We really hope the war ends soon. For one, we want our troops home and safe, as soon as possible. But, as an on-the-side benefit, we'd really like to put an end to those damn war movies that keep coming out. From dramas like Lions For Lambs and The Hurt Locker, to gritty documentaries like Restrepo and No End In Sight, to savagely critical works like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Starship Troopers, it seems like more and more sandy and depressing war movies are taking over our cine-
Yes, Starship Troopers. The campy anti-war satire about a race from a distant, desert land, who out of nowhere strikes a civilian target in a way we didn't think was possible, leading to heavy-handed patriotic propaganda, and a headlong rush into a war with a poorly thought-out strategy that results in a quagmire. You don't have to agree with the message to get that it's clearly a satirical send-up of the War on Terror. If anything, it's too on-the-nose.
What's that, you say? The movie was made in 1997, four years before 9/11? Hmmm. That is a problem. We mean, we're not saying Paul Verhoeven traveled forward in time and then traveled back to film a commentary on a future war (because that would be an absolutely HORRIBLE waste of time travel), but... well, yeah, maybe we're saying he did that. Look how they line up:
In The Film:
The movie follows Johnny Rico, a dumb jock from a weirdly Aryan-looking Buenos Aires of the future, as he signs up for the Mobile Infantry to protect the human race from the Arachnids, hive-minded, insectoid aliens. The war Johnny is training for is purely theoretical for the first 50 minutes of the film and then, suddenly, war is declared. What's the trigger? An asteroid strike on Johnny's home city of Bueno Aires, which destroys the city and kills over eight and a half million people. This, for the humans, is an absolute shock to the system, a blow made all the more devastating by the fact that the Arachnids don't have a colony within fifty thousand light years of Earth.
In space terms, that's this much.
That they shot an asteroid from halfway across the galaxy and managed to hit, not only another planet, but the planet they actually aimed at, is not just impressive, its goddamned miraculous. Especially considering that the Arachnids don't seem to have much knowledge of math and interstellar travel -- their species spreads to other planets by shooting their spores into space and hoping for the best. In fact it's so amazing that it's either a plot hole or a surprisingly subtle plot point- there's a theory among Starship Troopers fans that the attack was either a random collision that the government used as an excuse for war, or a deliberate attack by the government on its own people to justify attacking the bugs.
Either way, humanity promptly loses its shit and declares war on all bugs everywhere.
"Well this seems easy enough."
In Real Life:
You can see right away how the plot mimics real events. Before 9/11, the threat of Islamic terror was lingering out there, but wasn't immediate -- just like the bugs in the movie. Then there's an attack on a civilian target that comes as just as much a shock to the system, as it demonstrated a capability no one thought the terrorists had. The US promptly lost its shit and declared war on the very notion of terrorism, entering into an armed conflict against an abstract concept like only America can.
"And after we beat Terrorism, we're gonna beat Drugs! Then we're going to take on Sadness!"
There are some crucial differences between the movie and real life. For one thing, plus, in war time here on Real Earth, Denise Richards is probably the last person we'd call for support, (assuming the war was not being fought by boners).
"We need at least six more boners to the frontline. Richards, get out there!"
Also, 9/11 was obviously not some random coincidence or inside job. Sure, in a shitty movie, fans will wildly speculate all the time and talk about how the government attacked Buenos Aires on purpose and blamed the bugs, but no one in real life would look at 9/11 and whip up a bunch of crazy, nonsensical, conspiracy theories about "what really happened, right?
In The Film:
The humans quickly mobilize to destroy the Arachnids, sending their space fleet to the Arachnid homeworld of Klendathu. They recklessly charge in, with little thought given to tactics or battle plans. And so what? The enemy is bugs. Who needs tactics?
"I need a really big magnifying glass, stat!"
Well, the bugs have other ideas. Turns out there is one breed of Arachnid that can unload a huge, steaming pile of blue plasma right on into space. Though they don't have sophisticated aiming capabilities, just squirting plasma upwards makes short work of a few human spaceships, while the Arachnid foot soldiers for the Mobile Infantry to retreat in panic from an enemy who was better prepared, better armed and in greater numbers than they expected.
"The giant, armored bugs are defending themselves somehow!"
But this movie is crazy, it was directed by the guy who directed Showgirls. No real military would be as misinformed and unprepared as the military in a move about fighting massive, shrieking bug-monsters, right?
