No stranger to controversy, Paul Verhoeven's latest film, Starship Troopers, exemplifies the way in which he walks a fine line between tasteful art and offensive pulp. The picture's release last year precipitated a split amongst movie goers as to the underlying motives of the film, begging the question: is Starship Troopers a parody or a piece of genuine neo-fascist propaganda? Both camps promulgate some valid arguments, yet seem to complicate themselves and each other to such an extent that another interpretation of the film becomes evident. By means of pastiche, Verhoeven appears to be communicating a decidedly postmodern critique of historicity, the process of representation, and traditional modes of expression. This suggests that the film operates on a far deeper level than that of a parody or for that matter a vehicle for fascist ideology. In order to explore this assertion, however, it is first necessary to understand the reasons that lie behind both of the latter interpretations.
Set in an unspecified future, in which earth is at war with an alien race of arachnids, Starship Troopers follows the progress of a group of high school friends as they navigate their way into adulthood through the Federal Service. Once in the military forces, each goes their separate way, yet the central focus of the narrative remains on protagonist, Johnny Rico as he strives to avenge his parents death at the hands of the alien bugs. After a long, action packed struggle, Johnny saves his ex-girlfriend, Carmen, from the Bugs' headquarters and the Federal Service capture the Arachnid's Brain Bug, heralding a new and promising twist in the intergalactic war.
The most immediately apparent interpretation of the film is as a parody, a mode which John G. Cawelti defines as the situation of elements of a conventional formula or style in contexts so incongruous or exaggerated that the result is laughter.1 Parody according to Cawelti's formulation is overtly apparent in Starship Troopers, both stylistically and thematically.
Stylistic parody functions through a number of elements within the picture. Cinematography often works in conjunction with the mise-en-scene in a way which evokes the ridiculousness of the kung-fu movie, as when the camera zooms rapidly in on Rico's exaggeratedly contorted face after one of his subordinates is killed when he removes his helmet in a training exercise. The film's narrative structure is also parodic insofar as it operates according to cause and effect logic and progresses around a goal oriented character towards narrative closure. By employing this typical New Hollywood narrative formula, Verhoeven establishes a plot which functions as an allegory to that of George Lucas' Starwars. Just as Luke wants to join the rebellion against the Empire in Starwars, so Rico desires to join the Federal Service in Starship Troopers, much to the dismay of his parents who, like Luke's aunt and uncle, forbid him to do so. When the caregivers of each protagonist are killed by the foe of that which they wish to join, each volunteers himself to avenge their deaths. By borrowing the plot of such a typical science fiction film as Starwars, Verhoeven exploits the cliche nature of such a narrative devise in that he demonstrates how easily it can be applied to another picture. The editing is also comprised predominantly of relatively short takes, giving the film the sense of an exaggeratedly fast pace, foregrounding the constructedness of the excitement generated by action films such as Lethal Weapon and Speed.
Parody also functions thematically in Starship Troopers. The pro-military attitude seemingly advocated in the film is satirically undermined when the recruiting officer who greets Rico remarks: "The mobile infantry made me what I am today." Coupled with the fact that he has apparently lost a limb or two, this traditionally favourable sentiment is inverted to exploit the negative side of active military service, usually exempted from such films. The propaganda element which pervades the film is also parodied in the stylised infomercial-like interludes, which it is implied are to promote the war effort against the Arachnids. Ammunition is distributed to smiling children like candy and the declaration: "Everyone's doing their part," is accompanied by images of youngsters squashing cockroaches. One wonders what the merits of such propaganda methods would be. Dystopian visions are satirised too, as in the infomercial advertising live coverage of an execution, a scene which also appears to parody the media's zest for sensationalism.
The reception of Starship Troopers as a parodic film has, however, been criticised as a superficial understanding of the picture's motivations. The parodic elements in Verhoeven's work can be perceived as being too obviously parodic, the lack of subtlety rendering the satire redundant. It should also be acknowledged that Starship Troopers is a mainstream film aimed at mainstream audiences, many of whom may misinterpret the film's apparently parodic tendencies. As is pointed out in the January 1998 edition of Sight and Sound Magazine:
This is a world where male and female soldiers fight, shower, and bunk together with comradely nonchalance; where battlefield nuclear weapons and psychic powers have become nearly commonplace; where a murderer convicted in the morning will be executed that night on television. Nonconformity, along with racial and ethnic divisions, has been swept away by a hegemonic Anglo American monoculture. As usual, Verhoeven wants to play both ironist and devil's advocate. He maintains a plausible sardonic distance, while doing little to discourage viewers who may find the film's orderly universe appealing.2
Could it be, therefore, that Starship Troopers is a genuinely fascist pro-military film which uses parody merely as a smoke screen for the communication of its true message? Certainly there are a number of elements within the picture which seem to qualify such an assertion. The saturation of extreme violence and gore which assaults the viewer may desensitise audiences, rendering impotent the disturbing element that otherwise keeps fascist interpretations in check. It should also be acknowledged that Verhoeven restricts point of view to that of the human soldiers, leaving the bugs uncharacterised and therefore de-individualised. Coupled with the fact that they are portrayed as the underdogs - vastly outnumbered and under equipped - this suggests that the viewer should identify with the humans and therefore also with their attitudes towards the Arachnids. The portrayal of the latter as swarms carries with it the sense of a disease, a portrayal not unlike that of the Jew in Joseph Goebel's anti- Semitic propaganda film Eternal Jew. Aspects of the picture which invoke propaganda film are omnipresent. The infomercial entitled Why We Fight takes its name from a World War Two US-produced propaganda series and the sense that the film's conclusion presents a small victory on the way to the winning of the war is reminiscent of Nazi propaganda films such as Triumph of the Will , in that both inspire pride yet imply that more effort is required.
