Writing in Giant Freakin Robot, Drew Dietsch recounts that the now-classic movie Starship Troopers was originally a dud at the box office, as well as a critical failure. Crowds looking for big-name stars didn’t find any in the film adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s novel, and critics thumped it as poorly acted, empty entertainment. Roger Ebert, for example, judged it to be “the most violent kiddie movie ever made.”
What changed our view of this now-beloved classic? The cult movie’s secret, says Dietsch, is that both audiences and critics slowly realized the movie committed that most grievous of sins in cinema: overachieving. Over the years, fans recognized Starship Troopers as an over-the-top satire of militarism.
For example, when Earth declares war on Klendathu, a planet populated by giant bug-like creatures, humans prove their patriotism by stomping on real bugs. I laughed out loud at that scene. (A number of English kicked dachshunds in the streets of London at the outbreak of World War I, and the US Congressional cafeteria changed the name of French Fries to Freedom Fries after France declined to join the US in attacking Iraq.)
Dietsch insightfully points out how the film’s characterizations are actually right on target:
When it comes to the widely criticized acting, that viewpoint seems to miss the forest for the trees. These characters are written to be iterations of the kinds of heroes you’d see in classic propaganda stories. Their supposed vapidity is essential to the larger satire at work, but the characters and actors themselves can’t play the roles that way or the picture would come off as disingenuous. By committing to these cardboard vessels for ridiculous propaganda, the cast is totally succeeding at being the exact characters this movie needs.
The result is a powerful statement against mindless jingoism. One of the most gripping scenes comes toward the end. Colonel Carl Jenkins, a psychic from the Terran Federation’s Ministry of Paranormal Warfare, approaches a dying enemy bug and reads the creature’s thoughts:
Look… they got it.
What’s it thinking, Colonel?
The troops cheer at the news the enemy is not just physically broken, but psychically as well. That cheer sent a cold ripple down my back. What a vivid display of the ugliness of triumphalism.