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‘Starship Troopers’ and The Rise of Fascism: Or, How Paul Verhoeven Got You to Root for The Wrong Side.

William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is a comedy.

Yes. Hard to believe I know, but at the time it was written, and all the way up through the middle of the 20th century, audiences slapped their knees at the antics of Antonio and company pulling the wool over the eyes of the miserable money-loving miser Shylock (an awful Jewish stereotype personified by Shakespeare’s play).

During the course of the five-act play, the good citizens of Venice take out an enormous loan from Shylock, tease him in the street, speak proudly of spitting on his clothing, steal away his teenage daughter, renege on a rightfully lost wager by fixing a kangaroo court to their advantage, and, in one final insult, force him to convert to Christianity. Shylock is left penniless and humiliated.

If none of that sounds funny it’s because it isn’t.

However, for hundreds of years it brought the house down with laughter. To put it into further perspective, The Merchant of Venice was the most-produced play in Germany from 1923 through 1945. The Holocaust would change all that. The Merchant of Venice would still be performed but seen though a much different lens. Excellent productions with Laurence Olivier, David Suchet, and Patrick Stewart as Shylock notwithstanding, the fifth act resolution is now particularly excruciating to watch.

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with a popcorn sci-fi movie like Starship Troopers, it’s simple.

Just like audiences have grown after centuries to finally root for Shylock, when it comes to Starship Troopers you should have been rooting for the bugs.

For those of you unfamiliar with the 1997 cult sci-fi movie/franchise it follows a group of cadets who go off to war in the stars to fight against evil bugs who have been terrorizing Earth by launching plasma bombs from space that have the ability to disintegrate whole cities. The bugs in question are hideous, fast-moving spider-like creatures that eviscerate their foes without mercy. The never ending swarm of bugs seems like an insurmountable force, that is, until faced with the utmost bravery (mixed with a healthy dose of teenage stupidity) by a group of cadets ultimately led by the fresh-faced Johnny Rico played by the square-jawed Casper Van Dien.

Starship Troopers was fairly savaged by the critics for what looked on the surface like a 90210 version of Star Wars with CGI nightmare creatures. The critics called out the wooden acting, graphic violence, and gratuitous nudity in what they saw as an exploitative mess. But the critics were seeing exactly what Paul Verhoeven wanted them to see: fluff, boobs, and distraction, all the while getting you relaxed with images that you should have found extremely disturbing.

Edward Neumeier’s screenplay for Starship Troopers was only loosely based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 book. While it keeps some concepts from the novel, most notably setting the heroes of Earth in Buenos Aires, the majority of people who see the film assume the characters are all from the United States.

The reason for this misunderstanding was simple.

At first glance the casting of Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, and Dina Meyer as characters named Rico, Ibanez, and Flores, seemed like another example of Hollywood whitewashing. Having extremely Caucasian actors play Hispanic roles is nothing new, the most famous example being Charlton Heston’s turn as Vargas in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, but that isn’t what was happening here. These white actors were in fact white characters who had Hispanic surnames in a subtle reference to them perhaps being the descendants of Nazis who fled to Argentina and gave themselves an alias to avoid detection.

As a historical reference, when Adolph Eichmann was caught in Argentina, he was using the name Ricardo Klement.

Verhoeven uses sleight of hand in Starship Troopers at times to subtly deceive, but at other times to hit you over the head. In his primarily missed allegory about the rise of fascism Verhoeven wanted to dupe the audience into not only becoming comfortable with what was, even in immediate retrospect, clearly Nazi imagery, he wanted the audience to enjoy it. And it worked!

The characters are fresh from high school joining up to fight the evil bugs: the sports hero who loves the hot girl who isn’t that into him; their nerdy friend; and the other hot girl (the classic tomboy the hero doesn’t notice who has been in front of his face the whole time). Makes sense right? Watching silly love triangles, love-struck characters sneaking away to have sex, watching them go off to war, it’s all very normal stuff. It played so much like an episode of Melrose Place you probably never noticed they were all Nazis.

Paul Verhoeven, born in the Netherlands in 1938, knew a thing or two about Nazi occupation. When he was only six years old he and his family lived near a German military base that was continually bombed by Allied forces. Growing up around such carnage clearly influenced his work as a filmmaker. It also made him acutely aware of the violence fascism can bring.

The entire opening scene in Troopers was modeled directly from Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. The flag the good guys wave is clearly a Nazi flag. The interspersed pro military commercials throughout the film are a direct reference to Goebbels’ Nazi propaganda machine. The glorious military imagery is clearly inspired by Third Reich architect Albert Speer.