This reading becomes problematic, however. There are a number of contradictory themes which complicate interpreting the film as a piece of fascist propaganda to the extent that such a reading becomes implausible. The implicit feminism in Starship Troopers exemplifies this. An intelligence dichotomy which presents women as intellectually superior to men is apparent in that Carmen and the majority of the starship crew are female, whereas only men and 'unusually' masculine women belong to the mobile infantry. This celebration of feminine superiority is accentuated by the fact that Dizzy, a Tomboy who strays from her femininity is killed off and Zander, the only evident male pilot, whose masculinity is manifest in his intelligence, is emasculated for his presence in the female world of space flight. This occurs when Carmen demonstrates her power over him in her training flight, declaring: "Your career's in my hands," as well as metaphorically when the Brain Bug - whose mouth resembles both male and female genitals - sucks out his brain.
Does the evidence of both fascist and feminist messages suggest that Verhoeven is promulgating some sort of feminist fascism? This seems an unlikely combination, especially for a male director who grew up in Amsterdam during the World War Two Nazi occupation.3 What seems more plausible is that the very fact that these readings contradict one another suggests that Starship Troopers is in fact a sophisticated postmodern work, which employs pastiche as a means by which to critique historicity, traditional modes of expression, and the process of representation.
Described by Frederic Jameson in Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism as a neutral practice of mimicry without the ulterior motives or satiric impulse of parody,4 pastiche appears to be employed in Starship Troopers firstly to comment on the use of traditional modes of expression. As Jameson suggests:
The producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture.5
Certainly, Starship Troopers seems to invoke a collage of genres and styles: those already mentioned - the propaganda film and the feminist picture - and a number of others including the war film and the coming of age drama. The plot structure of numerous war pictures is incorporated in that a group of civilians is moulded into a warrior band and tested in the crucible of combat where some are killed and others hardened.6 The coming of age drama is a prominent element of the film from the start, in that the story begins when Rico and his friends are about to graduate from high school and they then spend the remainder of the film grappling with their identities. The use of such allegorisation is also indicative of science fiction, as is the futurisation of cultural elements and concerns from the present. High School jocks still play football, albeit indoors and clad in futuristic uniforms, and family holidays to the beach have been replaced by trips to "the Outer Rings."
This stylistic and discursive heterogeneity can be attributed to the disappearance of individual characteristic style as the dominant mode of expression. Whereas the ruling class once wielded the dominant ideology, today the norm is lost due to the increasing unavailability of unique personal style. This reflects the way in which the modernist tendency to deconstruct the very aesthetic of expression has been replaced, in postmodernism by a new depthlessness in which the conception of practices, discourses and textual play are foregrounded. As Frederic Jameson suggests, "concepts such as anxiety and alienation are no longer appropriate in the world of the postmodern."7
The random cannibalisation and stylistic allusion apparent in Starship Troopers also seems to function as a postmodern critique of notions of historicity. Through historiographic metafictionality, the film demonstrates by way of emulation the way in which that which is written about in historical texts is deconstructed to the point where it seems to disappear altogether. Just as historical accounts have eventually become more like accounts of other related texts than accounts of the events in question,8 so in Starship Troopers the point of the film and the power of the thematic messages it carries is lost in the patchwork conglomeration of styles it incorporates.
The pastiche in Starship Troopers also functions to demonstrate the contrived nature of the process of representation in western culture. The use of a cast comprised predominantly of American prime-time soap opera actors represents the stereotyping that characterises so much of Hollywood production,9 and the cliche narrative structure demonstrates the way in which audience expectations have been married to the conventions. The intertextuality and metafictionality, which have already been discussed, further illustrate the way in which our way of conceiving of historicity in this particular society, with its particular modes of production,10 conforms to a set formula.
The arguments for and against reading Starship Troopers as a parody must, therefore, be seen as an arbitrary debate. Verhoeven's apparent use of pastiche to create a postmodern collage effect which draws attention to the processes of production instead suggests an interest in notions of historicity and expression and the way in which both are presented. By drawing on the past and present in order to portray a vision of the future, however, Verhoeven also appears to demonstrate the impotence of the radically alien in near future dystopian visions. As Frederic Jameson maintains in Nostalgia for the Present:
Whatever social and spatial form our misery may take, it will not be alien because it will, by definition be ours. De-familiarisation, the shock of otherness, is a mere aesthetic effect and a lie.11
Starship Troopers, then, is a seminal part of a new, more effectively frightening wave of future visions. Science fiction may never be the same again.