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The world is finally coming around to Starship Troopers

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The Verge is a place where you can consider the future. So are movies. In Yesterday’s Future, we revisit a movie about the future and consider the things it tells us about today, tomorrow, and yesterday.

The movie: Starship Troopers (1997)

The future: Two hundred years from now, Earth is governed by the United Citizen Federation, a new world order where people are defined as either citizens or civilians. To be a citizen, you must enlist in the UCF marines, which will earn you the respect of your peers and the right to vote. Not much is divulged about the lives of those not enlisted; it’s implied they don’t really matter much. Everyone wants to be a good citizen, everyone wants to enlist.

The UCF needs a steady stream of recruits, too: they’re in a seemingly endless war against the Bugs. If they have a proper name, no one is told. They’re just hostile, overwhelming, and need killing. If they were provoked, the UCF does not care.

Starship Troopers follows a group of new recruits from the end of their compulsory schooling to their enlisting in various branches of the military. All-American jock Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) becomes an infantryman, his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) becomes a pilot, and his weirdo pal Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), who seems to have psychic powers, joins the military’s Intelligence division.

Viewers see the future through their eyes, and it’s one forged on the equitable distribution of violence. Voting is violence, and those who use actual force are the only ones qualified to exercise that privilege. Women and men are equals in this militaristic future: they bleed the same, play on the same arena football teams, and buy into the jingoistic propaganda with equal enthusiasm. They don’t question their roles, the war they fight in, or the fascistic nature of their government, their uniforms, their attitudes. All that matters is that they fight, and they’ll gladly die in a war that doesn’t make sense.

The past: Upon its release in November 1997, Starship Troopers almost immediately flopped. Audiences and critics hated it. Roger Ebert called it “the most violent kiddie movie ever made” in his two-star review. Ebert conceded director Paul Verhoeven seemed to be angling for a satire of fascism but argued the film lacked humanity, considering its action soulless spectacle.

It didn’t help that the movie arrived in a tremendous year for film. Titanic would steamroll box offices a month later, and the preceding months saw more successful genre fare like The Fifth Element and The Lost World: Jurassic Park rake in millions. Perhaps Star Wars didn’t help, either: in 1997, the Special Editions had been released both theatrically and on home video, and the mean contrast of Verhoeven’s film might have been difficult to swallow.

Starship Troopers seems to be an obvious satire now, but the movie and its marketing mostly played things straight. It was an unpretentious sci-fi action film with a $100 million budget and great special effects. Why shouldn’t it be fun? And in the heady glow of late-’90s American prosperity, it wasn’t particularly obvious that the people Starship Troopers was critiquing might have been us.

The present: As Atlantic writer Calum Marsh noted in 2013, the tide has been slowly turning on Starship Troopers. Like a lot of prescient satire, the times changed until the movie’s point was made for it, and its targets became obvious — even though its story in retrospect could not have been more plain.

Revisiting the film in 2018, Verhoeven stressed how Starship Troopers consciously evoked the iconography of fascism on every level, from the casting of blond and square-jawed Casper Van Dien in the lead over known names like Matt Damon to the uniforms they wore.

“I decided to make a movie about fascists who aren’t aware of their fascism,” Verhoeven said, citing the United States’ refusal to limit firearms and the escalating number of executions in Texas under then-governor George W. Bush as aspects of American policy that could easily give way to fascism.

In a recent piece for The New Yorker, David Roth argues that the movie is especially potent in 2020, as American institutions have all but failed, with fascism the only avenue for them to persist.

“For most of Starship Troopers, humanity, in every possible facet, gets its ass kicked. A culture that reveres and communicates exclusively through violence—a culture very much like one that responds to peaceful protests with indiscriminate police brutality, or whose pandemic strategy is to “dominate” an unreasoning virus—keeps running up against its own self-imposed limitations,” Roth writes. “It’s not a realization that anyone in the film can articulate, or seemingly even process, but the failure is plain: society has left itself a single solution to every problem, and it doesn’t work.”

It’s worth noting that it’s still easy to misinterpret Starship Troopers if you’re not necessarily expecting satire. There is nothing to compare the fascistic UCF against other than the bugs — aliens shaped like things we already abhor, who don’t speak or seem to want anything other than to be left alone. It’s full of long, corny action, characters who don’t seem to think about much, and very little growth.

