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How Starship Troopers Weaponizes Romance

9 min read

If all is fair in love and war, then the best piece of media from which to study heterosexual romance must be a 90s science fiction-action film, specifically the one about killing interplanetary bugs and rooting for fascists. 

Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is ingrained in social consciousness for controversial reasons as it follows a group of high-schoolers eagerly enlisting in an interplanetary military service. Audiences were divided and viewed the film as a commemoration of fascism, unmoved by its poor acting by lead Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards, and disliked the campy approach to sci-fi thrills. Though critic Roger Ebert gave the film two stars, his review was not necessarily scathing or ill-willed. Ebert picked up on the film’s satirical tones, now glaringly obvious in retrospect but not as internalised as when it was first released. Interestingly enough, Ebert’s strongest criticism was against the film’s lack of emotional resonance: “It’s one-dimensional. We smile at the satirical asides, but where’s the warmth of human nature? The spark of genius or rebellion?”

While the lack of rebellion is prominent, for a film labelled so cold, it is thoroughly concerned with at least depicting romance, the lust underpinning patriotism, and using a fluctuating level of passion and heat to track the tragedy at work. One of the most fascinating elements of Starship Troopers is how central attraction is as a motivating factor for military involvement, for growth and power in service of your country — or, more importantly, your planet. Many examine the militaristic attitudes of the film without deeper investigation into the love square at its core. With every essential plot beat in the story of heroes versus enemies, there is an accompanying milestone in the narrative arc of main character Johnny Rico’s (Van Dien) journey from lover boy to lieutenant. 

The first established element of Johnny’s personality is his affection for his girlfriend, Carmen (Richards). In his first scene, Johnny absent-mindedly sits in class, doodling them kissing rather than listening to the very man who will not only inspire him to join the mobile infantry but lead his squad. When teacher Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside) notices his lack of direction, he implores Johnny to figure out his destiny and wield the ultimate form of freedom: making up one’s mind. The only thing Johnny can make up his mind about is Carmen, who, in opposition, is confident and steady in her goal of becoming a pilot. It’s here that Johnny begins considering enlisting, grasping at whatever projections of success are close to him (Carmen and Rasczak), and using them as symbols of what he should do and who he should follow. Johnny’s love for Carmen is the motivation behind his joining the mobile infantry (he is not qualified for any other position.)

Quite subversively, rather than portray the lead woman as the lovesick sentimentalist, it is the masculine hero who inhabits this “feminine” space. Johnny is more in tune with devoting himself to this relationship than Carmen is; she is sure of her career path, but she is unsure of Johnny. As they prepare to leave for duty, Johnny tells Carmen he loves her and she smiles, not saying it back. The silence on her end is awkward but not enough to deter Johnny. It could be that she doesn’t love him in the same way, or it could be that she does not see the point in proclaiming a love they cannot hold onto. She walks away, but he pulls her arm and spins her back to him, “Just say it once; try it on for size.” Her blue eyes are wet with sympathy, and she says it. They kiss obligatorily but still with some care, and Carmen leaves. It’s hard to watch Johnny be so vulnerable, and it will not exactly get easier. Fighting for his country and fighting for her love, Johnny finds his drive.

Once the two separate, the film follows their respective journeys within the service, and Carmen embarks on a more clearly upward path than Johnny. She fits in and is good at what she does, glowing with excitement. Soon, their peripheral love interests emerge into the spotlight. Dizzy (Dina Meyer) has lusted after fellow teammate Johnny for a while, and Zander (Patrick Muldoon), from the rival side, was smitten with Carmen at the last game. When Dizzy arrives at the base, she reveals she transferred to Johnny’s squad because it was the best; after all, she was the captain of their team. Dizzy comes prepared to prove her strength, one not yet seen in Johnny. But, the implication that he informed Dizzy’s decision to transfer is there, and Johnny calls her out on it, resisting her flirtation, loyal to Carmen. Dizzy is offended by this perspective and turns the tables back in one of the most iconic scenes of the film. The co-ed cadets stand in a gym shower, all fully nude. The question of why everyone joined arises, and we hear the political and financial goals of the soldiers who won’t actually achieve any of these dreams. They are sadly incidental, forced to risk their lives for a chance at a future they will never have, their impassioned sincerity rendering Johnny’s high school intentions incidental. When it is Rico’s turn to answer, Dizzy speaks for him: “He’s here because of a girl.” 

In a 2014 interview with Empire, director Verhoeven addressed the standout scene, claiming its sexlessness is a consequence of a fascist society unable to lust so openly. Verhoeven confirmed that he and several crew members were also naked to help foster a comfortable and humorous environment on set. The scene itself is not meant to be sexy, most of the film is not sexy, a rare label for a Verhoeven film. Despite an earlier scene in which Carmen slyly tells Johnny her house will be empty, Carmen and Johnny are never shown having sex. Not ascribed the consummation of this supposed intimacy, they are denied that depth. The film forces Johnny to reckon with his own destiny and decide how much of it is bound to Carmen versus how much is for his own interest and how these two options can inform each other. As he becomes a better soldier and squad leader, he and Dizzy make a stronger team.

