This column is an experiment in writing about film: what if, instead of freely choosing which parts of the film to address, I select three different, arbitrary time codes (in this case and for future columns, the 10-minute, 40-minute, and 70-minute mark), freeze the frames, and use that as a guide to writing about the film, keeping the commentary as close to possible to the frames themselves? No compromise: the film must be stopped at these time codes. Constraint as a form of freedom. Feel free to pick apart the frames even further in the comments.
And so to our first installment.
Starship Troopers (1997, dir. Paul Verhoeven)
The warrior, Spartan game of retro-future football, as two players vie for the ball, the one in blue diving into the crowd, the other one in a mid-air somersault, like a frozen moment in a circus act. Classic Verhoeven framing and tightly-choreographed chaos. The movie is full of action and violence, and yet not for one moment do we believe that it approximates reality. This artificiality is the movie’s great strength, as opposed to the faux-documentary hyper-realism of Saving Private Ryan (1998), Black Hawk Down (2001), or The Hurt Locker (2008). In this frame, the FIGHT banner hanging on the back wall comments on the very action we see. A satire of fascism, or an endorsement? And then the prominently-placed, ultra-lit endorsements, including AT&T. Product placement, or a mocking of product placement? Verhoeven has it both ways. The tightly-controlled alignment of the color blue, leading our eye to the lower right quadrant: GIANTS. The artificial crowd, in this frozen moment so clearly extras, that the fact they are extras seems to be the point. Forget realism, in whose dark muck we trudge through every day. Starship Troopers is an exaggerated, elongated style of realism, as were the early films of Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Brian De Palma.
The iconography of fascism, ambiguously toyed with in the film. A crane shot, the soldiers the size of toy soldiers. The bright, natural sunlight, casting early morning shadows, towards screen right. Sgt. Zim (Clancy Brown), stands atop the incline, barking instructions for the simulated combat training that is about to begin: “When the game’s over, gentlemen,” he shouts, “you will be firing live ammunition in a simulated combat environment. You will exercise extreme caution on my assault course.” The frame hints at limitless training, the illusion that we are seeing only a small section of an enormous training grounds, with the rope climbers in the background, the small packs of trainees, a mix of gray and brown cement and sand and steel. The color scheme is completely at odds with interior shots at the base, which are drenched in blue and green and red. Are the sets built or existing? The sand pit fighting area looks so fake it could be real.
Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) floating in a green tank, breathing through a tube, his wounded leg methodically being repaired by some crab-like creature or machine. His friends run by, rapping on the tank, smiling. A fantastically absurd shot, meant to showcase Rico’s body, like a surreal spread in some fashion magazine featuring men with no body hair. I love that the medical personnel are dressed in some sort of white, full-body surgical suits, presumably to keep things sterile, while the two characters in black t-shirts come tearing through, completely contaminating the place, and no one seems to care. There is the publicity of surgery — as Johnny is literally “in the operating theater.” A warning and an invitation: this is what happens when you are wounded (public display and humiliation) and again, this is what happens when you are wounded (you are a hero on display, a spectacle, famous).
And really, life is a spectacle for all these characters in Verhoeven’s films, where nothing is implicit, and all is revealed in every over-lit shot: violence, sex, technology. It is fascism of a different sort: the complete annihilation, not of the bugs (who show up in none of these screen grabs), but of privacy itself. The reward? “Citizenship,” which in Starship Troopers is a code word for power.
The movie is both a critique of war and a celebration of war. An indictment of human cruelty and bloodlust, and at the same time a spectacular glorification of human cruelty and bloodlust. Starship Troopers cancels itself out at every turn, a blank text free and open and bottomless.
Rumpus original art by André Eamiello.