For borderline communists like myself, it’s hard not to look at recent election results, here, there, and everywhere, and not think that everything’s going a bit Pete Tong. So, in order to prepare ourselves for what seems to be our inevitable future, we’re looking at three science fiction films from around fifteen to twenty years ago that have imagined us living under the future jackboots of fascism, with Starship Troopers, Equilibrium, and V for Vendetta. Necessary preparations, or flimsy excuse to rewatch a few tenuously connected films? I think we all know the answer to that.
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Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is one of history’s most misunderstood films ever, according to about a thousand opinion pieces in various newspapers, magazines and online publications over the past 15 years. To which I say, “Really? Really really?” A film from a director who grew up in a country occupied by a fascist regime? A film from the director of Robocop? Starship Troopers is one of the most misunderstood as being misunderstood films ever, says one opinion piece, this year, by me. However, at the time of its release a lot of critics did seem to miss the point, even those who had no problem understanding Robocop a decade before, and even many of those who got it had their panties in a bunch thinking that audiences wouldn’t.
It is entirely possible to enjoy Starship Troopers simply as a sci-fi action film, and I have no particular issue with that. But while not all viewers may comprehend all of its themes and the satire in which it bathes, and while furthermore I admit I don’t have the greatest of faith in the critical faculties, or lack thereof, of the great movie-going public, it costs me much to believe that it could be misunderstood or misconstrued: that children crushing insects and being handed assault rifles, drill sergeants going way beyond Full Metal Jacket’s Hartman and actually maiming the recruits, the unquestioning tribalism and jingoism, or one of our “heroes” sporting a goddamn, full-on SS uniform and trench coat, could be seen as either merely incidental or as a glorification of violence.
Then I remember the world I currently live in and doubt myself, and wonder if the right-wing militarism, violence and fascist, might makes right ideology isn’t, in fact, taken at face value by many, and I die a little more inside. But this is supposed to be a fun discussion about ephemeral things like films, right?
So, for those unfamiliar with the film at hand, or at least in need of a quick recap: based on a 1959 novel by Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers is set in a far future Earth where a militaristic, totalitarian government, founded after “veterans” overthrew a failed democracy, rules the world, and begins in Buenos Aires, in a high school for almost-thirty-year-olds (at release, the youngest of the principal students was 24! – I’d let this slide if this was just a set-up, but all the action takes place over about only a year). These ancient teenagers, Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) and Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) are about to graduate, and all four intend joining the military, which is currently engaged in a fight for survival against the antlions… sorry, “Bugs”, an insect-like alien species.
Lovesick Johnny is really only following girlfriend Carmen, but she’s off to Fleet Academy while he becomes an infantry grunt, and is soon to be “Dear John”-ed, to the surprise of absolutely no-one. Well, except him, because he’s not the smartest tool in the shed. Following HIM for romantic reasons is Dizzy, while strongly psychic Carl is off to join the Space SS Paranormal Division.
About to quit during basic training, a Bug attack obliterates Buenos Aires and Johnny, decides to stay and show those rotten insects what for, what! “The only good Bug is a dead Bug!” What’s that you say? What of the reporter who questions if human expansionism was the provocation to and incitement of this war? Well, that species traitor is soon dealt with by the insects. That’ll teach him to think!
After a false start the humans will turn the tide, and Dear Johnny will meet Carmen and Carl again on and off the battlefield, and we can all feel good that the Bug menace is being repelled by our intrepid heroes, and that these rotten “not us-es” are afraid of us and dying in their millions! Yay! Now how in the bloody hell did Verhoeven get us to cheer for fascism?
Robocop scribe Ed Neumeier’s script hews pretty closely to Heinlein’s novel, just tweaking and amplifying things enough to raise it to satire, rather than use the tone of the book, which takes its fascism rather more seriously, and Verhoeven brings it all to screen with much of his penchant for provocative, over the top gore and violence, as well as his trademark humour, which here often stems from incongruous or winking juxtaposition.
