Helldivers 2 Celebrates the Guilty Pleasures of Starship Troopers

By embracing the guiltier pleasures of Starship Troopers, Helldivers 2 ends up capturing so much of what made that movie so memorable.

Helldivers 2 and Starship Troopers
Photo: PlayStation, TriStar Pictures

Helldivers 2 is not an official Starship Troopers game, though it’s easy to see why so many people are mistaking it for one. Like Starship Troopers, Helldivers 2 features a group of overly patriotic soldiers using massive sci-fi weapons to battle hordes of bug-like alien creatures. More than just a cute series of stylistic coincidences, Helldivers developer Arrowhead Game Studios has gone out of its way to invite and celebrate Starship Troopers‘ influence on their projects. Helldiversdebut trailer is even a thinly veiled parody of/tribute to Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 sci-fi action film and (to a slightly lesser degree) the book that the movie is based on. 

The fact that there is a major 2024 video game that has people fondly recalling Starship Troopers without ever actually naming that movie is pretty wild. After all, Starship Troopers was eviscerated by most critics and audiences at the time of its release and for many years after. Some simply criticized the film for its vapid leads, their wooden acting, and the inane dialog they were asked to read. Others called the movie a sickening celebration of military-driven fascism, with the most venomous of critics arguing that the movie was actively pro-Nazi or at least arguing for Nazi idealogy. 

Years later, even many of Starship Troopers‘ most vocal former critics recognize the film for what it really is: a biting satire of military fascism and patriotism delivered with such blunt force that it ended up sailing over most peoples’ heads. While many always acknowledged that the film’s cutaway PSA segments were pieces of propaganda parody, it took years for more viewers to embrace the fact that the entire movie is essentially a propaganda film produced by a fictional fascist government. 

Those young and beautiful actors? Stand-ins for the romanticized view of the ideal citizen. That obvious dialog and those forced romantic subplots? Exactly the kinds of things you’d find in actual propaganda movies that were produced to glorify and promote often horrifying messages. The scene where Neil Patrick Harris shows up dressed like a space Nazi and uses his psychic powers to celebrate the enemy’s fear? You get the point.

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While there will always be so much to say about Starship Troopers and the ways it cleverly skewers its complex subject matter, there is another, darker truth about the movie that is still not widely accepted. Those of us who grew up with the movie since a certain age didn’t need to fully understand the movie’s parodies to appreciate it. We were just transfixed by the film’s violent, creative, and often stylistically unique action sequences. It’s that aspect of the Starship Troopers experience that Helldivers 2 celebrates and captures like no game before it.

I can certainly understand the widespread hesitation to celebrate that element of the Starship Troopers experience. Whether you believe that Starship Troopers is fascism porn or you recognize that the movie’s violence is part of its intricate satire, praising the film’s action is often a tightrope act. What is the right way to gush about combat scenes spawned by indefensible militaristic policies and participated in by naive youths who have been pitted against an enemy they have been told is sub-human and therefore ok to commit genocide against?

Mind you, Helldivers 2 fully embraces the “joke” that eluded many Starship Troopers viewers for so long. Its characters regularly utter lines like “How about a nice cup of Liber-Tea?” or “Say hello to Democracy!” The game makes it clear that you are playing as a group of soldiers who are not quite the liberators they seem to see themselves as. 

Yet, Helldivers 2 never lets its awareness of its spiritual source material’s deeper messages get in the way of celebrating the fact that Starship Trooper’s action scenes are simply spectacular. Anyone who doubts Verhoeven’s action scene chops clearly didn’t watch Total Recall and Robocop closely enough, but Starship Troopers sees the director significantly increase the scale of those sequences without sacrificing any of their visceral intensity or the subtle bits of storytelling and character work that often elevated them. 

Starship Trooper’s combat scenes pit a group of heavily armed and loosely trained human soldiers against seemingly endless waves of largely arachnid-based foes. Whatever advantages the humans’ football-sized nuclear weapons and mini-cannons may offer are quickly negated by the relentlessness of their opposition. There are millions of bugs, and it doesn’t take long for one of them to slip through a curtain of bullets and suck out the brains of a kid that didn’t have many to spare in the first place.

Starship Troopers proudly joins the ranks of Aliens and Predator in terms of its ability to effectively portray battles between heavily armed soldiers and sci-fi slashers. Even those movies sometimes feel like intimate Merchant Ivory-produced takes on that concept compared to the absurd efforts of Starship Troopers

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Helldivers 2 embraces that absurdity just as it openly embraces so many other aspects of the Starship Troopers experience. By trading in the original game’s arcade-like overhead perspective and utilizing full third-person play, Helldivers 2 lets you feel the terror, intensity, and, yes, thrills of surviving seemingly unwinnable scenarios.

Whatever sense of accomplishment you feel from nuking a cave of bugs is often quickly replaced by the horror of watching the biggest cockroach you’ll see this side of a Craigslist Manhattan apartment run towards you at full speed. Helldivers 2 even regularly recreates Starship Trooper’s most thrilling action sequence by asking you to hold a fixed position against an army of incoming hostiles while you wait for a dropship to arrive. 

Unlike official Starship Troopers games (and other flattering gaming tributes), Helldivers 2 never lets its foot off the gas. Every bullet, every bomb, and even every musical sting and sound effect feels genuinely impactful, which makes every battle feel appropriately intense. You should never expect to win in Helldivers 2, especially if you cannot effectively work with your squadmates and learn to master both your equipment and tactics. Without that difficulty, so much of what this game is trying to do would fall apart.

There is an elegant brutality to Helldivers 2‘s action that is hard to find outside of Starship Troopers and corners of the Warhammer universe. Weapons are advanced but not so advanced that they eliminate pain and violence. If anything, they’re designed to be as painful and violent as possible. Soldiers are presented as being superhuman, yet are exposed as mere bags of meat at every opportunity. Strategies are vital yet combat ultimately feels practically gladiatorial. It’s an intoxicating blend of concepts that glamorizes the action while constantly reminding you how ugly the whole thing is in nearly every respect.

There it is again. That desire to clarify any praise for Starship Troopers scenes with the usual acknowledgments of what those scenes often really mean and how intentionally “dumb” they sometimes are. Watching Starship Troopers for its action sometimes feels a lot like watching Mad Men and constantly praising the fashion. I know this isn’t the point of that biting drama about the societal horrors that often propped up our elevated nostalgia for that time period, but those sure are some nice suits. 

In the case of Helldivers 2, though, maybe finding an excuse to praise the style of Starship Troopers is the point. After all, some critics in 1997 derisively compared Starship Troopers to a video game, yet more than a few video game developers over the years tried (and failed) to replicate the ferocious action on display in that movie. If there wasn’t something cinematically and conceptually magical about those scenes, they would have faded from our collective memory rather than burning themselves into our retinas. Perhaps they were never meant to be dismissed quite as quickly as even some of Starship Troopers’ defenders would have you believe. 

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By using those combat scenes as the inspiration for some of the most engrossing action in recent gaming history, Helldivers 2 makes it much easier to appreciate the pleasures (guilty and otherwise) of those aspects of Starship Troopers that never seem to get enough love. When it comes to honoring the totality of that film and keeping it in the conversation for another generation, Helldivers 2 most certainly does its part. 

Helldivers 2 is available now for PlayStation 5 and PC.