On this level, it’s a mindless blockbuster that’s easy to ignore, which is precisely the problem. It’s been easy to ignore our society’s very obvious ills. The atrocities of 2020 are not abnormalities or acts of God; they’re the logical conclusion to decades of careful work on the part of some and negligence on the part of others. The rot is slow, like the online propaganda videos that Starship Troopers uses for exposition that all end with a link asking “would you like to know more?” It’s a shadow of the way algorithms would serve as accelerant for radicalization nearly a decade before YouTube.

Starship Troopers asserts that the spectacle is the point. Its final act, a last, desperate push to clear out a bug stronghold, is exceedingly dull and senseless, violence made mundane. It plays it straight with no clever asides for the audience to pick up on, no character to channel the experience through, no one to ask the viewer why they have this urge to find this violence meaningful, for having the temerity to think that violence would have a meaning. I’m here to see the fireworks, and rare is the blockbuster that is interested in forcing me to question that.

Besides, would people even care? If we gave the Avengers an S.S. paint job, would people love them any less? We don’t just cheer for the “good guys” with guns anymore, but the ones with literal superpowers, and they’ve taken over the world.

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9 new trailers to watch this week

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Back when the pandemic was just getting started in the US, I spent a couple nights watching a pair of Taika Waititi films I hadn’t seen: Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows. They were the perfect kind of light, no-stress movies for the moment.

That’s really the kind of experience that Waititi excels at making. His movies are filled with silly, try-hard characters you can’t help but care for, but he never really puts them in harm’s way. They’re constantly blustering their way through a ludicrous scenario of their own making, and it’s usually quite clear how they can find their way out. That makes the stakes low but leaves plenty of room for the characters’ big personalities to shine through.

Check out nine trailers from this week (and last week because I was off!) below.

Kajillionaire

Almost a decade after her last film, Miranda July is back with a wild twist on a heist movie — a film about a bizarre family of con artists and the daughter (played by Evan Rachel Wood) who’s suddenly started to realize that she wants more from her parents. It comes out (in theaters, supposedly) on September 18th.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield star in this film about Fred Hampton, the leader of the Black Panther Party in Illinois who was killed by police in 1969. This trailer makes the film seem like it’ll have the energy of an action thriller. It comes out sometime next year.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Charlie Kaufman’s next movie is a time-twisting thriller about a woman who goes to visit her boyfriend’s parents during a snowstorm and seems to end up slipping through the past of those around her. The film is an adaptation of a novel by Iain Reid, but it clearly echoes the kind of confusing explorations of memory that Kaufman (who wrote Eternal Sunshine) is often interested in diving into. The film comes out on September 4th.

Zola

I love this simple and serious first look at Zola, the movie based on the viral Twitter thread (yes, it’s based on a Twitter thread!) about two strippers on a road trip that went wildly awry. My colleague Adi Roberston called the film “gorgeous and engaging” when it debuted at Sundance. There’s no specific date for when it’ll come out.

Raised by Wolves

Ridley Scott is working on a sci-fi series for HBO Max, and it looks like a strange mashup of far-out tech and fantasy ideas. The show is about androids assigned to raise human children on a new planet, where things inevitably go awry. The show debuts on September 3rd.

Small Axe

Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, is working on an anthology miniseries about stories from London’s West Indian community between the 1960s and 1980s. This is a look at just one of the five films, focused on a group of Black activists arrested for protesting police harassment in 1970. The series is supposed to come to Amazon and BBC One this fall.

Ratched

Netflix’s latest series from Ryan Murphy is a prequel of sorts to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, focused on Nurse Ratched. Sarah Paulson stars as a quiet, seemingly ready-to-snap Nurse Ratched working in a technicolor hospital. It comes out on September 18th.

The Vow

HBO has a documentary series coming up about NXIVM, the supposed self-help group that’s been alleged to be an abusive cult and pyramid scheme. The series comes from the filmmakers behind The Square. It debuts on August 23rd

We Are Who We Are

Here’s the first real look at the new HBO series from Luca Guadagnino, the director of Call Me by Your Name. It’s about two American teenagers growing up in Italy, and it seems to involve plenty of sunny settings and sexual awkwardness, which is kind of all you’d want from a Guadagnino show. It debuts on September 14th.

