Oct 6, 2015

Paul Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers" (1999): Revelation of the Bimbo

I knew that I needed to watch this movie when I heard it described as a satire that most people probably misunderstood as a failed attempt at a conventional Hollywood sci-fi action flick. That intrigued me, and indeed I was not disappointed: it is exactly that, a brilliant dark satire of propaganda and mass society. Let's look at it in some more detail though, and also discuss some of the ambiguities it presents, and where it possibly misfires.

Verhoeven's films have a sense of the absurd, the grotesque, and an impulsive child-like equanimity towards the "madness" of the world/reality. It's kind of "shallow-deep," perhaps-- things are presented with a kind of ironic shoulder-shrug-- "Oh well, here's how it is, folks... I didn't make this mess.. Don't blame me.." But behind that "indifference" is a kind of social critique or questioning. There's no use being maudlin or sentimental about our situation, and yet, look at this horror here... and here.. And then go back to munching on your popcorn, I guess.

In a way perhaps it's similar to the dry humor of "Office Space" or something like that, just on a more extreme end of the spectrum-- presenting more bombastic images of Hell, rather than the quotidian everyday version, but with a similar lack of cues for the audience-- leaving them hanging there in the uncomfortable wake of some new wretchedness. Apparently Verhoeven's childhood neighborhood was accidentally bombed by the Allies during WWII, and the destruction stopped right at the edge of his street. That seems like a good way to develop a dark, stoical worldview.

But as it is said, there's a small audience for dark satire. Most people coming to Verhoeven's film would be looking for their fantasy archetypes to be fulfilled, with somewhat less interest in being asked to look critically at themselves and their society. Perhaps the film might "wake up" a small number, or help them to, but many would be made uncomfortable. As he and the writer admit in the commentary, they did not always make the most commercially palatable choices. I have the sense that the marketing department, at least, chose to promote it as a conventional movie, probably largely on the basis of special effects and spectacle. I'd think the producers must have known what they were getting though, and for some reason they were okay with that. Perhaps they share some of Verhoeven's views, or chose him specifically because they wanted this tone for the movie, and knew he could provide it. Or, perhaps they just had certain bullet points they needed to include, and let him have free reign outside that list. The possibility of that last is suggested because there seems to be a certain amount of "programming" and "conditioning" in the movie, such as the mixed-gender military shower scene, "coincidentally" just a few years before female soldiers would become a major push in the real world. Although Verhoeven himself is very gung-ho in favor of that form of "feminism" anyway.

One possible weak point in the conception strikes me, or at least an area that's bound to lose most of the audience, even if they "got" the satire in Act I. The alien Bugs work well in the intro as a comic sendup of war propaganda, of the typical demonization of the alien "Other"--- those inhuman beasts we must fight, and who give us (as empty "mass men") a sense of our own identity (we are not them, we are us.) But, as Act II comes and we meet the Bugs, although a reporter suggests that perhaps we provoked them, the image we get is that yes, the Bugs really are the Demons the propaganda said they were. Horrific, unreasoning monsters. They're not given any "humanizing" qualities, except perhaps toward the end, the Brain-Bug has some sort of helpless infant/animal quality that inspires sympathy.

Thus, my reading is that, what we are seeing in the "true propaganda" of Act II is actually a kind of visual manifestation of the psyches of the propagandized soldiers. That is, obviously Verhoeven is talking about our own world, our own fascist states and human warfare, and our enemies are not monstrous Bugs. (Unless you believe the propaganda.) And so, the comic send-up of the intro is sort of maintained, for those who can clue in to this sense of the absurd. These soldiers have succumbed to fascist propaganda, and now we are inside their delusional worldview. There are just some small chinks in the mental armor where light gets through, such as the reporter's comment, or the stark reality of the war itself, as they and their friends get maimed or killed. But the soldiers numbly go on, or even get more gung-ho, rather than question their sense of reality. It's darkly comic that the villains are so overwhelmingly villainous, as a poke at the Manichaean (dualistic) worldview that the soldiers and society have been brainwashed into believing.

Nevertheless, Act II invites the "conventional" audience, that came to have a conventional good time, to take the movie at face value as pro-human and anti-giant Bug. And start rooting for the dog-like fascists, who are at least human, and very attractive (except for the mutilated elders.) Watched in that light, it would play like a vapid B-movie. Act One is pretty clear I think that it's satire, what with the "Fed Net" heavy-handed propaganda videos, showing children stomping on cockroaches to "do their part" and other absurdities. But as the movie progresses, there's enough "seriousness" to the characters that one might be unsure how to take it. Especially for those who have a guileless, credulous view of authority and society.

Still it's amazing to think that many critics missed the point at the time of the movie's release, and wrote editorials accusing Verhoeven of promoting fascism and neo-Nazism rather than lambasting it. Could these well-schooled, well-spoken critics really be so dense? I can imagine young people and naifs missing the point, but columnists for the Washington Post? (Their editorial was called "Goosestepping at the Movies.") More likely to me is that the WaPo, a known hotbed of Intelligence, took offense at the warning against fascism, including the American version. And perhaps especially the portrayal of "Carl" by Doogie Howser/Neil Patrick Harris, as a promising young man who is himself promoted into Intelligence, and quickly becomes a cold Machiavellian figure, careless of the lives of his friends and preaching an ends-justify-the-means philosophy.

