Casper Van Dien is loving the Starship Troopers renaissance but still finds it mind-boggling some take it at face value: ‘My grandfather fought against the Nazis, and it’s not a pro-war film—Everybody f***ing dies!’

Starship Troopers: Extermination has been in early access since last year and, buoyed by the success of Sony’s similarly themed Helldivers 2, is coming in hot for a full October launch that among other things boasts the return of Casper Van Dien as Johnny Rico. Rico is the beating heart of the original movie’s ensemble cast, has many of the finest lines, and is kind of the audience’s anchor as director Paul Verhoeven blasts off on an excoriating drive-by about social control, war from the space grunt perspective, and man’s inhumanity to… well, everything.

The renewed interest in the series and particularly the original movie has, to put it bluntly, run right into some chronically bad discourse. Starship Troopers is satirical in tone, some would say blatantly so, but it’s also possible to view it as a straight-up action movie about blasting bugs and not think too much about the rest. PC Gamer had the chance to sit down with Casper Van Dien alongside developers from Offworld, the studio behind Starship Troopers: Extermination, and asked about threading this needle of keeping the fiction plausible while not falling into the trap of glorifying the kind of ideologies it’s sending up. 

“It’s trying to find that line between satire and fascism,” says Gareth Woods. “So we’re not trying to make light of the situation, and I think that’s maybe the line that Helldivers goes a little bit differently. It’s a bit more fun, tonally a bit more comedic, if your pod crushes your body, you throw in another Helldiver, another guy joins you.

“So we’re trying to be more serious, the satire comes from the viewers’ appreciation of how ridiculous the situation is with the war machine. It’s funny because 1930s style propaganda to us in 2024 seems like ‘how could people fall for this, this is such a joke.’ Trust your government and all that kind of thing. Propaganda only works when you’re not aware that it’s working… we have to be very strong in our community sentiment to be able to like shut down those groups that will use this as a way to like push different agendas. We’re not about that, our studio and the game stand for being inclusive.”

“What people tried to say with the propaganda and all that other stuff,” says Van Dien, “the war machine… we were young, and we signed up, but I was going to be the best damn soldier, I was going to be what they’ve given me, it’s the arc that Verhoeven always wanted to show.

“So where now Rico’s a General, and he’s still the best at what he can do, his priority now is the troops. So my character even in this, my priorities are the troopers, even over the mission, gotta get the mission done. But I don’t want it at the expense of the troopers, which is beautiful. So there is the satire, but there is more humanity and I think it felt like that to me in watching this. It’s still being troopers and getting the job done, but they really want to move the whole team along together. I love that, the camaraderie.”

Offworld’s Peter Maurice and Chaz Baker talk a little about the absurdity of this being communicated through the gameplay itself. The simple fact that, in Starship Troopers: Extermination, you are going to die a lot, you’re going to be overwhelmed by bugs, you’re going to see these ludicrous numbers of enemies and know you’re part of a small group of 16 going in to do the job.

“Which is exactly what we had,” says Van Dien. “That was a whole conversation we’d have during Starship Troopers. This is exactly why it was so much fun for me to get there because I went, oh, these guys [Offworld] really get it because not everybody did. In England, they got it. I mean, the propaganda war posters that were up on the wall when I went to England for the promotional tour, and they had war stuff with everyone fights everything all over the Tube and the tunnels. I was like, ‘Oh, you guys are brilliant. You guys have the most sick, perverted dark sense of humour.’ I love it. Got it 100%.

“In America, we maybe missed it at the time but now people are coming back to the table and the young men that have watched Starship Troopers for whatever reason, whether playing this game or Helldivers or Halo, maybe their dad’s going you should check out Starship Troopers, they come back and go, ‘How did anybody miss that this was satire?’ This is what the young audience says. And I think it’s because educated people show them, older people show them, and also the audience just have more wisdom when it comes to this nowadays. So for some reason, it’s changed a little bit, the satire is understood much better.”

With that said, Van Dien has been the face of this series for a long time, and from the start has run into those who take the movie at face value.

“I have people at conferences literally come up to me and say, ‘There’s no way anybody missed this’,” says Van Dien. “I was doing press in England, and a woman said to me this is a pro war film, and I want you to do the Nazi salute. And I said, ‘Well, actually, my grandfather fought against the Nazis, and it’s not a pro war film. Everybody fucking dies. And so you didn’t watch the movie.’

“It’s not pro warfare. You really didn’t watch the movie. Now, Paul Verhoeven was livid because he’s like, ‘Oh, my God, she asked you to do a salute.’ I’m like, I’m not gonna do that and he said ‘thank God you had the wherewithal not to do that’. I’m not an idiot, I might play one in the movie, but I’m not going to do something like that. For me it was baffling, maybe there was trickery on her part, maybe it was genuinely not understanding the film.

“People go, well, the military people are gonna think this is good,” says Van Dien. “But military people get that sense, they might actually have one of the most sick, perverse senses of humour ever because they like that it makes fun of, you know, other movies. I grew up in a military family so I have an understanding, and most of the people that come up and talk to me from the military fucking love the satire of it. They think it’s funny, they’re like ‘yeah, we always do stupid stuff like that too.'”

At this point Van Dien asks what PCG thinks about people who miss the movie’s satire, to which the only appropriate answer is “despair”.

“You’re in a similar position as me,” nods Van Dien. “I’m actually… I always try to be kind. And I try to explain and try to have compassion, because I don’t think it’s fair to just make fun of somebody because they’re not there yet. Maybe they didn’t pay enough attention. I don’t understand it, though, but I do understand the despair part. Yeah, because it seems so obvious.”

A starship trooper points into the camera while being attacked by bugs on all sides.

(Image credit: Offworld)

At this point Van Dien returns to the theme of how well the movie was received in England, and the love he’s felt for the movie when working with others in the film industry.

“Edgar Wright Jr. said he had Starship Troopers and Aliens up at a film festival,” says Van Dien, “He said everybody raise their hand who thinks that Aliens is better than Starship Troopers and 70% raise their hands. And he goes on to explain why Starship Troopers is better and he says he convinced 90% of those 70% that Starship was better. Quentin Tarantino talked to me for five hours about why Starship Troopers is one of the best movies ever made.

“I could go on. I worked on Alita: Battle Angel and all Robert Rodriguez wants to talk about is Starship Troopers. Eli Roth tells me how much he loves Starship Troopers, I’m sitting there with great directors and they all get it and now, it feels like everybody. It’s refreshing. So how you say it’s despair: it is despair, except for the fact that Paul Verhoeven knows that there’s always that kind of percentage of people that will miss it. And they’ll play to that audience. And that’s brilliant.”

Starship Troopers: Extermination will hit its full release this October, complete with a new singleplayer campaign in which you’re commanded by Johnny Rico. The game doesn’t just boast star power, of course, but one of the most impressive corpse pile-up systems we’ve ever seen. And Van Dien himself is one of the most pleasant things about the resurgence of interest in Starship Troopers, an actor who’s clearly delighted that his most iconic role has found a new life almost three decades later, and is ready to take a new audience with him.

“I’m going to welcome [all these Helldivers players] into the Roughnecks,” booms Van Dien. “They can do all the training they want elsewhere, and then come in here and help us kill some damn bugs—Yeah!”

PCGamer.com

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