In order to properly understand Starship Troopers, one needs to understand its casting. At some level, casting is the de facto entry point for any of Verhoeven’s American films over the decade from Robocop to Starship Troopers. Total Recall, although somewhat muted by its need to be an Arnie vehicle, definitely gestured toward using the big lovable lug as a critique of the idea of an Arnie film. More successful was Basic Instinct, where Verhoeven cast a seemingly unaware and genuine Michael Douglas more for his weathered, aged wrinkles and flagellating variant of all-American thuggery. And one doesn’t need to explain Showgirls these days, a work where Verhoeven cast (cruelly so, at that) the young whippersnapper Elizabeth Berkeley and forced her through all manner of gross, grotesque abuses on screen in a meta-commentary on the way in which her character, and young Hollywood starlets altogether, are forced to go through the wringer to find success, leaving others in their wake and losing their dignity and respect for themselves as they forced to do the unthinkable.
With Troopers, Verhoeven out-did himself, casting then wide-eyed youths Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, and Neil Patrick Harris in the roles of three wide-eyed youths who join the war effort against a coalition of alien bugs threatening Earth, either to find military success in a career of their choosing or because their fascistic future society dictates that they can only become citizens and vote if they serve in the military first. Mostly, they do it because of the cult of personality around the military itself, to them the noblest and most earnest calling a young person can possibly undertake, death entangled with sacrifice and no consequence too harsh to curb their patriotism. They blindly believe, and that is why Verhoeven hired them. These were three youthful actors no doubt lured into the Hollywood machine by the prospect of fame and glory, and their unsuspecting genuine belief shows through in every frame of the film. It is almost possible, almost, to believe that Casper Van Dien is in on the satire, but his performance is too genuine, and there are absolutely no doubts that Richards is out of the joke.
And that is exactly what Verhoeven needed. His film, bearing the name of an old Robert Heinlein novel but not meaningfully related in specifics, is the bluntest and most vocal satire he’d yet made, far less entwined in the perils of good and bad than his other films, and far less ready to ape the badness of the films that it is satirizing. Verhoeven’s past two efforts were caustic, judicious satires where the satire came not so much through jokes but through the unblinking quality of the films themselves, their full commitment to becoming what they critiqued in an effort to show how idiotic their objects of critique were. Troopers is a more obvious beast. Those films were unblinkingly serious; Troopers blinks when it opens on fake news programs stolen from Robocop, it blinks in its deaths designed to induce laughter, and it blinks in its sometimes too-winking dialogue. The first half-hour of the film cannot but be viewed as an overly-generous high-school soap opera, and if the obviousness of the satire blunts some of its viability, at least the subversive quality of actors who, for all intents and purposes, believe in the seriousness of profoundly awful material shines through. Not to mention, Verhoeven has a sharp enough tongue that even when he is being obvious his tongue-in-cheek aims hit with a bluntness and tactility few Hollywood directors would even try.
Insofar as there is a problem with Troopers, it is that the second half largely makes its point and then comfortably slides into the realms of genuine belief a little too easily. The old Verhoeven from Robocop and Total Recall returns, the one who genuinely enjoys making action films and tries very hard to make a good one even when he is satirizing the genre. That was fine in Robocop and Total Recall because the end results were genuinely good action films, and at some level he was satirizing good films so it made sense that his films themselves were well made. Starship Troopers is a satire of a bad film that is itself well-made, at which point we run into our old friends Francois Truffaut’s claim about making an anti-war film and how it will innately portray war as an exciting act. Unlike say Robocop which genuinely enjoyed the fact that it was itself a product of the ’80s, Starship Troopers is too vulgar and committed a scathing attack dog aimed squarely at the militial American ’90s and their blockbusters-as-advertisements-for-violence that the fact that the film is itself so well made makes it harder to defend, and even less likable. Too much of the final hour of Troopers is a genuinely well made action/war film that it feels dishonest for it to critique the genre it is implicitly supporting.
Robocop, while not free of this criticism, was at least aware that it was a well-made film, and did not pummel us over the head with the fact that it itself was an unethical product or a bad film. That film may very well be unethical, but Starship Troopers actually seems aware that it is unethical, torn between begrudging support for itself and dismal hate. It is a film that for the first hour insists that it is bad, and for the second insists that it is good, not because it wishes to contradict itself in an assured way like Basic Instinct, but because it is confused. If Robocop is aware that it is a good but silly film, Troopers is aware that it is a bad and silly film, and then forgets this fact when it is convenient for it to showcase special effects and make money.
It’s not a film-killing problem though, for Starship Troopers is generally a good film, smartly made to look like a bad film (and even when it is too good for its own good, peaks of explicit badness shine through to the end). It is undeniably less fascinating than some of Verhoeven’s other American works, but that simply owes to it being more of a sledgehammer critique that more openly addresses its satire and less of a fascinating showcase in becoming that which it critiques (when Troopers becomes that which it critiques, it seems like it stumbles into being a good war film, rather than intentionally slicing into itself as part of the commentary). At a more basic level though, it’s a fun, well-worn satire with a sharp subversive bent and a pretty great first half. The opening soap opera bit and the second quarter, where it is a parody of war training sequences, are remarkably well done, addressing the implicit fascism of the genre and generally making it out to look horrible and distressing and disgusting to be part of the military. The first major battle, set in a grotesque nihilist swath of brown resembling a location, also furthers this critique, finding war as a hellhole of mindless destruction where soldiers are carted out like cattle by a bureaucracy that could not give less of a care about their lives whatsoever.
I can think of no more obvious explanation of Starship Troopers and its sensibility than its wonderfully droll treatment of Neil Patrick Harris, and no better a marker for whether a particular audience member may appreciate what Troopers is doing. Watching, it is plainly obvious that Verhoeven hired then-joke Harris (struggling to transition to his teenage years post child-stardom, and before he was a walking punchline at his own expense everyone loved and adored again) simply because of his distinctly Aryan features. How else could he trot Harris out in a black leather trench coat and cap distinctly and unmistakably designed out of Nazi parts, without any of the specific regalia but near enough in the vague gestures that it is unmistakably the case Verhoeven intends to be pointing out the similarities between American militial action films, and the culture they procreate, and Nazi fascism. These scenes work, and probably only work, specifically because Harris is totally unawares that he is being used not as an actor but as a physical space on the screen. This is Verhoeven abuse folks, omnivorous and indiscriminate, the sort of abuse that infests all participants involved and spills out into the audience as well. It is also the last such film where he fully achieved these goals. Even if they are a bit more obvious and openly stated than in his previous films, and even if it is too giddy to become that which it dislikes, Verhoeven being Verhoeven is a sight for sore eyes and a cinematic joy, even if those joys are muted this time out.