Getting the audience onboard, however unwittingly, with the tribalism and fascistic messaging isn’t much of a trick: that’s the danger of fascist ideology and exactly the point of the film, but it’s also pretty obvious, and while Verhoeven’s film visually quotes, for instance, Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will (so does Star Wars, and not on the side you might think), you don’t need to have much of a deeper reading of cinema and literature to see it.
Or at least, so I thought until I found an interview with Paul Verhoeven in The Guardian after I wrote these notes. He says, “I was using Riefenstahl to point out, or so I thought, that these heroes and heroines were straight out of Nazi propaganda. No one saw it at the time. I don’t know whether or not the actors realised – we never discussed it. I thought Neil Patrick Harris arriving on the set in an SS uniform might clear it up.”
It always struck me as obvious, even if at the time I could only recognise the imagery as Nazi, rather than specifically Riefenstahl, but apparently I’m the weirdo. You only need a functioning brain…
Ah. Ah, yes. Right. I see what I did there. OK.
In all seriousness, though, I do believe the idea of a wide misunderstanding of the film is unfounded.
What I haven’t addressed is it any good? Well, yes. Very. Entertaining, funny, clever. And while some of the special effects and, in particular, the sets look a little ropey now, it’s still watchable enough nowadays from that point of view, and most importantly the film’s message and themes stand up. Indeed, it’s another of those films which seems more relevant now than on its release.
One question remains to me, though, and it’s the one message in Starship Troopers I’ve never been able to comprehend: what is the hidden meaning of Patrick Muldoon’s wilfully awful hairstyle throughout the film? It’s so bad and so obvious that it must symbolise something, but I know not what. Is it a hitherto unknown type of hirsute Bug, perched atop his head as a setup for a sequel? It haunts me.
I have made a mistake.
When I reviewed Equilibrium for our old website back in 2003 I cited one of its weaknesses as “overuse of blatant fascist and religious symbolism,” going on to assert “I’m intelligent enough to know what kind of regime we’re dealing with without having 80-foot high thinly-veiled swastikas flapping in my face, and I dare say most viewers will feel the same.”
Had I known then what I know now I might not have been so disparaging of Equilibrium‘s relative lack of iconographic sophistication, given that I was quite clearly placing way too much faith in “most viewers,” and I would argue perhaps we haven’t been blatant enough in our symbolism this past decade and-a-half. Such is life.
Christian Bale plays Preston, a cleric of the Tetragrammaton whose job it is to police a doped future society for the threat of human emotion, which everybody agrees is the reason why there was a third world war. Can’t really argue with that assertion, but of course there is at least a small debate to be had around our existence as humans bereft of emotion, pleasure, feeling, and an underground resistance movement exists to disrupt the supply of the universal mood suppressant Prosium, which the populous imbibe daily to keep them from larking about. Our new, monolithic police state society, Libria, is lorded over by Sean Pertwee’s “Father”, his rambling monologues on the dangers posed by emotional response broadcast to massive communal screens, blimps etc day and night.
Father’s mouthpiece at the head of government is…is Angus Macfadyen. Well, not actually Angus Macfadyen, but I do often have to be reminded that Angus Macfadyen is supposed to be an actor. His character, Dupont, is basically a remorseless son of a bitch who looks and sounds like nothing so much as Angus Macfadyen, and is hell bent on using the Tetragrammaton to smash the resistance at any cost, though he has his suspicions about the dedication of Bale’s Preston following “sense offences” on the part of both his wife and his colleague…his colleague…Sean Bean. Well, not actually Sean Bean, but I do often have to be reminded that Sean Bean is supposed to be an actor.
So far so blah blah blah Nazi analog. Equilibrium does, however, attempt to set itself apart via some spry hybrid kung fu/gunplay which, at the turn of the century, seemed fairly fresh and interesting. Keeping in mind that the movie initially came about at a time where a new cinematic wave of Asian martial arts and shooty bang-bangs were in full swing it’s maybe surprising that this is the only film I can think of where an attempt was made to meld the two in such an overt fashion, and I actually feel it still works quite well, if perhaps more recently overshadowed by the highly choreographed antics of John Wick and the likes.
