Fascist motifs and false utopias: the unsettling brilliance of Starship Troopers
Military science fiction isn’t usually as brazen as Starship Troopers. But that’s what makes it so great. Would you like to know more?
Released in 1997, Starship Troopers is now a sci-fi staple. It is based on the 1959 novel, which was written bang in the middle of the Cold War by American author Robert A. Heinlein, and reflects the sentiment of that time in its patriotic and anti-communist motifs.
The film begins with a classroom lesson, a grim statement that socialism brought the world into chaos and that the Federation was the Earth’s saviour. News snippets of the Federation’s current activities fighting the evil, impersonal alien Arachnids, or ‘Bugs’ permeate every screen, use of military force is frequently glorified and any hints of softness or pity immediately quashed.
We soon see the Federation sigils around the school, an eagle motif surrounded by striking colours and lines reminiscent of Nazi or Italian fascism. The unsettling feeling I get from the start of the film is purely because of its high school environment. It’s the fact that the students are having fun, concerning themselves with normal high school worries while hardly noticing the oppressive environment around them.
In this version of the future, Federal service is incentivised, so that no matter what life choice you wish to have, you can be assured it will be much easier to achieve with the citizen service behind your belt. Soon it becomes apparent just how much this is instilled in the teenage protagonists, and once school term ends, after the obligatory prom dance, they all sign up.
We get the idea that the teenagers are treating it all like a game, not really aware of the gravity of war, especially after the main character Rico joins up in order to stay close to the girl he fancies.
From the swearing-in ceremony through the entire time they spend at training camp, the iconography on screen is filled with strict, regimented lines and words learned by rote, harsh corporal punishments beneath the ever-present flags and sigils of the Federation.
The story picks up pace when Rico’s hometown is targeted by the alien Bugs, leading him to sign up for the mission to attack the aliens’ planet Klendathu. From here on in, it’s all ruthless action, peppered with iconography, cold attitudes and the occasional Federation Network broadcasts, which take direct influence from wartime propaganda films. These broadcasts all end with the same line, ‘Would you like to know more?’, which becomes as iconic a phrase as the doublespeak used in 1984.
One of the more worrying overtones of the film is that it also makes use of both British and American patriotic iconography: Victory posters, stars and wings, and even the name of the Federation itself feels very American. The reason this is so worrying is that it’s unclear on when patriotism crosses the line to become brainwashing.
And the final scenes, when the troops capture one of the ‘brainy’ bugs, make for hard viewing because we know that alien is destined to be tortured and tested on for the rest of its life, likely dying horribly. For an audience in this day and age, who are used to sci-fi films which frequently reveal aliens to be misunderstood and portrayed in a more sympathetic light, it’s difficult watching and knowing that there will be no sympathy, especially when we do not have all the information about the bug races.
But I suppose that is the point of this film. It makes no apologies or explanations for its actions, and I think we are meant to feel uncertain about the whole thing. We watch this coming from the viewpoint of years of retrospection of wars won and wars failed, and we can see the echoes of past decisions in the decisions the characters make in this film.
Starship Troopers received some negative reviews, with some critics thinking it endorsed fascism to an extent. Commonly, if you have a film involving a regime of any kind, you learn to expect that one or two main characters will challenge the regime, carry a moral message against it for the audience to relate to. I think this film’s message is much more effective for the fact it does not evangelise morality. It leaves you to find the morality (or lack of it) for yourself.
And yet, for all its propaganda on a galactic scale, the film takes an unapologetically down-to-earth approach to gender, which makes it commendable. Both women and men are treated as actual characters with personality traits and awesome specialisms, instead of as props for other characters’ development. No matter the gender, all people are targeted equally for federal service, and you see great representation of feminine women, butch women, those with long hair, short hair, those with great minds and great physical strength. It is a pleasant surprise when Rico’s butch teammate with the pixie haircut announces she wants a baby, when the demure long-haired Carmen is revealed to be a calculating career person, and equally when the muscly Schwarzenegger lookalike starts playing sweet classical music on his violin. The mixed-gender shower scene is treated as normal, and it’s refreshing.
What is disappointing, however, is the whitewashing of the main character. Although the film starts off in Buenos Aires and many of the characters have Spanish names, there are no latino/latina actors. It’s made worse by the fact that Rico was Filipino in the book, and this is completely glossed over in the film.
All in all, this film is very engrossing, managing to become thought-provoking by employing the writer’s cardinal rule of ‘Show, don’t tell,’ and having action-packed battle sequences with special effects that far exceeded my expectations. The design of the aliens is great, and I cannot help but wonder if the Arachnids were the inspiration for the similarly-named Rachni in the Mass Effect videogames.
A lesser known fact is that there was also an anime OVA of the book created in 1988, which is on my review list soon as I would be quite interested to see a Japanese interpretation of an American patriot’s novel. The 1997 film was successful enough to warrant numerous sequels, a roleplaying game, a videogame and a CGI series. I can’t comment for these others, but the original is well worth a watch.
All screenshots © Tristar Pictures