In Real Life:
Operation Anaconda was the first major engagement of the War On Terror. The idea was to attack a force of around 200 Al Qaeda soldiers in the Shahi-Kot Valley from the west, causing them to flee into the waiting arms of more US soldiers in the east, in what's known as a "Hammer and Anvil" strategy.
Just one problem: Al Qaeda did not flee, but stood their ground.
Just one other problem: There were not 200 enemy soldiers in the valley; there were up to five times that amount.
Just one further other problem: the US military planners had assumed the enemy were armed with machine guns; they actually had mortars, rifles and rockets, and the planners assumed that Al Qaeda were in the valley, (they were in caves in the mountains surrounding the valley), and a convoy broke off from the main "TF Hammer" force to reach an observation point they'd been assigned to. And an AC-130, which was supposed to be providing firing and recon support during the battle thought they were an Al Qaeda convoy and attacked them. This friendly fire battle resulted in the first casualty of the operation.
The rest of TF Hammer came under heavy mortar fire from the prepared and entrenched Al Qaeda, and their air support turned out to consist of six bombs, and their attack didn't actually make it into the valley, meaning that TF Anvil, arriving via helicopter, did not close the trap as had been intended, but instead found a trap closing around them, as they were attacked by an enemy who was better prepared, better armed, in greater numbers, and from a better-fortified position than they expected.
No word on whether they had massive pincers and exoskeletons.
In The Film:
After being unpleasantly surprised by the Arachnids' willingness to fight back and defend their home, the human military in Starship Troopers come up with a new battle plan: "Fleet glasses the planet, MI mops up." Basically, rather than wading in and fighting whatever they find, they first bombard the planet with explosives, making it easier for the Mobile Infantry to take out the survivors. We see one of these aerial bombardments in action, not on the planet they invaded originally, but on a completely different planet called Tango Urilla. The jet fighters fly overhead and drop bombs, the bugs scream in terror and try to run away, but get blown to pieces in their thousands.
Space travel has obviously not yet equipped them with super-nukes.
Johnny and his squad then walk in and successfully wipe out the remnants, before being sent off to yet another planet called Planet P, where the rest of the film takes place.
In Real Life:
Oh come on. You already know the real-life version of this, it's part of America's national language by now. Basically, after being unpleasantly surprised by the enemy's willingness to fight back in Afghanistan, the American military came up with a new battle plan for their invasion of Iraq: Shock and Awe. Essentially, they bombarded Baghdad with explosives, with the intention of demoralizing Saddam Hussein's military out of actually fighting.
In both cases, that's a disastrous first engagement as a result of underestimating the enemy, and an attempt to compensate next time around with heavy aerial bombardment.
Also? Here are those planets the military attacked in Troopers...
...aaand here we are...
In The Film:
Now, here's where we have to make something completely clear: the whole point of Starship Troopers is that the humans may not be the good guys. Earth's government has clearly been taken over by Fascism, and the propaganda is clearly meant to be a satirical mockery of wartime culture in the same way that Verhoven's Robocop was meant to be a mockery of the greed and violence of the Reagan 80s. When we say that Verhoven accidentally made a War on Terror parody with Starship Troopers, we're not saying that that post-9/11 America was just as bad as the Nazi uniform-wearing protagonists of that movie. It'd be like saying the Reagan administration literally turned us all into murderous psychopaths and cyborgs.
So in the film, events are broken up by propaganda newsreels which give an insight into the human society depicted in Starship Troopers, and which drop several heavy hints that these aren't actually the good guys that we're rooting for here. One of these hints comes in the form of casual prisoner abuse. Check it out at 0:50:
Yeah, that's Doogie Howser showing you how to wound and properly kill an Arachnid soldier. An enemy combatant that they have captured, and keep in a cage, and mutilate and execute live on camera. Then, look at what they do to this brain bug they catch at the end:
"After tireless research, our top scientists have discovered that the bugs hate this."
That thing outwitted the humans earlier in the movie, it's capable of planning and reasoning...
It even has a face! That or it walks everywhere backwards.
And there they are, shoving huge sharp things into its mouth(?) and broadcasting the footage with evident glee. It's only shown briefly, but these scenes of bug torture are there to tweak the audience. We're supposed to feel a twinge there -- even though this is the enemy, the good guys are still torturing their captives, without a second thought.
