The Starship Troopers movies are satirical science-fiction war films, set in a hyper-militarised fascist state. Protesters are routinely executed. ‘Voting’ exists, but only for veterans. State-sanctioned broadcasting spews a kaleidoscope of military propaganda from every available screen.
Here is a list of all the ways in which this fictional universe is preferable to our own!
Marauder starts off strong with a news broadcast from the film’s totalitarian government. These news segments are a staple of the franchise by this point, but the film manages to up the ante by giving us a sing-a-long one. About dying!
I’ve already professed my love for random musical interludes in non-musical films, and this one also happens to be catchy as hell. The lead singer, Omar Anoke (Stephen Hogan) is also the Sky Marshall, which basically means he’s Space President. Why don’t all dictators choose to be pop sensations? Who’s stopping them?
This is a movie about fascist soldiers who wear Nazi uniforms, so you might think that all of those soldiers would be white. That’s not actually the case!
Demographically, this movie looks like any movie set in the contemporary United States, which is probably the point. In the loose Nazi analogue that Marauder is constructing, the role of more conventional intra-species hate is instead being filled by hatred of another species entirely: The Bugs.
‘Bug’ is a derogatory colloquialism for the Arachnids, a species of huge, insect-like aliens. In the first film it was strongly implied that humanity attacked first, and that the Bugs were just defending themselves from our pointless, xenophobic assault. In this movie, we meet a bug the size of a mountain named Behemecoytal, who wants to pacify the human race via mind control.
This is where the ‘Bugs as oppressed other’ metaphor kind of breaks down. But on the plus side, we get a movie about Space Nazis that is more diverse than many films that feature no Nazis at all! Spectacular.
The original 1997 Starship Troopers movie has been accused of whitewashing, as it replaces the protagonist of the original novel – Puerto Rican soldier Juan Rico – with a Caucasian man named Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien). I mention this because Johnny Rico makes a return in Starship Troopers 3, and goes on to lead a group of exoskeleton-wearing soldiers.
I like Van Dien’s performance in both of these films. Was his casting an example of whitewashing? Still yes.
The M11 Babar Marauder (full name courtesy of the delightful nerds over at the Starship Troopers wiki!) is a prototype powered armour developed by the Space Fascist military. They seem like… very well put together killing machines, to be honest! They’ve got slots in each arm, which can be fitted with a range of heavy weapons. That makes them the first exoskeletons to have customisable weapon arms. That’s… convenient! There’s also some kind of bomb that shoots… blue, energy. Yes. We also see the Marauders get completely covered in angry Arachnids, and take seemingly no damage as a result. Sturdiness!
If it seems like I’m struggling to enthuse about the hardware here it’s because, well, there’s been a lot of pretty scary stuff happening out here in the real world, lately, so it feels like not a great time to be romanticizing weapons of war.
Happily, I think there’s a strong case to be made that Marauder doesn’t want us to like its Marauders; which is a bit of a first for exoskeletal cinema! And there’s actually a fair bit of interesting stuff going on with how these suits are being presented, so maybe let’s start with –
At the start of the film, religion – or Christianity, really – is tolerated by the government. Certainly not encouraged. Nevertheless, several characters continue to worship on the sly, including Holly Little (Marnette Patterson), who spends a decent chunk of the movie arguing with her atheist Captain, Lola Beck (Jolene Blalock) about the existence of God. This culminates in a scene where, with the two of them surrounded and out of options, Holly asks Lola to pray with her; and as she does so, a shocked Lola sees a halo of bright lights appear over Holly’s head.
These lights are, in fact, drop pods, carrying the Marauders through the atmosphere. The central ‘joke’ of this sequence is that as the Marauders wreak devastation just over the horizon, the resulting explosions are interpreted by Holly and Lola as divine intervention. And this association between the Marauders and faith isn’t restricted to those character’s perspectives. Take a look at this shot, showing the barrel of a Marauder’s ‘Morita Cross Heavy Machine Gun,’ super-imposed over the face of a praying Holly as it fires.
