27 MAY 2004
The future will possess no fewer challenges than the present trans-cultural conflicts the world is currently witness to; but it may involve larger invertebrates than we are accustomed to in our kitchens and corners. Instead of looking to history for clues as to the indicators, conditions and implications of such violence, let's glance over our shoulders at a cinematic interpretation of a science fiction story from the past century.
Starship Troopers is Paul Verhoeven's take on Robert A. Heinlein's novel about a united Earth at war with bugs from another planet. A recruitment commercial within the movie describes the bugs as the “ruthless enemy with only one mission: survival of their species no matter what the cost...” Convinced, Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) joins the military with his girlfriend, Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), and his best friend, Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) to rid the universe of this latest threat to humanity. In doing so, Rico hopes to earn his citizenship by completing his commitment to Federal Service.
Although it was released in 1997 (the sequel due out in 2004), the metaphoric similarities to today's post 9/11 hyper-militarism bring a cringe. Starship Troopers may be seen as the most troubling form of propaganda from a nation at the height of its power, or as a critique of the same state struggling to maintain hegemony. The future is not multicultural or pluralist, but strikingly young, strong, white, and very American. Johnny, Carmen, and Carl come from Argentina but speak, act, and look very much like characters from Buffy, Beverly Hills 90210 or Dawson's Creek.
This advertised homogeneity -despite current and projected demographic realities- startles. Pale-faced, clad in black leather, and in the mood for a fight, the allusions are blatant and reflect a frightening iconography. The politics, the weapons, the attire all reference the aesthetic chic-ness of Nazi-ism. How does this correspond to the neo-crusades of Christian fundamentalism, or to American imperialism generally? Starship troopers or storm troopers? Heinlein's analogies, as filtered through Verhoeven's distopian vision, offer very salient warnings to us -about us.
Verhoeven suggests the possibility of increased stratification and conflict, not because of Black Flag resistant bugs-on-steroids, but because of neo-fascist politics and totalitarian ideologues. The ruthless enemy is not some 24th century alien species hell bent on colonizing the earth with its larvae, but the anti-humanist forces at work today. Is it so hard to reason with enormous -ravenous- beetles? Is there really no better way to deal with conflict than through violence?
Template for the future, Hollywood parody, cultural critique: as Total Recall and Robo-Cop also demonstrate, Verhoeven is quite comfortable weaving the ambiguities of the contemporary condition into his futuristic tales. The result produces a disquieting anxiety that demands a second viewing: its multiple layers encourage us to interrogate our present and be more vigilant agents of our own societies.
Adam Christopher Snow © 2004