Film | Starship Troopers (1997)
When satire fails, heroism arises.
All that is required for satire, so the Roman poet Juvenal observed, is to tell the truth.
But what happens if, in telling the truth, you actually produce admiration in place of laughter?
What happens when satire fails?
The answer looks something like the Paul Verhoeven film Starship Troopers (1997).
Starship Troopers is a failed attempt to subvert Robert Heinlein’s 1959 libertarian novel of the same name. The Dutch Verhoeven had already trodden of the path of a good European progressive liberal in “fascist” America before: his films Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990) satirised corporate greed (in Total Recall a corporation sells air, the very stuff of life, to impoverished Martians), America’s sensationalised media (“Robocop; who is he? Dead or alive, you’re coming with me!”), and the ultra-violence of Reagan’s America.
In the Starship Troopers universe, the Earth is united under a federal government that is run on the principle “service means citizenship”. To participate in the political life of the Federation, you must undertake military service. It is, in essence, a kind of classical republicanism where political participation is vested in those citizens who have proven virtue, in this case military valour, and so deserve to participate in public affairs. A similar outlook informed America’s Founding Fathers, remains lodged among some libertarians, and was also part of Aristotle’s view of the well-ordered polity. The goal is to form an aristocracy, not just of blood, but of virtue – and virtue must be demonstrated. What better demonstration of virtue – of manliness – than risking your life for the polity in military service? Heinlein wrote his novel to promote these values, essentially the values of the Founding Fathers, to young people.
In a post-New Deal “democratic” and “progressive” America, even an aristocracy of virtue – of property-owning males who had seen military service – seemed dangerously authoritarian, if not actually “fascist”.
Heinlein had to be undermined.
Consciously, Verhoeven’s film version of Starship Troopers is an attempt to show that Heinlein’s classical republicanism, manifested in the American context as libertarianism, was akin to fascism. Verhoeven is a good European progressive liberal trying to warn Americans that behind the apparently autistic visage of Ron Paul lurks a stern authoritarianism – perhaps he is even “literally Hitler”. This is not true in fact, but it is how progressive liberals look on libertarianism – a form of political ideology that, even in its weakened state, is regarded as too virile and pushy for comfort.
Hence the general feel of Verhoeven’s Troopers is quasi-fascistic, with grey field uniforms redolent of Hitler’s Wehrmacht predominating and bombastic news reports rallying citizens and soldiers under an imperial eagle (is that the eagle of the USA or of Nazi Germany? – Verhoeven is suggesting there is no difference). A news report announces that a murderer has just been caught – a rare event in the Federation; but there will be no drawn out legal process – sentencing takes place “tonight” and the death penalty is expected (also televised live, naturally). As with Robocop and Judge Dredd, this is a world of rough justice administrated without interference from whining human rights lawyers or subversive journalists. Just as on the American frontier so loved by libertarians, justice is swift and unambiguous – the ideology of human rights is forgotten, and this is meant to horrify us.
The intention with these intercut news reports that move the plot along and provide background context is satirical, so Verhoeven attempts to make these elements over-the-top and cartoonishly obvious – ironically, the cartoonish element only adds to the universe’s charm and sense of child-like heroic adventure. The Federation is not, despite fascist aesthetics, “racist” or “sexist”. Women serve on a basis of complete equality with men in the Federation military – even stripping off in the showers with their male counterparts (an opportunity for Verhoeven, ever the good Dutchman, to show us tits during a scene of otherwise boring exposition). Similarly, one of Earth’s ruling “Sky Marshals” is – as American newspeak puts it – a woman of color. Women seem to predominate as spaceship pilots, and the film’s hero, John “Johnny” Rico, is a European Latin from Buenos Aires (albeit a very Nordic Latin, complete with blonde hair and blue eyes).
Some of these egalitarian elements are leftovers from Heinlein’s book. He was perfectly sure that different races and women could prosper under the American system. This is not a problem for Verhoeven because the ideological point of the film is to associate the virtue system of the Old Republic – before the New Deal – with the aesthetics of fascism, so as to discredit libertarian and classical republican values.
Verhoeven is also, perhaps, attempting to satirise the US military – which has been “woke” for longer than people think – as an authoritarian and quasi-fascistic organisation that, at the same time, claims to grant and fight for complete equality for women and ethnic minorities. In this case, however, the criticism is that the US military fails in its woke objectives, so that the viewer is supposed to think that a black woman as a “Sky Marshal” or women serving on an equal basis in the infantry is amusing precisely because it is absurd that such a thing could happen – or, if it did happen, it would never be sincere or really accepted by the “fascistic” American military.
