For a long time, I just couldn’t buy the hype surrounding Starship
. I couldn’t understand how an effects-heavy,
hyper-masculine action flick about blowing up aliens could possibly be a
work of brilliant sci-fi satire. Sometimes, it’s good to be proven

Yes, most of the standard action movie cliches are in place. There
are continuity errors and the occasional logic gaffe, in addition to
cannon fodder soldiers and guns that mysteriously run through hundreds
of bullets per second without ever running out. But at the heart of this
movie is something I genuinely didn’t expect: A coming-of-age tale.

At its core, this is the story of how a young man and his friends
grow into older and stronger people during their time in the military.
It’s quite similar in that regard to Full Metal Jacket — or
perhaps Top Gun, if you’re feeling charitable — but this movie
is still very clearly its own beast. For starters, FMJ didn’t
really give Joker the spotlight until halfway through the movie,
preferring to focus on poor Gomer Pyle up to that point. Starship
, on the other hand, is very solidly focused on Rico from
the outset, though he’s not some perfect pretty-boy as Maverick was. No,
Rico is very clearly not the brightest pencil in the drawer, but he’s
good at making the best out of what he’s given. Moreover, there are
quite a few times when Rico makes tough calls and horrendous screw-ups
that cost lives and he’s willing to take responsibility for those times
(compare this to Goose’s death in Top Gun, which Maverick broods
over even though it wasn’t his fault and he’s totally let off the hook
for it). Some sections of Rico’s arc are quite predictable, but he ends
the movie as a completely different man and his transformation from
start to finish is a thrill to watch.

Then we have the supporting cast. There’s Carmen Ibanez, Rico’s high
school crush and the surprising proof that Denise Richards is a viable
action star. There’s “Dizzy” Flores, the tomboy who apparently spends
her life pining for Rico. There’s Neil Patrick Harris in a brief
appearance as Rico’s old buddy Carl and there’s Zander Barcalow, Rico’s
rival for Carmen’s affections. All of these characters are given
surprisingly deep arcs, with the acting talent and direction to make
them constantly watchable. This also has the side effect of making us
care for these characters, hoping they won’t die and feeling horrible if
and when they do. This movie really isn’t about the action as much as
it’s about how the action affects the characters and that’s a big part
of what makes this movie truly great.

The other big part is the satire. In some way or another, pretty much
every excess that America indulges in — news, sports, military
obsession, and even our lavish high school proms — are poked fun at in
some way or other in this movie. Commentary on commercialism is
strangely absent, though I suppose Verhoeven covered that topic well
enough in Robocop.

There are also some nice digs at our wartime mentality, such as the
giant “CENSORED” bars covering examples of bugs goring humans or vice
versa. This serves as a nice bit of commentary on bloodshed for
spectacle, as does the televised execution of a mass murderer. We also
get a PSA featuring kids stomping on earthly cockroaches, a subtle nod
toward our treatment of Japanese-American citizens during WWII or anyone
remotely suspected of being communist during the Cold War (yes, this
treatment carries over to any and all Muslims after 9/11, but that came
after this movie). Verhoeven even throws in a segment parodying the
brainless pundit dipshits who scream jingoistic absurdities and call
traitors anyone who disagrees with them.

Nevertheless, it did strike me as odd is that so much of the culture
appears hyper-masculine, and yet women are seen as men’s equal in
seemingly every way in this future. Not that I’m complaining, but there
is seriously not a weak female to be found in this entire movie, with
the possible exception of Rico’s mom. Speaking of which, I just didn’t
get Rico’s parents. Yes, I can understand how parents would be concerned
about their kid going off to war and I also understand how cliche
dictates that Rico needed that conflict with his parents. Still, in a
culture this obsessed with the military (the Federation logo is a
fighter jet shaped like an eagle, for Christ’s sake), I simply can’t
understand how two parents who are clearly well-established in the
system could be so adamant against their son joining the military. In
fact, I think Verhoeven missed a golden opportunity for satire when he
could’ve showed two Stepford parents, brainwashed into being so happy
that their boy was off to kill and be killed for the greater good.

Technically, the movie is astounding. The production design is
amazing, the sound design is superlative and the special effects still
look damn good after thirteen years. It’s also worth noting that
Verhoeven does not pull his punches with this movie, showing copious
amounts of blood and viscera. The script is also incredibly good,
establishing backstory and exposition with uncommon skill.

There’s no denying that this is a movie riddled with cliches, sex,
explosions and bloody deaths. But to lump this film together with the
works of Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer would be a mistake and an
injustice. Unlike the aforementioned filmmakers, Verhoeven uses
lowest-common-denominator movie conventions as means to an end, rather
than as ends in themselves. He uses these familiar elements to coat the
headier material, presenting the commentary and satire in a more
appealing way. Similarly, he took a standard “coming of age in the
military” story and used science fiction to turn it into a twisted
reflection of us. And in my humble opinion, that’s exactly what sci-fi
should do.

Starship Troopers is truly a movie that satisfies on all
levels. If you want explosions and gruesome kills, they’re here. If you
want more intellectual fare, it’s here as well. If you want good
characters, you’ll grow attached to these ones mighty quick. Drama? It’s
in here. Comedy? Just so long as you like it subtle. Romance? All that
and a bit of sex with it.

If you’ve been brushing this movie off, don’t. Find it, watch it and
watch it again.