There’s a scene in “Showgirls” - Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 ode to American trash - that revolts while it delights, and in doing so, captures the essence of the director’s latest film, “Starship Troopers.”
Nomi, the deliriously dim stripper/heroine of “Showgirls,” has just been hired to perform in the classiest erotic dance revue in town. Sitting in on a rehearsal, Nomi apes the dancers’ herky-jerky movements, including that signature forearm-over-forearm, “cross my heart” bit that serves as the foundation for their hackneyed routines.
Her movements are embellished with “pfft-pfft” sound effects - dubiously popularized by Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video.
The scene is delightful because it’s ridiculous - ridiculously blocked, ridiculously edited, ridiculous that Hollywood would see fit to celebrate something so banal, so cheesy, on film. The scene is also revolting because Verhoeven plays most of the movie straight, mingling the camp with melodrama and graphic violence.
“Showgirls” was hailed as high-camp in some circles - in New York, midnight screenings were shown, a la “Rocky Horror.” But the question remained: Was it intentional? Or was Verhoeven an unwitting satirist - like Ed Wood, stumbling onto something so bad it was good?
With the release of “Starship Troopers,” Verhoeven’s $90 million scf-fi gore orgy, the director puts all confusion to rest. Quite intentionally, the sadistic Dutchman is modern Hollywood’s foremost satirist.
And like a pop-culture hangman, he gets a charge out of his victims.
When you think of “Troopers,” think of a World War II-era fascist propaganda film, with glowing young men and women thriving under the stern-but-benevolent umbrella of a militaristic, worldwide government. Now add total racial and gender harmony and transfer the customary fear and righteous hatred to an army of 10-foot computer-generated arachnids. Voila, “Starship Troopers.”
The film’s fascist underpinnings aren’t really underpinnings at all - they practically beg for laughter in dozens of over-the-top scenes. Example: A group of school children display their fealty to humanity by stomping live cockroaches while their mother shrieks with laughter. Hatred has never looked so silly.
By stuffing the film with blatant Nazi symbolism and jingoistic themes, Verhoeven exposes the latent appeal of less ironic alien shoot-‘em-ups such as “Independence Day.” Audiences lust for righteous condemnation, and war movies are the easiest, most explosive way to deliver it. Iraqis and Israelis fighting side by side against alien invaders certainly smacks of nobility, but it implies a truism many people are reluctant to grasp: Human beings cooperate only in opposition to something else, whether it’s hunger, the elements or giant spiders.
This may all seem extremely cynical and heavy-handed, but “Troopers” doesn’t aim to depress. If anything is worthy of our hatred and fear, isn’t it howling, horse-sized tarantulas that rip men in two and hurl meteors at Buenos Aires? Do we really need to extend humanism to brain-suckers? Clearly, Verhoeven wants us to enjoy “Troopers,” with its viscera-tweaking battle sequences and war-as-summer-camp rosiness, but he wants us to know why.
Just as “Troopers” is a satire of war films, “Showgirls” was a satire of - among other erotic fantasies - Verhoeven’s own “Basic Instinct.” In “Showgirls,” Verhoeven labored to capture the dirty, brain-numbing essence of sex - the real basic instinct - and make us enjoy it. The movie failed in part because few movie-goers shared this vision of eroticism. “Troopers” avoids the same pitfall because war is a monolith - its appeal springs from just one fount.
Both films also use American culture as a target for Verhoeven’s satirical wit.