None of Verhoeven’s attempts at satire work, and Starship Troopers is generally experienced by viewers as an authentic and joyful celebration of adventure, heroism, and the military life in general. This is partly because the spirit of the thing, the aesthetic sensibility of military heroism, simply overcomes any egalitarian window dressing and intellectual tricks overlaid on the images. Film is a visual medium: film is glamour, glamour is magical power, and the image trumps the word. By playing with the glamour of the military and fascism, Verhoeven accidentally conveys the basic appeal of the world outlook – an outlook that is essentially artistic and aesthetic. The viewer leaves the film not thinking “libertarians and the US military are really fascists”, but rather “military life and unironic heroism looks cool!”.
In narrative terms, the film’s central hero is Johnny Rico, a pampered high school sports star, who throws over father’s – a wimpish businessman – offer of la dolce vita and off-world partying before university to join the Federation military. Rico, being a typical jock, is a washout at academic pursuits and so, when he enlists with two friends, is assigned to be a grunt in the “Mobile Infantry”. The ground forces of the Federation military serve as a kind of meat grinder, the main characteristic of veterans being their robotic prosthetic limbs – so the soft Rico looks set for a hard time. Rico’s love interest, Carmen Ibanez, is assigned to train as a spaceship pilot – a realistic assignment in the sense that a “girly swot”, girls being good at exams, is exactly the kind of person who would, on paper, be good at driving a spaceship. After all, there are fewer things to bump into in space, so perhaps women would make up for their visuospatial deficiencies out there. The trio is completed by Rico’s nerdy sidekick, Carl Jenkins; a whippet-thin intellectual with psychic abilities, Jenkins is assigned to “Games and Theory” – aka the intelligence services of the Federation. He will later appear in quasi-SS garb as part of an elite psychic warfare group, perhaps an allusion to the Nazi fascination with the occult.
The Federation’s powerful military is never idle because the Earth is locked in a perpetual war with insectoid aliens formerly called “the Arachnids” – but generally known by the disparaging speciesist term “the bugs” (roughly equivalent to “the gooks” or “the krauts” in intra-human conflict). The Federation’s attitude towards the bugs seems to be exterminatory, with wet liberal television commentators barracked on Federation news for even suggesting that the bugs have a mind – “the very idea is offensive,” sniffs the more conservative talking head.
The starship troopers hop around different planets, protect colonists, take the war to the bugs, and generally unleash mayhem.
At one point, we learn from a news report that foolhardy Mormon settlers, warned against settling a planet by the authorities, have been slaughtered by the bugs – perhaps this is a wry commentary on Mormon fanaticism and the naivety of their missionaries abroad by Verhoeven and an indication that, in our world, it is not healthy that Mormons exercise such a disproportionate influence on the CIA.
The film’s story is catalysed by a surprise attack on Earth by the bugs, an attack that destroys Rico’s hometown of Buenos Aires and leaves him, now orphaned, with no family except the Mobile Infantry.
Left without a home, on the verge of washing out of boot camp, Rico steps back from nihilism and submits himself to being completely reformed by the military.
As Klaus Theweleit observed in his study of the Freikorps – rightist militias in Weimar Germany – the rightist male seeks make himself like a Greek statue. He is hard as marble, cold, and purely white. In hardening his physique and his mind, the rightist male creates the polar opposite to the feminine principle. He becomes a real “hard body” of 1980s slang. He is rational, clearly defined, clean, and does not leak – either emotionally or physically. His definition and individuality mark him out as part of a hierarchy based on superiority.
This is the type of man that the Federation wants as a starship trooper.
This is the type of man that Johnny Rico becomes.
The feminine is fluid, leaking, and, perhaps, fetid – a woman is a scarlet thing, like the flag of the USSR, when she begins her monthly bleed. The feminine principle is like a river or a swamp; it is completely collective and egalitarian. It is dissolving into nothingness. It is socialistic and poorly defined, and it is like the bug hordes that the starship troopers face: more a single entity than individual biological units.
This contention of opposites is, however, not entirely a biological fact. There are, after all, leftist men who are more feminine than some women – and there are women, like Camille Paglia, who are more masculine than many men. We are talking here about spiritual principles that are connected to the biological facts of life while not being completely determined by those facts. There are even men who become so hardened in their statue-like nature resistance to the fluid that they detest all women and become homosexual – perhaps this accounts for the prevalence of homosexuality in many fascist para-military groups.
