Theory: Starship Troopers is part of a trilogy. No, I don’t mean with its two straight-to-home-video sequels—there are actually four sequels, anyway. I mean that it’s part of a trilogy with Robocop [1987] and Total Recall [1990]. But no, I don’t mean I have some fan theory that they all are “secretly” set in the same universe. [That’s the silliest sort of trilogy, one that the internet can’t seem to get enough of.] They’re a conceptual trilogy.

These films are a trilogy in the sense that, for example, Ingmar Bergman’s Silence trilogy [1961-1963] is a trilogy. Just as Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence all deal with the Christian theological conundrum of God’s intractable silence but do so through very different stories and characters, so do Paul Verhoeven’s three Hollywood sci-fi actioners approach recurring ideas from different angles. Call it the Quato Trilogy.

In case you don’t know, here’s a quick run-down of the plot of each film. In Robocop, a novice Detroit police officer is effectively murdered by local gangsters [who are in bed with the evil multinational Omnicorp], but is resurrected through a military experiment that fuses his organic body with advanced armor, weapons, and targeting systems, becoming Detroit’s most effective and fearsome weapon. In Total Recall, an average-Joe construction worker signs up to have a memory of a thrilling adventure on Mars implanted into his mind, only to discover maybe that he may actually be the intergalactic spy he fantasized he was. Or he may be in the fantasy-memory the whole time [i.e., it’s like Inception, but smart]. In Starship Troopers, some bright-eyed and bushy-tailed youngsters sign up to fly across the galaxy to kill some giant bugs their society insists are a pressing threat.

Although each film in the Quato Trilogy is set in the future, each is about American culture and politics at the dawn of the digital age, observed with an acute cynicism that has a distinctly European flavor. Robocop is about the infiltration of military technology and ideology into public American life; Total Recall is a more in-depth look at how militaristic and colonial fantasies affect our identities; and Starship Troopers is about the illusion of equality and freedom in a society totally dominated by a militarist point of view. Each, in a sort of “double voice” that also makes them enjoyable as violent spectacle, critiques violence and militarism in American culture.

These films share certain ways of telling their stories, as well. Perhaps the most identifiable example is the way that in each film, a medium that exists within the diegesis—the story-world—is incorporated into the narration of the film. Robocop famously uses news reports and commercials, not watched by anyone in particular in the film, to both move the story along and to deliver its satire. Starship Troopers uses its propaganda shorts in a similar way, with the addition that the shorts are presented within web-interface graphics that provide illusory choice about their sequence [“Want to know more?”]. Total Recall’s medium is Rekall, a memory-implantation device, and it integrates this even further into its narration, as we’re never really sure whether we’re watching the film or a false memory within the mind of the film’s main character.

This transfer of an element from within the story world into the narration itself is called metalepsis, and it occurs frequently throughout the films. And it’s not just that the in-story media are used as narrational devices, but that at times [in Total Recall, throughout], we’re unsure whether what we’re watching is meant to be occurring within the fictional world of the story, or within that fictional world’s own fictional world. Robocop cuts from a diegetic scene to an cinematic image of something terrible and large descending upon Detroit. Is this our action hero Robocop’s next challenge? No, it turns out it’s a clay-mation dinosaur in a car commercial, but just for a second, we thought we were still watching the “real” events of near-future Detroit.

The instability and reflexivity of Total Recall, where even by the end we’re not sure we’ve left Quaid/Hauser’s illusion, is the distilled essence of this device. It is constantly used to undercut the films’ own spectacle; while the action scenes lack tension—Verhoeven is no Spielberg—what they do have is an intriguing intellectual distance from themselves, resulting in humor, but more important, encouraging criticism and reflection. Later in Robocop, for example, our hero does face a giant clay-mation foe, and it can’t help but recall that silly commercial.

When in one of Starship Troopers’s final battle scenes, we’re given a cheesy zoom-in to a row of rifles being simultaneously cocked, we recognize the aesthetic similarity with the dubious fascist propaganda films we’ve seen, and it takes us out of the moment [in case the wooden acting and lines like “they sucked out his brains!” hadn’t done it already]. Through this instability, the films train us not just to absorb their satire, but to apply its observations to the very film we’re watching. What the Quato Trilogy shares is not only a critique of the way media affect the mind and the self, but also the arguably necessary self-implication that insists that the very film you’re watching, the very enjoyment you’re getting, is a part of the problem.

Sadly, another thing these films share is how prescient each of them seems. Robocop imagines a near future in which the government has been replaced, almost wholesale, by multinational “defense” corporations who encourage local police to treat cities as war zones. Total Recall posits a reality so interpenetrated by media that it’s impossible to tell the difference between the real and the virtual anymore, and a world in which media translate colonial violence into the most exhilarating fantasy. The human society of Starship Troopers is in a state of permanent war, dominated by a hegemonic American culture that places military service above all other civic responsibilities, that defines itself through its military power and its hallowed veterans. 

All of these themes seem so current, so relevant, it’s hard to believe the most recent film among them is turning 20 this year. The Quato Trilogy remains among the most important Hollywood films produced in the blockbuster era, an encapsulation of the dangerous trends that have shaped American lives for the last three decades, one which is alternatingly fun, funny, and bleak. Not that far behind it is Verhoeven’s trilogy about sex and gender in capitalist America, Basic Instinct [1992], Showgirls [1995], and Hollow Man [2000]. Call it the Crotch-Shot Trilogy.