Starship Troopers should have been a gargantuan hit. With a $100m+ budget and the director behind sci-fi triumphs like RoboCop and Total Recall, the adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel was poised to be a smash hit both financially and critically.
That’s not what went down in 1997.
How Starship Troopers Failed In 1997
We have to understand that the movie-going public was very different in 1997. Films were sold on their stars more than their premises. If you look at the biggest earners of the year, you’ll see movies whose marketing campaigns were structured around their lead actors: Men in Black, Liar Liar, Air Force One, My Best Friend’s Wedding. These movies earned enormous domestic hauls and a big factor was that people showed up to see their favorite movie stars.
Starship Troopers did not have that advantage upon release. Starring a number of fresh-faced actors like Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, and Denise Richards, the movie wasn’t tapped into that selling tool. While the Starship Troopers featured a number of notable character actors like Michael Ironside, Dean Norris, Clancy Brown, and others, there was nobody in the cast that could drive people to see it in a theater. The biggest star the film had was Neil Patrick Harris and he’s in far too little of the movie to center a marketing campaign around. So, people didn’t show up for a movie they felt had no actors to anchor the high concept.
What also hurt Starship Troopers was its widespread critical drubbing. High profile critics like Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin panned the film and saw it only as an empty exercise in sci-fi action. Even audiences at the time seemed displeased with the film, giving it a CinemaScore exit rating of C+. Common criticisms were the wooden acting and the stereotypical story.
There was also a clear desire for blockbuster entertainment at the time to be… well, entertaining. Starship Troopers treats its world and characters very seriously if you take it at face value, and most audiences do just that with the majority of films they see. The satirical approach (which we’ll cover heavily in the second section of this article) didn’t cut through what people saw as a pulpy sci-fi war film. In fact, it’s likely it confused them and added unwanted complexity to something that seemed relatively understandable.
All these reasons contributed to Starship Troopers failing to strike a chord with critics and moviegoers in 1997. But now, over twenty years later, this film is recognized for what it is: an utter triumph.
Why This Sci-Fi Masterpiece Is Now a Deserved Classic
Where do you start with something as abundantly brilliant as Starship Troopers? Let’s start with the factor that was most missed by critics at the time of its release: satire.
Robert Heinlein’s original novel is something of a saber-rattling military piece. Director Paul Verhoeven and writer Ed Neumeier took what was essentially a pro-war story and decided to turn everything about that concept up to 11. By doing this, they deliberately turned the material into a cartoonish, over-the-top satire of itself.
And Starship Troopers is literally too good at what it’s trying to do. By going all-in on the military propaganda action film ethos (and nailing the thrilling spectacle and high emotion of that), it ended up being an unintentionally effective tool of what it was satirizing: fascism. It feels like a movie that was made in the fictional universe its poking fun at. The corny acting, character arcs, and bombastic tone all play perfectly if you understand the movie doesn’t actually believe in the messages it seems to proclaim.
In that way, Starship Troopers is possibly the most cynical mega-budget movie ever made. It’s clear that there was an ability to create a franchise out of this property by playing to the elements that people eventually glommed onto: military sci-fi action. There will always be viewers of satire who don’t see the satire inherent in a piece of satirical material, and they will instead look at the surface and see that as a simple endorsement. This has obviously happened with Starship Troopers – there are definitely people who just enjoy it as a piece of military sci-fi action – but it’s not what’s ensured the film’s legacy as a classic.
But, a big part of its longevity is its success as pure spectacle. Starship Troopers is a go-for-broke effects film, utilizing every possible tool to bring its world to life. From CG animation to physical models to practical puppets, the tactile nature of the movie is undeniable. Every facet of the production design is immaculate and solidifies the specific vision of this sci-fi universe. It’s a world you feel you’re living in, and that’s an enormous aspect of making large scale genre cinema work.
Adding to that sense of grandeur is the score by Basil Poledouris (Conan the Barbarian, RoboCop, The Hunt for Red October). There is a pomp and majesty to the score that sells the emotion of the film’s faux-jingoistic soul. Poledouris treats this world as 100% genuine. The score only adds to the sense that the movie buys what it appears to be selling. And what intensifies that is Poledouris’s score being insanely good. “Klendathu Drop” alone is a cue for the ages. It’s easy to understand why this music could make people think the movie is earnest towards its militaristic trappings.
And of course, there’s Starship Troopers as an action film. In that regard, the movie excels as popcorn fun. The action scenes are intense and ostentatious in the best of ways. Every kill, whether it be a human or the space bug antagonists, is gruesome and gory. If you find that to be a positive in your movie-watching experience, that base pleasure is met at every turn.
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.
As the years have gone by, the audience for Starship Troopers has been able to wise up to what the movie is doing. It’s an incredible feat that it works as both a scathing satire and a piece of pure pulp escapism. Though it wasn’t able to click with the pop culture when it released, it’s a bonafide modern classic now. Time is the only real judge of art, and time has been more than kind to Starship Troopers.