Writer-Director Kurt Wimmer doesn’t do much with any degree of subtlety, though here he is certainly more focused than we witnessed with Ultraviolet a couple of years later. Following that movie’s poor critical and box office performance Wimmer has yet to helm another project, instead focusing on writing and developing story and screenplays, though there’s enough craft on display in Equilibrium to suggest that given opportunity and time he may have had some more decent directorial work in him.
I was perhaps surprised to find I still quite liked Equilibrium, and I still disagree with the total critical drubbing it took. Oddly enough one of the few people to credit the movie was Roger Ebert, who said something along the lines of “it would be mindless action except that it has a mind,” and I broadly agree. If I may be so egotistical as to quote my 23 year-old self, ” Wimmer has taken a bold, modern approach and introduced much that is new to what would otherwise have been a dull and largely unnecessary political statement.” And remember how we agreed earlier on the whole “unnecessary political statement” bit? Equilibrium is not the most sophisticated, best choreographed, or greatest…anything, really, but it is the only work of art to incorporate Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Taye Diggs, Agus Macfadyen and Brian Conley. My pitch for Marvel Phase 4 starts here.
V for Vendetta
My brain has always incorrectly filed this 2005 outing as a Wachowski joint, but although they did adapt legendarily curmudgeonly comic book author Alan Moore’s story, it’s James McTeigue in the director’s chair. Looking back, the general quality of McTeigue’s post-this outings raised alarm bells, but my memory of what happened 15 days ago is pretty shaky, let alone 15 years ago. Just how does it hold up?
The film, over the course of a year, recounts the campaign of anarchist and Guy Fawkes mask enthusiast V, played by Hugo Weaving, against the fascist Norsefire government of Britain in the futuristic hellscape of 2032 – a time and general state of affairs we are now more than half way towards. He starts by blowing up the Old Bailey, and broadcasting a message to Britain to join him in destroying the Houses of Parliament next year.
Caught up in this madness is Natalie Portman’s Evey Hammond, a mild mannered employee of the state broadcaster that V saves from the secret police’s attempted rape, in case you were in any doubt as to the nastiness of the state apparatus, who then finds herself on the run after being viewed as an accessory to V’s crimes. After a period of hiding out with a lovely, forcibly closeted on pain of death TV host, Stephen Fry’s Gordon Deitrich, she’s again taken by V after Gordon’s ill-advised piss take of John Hurt’s High Chancellor Adam Sutler, and his extensive security apparatus’ inability to catch V leads to him being carted away.
So here we are, an hour in, and I was starting to wonder why I vaguely remember having issues with this film. After all, the central storyline is fine, the performances are on point from a cast I mostly like, the character backstory is intriguing and tied into the equally intriguing worldbuilding through Stephen Rea’s character’s investigations, ultimately uncovering the even nastier secrets behind the rise of the Norsefire party. It’s stylishly shot and the action is also competently handled, as perhaps you’d expect from someone working with the Wachowskis for so long.
And then you get to the reminder that sometimes 80’s comics were a little bit too grimdark for their own good, as our, admittedly obviously insane, but nonetheless so far ultimately morally righteous hero tortures the other over weeks, or months, for the flimsiest of reasons, and seemingly mainly to avoid writing in a conversation as an exposition dump. And is quickly forgiven this by Evie as we plough into the end of things.
So, yes, I now remember my problem with this film. It is stupid.
If I’m making an effort to understand this, I suppose it could be argued that, in true action film style, V’s already killed a whole bunch of people, and so perhaps we shouldn’t be expecting much moral guidance from him. Even so, there’s a pretty basic distinction between killing enemies and torturing allies that’s difficult to get over, and Evie’s acceptance of this is baffling.
Is it enough to spoil the rest of the film, which I’m by and large on board with? Mmmmaybe? It’s certainly enough to reduce this to an at best guarded recommendation, and not to think of it again for a further 15 years. Ultimately, its main cultural legacy seems to be the popularisation of Guy Fawkes masks amongst antifascists, and, well, perhaps that point of trivia is all that it ultimately deserves to be remembered for.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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