A few years ago in my film history class, I was assigned to watch the first half of Mark Cousins’ epic historical overview of the medium, “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.” I wound up watching the whole 15-plus hour opus and learned quite a bit about important artists whose contributions to the art form I never even knew. And I also learned that Cousins would have us recognize Paul Verhoeven as one of the major filmmakers of contemporary cinema. Seriously, he devotes a solid 10-minute paean to the subversive qualities of his studio films.
At the time, I dismissed his claim as a lot of pretension and hot air. (The temptation for critics to make a bold statement that you can see something others cannot should not be doubted.) But after watching Verhoeven’s mega-budget 1997 film “Starship Troopers,” I can start to see Cousins’ point. The action flick functions both as good entertainment and subversive social commentary, a dual capability that more than qualifies it as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”
“Starship Troopers” takes the form of a traditional war film not unlike something Hollywood would churn out around World War II. As alien invaders threaten the security of the earth, an urge to defend the planet sweeps through students in Buenos Aires. (Yes, they’re all lily-white. This was the ’90s.) Casper Van Dien’s Johnny Rico, not the brightest bulb, ends up placed on the front lines of the conflict when assigned to the Mobile Infantry. The high aptitude of his girlfriend, Denise Richards’ Carmen Ibanez, earns her a spot in the prestigious starship piloting program.
Rico and Carmen go their separate ways after enlisting, each encountering their own struggles and forging their own camaraderies. The part they play in facing down the threat of “bugs” from Klendathu are interesting, but like in many a great film, the genius comes less from what is told and more from how it is told. Verhoeven cloaks the proceedings in a transparent artificiality, embracing hammy acting as a method for exposing how cinema can glamorize war. Snippets of “news media” interspersed throughout “Starship Troopers” help drive this message home; their throwbacks to the newsreel tradition highlight how thinly veiled propaganda can transmit fascistic and bigoted ideals. More movies should try to pull off this sneaky gambit, allowing you to enjoy what you’re watching while also critiquing your watching in real time.