The Subtle Subtext of Starship Troopers

A movie that addresses many of my concerns about the obsession of American culture with things military is now out on video. This film not only depicts the mechanisms through which people come to adopt irrational attitudes in times of war, but also critiques the separation of social classes and forewarns of the threat to democracy from military authoritarian zeal.

Surely by now you know the movie I'm talking about: Starship Troopers. No, I'm not kidding. Starship Troopers is actually, at times, a very political movie. Now notice that I said "at times." Unfortunately, this movie can't seem to make its mind up, moving between a satire of military logic and a glorification of it.

Starship Troopers, set way off in the future, starts out in a classroom where a teacher explains the civic theory of the post-democratic government. Democracy, he says, proved to be too disorderly and dangerous, so the military had to step in and take over for the sake of the human species. Now, citizenship is limited to the military. All others are termed "civilians", and have no say in the way that society is run. The catch-22 is that the "citizens" who are supposed to be able to vote are as members of the military subject to the orders of their superiors and are therefore unable to fully express their own ideas about how the government should be run. To both citizen and civilian, participation in government is denied.

Therefore, it doesn't take much for the government to whip the population into a war fury against an evil, inhuman enemy: Bugs from another planet. They are assumed to be unintelligent and inferior. The Bugs must be destroyed, and humans clamor at the opportunity to kill. When it is suggested that the Bugs have attacked humans only because they were attacked first, soldiers angrily stamp out the idea as ludicrous. After all, they regard the Bugs as enemy by definition -- they must be stamped out at all costs.

Everybody gets involved in the war effort, even those who remain behind on Earth. They are told to kill as many Earth insects as possible, even though those insects have nothing to do with the war with the space Bugs. Hey, it doesn't matter - a bug is a bug, right? These scenes are eerily reminiscent of justifications of the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II.v These scenes and other are powerful because they reveal the crude, mindless aggression that saturates military and civilians alike during wartime. It becomes obvious that the entire movie is meant as a joke, a send-up of traditional war glory-and-honor flicks. The audience should easily recognize the ridiculous image of these soldiers: they're made up in American Gladiator outfits and the officers wear costumes that anyone can see are made to look like Nazi uniforms. The sarcasm drips from the screen. Who could take such cartoonish gung-ho propaganda seriously?

Unfortunately, it seems that the makers of Starship Troopers did get trapped into taking their work too seriously. There are times in the movie when its creators appear to have gotten caught up in the whole action/adventure mindset, adopting the perspective of the cartoonish government and soldiers that they created in the first place. In these scenes, the war does seem justified and democracy does seem like a naive idea. So, which is the real Starship Troopers?

One thing that's important to remember is that this movie is actually an adaptation of an old story back from the early days of science fiction right after World War II, a time when gung-ho was still taken seriously. As in any adaptation, the visions of the original author and the Hollywood crew are sure to come into conflict. That's what appears to have happened here.

Watch it anyway, and take note of your different reactions in the different parts of the film. In which scenes do you see the joke, and in what parts do you find yourself getting caught up in the trooper mentality? Although Starship Troopers may not be able to keep its sympathies straight, it is nonetheless a masterful exploration of the psychology of war.

return to irregulartimes.comThe shame is that most viewers and reviewers never picked up on the underlying ideas of the movie. Maybe that's the fault of its single-minded, superficial marketing campaign. Maybe the anti-war vision of the movie got lost along the long path of production. In any case, it deserves to be taken as least somewhat seriously. There's more to Starship Troopers than simple shoot-em-up zeal.





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