Starship Troopers Illustrates How Susceptible Audiences Are to Propaganda
As a satire of fascist propaganda, Starship Troopers is intended to be viewed as a meta film that the highly militaristic United Citizen Federation would make about itself. However, its status as satire was lost to audiences and critics upon release, who viewed it as nothing more than a typical sci-fi action flick, not dissimilar from countless others in the 90s film catalog. As a result, Starship Troopers ought to make the viewer consider a rather alarming question: if audiences were unable to pick out an over-the-top satirical propaganda piece from all the other media they consume, just how susceptible might they be to the real thing?
When Starship Troopers was released in 1997, it was largely panned by critics. While praise was reserved for its technically stunning special effects, it was otherwise regarded as a hollow, cheesy and bizarre sci-fi that seemed almost intent on being seen as nothing more than a gore filled B-movie spectacle, made solely to appeal to teenage boys. At a glance, this initial reaction is understandable – the film treats the viewer to plenty of scenes of excessive violence. Troopers are shown carpet bombing the surface of entire planets, pouring out of drop-ships and firing off enormous machine guns and missiles before being viciously torn apart by giant bugs.
The film’s protagonists were cast for aesthetic reasons, as director Paul Verhoeven believed they would have fit in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (central protagonist Johnny Rico, played by Casper Van Dien does have an almost impossibly square jaw). Between scenes of war, these characters exist only to deliver schlocky, wooden dialogue in order to forward an inconsequential love story, when not simply expressing their enthusiasm for fulfilling their civic duty in fighting the good fight against humanity’s enemies.
The impulse toward feeling as though this was all intentionally bad was at least halfway correct, but few seemingly got what Verhoeven was going for. It has only been with decades of hindsight and retrospective analysis that Starship Troopers has come to be reappraised and appreciated for what it is. If the viewer is already in on the joke, the clues make it seem glaringly obvious what is going on, to the point it seems Verhoeven is hitting them over the head with it.
In one of the film’s opening scenes, a teacher educates his class about the failure of democracy and the supremacy of violence as a means of resolving conflict. It’s made clear that for those living within the Federation, only ‘citizens’ hold the right to vote or obtain a license to have children, and gaining citizenship requires military service. Multiple in-universe advertisements break up the film, reminding viewers to tune in for the scheduled televised execution of a criminal, and encouraging the population to stay vigilant against the bugs, showcasing soldiers handing out bullets to children. To top it off, we are treated to a scene of Neil Patrick Harris’s character entering a scene late in the film in what resembles full Gestapo regalia. Despite this, life in the federation is still depicted as being utopian – again, this is what the Federation wants you to see.
Perhaps it was the lack of any clear dystopian imagery in the day-to-day life of the Federation’s populace (that any lesser film would have insisted on spoon-feeding to its audience) that resulted in the joke getting lost. It seems that without that heavy nod to the audience to telegraph that what they’re seeing is intended to be seen as satirical propaganda, Starship Troopers is basically identical to any other war or action film produced by Hollywood.
The valorization of not just individual soldiers, but also of the military institution and its noble purpose; the careful casting of attractive actors, backed by teams of make-up artists to depict what is supposed to be the average, everyday soldier; the insistence on portraying the enemy as a faceless and malicious entity, motivated by a singular desire to destroy all that is good and civilized… These are all common themes that everyone can recognize. Whether it’s a hoard of bugs or a faceless, radicalized insurgent in the Middle East, thematically and beat-for-beat, the propaganda of Starship Troopers and other Hollywood films is all too similar.
Attesting to this is the recent box office success of the Top Gun sequel, Top Gun: Maverick. Top Gun’s original release in 1986 saw recruitment numbers increase for the Air Force and Navy, as they got to showcase their most flashy hardware being piloted by two young, hot and cool dudes who play shirtless beach volleyball in jeans and aviators, when not tearing up the sky in their F-14 Tomcats and taking on a nameless enemy. Why is this enemy attacking? No one knows, but they’re bad, the protagonists are good, and look just how sweet those jets look.
One of the biggest and arguably most culturally relevant franchises right now, the MCU, features characters who are either actively employed by the military, veterans or government agents – be they fictional (S.H.I.E.L.D) or real, such as the FBI and CIA, all of whom are motivated by a desire to do good and help humanity. The spying, murdering and government-overthrowing they’re traditionally known for is instead supplanted with witty, sarcastic and self-deprecating banter when not keeping track of alien plots to destroy the world.
Outside of superhero blockbusters, there are action, war and spy thrillers being released on streaming services at an increasing rate, as demand for original content on each new platform arises. From The Gray Man to Operation Mincemeat audiences seemingly have an insatiable appetite for such titles. One need only look at this month’s latest titles, compare them to the last, and then moving backward, realize that the formula for entertainment and propaganda have long existed and far predate Starship Troopers, making it no wonder then that its satire was lost in just how seamlessly it fit in with its Hollywood counterparts.