jameson,1984: 64). Certainly this appears to be the case in Starship Troopers where a superficial treatment of narrative development and character motivation is evident. The film constantly switches its emphasis from the personal development of the protagonist Johnny, to the rise of a Carmen through the ranks of military. In truth, this film seems to be completely unconcerned with the development of plausible and conventionally motivated characters. For instance, when Johnny's parents are killed by the bugs, Johnny vents his anger briefly, and the subject of his parents' death is never hinted at again. Verhoeven is not interested in exploring the psychological drama of this moment but rather, he is concerned with generating another type of stimulus, another surface effect. This superficiality is characteristically postmodern (Grist 1992: 273).
This emphasis on surface effect is enhanced by Verhoeven's lack of personal style where even the heightened visual stylistics Verhoeven employs can be found in a number of present-day television shows. Starship Troopers is certainly not an example of a film made by an auteur who is a filmmaker concerned with producing a distinctive and recognisable film style which expresses a personal vision. There is a familiarity in all of the texts that Verhoeven employs and even the feminist element that he includes is by now a well-worn path in mainstream cinema. It is the recognisable familiarity of these particular styles that makes this film intriguing and controversial. The question over whether or not Starship Troopers is a pro-military film implies that Paul Verhoeven has political intentions, yet if one reads the film in terms of postmodernism, it is entirely plausible that Verhoeven is not making a political statement at all. This film allows for empirical observation and any conclusions must be reached by the audience themselves. In this regard, the film is successful in that it avoids didactically informing the viewer of its political view and instead provides the freedom and flexibility for a personal response.
The debate over whether Starship Troopers is a pro-military film or a parody borders on irrelevance. Both of these possible interpretations hinge upon a theoretical framework, neither of which fail to adequately explain the film and its intentions. Starship Troopers can be explained, however, in terms of postmodernism. This film is interested in combining a number of different texts in a disjunctive way and is disinterested in exploring the depths of these various texts. It is doubtful that Verhoeven wishes to enforce any political philosophy and rather than searching for the filmmakers ideology within this text, a viewer would be better advised to draw their own conclusions from the stimulus that Verhoeven has provided.
Cawelti, John, "China Town and Generic Transformation"
Grist, Leighton, "Moving Targets and Black Windows", ed. Cameron, Ian The Movie Book of Film Noir, London: Vista, 1992.
Jameson, Frederick, "Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism", New Left Review, No. 146, July-August 1984.
O'Hehir Andrew, Starship Troopers Sight and Sound, 8.1, 1998, pp 53-54