Man, woman; white, black, Filipino; farmer, college boy—under the leadership of Earth’s “Federation,” all are finally equal. Unfortunately, they’re equally worthless, denied full citizenship until they shed sweat, tears, and blood in the military. Teachers and recruiters carry the scars of their service (mechanical arms, acid burns, eyeless sockets), giving idealistic youngsters a glimpse of the steep price they’ll pay for their scholarships, their pregnancy licenses, their right to vote.
Director Paul Verhoeven spends the first hour (give or take) of the film following a small group of such bright-eyed teens (well, twenty-somethings) through the Mobile Infantry’s grueling basic training program. We share in the good times (getting awesome matching tattoos) and the bad (the heartbreak of long-distance relationships, the horror of seeing a fellow cadet’s head split open like a watermelon during a live fire exercise gone wrong), and gradually grow rather fond of these poor, deluded grunts—Shujumi, the Harvard-bound hothead hoping to secure a free ride; “Kitten” Smith, the aspiring writer looking for some life experience; Katrina, who just wants to have babies.
And then, our band of lovable heroes is deployed to Klendathu, home planet to the hostile (according to Federation propaganda, anyway) alien bugs—where Verhoeven mercilessly slaughters half of them. Shujumi: torn limb-from-limb and tossed still squirming to the advancing insect swarm. Smith: sliced messily in two across the chest. Katrina: dragged screaming into the enemy’s deep network of tunnels. Their hopes, their dreams, their ambitions—all reduced to a pile of severed limbs and steaming entrails.
Yet the gung-ho protagonist, Johnny Rico (who, to be fair, lost his entire family to the Arachnids’ initial artillery strike), eagerly returns to the war zone—even after he learns that his superiors deliberately used the M.I. as bait to determine the opposition’s combat capabilities, and that his psychically talented best friend is fully capable of influencing his actions. Whatever Rico may want to believe, he is not fighting to defend an immaculate utopia; no, he marches into battle waving the flag of a cruel, fascist government that values obedience over true freedom—an unjust system built on the mangled corpses of its “Citizens.”
War is Hell, indeed.