“Starship Troopers”: Critiquing Militarism and Fascism


By David K. Johnson, Ph.D.King’s College

Starship Troopers is a futuristic movie released in 1997. The movie features young teenagers who join the military to fight aliens attacking Earth. On its surface, Starship Troopers is a shallow, poorly acted, sci-fi shoot-’em-up about teenagers blowing up space bugs and getting it on. Indeed, that’s how it was received by most critics in 1997. But there is an additional layer of critique that becomes apparent on careful viewing.

Alien invasion of the Earth.
The movie Starship Troopers deals with the human response to an alien attack on Earth. (Image: Liu zishan/Shuttertsock)

The Premise

In Starship Troopers, an alien insectoid species known as “Arachnids” attacks Earth by throwing asteroids at it. Their first attack destroys Buenos Aires, the hometown of the protagonist, Johnny Rico. In response, he joins the military—along with this friends Carl, Carmen, and Dizzy—to get revenge.

After an initial disastrously unsuccessful invasion of the bug’s home planet, Klendathu, and then some fun times between Johnny and Dizzy, Johnny aids in the capture of a “brain bug,” which is directing the Arachnid’s military operations. The film ends with a military recruitment video that stars Johnny and his friends.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as PhilosophyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Military Violence in Starship Troopers

Johnny says he learned the skills he used to kill a big bug on Planet P playing football. After capturing the brain bug, Sergeant Zim is lifted up on everyone’s shoulders—just like Johnny was when he won the big game at the film’s beginning. The military even calls the intelligence arm of their operation “Games and Theory.”

Johnny’s history teacher decries democracy, saying it “brought our world to the brink of chaos,” and then glorifies the story of how the military took over and established martial-law-and-a-reigning-stability. He says. “Naked force has resolved more issues throughout history than any other factor. The contrary opinion, that violence never solves anything, is wishful thinking at its worst.”

Learn more about aliens in films.

Society in Starship Troopers

Yet it’s that very attitude that dooms the Terran Federation’s invasion of the Arachnid’s home planet. They go in with no strategy, no objective, and no direction other than “you smash the entire area; you kill anything that has more than two legs.” As a result of this militaristic attitude, almost all of the humans are killed. So, it’s not glorifying militarism, but criticizing it.

Think about how society in Starship Troopers is arranged. You can’t vote unless you are a citizen, and only military service can earn you citizenship. You can’t go into politics, pay for school, or even have a baby, unless you’ve served. And non-citizens who dissent are punished in public by receiving lashes. Could this movie be about fascism?

What is Fascism?

Fascism is an authoritarian political philosophy that suggests a nation functions best when all of its citizens are forced to align with a single political party that requires unquestioning loyalty to the state, its military, and its authoritarian dictator. Historically, fascists fiercely suppress opposing parties and ideas, and brainwash their populace with pro-state, pro-party propaganda.

Military men marching.
Fascist governments are highly militarized and regimented. (Image: Ruslan Kalnitsky/ Shutterstock)

Under fascism, all citizens must serve the military, either directly or indirectly, as the military is seen as the only way to ensure security. Correspondingly, fascism rejects the notion that violence is morally problematic. Instead, it sees war and imperialism as a way of strengthening the nation.

Fascism in Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers is a movie about fascists. The Federation’s flags and symbols, the uniforms—the black boots and the pointy hats—even the architecture, everything looks like it came out of 1930s Germany. And those military recruitment clips and news stories? The opening shot comes right out of Triumph of the Will, a 1935 propaganda film ordered by Hitler himself. This film is about Nazis!

The Federation even treats the bugs like the Nazis treated the Jews. It tries to exterminate them, uses them for medical experimentation, and refuses to entertain the possibility that they’re sentient.

Learn more about good versus evil in science fiction.

The Deplorable Characters in the Movie

Dizzy is at peace with dying from her injuries merely because she got to sleep with Johnny one time. Carl turns into a cold-hearted strategist more than willing to sacrifice his friends for strategic advantage. The only progress Johnny makes as a character is coming to see himself as a grunt whose only use is to die for the Federation.

The truth, the Robert Heinlein novel which inspired the film, was actually overtly pro-fascist. But it was the intention of both screenwriter Edward Neumeier and director Paul Verhoeven to turn the meaning of the original on its head.

Critiquing American Fascism

Verhoeven had grown up in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, and was disturbed by some of the fascist tendencies he had started to see in places like Texas in 1990s America. You might think the idea of fascism in America is ridiculous, but the fact that, in 1997, critics missed the satire and thought Starship Troopers was celebrating militarism, may have vindicated Verhoeven’s worries.

When criticism comes in the form of satire, those being criticized often can’t detect the sarcasm. Nazis would have thought that Starship Troopers was a movie about the beautiful future of the Third Reich. Perhaps Americans were unable to realize that we were being mocked, precisely because Starship Troopers’ pro-militarism hit a little too close to home.

Common Questions about Starship Troopers and Fascism

Q: What is the basic premise of Starship Troopers?

In Starship Troopers, an alien insectoid species known as “Arachnids” attacks Earth by throwing asteroids at it. The people of Earth react by joining the military and destroying the aliens.

Q: What does Starship Troopers say about violence?

In Starship Troopers, the characters glorify the military and violence, and that violence and naked force are the supreme authority from which all other authority is derived.

Q: What is Starship Troopers really about?

Starship Troopers is a movie about the Nazi ideology. From the flags and symbols to the uniforms, and even the architecture, everything looks like it came out of 1930s Germany. The military recruitment clips and news stories are influenced by Triumph of the Will, a 1935 propaganda film ordered by Hitler himself. The Federation even treats the bugs like the Nazi’s treated the Jews.

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