Published November 1, 1997
Starship Troopers directed by Paul Verhoeven and based on the book by Robert Heinlein is a custom-made vehicle for the expression of what I take to be the Hollywood worldview. In the fanciful future utopia it conjures up for us, the fearsome tide of poor, dirty, low class, and superstitious people, with skins both swarthy and oleaginous, which is advancing northwards from Latin America, has somehow (we are never told how) been reversed. Instead, a new and unmistakeably Californian culture, both Anglo and anglophone, has spread itself southwards — as far as Patagonia. Buenos Aires has become a scarcely altered version of Orange County. Boys and girls with blue eyes, gleaming tributes to the future of orthodontia between their lips and fashionably empty heads not only school together but, despite the fact that there have been no obvious or species-general alterations in the female physique, play football together, shower together and fight earth’s enemies together.
For unfortunately, the tide of alien filth has not receded completely. It has merely been displaced to distant galaxies from which it periodically threatens the earth in the safely non-anthropoid form of giant beetles and spiders. These do not speak and are otherwise quite as lacking in lovable characteristics as most bugs are, so that even the most liberal and pacifistic conscience will suffer scarcely a twinge when they are blown away — as they are with great frequency but considerable difficulty by the oddly ineffectual if large-calibre machine guns that the boy and girl soldiers all carry around with them. True, they also carry little, portable nukes, but these have the rather obvious disadvantage of incinerating both the shooter and the shootee — unless the former have, as three of our heroes do, the remarkable ability to outrun a nuclear fireball.
These heroes of whom I speak are largely drawn from the graduating class of a single high school in Buenos Aires and all join up together just before a dastardly attack by the extra-terrestrial bugs. Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), rich, handsome, strong, athletic but not very bright, is an infantryman; Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), Johnny’s much smarter girlfriend, joins the starship fleet as a pilot; Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris), their superbright but sexless pal, is accepted to military intelligence, which goes under the name of “Games and Theory.” He rises to the rank of Colonel after only a year’s training. These three pledge undying devotion to each other, but two others intent on coming between Johnny and Carmen are also present: Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) who has long carried a torch for Johnny and joins up in the infantry to be near him, and Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon), a football rival of Johnny’s who precedes Carmen in flight training and becomes her pilot-instructor.
Set on earth with real human enemies and some degree of realism about the differences of the sexes (strangely, in spite of the co-ed showers in which otherwise familiar young bodies have somehow been trained not to get aroused, girls still shave their underarms and legs) this bunch of characters might have added up to an old-fashioned, epic saga of love and war. But the Californian impulse to sanitize even the most fundamental of human realities here results in what a number of critics have noticed amounts to a celebration of fascist militarism. This I see as being not deliberate, in spite of the look of many of the uniforms and what must be a consciously ironic reminiscence of All Quiet on the Western Front, but a more-or-less unintended by-product of the lack of moral ambiguity in the extermination of the killer bugs, as opposed to human beings.
One can easily imagine real Nazis representing their enemies in this way, and using their loathsomeness as an excuse for the further glorification of what they see as, essentially, a mission of hygiene. As one politician puts it, “human civilization, not bugs, must control the galaxy, now and forever.” Who could disagree with that? Even the wacko tree-huggers might be guilty of a little “speciesism” in such a case. A half-hearted attempt at political satire based on the distinction between “citizens” and “civilians” — which (I gather) derives from Heinlein’s original—dies, unmourned, along the way. Instead, the filmmakers really agree with the universalism of the young, blond, square-jawed colonel who bears a strange resemblance to Doogie Howser, M.D., and who says that these supermen and supergirls of the hopeful future are “in this for the species.” They are too. It’s just not our species.