So we’re getting some pretty explicit links between the Marauders and Christianity, but to what purpose? What is Marauder trying to say about religion and war?
There’s a point in this fight where it becomes very clear that the Marauders are going to win. “All right,” Rico says to his troops, “cook ’em!” And, as the Marauders activate their flamethrowers, choir music starts playing.
Suddenly every second shot is of a bug, writhing as it burns. We stop cutting away to the wearer’s faces, solidifying the Marauders into impassive hunks of metal as they fire blindly into crowds of fleeing insects. Rico’s Marauder stomps – possibly unknowingly – on the head of a paralyzed bug. The noises the bug makes before it is crushed sound desperate, almost pleading.
Here are two possible interpretations of this scene:
1) God was not involved, this was all a huge coincidence. We’ve seen Rico’s team preparing for this mission throughout the movie, so it would have happened anyway. Holly and Lola’s awe at the ‘miracle’ is therefore misguided, stupid, false, and so is religion, probably.
2) It was divine intervention. The Marauders are futuristic angels, literally dropped from the heavens to… well.
I like this reading because it goes beyond “Har har religion is so dumb,” and encourages us to ask “Well, if God is real, what kind of God are they?” What kind of God endorses mass killing by flamethrower? Why would anyone want to worship them?
Of course, this would be a fictional God inciting a fictional massacre, but the carnage shown in the Marauder battle could be read as recalling any number of real-world acts of violence committed in the name of Christianity.
I don’t want to imply through this interpretation that religion or Christianity are inherently bad or evil. I think it’s possible this movie does want to imply those things, but I’m trying to give the film the benefit of the doubt. Certainly, Marauder is keen to depict the ways in which religion and totalitarianism can work together, and perhaps make a general criticism of blind faith, whether it be in a God, a political faction, or a nation.
With regards to the Marauder battle specifically, I’m starting to think it doesn’t matter whether Rico and his team were sent by God or not. Maybe it’s the perception that counts. The fact that these heartless killing machines are confused for deliverers of God’s will. That we’re capable of perceiving them as in any way ‘divine’… Maybe that’s the part that’s messed up.
Faith is a tool; and just like other tools (hammers, languages, powered exoskeletons…) we need to be careful how we use it. Because if we’re not careful, God can stop being about peace or love, and start being about power. Being ‘higher.’ Righteous. Better. Someone makes a gun in the shape of a cross, and God becomes an exoskeleton.
I mentioned the Starship Troopers novel, earlier. Fun fact: according to its Wikipedia page, Starship Troopers (1959) is where the concept of a ‘powered exoskeleton’ first appeared, in any medium. This is where exoskeletal fiction began!
The Marauders in the book sound a lot like the ones we see in the movie. They increase the wearer’s speed and strength, they let them jump really high, and provide them with night vision, radar and amplified hearing – which we see Rico use briefly to locate Holly and Lola. The book describes these suits in excruciating detail, sometimes devoting whole pages to the features and advantages they provide on the battlefield. Here’s one line that I quite liked:
… in general, powered armor doesn’t require practice; it simply does it for you, just the way you were doing it, only better. All but one thing – you can’t scratch where it itches. If I ever find a suit that will let me scratch between my shoulder blades, I’ll marry it.
Isn’t that a nice touch?
It’s clear that the author – Robert Heinlein – was a huge nerd for powered exoskeletons, which is great! His book has also been widely criticized for being fascist, militarist and racist, which is less great! The roots of exoskeletal cinema continue to be super conservative and awful, and we need to be aware of that if we want things to get better.
At least the Starship Troopers movies, released forty years later, had the good sense to actively mock the values of their source material. There is, however, a remake of the first movie in the works, and it’s being pitched as ‘more faithful to the book’, so…
We’re going backwards, aren’t we?
Also apparently James Cameron forced all the Marines in Aliens to read Starship Troopers prior to filming? I guess a book written by a person who really loves soldiers could be a good guide for creating a group of lovable soldiers. Maybe?
Anyway this subgenre continues to be an inter-textual clusterfuck, thanks for reading.