Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”
Perhaps the most widely misunderstood studio movie of the nineties, this mega-budgeted sci-fi film was betrayed by its marketing, which promised a gung-ho action extravaganza for the kind of viewer who likes all them pretty 'splosions. The film is far more than competent with its action content, delivering highly adrenalized combat sequences that juggle the interests of multiple characters at once without ever becoming incoherent, but there's a wealth of extra meaning that went unmined by audiences. Critics picked up on the movie's signals but misinterpreted them, calling the soldiers fascists and film dehumanizing. What almost no one seemed to suspect was that a genre movie this expensive could have a deliberate satirical slant to it: Of course the soldiers are fascists and the film is dehumanizing; director Paul Verhoeven and writer Ed Neumeier are trying to argue that those are terrible things and that nationalism eventually devalues individual life to the point where it is wasted on a grand scale. Verhoeven and Neumeier painted a forest, but critics saw only trees, and audiences saw only paint.
When I first saw this film a few weeks ago, I was already aware of the filmmakers' real intentions via an article I had read about misunderstood movies, and I enjoyed them as much as I thrilled at the surface-level science fiction entertainment: The disturbingly detailed "arachnid" villains, the expansive view of a star armada falling into formation above a planet, the ballet of destruction caused by the well-trained soldiers and their weapons. But it's the film's real meaning that stayed with me. An ultra-conservative friend who liked this movie once argued that our country should adopt its system of compulsory military service as a prerequisite for citizenship, since only those willing to serve the state deserve to receive its benefits. Now I see how wrong-headed that notion is, that it punishes those opposed to militarism (reducing the peaceful and the conscientious to second-class citizens) and prevents its adherents from considering any notion of justice (the soldiers shout down any suggestion that humanity might have inspired the bug attacks). The problem with nationalism is that it empowers patriots at a steep cost to their humanity, their ethics, their values. It prefers war over peace, and it refuses to grant its enemies even the slightest consideration. Verhoeven and Neumeier have expressed disgust that their film has inspired jingoism rather than diminishing it; a cynic would chuckle at the inevitable failure of their message in the face of American bellicism if the cynic were not in total agreement with the fascist characters of the film.
What do I make of the other reason the film failed to gain respect, the alleged sluttiness of its female lead? On their commentary track, Verhoeven and Neumeier claim to have been blindsided by the audience hatred of Denise Richards's character. Some preview audiences turned in blank sheets except for the words "kill the bitch!" in big letters. What is her crime? Falling for another man while dating the hero? They're teenagers, which would make the relationship unstable if it were committed to begin with, but the couple doesn't even achieve physical intimacy until just before they go their separate ways in military service, so I can't imagine what fidelity she owes him. Does the fact that he joined the army to gain her approval, which she never remotely pressured him to do, somehow obligate her to worship him? How is it that he sleeps with another female soldier in his unit but does not get a hint of scorn from the audience? The filmmakers said they were trying to be "good feminists" by letting the female lead pursue her own romantic agenda, and were baffled by backlashes from audiences all over the world that seethed with anger at this woman who dared to smile at another man besides the hero. In the future, when women get to fight and kill and even shower beside their male counterparts as equals, apparently they still owe them unwavering romantic allegiance. What an unfortunate perception to befall such a well-conceived, forward-thinking film. It deserves to be reconsidered in full; hopefully the high volume of material on the special edition DVD can help to turn the tide of audience favor back towards it.