[Editor's Note: This is the latest entry in House contributor Kevin B. Lee's Shooting Down Pictures, a record of his ongoing quest to see every title on the list of the 1000 Greatest Films compiled by They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?]
A commercial and critical flop upon its release, the virtues of Paul Verhoeven's satirical take on Robert Heinlein's Cold War sci-fi novel are stunningly clear in the context of 9-11 and the Iraq War. Few recent films tap into the underlying forces shaping today's world as piercingly as Verhoeven's vision of a thoroughly Americanized global civilization that exploits media and youth culture to wage endless war against an appointed enemy. With perverse, knowing affection, Verhoeven mashes cliched elements from 1940s war movies ("Come on you apes, you wanna live forever?") and 1990s teen soap opera (football game, senior prom) and splashes them with a futuristic paint job in an effort to link together the past, present and future of youth cultural propaganda. Most prescient is the framing device of an internet-type visual console that bombards the viewer with requests of "Would you like to know more?", paving a perpetual rabbit hole of Information Age captivity.
Verhoeven's Hollywood career can be divided between his wildly successful early half (RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct) and a wildly misunderstood second half (Showgirls, Starship Troopers, Hollow Man). Each successive effort found increasingly outrageous ways to subvert the sex-and-violence tropes simultaneously being exploited for entertainment profit, that is until the box office failure of Starship Troopers collapsed this ill-advised project of cultural signal jamming. Many critics (see Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin's reviews below, among others) counted Starship Troopers as endemic of Hollywood crassness, oblivious of the ways the war and teen movie genres were being inverted into critical reflections of themselves. One might abjectively dismiss Verhoeven's send-up as another case of Hollywood having its cake and selling it. Further complicating the issue of satire, Verhoeven isn't adopting a scorched-earth approach to his subject matter; instead there's an odd, loving attention paid to the innovative special effects and the straight-faced execution of ersatz melodrama. Reflecting a more complicated—and honest—fascination with Hollywood genres, Verhoeven interrogates both the seductive fantasy surfaces and the horrific real world outcomes of its mythmaking. In other words, this may be one of the few Hollywood blockbusters that functions as a work of film criticism as art.
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