Verhoeven’s starship troopers are all definitely masculine – even his women. This is why we do not notice the egalitarian touches: the addition of ethnic minorities and women in military command positions, or the moment when – in a reversal of historical power relations – Rico is whipped by a black soldier because he infringed regulations. All these subversive touches – subversive because they attempt to extend beyond Heinlein’s libertarian egalitarianism into progressive egalitarianism – fade because the aesthetics and spirit of the film inclines towards the masculine principle, and so we only see “warriors” not “women” or “ethnic minorities” or “white men”. Military men often argue that real racial – if not sexual – equality is found in the military because men are rated according to their common mettle, but this equality, really a form of earned respect within a hierarchy, is only possible in an inegalitarian environment. You become peers only insofar as you have both been formed in the crucible of the military and its command structure.
If we take account of the of the contest between the masculine and feminine principles, we can see that the bugs of Starship Troopers – utterly collective, fluid, and mindless – instantiate the feminine principle, the principle of the left, absolutely. They act like the collective masses of “Red China” or the Soviet Union: there is little of character about them. They will pull apart everything that distinguishes and differentiates, so as, like a flood of water, all will be swept away in a deluge. The bugs are mysterious to the humans; just like a gaggle of women going to the toilet together “to do their makeup”, men do not understand their ways. Do they even think? We see no evidence of a brain, but surely something must be driving these women – I mean bugs – in their collective frenzy…
At the climax of the film, Federation forces, led by our heroes, capture the “brain bug” – the hidden centre of coordination for all those mindless drones. The creature is, quite clearly, a vast vagina – a pulsating mass of flesh that oozes foul secretions from its slit. In other words, the bugs, like women, think with their vagina – a woman is, in the final analysis, nothing but her sex. Women often say that men “think with their dicks”, but this is mere projection – a man who only thinks with his dick is inherently a feminised man. The thing a woman thinks with is, like the brain bug, deeply hidden in the recesses of her body. In Starship Troopers, the soldiers must dig the brain bug out of a cave complex: they excavate her from a planetary womb.
The brain bug is physically inert and has to be carried everywhere by her drones. We could draw a parallel here with a woman surrounded by her subservient “beta male orbiters”, those men who pamper and support her without ever impregnating her – so being reduced to a sexless drone/warrior caste. Finally, the brain bug feeds upon human brains, sucking the brain out through a protuberance to gain knowledge; and, doubtless, many men will be familiar with a former friend who has “lost his mind”, “gone daft”, or “become gooey” since he started dating a particular woman. To encounter the brain bug, the vagina, is to become “brainless” – literally.
The female insect horde is defeated by “alpha males” who are definite individuals – even though they cooperate in struggle – and who emerge clean, if slightly sticky, from their encounter with the feminine primordial ooze.
Even in defeat, the brain bug is utterly inscrutable to the ultra-masculine Federation soldiers. In an effort to further understand the brain bug, we see a news report that shows technicians forcing a large, penis-like probe into the brain bug. The news report censors the actual act of penetration, so reinforcing the association with a pornographic act. The alpha male starship troopers have finally penetrated the woman. Despite “mating” with the brain bug, the scientists remain unsure as to what is really going on with her. I understand that many men feel the same about their girlfriends.
The struggle at the heart of Starship Troopers is the struggle between the masculine and feminine principles, and – insofar as these related to politics – the left and the right, the individual and the collective, the rational and the irrational.
Starship Troopers gives an answer to Freud’s old question – “What do women want?” – in the following way: we don’t know what they want, but if we let them have their way they’re going to destroy us – and we can only defeat them through discipline, order, and individuality.
Why, then, is Starship Troopers a failed satire?
The answer is that militarism, heroism, and masculine victory over the feminine are not the “obscene unspoken truths” of Western societies. Satire is effective because it speaks truths that are commonly known but suppressed by polite society. If an equivalent to Starship Troopers was made in the era of high colonialism or during the interwar period it would, perhaps, have been seen as a satirical send-up of overbearing Prussian officers or pompous “Colonel Blimp” types in Britain. We could imagine Brecht attempting something like Starship Troopers just after the First World War, but that was a time when people knew how bad war could be and so would naturally be cynical of heroism.
Contemporary Western societies are not highly masculine, nor are they highly militarised.
They haven’t been so for generations at this point.
If we are anything in the West then we are the bugs, not the starship troopers.
This meant that when Verhoeven told his “whole truth” about Western militarism, patriotism, and hyper-masculinity he inadvertently created an aspirational film because the work highlighted quite how far the West has fallen from those values.
