25 years ago, a brilliant sci-fi movie corrected the whole genre
sci-fi action movies are not created equal. While we all cheered when Luke Skywalker detonated the Empire’s super weapon and the hundreds of thousands of people above, the inherent militarism of the genre is, as Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out to yout in 1978, sometimes disturbing. Long before brilliant sci-fi shows like Andor and For all mankind began to deconstruct military science fiction, 1997 Starship Troopers paved the way for them.
Focusing on the exploits of sci-fi soldiers battling insectoid aliens from the planet Klendathu, Starship Troopers was an easy-to-understand film for mainstream American audiences. In theory, we’re supposed to support Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and the rest of the mobile infantry as they fight the good fight.
But director Paul Verhoeven’s genius was that Starship Troopers was intended as a camp satire versus senseless military recruitment. Because the film casually affirms the idea that only those who serve in the futuristic military are “true” citizens, it presents the ease with which fascist ideas could take over a dominant democracy. At the start of the film, Rasczak (Michael Ironside) teaches his students about the failures of pure democracy, defending the status quo of this future world.
At no time in Starship Troopers the characters question this status quo, and the plot does not focus on these details. This makes the film version of Starship Troopers superficially similar to the 1959 novel by Robert A. Heinlein on which it is based. If you watch Heinlein whole workyou would probably come away with the idea that he was either a social conservative or a radical libertarian. There were exceptionsbut neo-fascist ideas Starship Troopers was perhaps not too far removed from his true beliefs, and the book version of Starship Troopers is basically the fascist bible of science fiction.
The film played the literal text of Starship Troopers, but with a critical subtext. What this did for people analyzing the literature of Robert A. Heinlein may not be relevant, but Starship Troopers largely changed the way people thought about sci-fi action movies.
In A new hope, Luke dreams of “going to the academy”. He only remains an ethical person by accident, as he never gets the chance to learn to fly TIEs for the Empire. Starship Troopers is basically what would happen if Luke had joined the Empire and had a great time advancing Imperial hegemony.
Today, we take for granted just how self-critical the action sci-fi genre can be. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds frequently unpack the Starfleet ethics, while For all mankind imagine an alternate timeline where a more robust space program is driven by greater military buildup, including an arms race on the moon and March. Andor questions the Empire’s motives and the Rebel Alliance, and unpacks moral defects people we thought were the “good guys”.
Apart from a few episodes of Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nineit’s hard to find live science fiction before Starship Troopers who were significantly critical of space armies. And, if you focus solely on mainstream American films, that critical lens is non-existent. Although the public is largely misunderstood the critical and satirical elements of Starship Troopers in 1997, the fact that it existed was a milestone.
Starship Troopers showed that a big-budget sci-fi film could deliver action and special effects on a grand scale. It also proved that you can deliver a critical message without anyone noticing. The reason we still talk Starship Troopers 25 years later, it’s not just because we have to keep reminding people of its true message. The big picture is that, without Starship Troopersit’s hard to imagine mainstream science fiction on TV and in movies taking greater thematic risks, especially when it comes to wars fought in space.
Starship Troopers is streaming now on Paramount+.