Sunday, April 19, 2015

Would You Like To Know More?

Another April, another Steel City Con over and done with. SCC happens about three times a year, every four months or so, at the Monroeville Convention Center here in Pittsburgh, and I usually make it a point to go to at least one of them. It's sort of like a flea market -- more of a focus on older television and movies, Star Trek, old sitcoms, Dukes of Hazzard and so on. Here's a picture of me with Doug Bradley from Hellraiser. Fortunately, Doug is much friendlier than Pinhead, and I left the con with my skin still intact.

Starship Troopers (1997)

I said a few posts back that I was going to start reviewing science fiction movies here once in a while as well as horror, so I might as well start with one of the best. Starship Troopers takes place in a future that's arguably utopian -- poverty seems to have been eliminated, there's no discrimination based on sex or race. On the other hand, military service is mandatory if you want citizenship and suffrage, and public lashing is still a possible punishment for transgressions against, at the very least, military law. Humans are pushing outward into space and colonizing the solar system, but that has its own risks. Namely the Bugs, giant insects native to the planet Klendathu, who seem to be hostile on sight.

Johnny Rico, scion of a well-off Buenos Aires family, defies his father's wishes and enlists in the military instead of attending university. He wants citizenship, he wants to contribute to society, and he wants to remain close with his friends Carl and Dizzy and his girlfriend Carmen, who are also enlisting. Carmen becomes a cadet pilot and Carl, a telepath, joins Psi Ops, leaving Rico, not a particularly smart human, to join the infantry along with Dizzy, who's carried a torch for him all through high school. Just as a mistake on Rico's part results in the death of another cadet during a training exercise and Rico decides to give up on the military and return home, the Bugs drop an asteroid on -- coincidentally -- Buenos Aires, killing Rico's parents and driving him to put his mistakes behind him and join the war effort as human ships make their way to Klendathu for retaliatory assault on the Bugs' homeworld.

Starship Troopers is probably the most vicious satire of post-9/11 American jingoism and media manipulation ever made, which is a curious thing, because it was made a few years before the World Trade Center attack. And it would never be made today -- of that I'm quite sure. It was originally an unrelated script called Bug Hunt, which was later retooled to tie in with the novel by Robert E. Heinlein. It's an odd sort of adaptation in that it's basically a big middle finger flipped at the book. People who like the book hate this movie -- if they don't just pretend it doesn't exist. Heinlein's political and social views were complicated, to put it lightly, and changed over time. We can at least say that at the time that he wrote Starship Troopers, he made no apologies for the novel's glorification of a military-controlled world government, the installation of which he considered to be the only way to avoid the ultimate annihilation of the human race. The novel was written as a response to what he considered foolish calls for the cessation of nuclear testing.

Director Paul Verhoeven has a different view of war. As a child in the Netherlands during World War II he experienced both constant dangers from Allied bombings and the oppressive hand of the Nazi regime, and it shows in Starship Troopers more than in any of his other films. The main characters are a bunch of vacant-eyed idiots with perfect physiques and pearly white teeth often bared in dazzling smiles, and their love lives and friendships are utterly boring and inconsequential. Verhoeven never told his cast what sort of movie they were in, so the banality comes off as all the more heartfelt on the part of Dina Meyer, Casper Van Dien and the rest. I'm fairly certain a few of the cast are in on the joke -- a young Neil Patrick Harris as Carl, the always fantastic Clancy Brown as a cruel drill sergeant, and Verhoeven regular Michael Ironside as Lieutenant Raczak, one of Rico's teachers, who educates his class on the subject of the "failure of democracy."

The weird thing about this movie is that nobody got it when it first came out. I mean nobody! These days, yes, most critics acknowledge that it was intended as a satire, and whether you liked it or not was independent of that fact, but back in the late 90s, nobody seemed to be able to connect the dots. Reviews at the time almost universally decried the movie as a pro-fascist, gung-ho, unbearably stupid sci-fi action movie. Even The Daily Show (which was a very different show in the late 90s and sometimes did movie reviews) missed the point, which completely baffles me, as they picked up on all the individual elements of the satire but somehow didn't follow any of it to its logical conclusion -- that the humans are the bad guys. We are not supposed to be cheering for them.

The movie's generally misanthropic attitude and anti-war stance are apparent at pretty much every turn. The movie is sprinkled with propaganda videos -- even before the war begins in earnest -- that make it clear what sort of society this is. The guy behind the desk when Rico enlists, who is missing an arm and both his legs, enthusiastically tells him that "the Mobile Infantry made me the man I am today!" When Carl Jenkins shows up again later in the movie as a decorated Psi Ops officer, he's wearing a uniform that's as close to the SS as you can get without the actual armband. By the end of the movie, Earth is sending soldiers in their early teens to Klendathu to be ground into hamburger.

While Heinlein's stance on military force was that it was really the only thing that could, in the end, keep people from tearing each other apart, Verhoeven is of the opinion that people just plain like tearing each other apart and will make any excuse -- defense, necessity, the acquisition of resources, the extension of democratic ideals -- to indulge their violent nature, preferably guilt-free. In this case, it's implied that humans provoked the Bugs to attack in the first place through their aggressive territorial expansion, then used the attack to incite the moral outrage necessary to justify full-scale war, because what else are we going to do? The Bugs have weapons of mass destruction, they attacked us, they hate our freedom and we're gonna show 'em not to mess with us, dag nab it.

Again, this was all written pre-9/11, but when you watch it, it's almost difficult to believe in retrospect. It's equally baffling that no one picked up on any of this stuff. Even knowing that it was written and directed by the same team behind RoboCop, one of the sharpest satires of shallow media culture and violence ever. How did it go over anyone's head? Verhoeven doesn't deal in subtlety. The propaganda videos alone are about as understated as a brick to the goddamn face. I mean, I wonder if there are people out there who think Dr. Strangelove is advocating mutual nuclear annihilation, if they think General Jack D. Ripper is an idealization of the military mind.

You've probably heard that this is a stupid movie. If you know anyone who's read the novel, you've certainly heard that it's a bad movie, because they never shut up about it, nearly twenty years after the fact. Give it a shot for yourself, and then tell me this movie didn't predict a great many unsettling post-millennium developments in media and politics.

Available On: Netflix.