The figure of Johnny Rico – the square-jawed, blonde, and utterly un-ironic hero – was meant to be a send-up of the typical American jock. In fact, he comes over as an aspirational figure: people actually like and want to be a man who feels no need to make “snarky” or self-deprecating comments about himself. His journey from pampered upper class high school sports star to realistic squad leader is a story of service and humility. Rico is humbled time and again during his service with the starship troopers, almost washing out of boot camp and facing a lashing with a cat o’nine tails because his irresponsible behaviour leads to the death of a fellow soldier.
Rico’s story is archetypically male: a story of learning from repeated failures that the ego is nothing and that service to a greater principle is everything.
At the end of the film, Rico’s journey is complete. He takes over the role once occupied by his high school civics teacher, the leader of a squad of Mobile Infantry. At the beginning of the film Rico goofs in his civics lesson, more interested in seducing a girl than reflecting the values of the Federation. The story arc completes his journey of maturation: the callow youth becomes the master.
The war cry of his squad, “Rico’s Roughnecks”, is “Come on you apes, you wanna live forever?”.
But, of course, in the contemporary West we do want to live forever. We see this most clearly in our decaying political leadership and creepy billionaires. Joe Biden is, it seems, literally falling apart piece by piece in his quest to occupy the White House – first his eye exploded and now his teeth have fallen out, by the time I finish writing this his fingernails may well have peeled off. Similarly, Silicon Valley billionaires seek to inject themselves with “young blood” or to upload their brains into computers.
Everywhere the “apes” want to live forever, and everywhere people know that there is something unhealthy about this.
We are fascinated by zombie films and video games, in part, because we are surrounded by the living dead. We are surrounded by people who are doing what they should be doing in a grave right before our eyes. As they rot and liquify before us, they become like the bugs of Starship Troopers. They become the feminine and they give rise to a socialistic system of government that crushes individuality and beauty.
We are, in the words of Lana Del Rey (PBUH), born to die.
You can accept that fact, breed (or create an artwork or scientific discovery) to pass on the fire, and then die gloriously – or you can cling, as current Western elites do, to an ugly living death. You may live on in a computer, but you will live on as an “ape” – it is only by confronting death that we can shed our ape-like nature by giving ourselves over to a greater cause.
Western civilisation is Faustian: we seek the infinite.
This principle is represented in Starship Troopers in a threefold way: Rico (the soldier who conquers territory and faces the infinite void of death), Carmen (the space pilot who explores the infinite reaches of space and guards the heavens), and Carl (the psychic intelligence officer who explores the infinite inner space of consciousness and, ultimately, seeks direct connection with the divine).
The three characters, taken together, represent the psyche of an individual: ego (Rico), superego (Carmen), and unconscious (Carl). Additionally, the romance between Rico and Carmen stands as a story of integration between masculine and feminine principles within an individual – the reconciliation of the anima and animus identified by C.G. Jung.
The only person who comes close to understanding the brain bug is the psychic Carl; he is a feminine man, not a muscular hero, and he uses his psychic powers – a feminine weapon – to communicate with the bug. This also hints, symbolically, that the way for men and women to understand each other is for men to integrate their feminine aspects. In a mirror of this, Carmen is forced out of her spaceship at one point and falls to the bug-occupied planet. Here she is forced to “fight like a man” (i.e. to leave her position in the heavens, in space, in the romantic idealisation of Rico, and come down to earth). This also symbolises the masculine and feminine principles within the psyche uniting in a realistic way – superego and ego working in coordination, or, more simply, a man no longer idealising his partner but instead seeing her as a potential mother.
We do not need to become completely feminine “bugs” or completely masculine (crypto-homosexual) Greek statues that loath women: we can unify the two principles within us to complete true maturity.
Modernity, a fractured state, splits us time and again from these eternal principles and sets them, like bugs and men, in brutal opposition. You could say that movements like #MeToo represent this fractured state, an environment of modernity where men and women are set against each other like two rival armies. While the masculine and feminine must always contend, there is obviously a difference between healthy tension and all-out war.
There is such a thing a honourable military service as opposed to a fascist jackboot smashing a jaw without discrimination. And, in a time of economic tension, there is also such a thing as responsibility and feminine care for vulnerable people in your own group – without going so far as to enact “bug-like” socialism.
At the end of Starship Troopers the film reviews the three heroes, three parts integrated within the Federation military, working together towards a single cause: service to the whole. The film has achieved holism, a balance between the three forces and the masculine and feminine principles – exoterically within the characters and esoterically in a universal sense.
We become whole when we integrate these different elements of our psyche, and we begin this process when we recognise the reality of death: we do not want to live forever, so – being nothing – we will become something.
Raise the cry:
“Come on you apes, you wanna live forever?”