As brilliant as the movie is as a critique of war propaganda (and US propaganda generally, since there's always an Enemy Other, even in "peacetime"), it does necessarily remain at a pretty simplistic level geopolitically. And who can blame the film-makers --- they're already doing some complicated maneuvers, and losing most of the audience. Nevertheless, even as ST mocks military brainwashing, it suggests that the surface level narrative of the Human-Bug war (and thus by analogy the narrative of actual historic and current wars) is more or less what it appears to be on the surface. Whereas, in many real wars, the various pawns (soldiers, civilians) are not aware of the actual shape of the chessboard, or what ultimate geopolitical machinations are bringing them to clash. (To be fair, there is that hint from the reporter that the humans are the aggressors; but this is still a very 2-D view of the chessboard.)

What they are told is just an excuse, propaganda. Both sides are fed propaganda, and so they fight. But the real aims and ends of the propaganda feeders may be quite different from the ostensible ones. For the most part, Verhoeven's movie accepts the idea that the leaders are identical with their people, with no shadowy covert agendas.

Well, except for the Carl character. Carl is covert and shadowy, and reveals toward the end (while dressed in Stasi-like black trench coat) that he has been using soldiers as pawns, for aims they're unaware of. However, these aims are for the good of their "team," overall, and thus half-way accepable. They are not purely for Carl and his class alone. They are anti-Bug.

Verhoeven's Bimbo Feminism (Biminism?)

While watching, I thought perhaps the movie's feminist utopianism might be part of the satire as well. For example, the beautiful actress Denise Richards is shown practically giggling, sliding down a banister with another gorgeous pal, and running into the cockpit of a starship to take command (or sub-command rather) --- seemingly so vacuous and incapable, so like a schoolgirl, that I thought it might be a send-up as well. But no, incredibly enough, according to Verhoeven in his commentary, he meant it as pro-feminist, to show women could be in these roles. I imagine some women could indeed, but this actress seemed poorly cast, or poorly directed, to sell that idea.

Perhaps Verhoeven is saying that even women who appear very ditsy can be in such macho social roles? If so, he seems frankly a bit insane, if that's what he really believes. Some women, just as some men, seem ill-suited to be fighter pilots --- to state the obvious. His commentary is filled with these supposedly pro-woman sentiments --- they should go for careers, not men, since they can always get a man later, he says. What, when they're old and bitter and discontented? Hard to believe he actually believes this stuff, and isn't just a propagandist himself for a destructive ideology being foisted on the masses by the elites --- but perhaps he is just one of the "right-brained dupes" that mean well but are terribly, terribly wrong --- as Jay Dyer claims many in the creative classes are. "True Believers" of toxic ideologies, that they then sell in film, music, etc.

However, as I said, this particular item backfired, since I doubt anyone buys her as a faux-man. Surely it couldn't be that Verhoeven was being subtly subversive --- that he was directed to include feminist propaganda, and "obeyed" by showing how ridiculous such sentiments are when taken to the extreme? But that would mean his commentary was also an act...

One final point: while it seems all to the good to lambast fascist propaganda--- who could object? --- it may be that the long-term gameplan of such a movie is to lay (one small part of) the groundwork for a transition away from the nation-state. I'm not saying that in itself is good or bad, just that it may be a covert agenda (or propaganda) of this movie --- since movies, in terms of their sociological effects, are considered part of long-term conditioning (see Jacques Ellul, "Propaganda.") And we know that some elites view the nation-state as a great evil, and have been and are working toward a one-world government (see Carrol Quigley, "Tragedy and Hope.")

Then again, who says fascist nation-state propaganda isn't compatible with one-world government? See Orwell's 1984, with its endless manufactured war between two superpowers...


  1. Well, well, well...Reading this constitutes the fully body of my commitment to digesting something intellectual, today.

    Your commentary on the movie in this article was actually more interesting than the movie, itself, as my brain forces me to conjure up a memory of it.

    When I go to see a movie, I just tend to watch it, and not try to analyze it - unlike so many other instances in life where I deliberately proceed to picks the nits of something apart.

    The movie was a rather cheesy film, if I do say so, myself. I remember being very disappointed in it. I didn't hate it. Rather, I simply didn't like the way that they went about giving us such a half-ass and cheesy take on what should have been a massive exercise in science-fiction filming at its best.

    But, then again, maybe it was just, exactly that, and I am just the sole soul standing by the grave of its finish with a bouquet of sour grapes.

    I wanted to love this movie. I really and truly did.

    But, alas, I did not.

    Your commentary above makes me think about the United States' interaction on the world stage, of late, with Russia. Our foreign policy towards Russia is, in my considered opinion, one predicated more upon propaganda than reality. In essence, the Russians are the bugs.

    But, why in the Hell I am sitting here at this early hour of the morning on a Sunday subjecting myself to Tim Rock's latest diatribe intellectuelle about a movie, God only knows. Maybe it has something to do with me being too damned tired, last night, to try and tackle such intellectual prose on the subject at hand.

    I will say this for you, young Mister Rocks - You sure do speak with heft! You're one smart cookie. Much smarter than me.

    I applaud your professorial punditry, even as I mourn at the funeral of time forever lost, time that you could have spent drawing. Even as you educate us with words, you stare our eyes - eyes that were expecting - nay, hoping for - so much more.

    You are cruel in your hidden agenda to avoid drawing. I withdraw, now, to treat my eye wounds with food that my mount and my stomach conspire to force upon me. If you want to talk about fascism, the whole conspiracy that evolves around pangs of hunger, that relationship between my stomach, my mouth, and the world's food supply, now there's a war worth talking about.

  2. Damn it, my secret is out.. you've discovered my "hidden agenda to avoid drawing"..! LOL

    I'm not really sure what the case is with Russia myself. About the only thing I could say for sure is that the public story is probably filled with misinformation and obfuscation. Likewise with Isis and terrorism, a lot of alt media sources allege that Western intelligence shapes much of that narrative to suit its own purposes.