AT FIRST BLUSH Starship Troopers appears to have only a superficial connection with World War II. In the 1997 film, transports carry elite troops across long distances to a hostile shore, where the warriors clamber into landing craft that carry them into battle against an enemy who neither gives quarter nor surrenders. That sounds like the U.S. Marine invasions of Tarawa and Iwo Jima. But Starship Troopers is set in the late 23rd century. The hostile shore is an enemy planet. And the enemy are gigantic bugs.
However, Starship Troopers contains many elements that smack strongly of fascism, the dominant Axis ideology. The very first scene shows hundreds of Mobile Infantry—the starship troopers—at attention in a stance identical to SS troopers at the Nuremberg rallies. Their uniforms closely resemble those of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Much of the rhetoric sounds fascist, as when Sky Marshal Dienes (Bruce Gray) stands at a lectern in a scene that looks very much like Hitler addressing the Reichstag, and declares war on the Arachnids (the bugs) to an enthusiastic crowd: “We must…ensure that human civilization, not insect, dominates this galaxy now and always!”
Starship Troopers appears redolent of fascism because director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Edward Neumeier consciously set out to make a film about fascism. The idea originated with Neumeier, who had cowritten Verhoeven’s earlier RoboCop (1987). Told by “liberal friends” that RoboCop was “fascist,” Neumeier reflected that action films are inherently fascist, so why not create one that made the connection explicit? The concept appealed to Verhoeven, perhaps because he had spent his early childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland. And Starship Troopers would be a good vehicle for such an effort, based as it was upon a 1959 Robert Heinlein novel that was widely regarded as crypto-fascist.
The first shot in Starship Troopers is a visual quote from Triumph of the Will, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda masterpiece. A subsequent sequence introducing the main characters—Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibañez (Denise Richards), and Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer)—on their last day of high school also introduces the basic philosophy of their world. “This year in history, we talked about the failure of democracy,” teacher Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside) says. “We talked about the veterans, how they took control and imposed the stability that has lasted for generations since.” Disillusionment with democracy was one of the main attributes of fascism. In the film, only military veterans may vote: they are citizens, while nonveterans are merely “civilians.” Military service has so thoroughly indoctrinated the veterans that, for all practical purposes, the world government is a one-party police state.
The high school chums soon enlist, and when war breaks out with the Arachnids, they are in the thick of the fight. Rasczak, who has reentered active duty, serves as the platoon leader of Mobile Infantrymen Rico and Flores, while overhead Ibañez pilots a starship. Rico, Flores, and Ibañez are gorgeous—the 23rd century equivalent of the ideal Aryan youth—and they enthusiastically embrace a worldview that accepts, indeed celebrates, life as violent struggle: another core fascist principle. Moreover, the protagonists willingly subordinate their individual identities to the State, a key fascist tenet. As Italian dictator Benito Mussolini said, “There is no concept of the State which is not fundamentally a concept of life.”
The film also makes clear that the State controls the media. Frequent clips from the “Federal Network” supply exposition for the story, and illustrate how the society works. For example, in a triumph of order over the discredited liberal “coddling” of criminals, a man is accused of murder in the morning, convicted that afternoon, and executed—live on television—that evening. One could multiply the parallels between fascism and Starship Troopers almost indefinitely.
Verhoeven and Neumeier deliberately crafted Starship Troopers to make its worldview seem appealing. “I wanted to do something more than just a movie about giant bugs,” Verhoeven said in an interview. “I tried to seduce the audience to join [Starship Troopers’] society, but then ask, ‘What are you really joining up for?’” Some critics who got the satirical point nevertheless worried that a younger audience would not—that naïve viewers would embrace this fascist world, much as those of similar age did in the 1930s. Indeed, the film’s success in depicting the the allure of fascism is what makes it an aid to understanding World War II, for we have long been so appalled by fascism that it is difficult to see the mass appeal the ideology once enjoyed.
Some critics, indeed, mistook Starship Troopers as a celebration of fascism. In the DVD commentary, Verhoeven and Neumeier seem a bit surprised that anyone could believe such a thing.
But the filmmakers reserve their main scorn for Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel, who concluded his review of Starship Troopers with the words: “We’re looking at a happily fascist world. Maybe that’s the movie’s final, deadpan joke. Maybe it’s saying that war inevitably makes fascists of us all. Or—best guess—maybe the filmmakers are so lost in their slambang visual effects that they don’t give a hoot about the movie’s scariest implications.”
This draws a derisive chuckle from the movie men because, of course, fascism is exactly the film’s subject. Moreover, they add, Schickel got its thesis exactly right: “War makes fascists of us all.” Thus, Starship Troopers does not just satirize fascism. It also warns about its continued appeal in times of strife.