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As war drums begin to pound, a trashy sci-fi movie offers some handy tips for survival.

“Fresh meat for the grinder,” the recruiting sergeant told the new enlistee.

“Fresh meat for the grinder,” the recruiting sergeant told the new enlistee.

The horrible events of September 11 are now seared into our collective consciousness: First one Boeing 767, then a second, flying into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, respectively, and exploding. Then, just as most of us were figuring out that the probability of two commercial jets flying into one target was hardly accidental, a Boeing 757 crashed into the Pentagon.

“It was like a movie,” people who’d witnessed the destruction of the twin towers were telling reporters afterward.

For a public conditioned by the kind of big-budget disaster movies that Hollywood has been cranking out since director Irwin Allen’s heyday in the 1970s, the tableau looked eerily familiar. Perhaps the only thing missing was a giant fire-breathing lizard stamping through the wreckage, or a mile-wide mothership hovering overhead.

Many of us with access to a television or a radio were transfixed. The coverage, at first, was raw, at least by contemporary technical standards. But a couple of hours later, every network had its specially designed logo in place, each one a variation on the stars and stripes—to underscore the gravity of such slogans as “America Under Attack.” By that time, the usual parade of talking heads had regained much of their composure, and news producers were juxtaposing shots of the collapsing World Trade Center towers with Palestinians celebrating the attack from the safety of the Gaza Strip.

Despite the unprecedented carnage, for Americans at least, and the reverberations of shock, gloom and outrage that followed, network coverage framed the event in such a manner that only a narrow spectrum of responses seemed appropriate: This is war. You’re either for us or against us. Get with the program.

For those of us who relish Hollywood’s trashier output, the single-minded patriotism that the disaster’s coverage morphed into had a familiar ring.

Four years ago, Starship Troopers, directed by the wildly uneven Paul Verhoeven, was released. The futuristic film was based loosely on Robert Heinlein’s 1959 science-fiction novel. Heinlein fans hated the movie, because Verhoeven took considerable liberties—turning the novelist’s meditation on personal responsibility and survival into what looked like a teen drama adapted by Aaron Spelling for the Fox network, working from old Archie comics and Ayn Rand.

Starship Troopers opens with a “Federal Network” logo and fanfare, then launches into a recruiting commercial for the Mobile Infantry. This dissolves into a news bulletin describing the menace of bug meteors—asteroids originating from the hostile Klendathu system across the galaxy, propelled by ejaculations of plasma from giant insects. As a bug meteor hurtles toward Earth, a nearby satellite fires two rockets that take it out. Star wars, anyone? “Planetary defenses are better than ever,” the voiceover intones. Next, a Web-browser pointer clicks on the frame below: “Would you like to know more?”

Next, we see the Mobile Infantry land on one of the planets revolving around Klendathu. “We’re here on what cap troopers are calling ‘Big K,’ “ a network correspondent shouts into the camera. “It’s an ugly planet, a bug planet … “ Suddenly, a four-legged “arachnid” bigger than a horse grabs him in its giant proboscis claw and snaps him in half. Troopers rush by, firing jumbo conventional weapons at the marauding arachnid warriors, which chew up any humans they can sink their snouts into. “Get here now!” one trooper screams into the camera before an arachnid spears him with its claw.

The film then backtracks a year, to a high school in the Jetsons-style metropolis of Buenos Aires, now part of a one-world government called the United Citizen Federation. In a classroom, teacher Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside) lectures his students: “We’ve explored the failure of democracy, when social scientists took the world to the brink of chaos, and how the veterans took control and imposed a stability that has lasted generations.” The trooper who got speared, Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), is introduced, along with Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) and Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris, better known as television’s Doogie Howser).

The kids are about ready to graduate, and they have a choice: Enlist in an open-ended stint in the Federal Service and become a citizen, or go to college and remain a second-class civilian. They all join; Ibanez wants to become a starship pilot, her boyfriend Rico is too stupid for anything but Mobile Infantry, Flores has a crush on Rico and will follow him wherever, and Jenkins seems destined for the UCF version of the CIA.

The film follows Rico and Flores into boot camp. After a member of squad leader Rico’s team is killed in a training exercise, Rico quits. But before he can reach the transporter that will take him home, the bugs destroy Buenos Aires with a meteor, and the Federation immediately declares war on Klendathu. Rico, whose emotional range runs the gamut from angry to pissed off, takes back his resignation so he can help exact revenge on those nasty bugs.

OK, in many respects, Starship Troopers is an incredibly dumb movie, a large pizza and a six-pack excuse to waste two hours watching big computer-generated insects make hamburger out of attractive wooden actors. If you think too hard about the plot, it comes apart like a cheap pair of shoes.

But Verhoeven, who lived as a child in Nazi-occupied Europe, probably had more on his mind than making the ultimate celluloid paean to pest control. The director was interested in how the state manipulates information and imagery to convince raw meat—you, the potential recruit—to do its bidding. And it’s Verhoeven’s take on the dangers of propaganda that makes Starship Troopers a film worthy of more than casual viewing.

The short blocks of “commercials” that appear a couple of places during the movie give you the impression that life is not smiley-happy in the UCF. In fact, everyone’s at war. In one spot, “Doing Our Part,” a bunch of kids gleefully grind insects into playground asphalt; in another, they fawn over soldiers with huge automatic weapons in a park. In another, the voiceover intones, “A man was arrested for murder this morning and tried.” “Guilty,” says the judge, pounding his gavel. “Execution at six—all channels, all net,” says the narrator as an elaborate chromed gurney is shown.

Verhoeven got in subtle little digs with these “ads,” but it’s his appropriation of visuals from a 1934 propaganda classic that gives Starship Troopers a familiar look. From the sharply retro cut of Federal Service uniforms to scenes of co-ed troopers bantering in the shower and of massed troops being reviewed by superiors (imagine Doogie Howser in an SS uniform), Verhoeven knowingly echoes Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Triumph of the Will, commissioned by the Third Reich as a feature-length commercial for its new super state.

Riefenstahl captured a moment when the German war machine was just beginning to mesh, when all possibilities were golden. Verhoeven’s live-action cartoon, however, is more in line with what the United States faces: Civilization has been attacked; how will the power structure respond?

Naturally, by flinging everything it has against the enemy. “Shoot a nuke down a bug hole, you got a lot of dead bugs,” one pumped-up troop tells the news correspondent in Starship Troopers, before he and his compatriots are dropped onto Big K.

When the invasion goes horribly wrong, we see the same scene from the beginning, replayed. The correspondent, narrating some new propaganda for the kids back home on Terra, gets munched. So do a few of the troops, who—unlike on the edited footage—are running away from the battle, Monty Python style. When Rico runs by the camera, he faces it directly, stops and screams: “Get outta here now!”

Watching the film, it isn’t hard to imagine that soon we may see similar scenes, originating in a hostile environment, broadcast on the corporate media channels. Kabul may not be Klendathu, but an entire ethnic group, Arabs, are getting as demonized as the giant bugs were in Starship Troopers.

And whatever happens next, it’s clear that we’ve entered a time when we must think critically about what the media feeds us.

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