Meanwhile, Zander and Carmen have become close, flying together. Similarly to Rico, yet unlike Dizz, Zander admits that he ensured he would be paired with her. Zander is not as romantic as Johnny, but instead cocky, and thus much more on Carmen’s speed than Johnny. But Zander’s insistence is familiar; both men obsess after this girl who is simply doing her job and doesn’t seem to pay either much mind. One night, celebrating his promotion, Johnny says, “All it takes is the love of a good woman.” He views his love for Carmen not as a weakness but as a strength needed to succeed, and the narrative again conflates the militaristic with the romantic, each informing the other for better or worse. Moments later, over a video letter, tragedy strikes. Carmen has decided to go “career” and will not have the time for a relationship. “I have to follow my heart,” she says while breaking up with him, her heart sealed to duty over love. Rico is devastated, now resenting the devotion that led him here, while Carmen keeps to the ideals and hesitation she has had since the beginning. Johnny finally admits he joined for Carmen, but another solider, Ace, reminds him he earned his title by himself. 

Sociologist Harry F. Dahms wrote, “In science fiction films, renderings of choices about when and how to love another person provide opportunities to communicate to audience members that one of the most personal decisions anyone makes in life is prone to reinforcing how modern social orders in their specificity….. maintain stability through myriad ideas that are tied to culturally distinct yet interconnected processes as the substructure of modern social life.” This shift in Johnny and Carmen’s love upon entering the adult, militaristic world reflects and reinforces how their society maintains its politics and its grasp on social life. In the very next scene, after Carmen breaks up with him, Johnny accidentally gets one of his men killed. Once more, love and war are bound, the lows of both paralleled. Losing this love that occupied so much of his identity has shaken Johnny’s place in the military. He decides it would be best if he left and verbally pairs these romantic and militaristic failures together: “I signed up for the wrong reasons, I got a guy killed… I don’t have what it takes.” 

Touchstone Pictures

Starship Troopers is undoubtedly a timepiece of the 1990s. In the scene where Johnny and Carmen see each other for the first time since their break up, the soft vocals of Mazzy Star fade in. In a dystopian future where bugs are the enemies and fascism is cool, two high school sweethearts reuniting while “Fade into You” hums over them sits at the story’s core. You can’t make this up! It is a scene so surprisingly tender, using a song that still reverberates and affects youth to this day. The film uses Carmen and Johnny’s relationship to symbolise the tension between the fleet and the infantry, and with their breakup officially cemented, Rico dives head-on into his duties, seemingly killed in action. Carmen sees his name on the list of those killed and cries into Zander. Meanwhile, Johnny heals in a water tank, and Dizzy kisses the glass. Both are free to explore and enjoy other romances that are interwoven with their career pursuits. As the squad gathers and enjoys a night off,  Rasczak encourages Johnny to be with Dizzy, “never give up on a good thing.” That night, Dizzy and Rico have sex. The film even shows her breasts. Reminiscent of an earlier scene, Dizzy tells Rico she loves him and he does not say it back. Verhoeven’s choice to show this more one-sided affair is interesting; Johnny does not have sex with the woman he truly loves, once again pointing to an intentional lack of “human warmth,” described by Ebert, to elicit the lack of balance in this society. When everything is so black and white, two lovers can rarely be on the same page, and thus, true intimacy is never fully realised.

Dizzy is, unfortunately, the worst treated character by the script. She’s there to pine, be mean to a girl who has done nothing against her, have sex, and then die. Dizzy exists solely for Johnny; her last words in his honour are: “It’s alright. Because I got to have you. Johnny, don’t let me go.” Like any action film, the ones who live for the heroes die for them, too. Except here, those sacrifices are intertwined with desire, only making connections more far-fetched and difficult to achieve. At the film’s climax, Zander and Carmen have plummeted into the tunnels and are in the possession of the Arachnids. Johnny chooses to abandon the logical militaristic strategy in the tunnels, feeling compelled to go the other way and look for Carmen; something within him says she is still alive. It is a risky move, but one that seems filled with a selfless act of love previously unseen in the film. Unfortunately, when he arrives, Zander is already dead. Both external love interests have died, thus offering the chance at reconnection. But, it’s eventually revealed that the impulse to find Carmen was Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), the third member of their high school friend group who possesses psychic powers. It was not romantic love that motivated Johnny to save Carmen, but an agent of military intelligence. 

Oddly enough, the film does not end with a sweeping kiss between the heroes. There is no declaration of undying love or reinstituted commitment. Instead, a platonic and planetary victory. It’s a celebration of humanity, not concerning desire, just patriotism. Damhs says, “It is not surprising, then, that in most science fiction films which involve a tale constructed around love, there rarely is a happy end; usually, film’s conclusion is more ambivalent, and although it may not amount to an unhappy ending, frequently there is an undeniable tragic element.” What is so lasting about Starship Troopers is that the tragic element remains not with the characters but with the audience. Despite love being so elemental in Johnny’s story, his true legacy is found through service, and there is no promise he and Carmen will return to one another. Joy and fulfilment are found in fascism, not a lasting connection. The woman he was closest to and fought alongside is dead; his mentor is dead, and now he must cling to the title. While it’s these political “undertones” that are often discussed in retrospectives of the film, viewers can use the romance as a thread from which further to explore these fascist ideals and notions of success. Starship Troopers is ripe for readings of science fiction sex as the gender dynamics fluctuate between stereotypical and subversive based on how each person navigates romance. Verhoeven uses the “warmth of human nature,” particularly that of young love, and squanders it like a bug to emphasise how loveless this society actually is.