If you’re still not convinced, consider how the bugs (the Allies/Jews) are portrayed. Bugs, especially spiders, are particularly disturbing to most people. The bugs are relentless, thoughtless, merciless creatures that greatly outnumber the “good” guys. The plasma bombs they’ve been shooting at earth, the ones that devastate entire cities, are a clear reference to the United States’ ability to drop the Atomic Bomb.

The dehumanization of the enemy is one of the first marks of fascism. It’s easy to stomp a “bug,” it’s hard to kill a person. One only has to look at any fascist manifesto written in the last one hundred years (or even the language currently spouted about immigrants as “contaminating the blood”) to see the awful terms used to reference their perceived enemies.

In another not at all veiled homage, Neil Patrick Harris’ character (K)Carl, makes a complete transformation from high school brainiac to SS Commander. When Carl enters the film’s third act dressed head to toe as Heinrich Himmler it drew laughs but no one got the joke.

Harris, still years before his standout comedic performance in the Harold and Kumar franchise and his long stint on How I Met Your Mother, gives a chilling performance as the geek-turned-gestapo who starts out harmless only to become the highest-ranking Nazi of them all.

Verhoeven’s most masterful sleight of hand in Starship Troopers is masked by one of the most gratuitous in-your-face scenes ever put on film. The infamous co-ed shower scene has cadets of both sexes showering together seemingly not noticing each other’s nudity. This distraction works on two levels.

One: by seeing people of various sexes and races showering harmoniously seemingly without libido it appears on its face to be a new world where we are beyond such childish behavior. It seems so “woke” we don’t see it for what it really is: cadets so laser-focused on their military mission nothing else matters.

And two: Verhoeven uses the nudity as a distraction to mask just how awful the society they’re defending actually is. If this scene was set in a library instead of the group shower with the same dialogue, we would have actually heard what they were saying and been horrified. What did they say? You need to be a “citizen” (Nazi) to have a child, you need to be a “citizen” to vote or go into politics, and worst of all they all really love killing “bugs” (Jews).

Distracting theatergoers with nudity is nothing new but it does have unintended consequences. Paul Hirsch, the award-winning editor for Brain DePalma’s Carrie, would often say people thought his name was left out of the opening credits. It wasn’t, it just appears the same time as Nancy Allen’s naked breasts in the shower scene so no one ever saw it.

It is interesting to note that even decades later few people made the connection of Starship Troopers to fascism. It’s also hard to believe an entire movie got you to root for the wrong side. Despite the critical savaging of the film the script was hot at the time. Casper Van Dien beat out Matt Damon, among others, for the role of Johnny Rico. While hindsight may see that casting differently, I think Van Dien was actually perfect for Rico. Van Dien is one hundred percent believable in his naivete and commitment to the cause.

Casper Van Dien as Juan Rico and Dina Meyer as Dizzy Flores

The rest of the cast of the film was a mix of newcomers and genre veterans.

Michael Ironside is great as the deadpan, tough-as-nails commander leading his crew of roughnecks into battle, as is the always entertaining Clancy Brown as the by-the-book drill instructor taking the novice crew from high school to hellscape.

Other standouts include Seth Gilliam pre-The Wire fame, Jake Busey as the loveable goofy buddy to Rico, and Dean Norris (ten years before playing Hank on Breaking Bad) as the amputee veteran cheering on the new recruits. Dina Meyer, an underrated actress, turns in a great performance as Flores the tomboy cadet who finally gets Rico to see her before her tragic end.

By all accounts this wasn’t the easiest shoot.

Verhoeven lost his temper more than a few times at the actors on set, most of whom found themselves gazing at broomsticks for an eyeline. Although movie effects continue to amaze year after year it’s fair to say even by today’s standards the CGI in Starship Troopers still holds up. The swarm of bugs who seem to take countless rounds of ammunition to put down are properly creepy and relentless.

The most disturbing part of Starship Troopers is how beautiful the cast is compared to the bugs which are portrayed as repulsive, slimy, and grotesque by comparison. I realize an argument can be made “how else are bugs supposed to be portrayed? After all it’s very easy to dehumanize something that isn’t human at all.”

This would all be true if the film didn’t go to great lengths to describe the bugs as sneaky, clever, and even smart. That doesn’t sound like a bug. The film even has a “brain bug” that extracts intelligence from the humans in the most disturbing way possible.

It’s easy to watch all this and want the bugs dead. We are even shown images of children gleefully stomping on bugs in a propaganda video.

I’m sure there are plenty of fans out there who will disagree with this entire premise. It’s just a campy sci-fi movie with boobs and blood after all, isn’t it?

Watch it again.

 

Fred Shahadi is an award-winning playwright, filmmaker,
and television writer living in Los Angeles
.

 

 

 

 

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