Starship Troopers and Reception Studies

Starship Troopers (1997) is one of my favourite movies. Now, I know what some of you must be thinking. What is Starship Troopers? Or (incredulously), that movie with Neil Patrick Harris and space-bugs? Yep, that one. 

I first saw the movie when I was a teenager and it initially grabbed me with its strong action set pieces and science-fiction violence. There was also an accompanying cartoon, which even less people will remember, that kept me hooked. But I realised more recently that my experience with this movie mirrors many of the elements of classical reception studies.

Reception studies is a strand of scholarship in Ancient History that studies the reception of the ancient world in later societies. For example, examining classically themed movies like Gladiator (2000) or Troy (2004) and their approach to the ancient world.

While some historians can look at these films and point out all of the historical inaccuracies, those in reception studies choose instead to focus on what these films tell us about shifting perspectives on the ancient world. They ask questions such as; why did these directors choose to tell stories in the ancient world? Are there deeper metaphorical messages in these movies connected to their use of Classical material?

Getting back to Starship Troopers, as I got older I began to read more about the movie and its director, Paul Verhoeven. It was then I started to appreciate it for the layered movie it really was. It isn’t just space soldiers fighting alien bugs, but a comment on how war changes those who fight it. The world it builds isn’t just another science-fiction utopia, but a fascistic dystopia disguised as utopia.

The movie hints at this throughout, with voting rights restricted only to those who serve in the military; students taught only by grizzled military veterans; live televised executions; governmental control of agriculture, professions, and even reproductive rights; and the greatest mystery of why South America is now predominantly white people. Yet these are only mentioned in passing, the movie instead concentrates on the comradery of three friends and the glory of war. With interjections from news-like broadcasts, the movie essentially plays like a propaganda film for the United Citizen Federation.

Paul Verhoven makes what seems like a sci-fi action movie into a clever satire of fascism.

I later discovered that reception studies takes a similar approach to the examination of movies linked to the Classical world. Certain movies, although seemingly telling one story, instead convey a deeper message that can often be contradictory. Take Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), which while telling the fictional story of Commodus and his general Gaius Livius, reflects concerns over the possibility of the decline and fall of the American empire.

But Starship Troopers hadn’t finished with me yet.

After learning about Verhoeven’s layered message about war and fascism interwoven throughout the movie, I decided to go back to the original source material. Robert A. Heinlein‘s original 1959 novel, Starship Troopers.

In reading the book, I was struck by the same layered satire of fascism as I saw in the movie. The book shows a world that has easily stepped into fascism and justifies every step of the way. To me, it was an interesting deconstruction of how a society is so easily drawn across that line and into fascism and its own self-justification for this step.

That was until I had a conversation with a friend of mine that went something like this…

ME: The book is really good too, it delves into the issues a little more and seems like a deeper satire of fascism and militarism.
FRIEND: What do you mean satire?
ME: Well, its criticises fascism and its techniques, but through a society that is itself fascist.
FRIEND: I think you missed something, Heinlein wasn’t criticising anything.

Turns out Hienlein’s novel was not intended as satire, deconstruction, or critique of fascism at all. In fact, the novel has itself been criticised for its militarism, upholding of fascistic ideas, and even possible racism. All facts I was completely unaware of when reading it.

Instead, my own experience with Verhoven’s Starship Troopers so influenced my reading of Heinlein’s novel that it turned into something completely different to what the writer originally intended. Instead of reading his semi-fascistic ideas as genuine, I instead saw the whole novel as critical commentary on the justifications for fascism.

We see the same process when looking at the reception of classical material. Not only can we examine how the classical world is used to reflect contemporary ideas, but the reception itself then impacts on how we look at the ancient sources.

Joanna Paul gives an excellent example. When we watch a movie like Troy it impacts on our reading of Homer‘s Iliad, whether we want it to or not. Instead of imagining Homer’s Achilles, we instead see Brad Pitt…

Just like my experience with Starship Troopers, receptions studies is always a two-way street. Not only does the original source material affect our reading and interpretation of the movie, the movie then impacts our reading of the source material.

But essentially, this has all been a very long justification for why you should watch Starship Troopers.

And remember: Service Guarantees Citizenship!

Lorna Hardwick’s Reception Studies also serves as an excellent introduction to classical reception studies.

Joanna Paul’s article in A Companion to Classical Receptions is a great discussion of theories and methodologies of classical reception in film.

Maria Wyke’s Projecting the Past is also one of the seminal works in classical reception, and a thoroughly good read.

Also, watch Starship Troopers.

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