In Real Life:
Remember the Abu Ghraib scandal? Sure you do: that was when those photos surfaced of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners pretty horribly. It was a dark time for us, and the photos are pretty grim, so rather than show them here, we will instead show you these spoofs from the sitcom Arrested Development:
Of course, unlike the folks in Starship Troopers, we, the public, were horrified by this, (because we're real people, and have never been and will never be directed by Paul Verhoeven to do anything).
This is where our assertion that Paul Verhoven is a time traveler starts to look pretty good. If you were doing a movie about war in general, or doing a satire of any previous war, why would you include a bit about how the supposed Good Guys treat their prisoners at all? There's so much more prominent stuff you can cover. But if you're satirizing the War on Terror? You'd need to bring up the prisoner thing at some point. Which is weird because, again, we're talking about a movie that came out four years before the War on Terror and one which was directed by the guy who made Showgirls.
By the way, it's a minor point, but as we said, the whole latter part of Starship Troopers revolves around the humans trying to locate and capture the elusive brain bug. It became a major objective for the whole war effort. And they eventually do find it, hiding in a cave. A hole, you might say. With a bunch of critters that look like spiders. A... spider hole?
In The Film:
The universe of Starship Troopers is saturated with propaganda, mainly dispensed by the newsreels, of which there are six in the movie, (here, here, here, here, here, and here). All of Verhoeven's most insultingly heavy-handed satire happens in these newsreels. They're all aggressively patriotic, so patriotic that it almost borders on strongly encouraged racism.
"The only good bug is a dead bug!"- Actual line from movie.
In Real Life:
Of course, we don't have a Fascist government, and if the American government did release cheerleading newsreels, people would just point and laugh. No, in the real world, effective propaganda has to come from someplace other than the government.
Sure, we could point out the Fox News cheerleading of the war effort, and the anchors saying the US military was simply trying to "spread love" to the Middle East:
But that's not as openly goofy and stupid as the propaganda in Starship Troopers. No, to find that, we have to go to the world of country music. Or, to quote Charlie Daniels, "This ain't no rag, it's a flag, and we don't wear it on our heads." Enjoy:
Or, we could go with the even less subtle Tobey Keith tune, "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue." Sample lyrics:
And the eagle will fly and it's gonna be hell,
When you hear Mother Freedom start ringing her bell.
And it'll feel like the whole wide world is raining down on you.
Ah, brought to you, courtesy of the red, white and blue.
Oh, justice will be served and the battle will rage:
This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage.
An' you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.
'Cos we'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way.
Now compare those videos to the newsreels from Starship Troopers. Holy shit, they make the fictional propaganda look even-handed and intelligent.
"My only regret is that I could not fit more flags on my stage."
In The Film:
The film does not end with the end of the war. It doesn't end with a peace treaty, or the bugs surrendering.
No, the film ends with Neil Patrick Harris explaining to the main character that, now that they have a brain bug, they'll soon be able to understand how the Arachnids think, and confidently predicting that this is the turning point of the war. This is followed by a final recruitment ad that ends the movie.
But not before that guard from The Shawshank Redemption saves the day.
They may say they're winning, but the final message is the government desperately begging for soldiers, with key phrases like "we need soldiers!" and the slightly desperate-sounding reminder that "Service guarantees citizenship!"
In other words, the truth is that either the humans are fighting a losing battle against the Arachnids, or they're stuck in an unpleasant stalemate: the humans too technologically advanced to be beaten back, the Arachnids too entrenched and determined to give up. The optimism of the main characters at the end of the movie amounts to nothing more than a premature, presumptuous, and ultimately false declaration of victory.
In Real Life:
Seriously now, is it just us? The events of the movie match up beat for beat, exactly the way an anti-war satirist would draw it up. But even weirder, we can't find another war that matches up as well (that is, one a non-time traveling Paul Verhoven could have had in mind). Vietnam? That war didn't kick off with a sudden attack on a civilian target. World War II? That didn't turn into an unexpected quagmire. Neither did the first gulf war (ie Operation Desert Storm). Nothing else matches up.
See, that's the thing about Starship Troopers -- to this day, lots of people don't realize it's a satire. They think it's just a really shitty action movie that does a bad job of building sympathy for the protagonists. The reason so many people don't get the satire is because at the time it wasn't clear what war it was satirizing ("A quagmire in the desert, triggered by an attack on the homeland? Shit, when has that happened?") and that's because the war it was satirizing hadn't happened yet.
Because Paul Verhoven is a time traveler