Recently I re-watched a classic but polarizing film in the recent history of science fiction, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. It’s not unusual for me to watch this movie every couple of years, as I’ve loved it since it came out in 1997, but this summer (2016) I re-watched it for a very specific reason. Something I saw in the news, an image that came across my Twitter feed, triggered a memory of it: a story (which I can’t find right now, and isn’t important anyway) about how Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for President of the United States, has been designing the stage at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on which he will accept the nomination this coming week (the week of July 18). The picture of the unfinished stage looked very evocative of the sleek, beautiful and ominous sets of the future world in Starship Troopers, which itself is one of the most pointed and incisive attacks on the ideology of fascism that the cinema world has ever produced. The campaign of Donald Trump has a great deal in common with the 1930s-style fascism that Starship Troopers lampoons through its careful mockery, and as I watched the movie this time, now nearly 20 years after its release, I couldn’t help but evaluate it in terms of the authoritarian rhetoric that Trump has brought into the American mainstream in this frightening election year. Indeed, the fantasy future that Starship Troopers depicts has some eerie echoes of themes that have been percolating in real life in the United States.
(Spoiler alert, of course). Loosely based on the 1958 authoritarian science fiction novel of the same name, Starship Troopers begins on Earth about 200 years from now, where a fascist government has taken over and heavily militarized human society. It concerns a group of high school seniors: Johnny (Casper Van Diem), Carmen (Denise Richards), Dizzy (Dina Meyer), Zander (Patrick Muldoon) and Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) who scatter throughout the stars after they join the military which is engaging in a ferocious war against the insect-like inhabitants of a distant planet called Klendathu. They pursue various paths. Johnny becomes the leader of a group of Mobile Infantry, shock-troop grunts whose humanity is deliberately beaten out of them in training. Carmen becomes a starship pilot, ultimately dumping Johnny, her ostensible boyfriend, for Zander; Dizzy also becomes a soldier and dies tragically fighting the “bugs.” At the end of the film, when they all wind up in the same place–raiding a bug lair in order to capture the “smart bug” they believe controls the enemy–Carl appears as a high-ranked military intelligence officer. Honestly the plot of Starship Troopers isn’t really the point. It’s a rumination on authoritarian power structures and how war and jingoism are ultimately destructive to the human spirit.
In this scene from Starship Troopers, Johnny (Casper Van Diem) gets a taste of what being a “Roughneck” means.
Many people don’t “get” Starship Troopers. When it first premiered in November 1997, many critics and audiences dismissed it as a noisy, cartoonish and ultimately ridiculous science fiction adventure mainly meant to “shock and awe” its viewers with dazzling special effects, stampeding bugs, simple-minded battle scenes and over-the-top gore and violence. This always surprised me that so many people could watch the film and see so little in it. Paul Verhoeven, famous for RoboCop and Total Recall, was himself a survivor of a fascist state–he was a child during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, his native country, during World War II. Indeed, only a survivor of the Nazis could make a film like Starship Troopers, which attacks fascism by ostensibly flaunting it on the screen. The ideology spouted by the characters is right out of Mein Kampf; the humans’ view of the “bugs” as a mindless pestilence is reminiscent of the Nazis’ views toward Jews; and the shallow jingoism is as transparent as the endless slogans with which right-wing fascist governments like Germany, Italy and Japan induced men and women to commit the most horrible crimes in human history. Even the visual look of Starship Troopers evokes the vacuous aesthetics of authoritarianism. When Neil Patrick Harris emerges in the film’s climax in what looks almost exactly like an SS officer’s uniform, audiences tend to gasp. Doogie Howser as a space Nazi seems so…wrong.
Watching the movie in 2016 with fresh eyes, there is a disturbing amount of the world of Starship Troopers that echoes the fantasy world Donald Trump has promised to create for his followers. Trump’s worldview is based essentially on a projection of strength and “success,” and the belief that such success is achievable by relatively simplistic means. A marked propensity in Trump’s thinking is the view of everything in life as a zero-sum game, where someone always wins and everybody else loses. In Starship Troopers the leader of Earth, Sky Marshal Tahatma Ru, confidently declares that the universe will be dominated by human civilization, not “bug,” with the automatic assumption that it’s an either-or proposition. That’s classic Trumpian thinking. The main character, Johnny, is so strongly molded on the military ideology of the Mobile Infantry that he views success in war as the only marker of self-worth. By the end of the film he doesn’t care that Carmen dumped him for Zander, and indeed Carmen doesn’t seem to give a hoot that her new boyfriend has had his brains sucked out by a bug; they all join hands happily and cheer as the “smart bug” is dragged terrified from its lair and ready to be exploited for the final destruction of Klendathu.
Sequences like this convinced many viewers that Starship Troopers was primarily an action-oriented SF adventure movie. That misses the entire reason the film was made.
Trump’s entire campaign, and the authoritarian nonsense he spouts, mimics a classic conceit of fascism: that strength and winning, however shallowly defined, are fulfilling ends in themselves, and that a society that “wins” all the time is inherently superior to any other. It doesn’t matter what tangible benefits flow from the “win”–it’s the win itself that matters. This message pervades Starship Troopers, from the futuristic football game at the beginning of the film to the triumphant abduction of the “smart bug” at the end. This message comes through even in the film’s aesthetics and visual look. All the high school kids are physically perfect and drop-dead gorgeous, sort of like Trump’s serial wives and his hand-picked beauty pageant contestants. The clean and mighty interiors and exteriors, from spaceships to the steel-and-glass atrium of Johnny’s parents, fetishize wealth and conflate it with aesthetic attractiveness–just as the architectural monstrosities that Trump has built in New York and Atlantic City do. Yet there’s a shallowness to it all, a vacuousness. One senses there’s no emotional or intellectual substance behind it. This is certainly true of Trump himself, who has proven remarkably ignorant about even the simplest matters of government, and whose personality does not exist beyond the blustering “brand” he flaunts to the cameras and crowds.
Scariest of all, the universe of Starship Troopers is one in which unabashed force is the only legitimate expression of human will. This too echoes Trump’s disturbing worldview. Economic and social problems, in his view, will be solved by building a wall to keep “them” out; enemies abroad, like Daesh (ISIS), will be simply and quickly blasted into oblivion by American military power and that will be that. All it takes is the will to wield such power and an unyielding belief that might makes right. The humans of Starship Troopers have one mode: attack. The answer to any problems is always more guns, more troops, more force. Shout louder, stomp harder and act tougher. No one who’s watched Trump’s campaign can doubt that this is how he approaches politics. It’s certainly how he would approach the world if he was to become the leader of its most powerful country.
The anti-fascist message of Starship Troopers is most clear from this, the final scene; note not only the jingoistic propaganda, but the appearance and costume of Neal Patrick Harris as Carl.
In America and the Western world, we’re so blinded by our complacency that it’s difficult for us to recognize fascism when it begins gathering among us. We are, after all, a liberal democracy, and fascism is an “other” that has no relationship to our institutions; amazingly, there are many Americans who believe that Hitler and the Nazis were left-wing socialists instead of right-wing authoritarians! Or else it’s easy and fun to pin the rise of Hitler on exotic but nonsensical “woo” factors like the myth that the Nazis were somehow driven by black magic and the occult. Fascism? It can’t happen here. Starship Troopers portrays an outrageous and cartoonish future, but the fact that it’s science fiction doesn’t mean that the world it depicts isn’t one we can have if we so choose. The scary thing is that it’s a future that already looks a lot more like the present than it did in 1997. The fascist allegory of Starship Troopers is one we ignore at our peril.