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In She Dies Tomorrow, figuring out how to spend your last day is really damn hard

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A woman jolts awake and gasps for air in a nondescript living room. She can’t explain why, but she’s certain of one thing: she only has one more day to live. So she tells her friend, Jane, and something horrifying happens: Jane also becomes certain the next day will be her last. This strange conviction, it turns out, is contagious. And it’ll infect many more before tomorrow actually comes.

Written and directed by Amy Seimetz, She Dies Tomorrow is a new film with a title and a premise that suggests something propulsive — a thriller, perhaps, or a nightmarish horror film. Instead, it is contemplative, a psychodrama that introduces a simple unsettling idea to each of its characters and lets us watch as they become unmoored. It doesn’t give definite answers to anything, but it is absolutely clear about one thing: everyone who says they are going to die tomorrow absolutely believes it.

She Dies Tomorrow is a house of mirrors, a film much more interested in the reflections it offers you than in conjuring anything overly specific for you to ruminate. Its characters all process the revelation at the heart of the film in strikingly mundane ways. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), the protagonist, mills about aimlessly, seemingly overwhelmed by the number of ways she could spend her last day, ends up whiling away the hours with morbidly mundane stuff like looking up urns or wondering if her skin could be made into a leather jacket.

Others, like Brian (Tunde Adebimpe) and Tilly (Jennifer Kim) immediately lose interest in the charade they’ve each been maintaining for the other’s benefit, agreeing that they were never going to work out as a couple and that they were going to leave each other as soon as it didn’t seem callous. She Dies Tomorrow dances from existential dread to compressed breakup story to withering comedy from scene to scene. The film takes the gravity of its premise and juxtaposes it with mundanity, and in doing so its characters all feel so silly and self-absorbed. Then the idea infects me, and I feel silly and self-absorbed.

Incomprehensibly big, destabilizing events have a way of warping everything around them, forcing everything into a new context. She Dies Tomorrow arriving in the midst of a global pandemic that, among other things, inspires a general feeling of mundane helplessness gives the film a recursive quality: we are all surrounded by our own doom and the temptation of that doom is narcissism, to spend all of our time stunned by how our world is being rearranged.

She Dies Tomorrow isn’t interested in resolution, but if you lean forward, you can find interrogation. As each character is infected with the idea that their end is coming, they stare at the camera as barely discernible voices fade in and red and blue lights change the contours of their face. We don’t know what’s going through their minds, but we can imagine: how are you living right now, and how is it different from the ways you’ve always lived? Is there a good reason for that? Who put the idea in your head that it has to be this way?

“Do you want to make out?” a man (Adam Wingard) asks Amy as they get high together and she tries to figure out what to do next on her last day. She consents, but they eventually call it off before anything really happens. It doesn’t feel right. Nothing feels right. And whether there’s an answer to the question of how right Amy or her friends are about their fate, nothing ever will again.

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Microsoft condemns Apple’s App Store policies

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Microsoft is now rebuking Apple over its stringent developer restrictions and its stance on cloud gaming apps, which the iPhone maker does not allow on the App Store for apparent violations of its guidelines. In a statement attributed to a Microsoft spokesperson, the company tells The Verge, “Apple stands alone as the only general purpose platform to deny consumers from cloud gaming and game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass.”

Apple earlier today elaborated on its controversial position to not allow services like Microsoft’s upcoming xCloud and the competing Google Stadia platform to exist on the App Store because the company cannot review individual games available on cloud platforms. A number of other App Store guidelines also bar cloud services from existing on iOS unless they are designed more like remote desktop software.

Microsoft says Apple is denying consumers the benefits of such technology through unfair enforcement of its App Store rules. It also accuses Apple of treating gaming apps unfairly while allowing other media services to exist on the platform even when they “include interactive content,” a nod it sounds like to Netflix’s inclusion of interactive programming akin to text adventure games like last year’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

“Our testing period for the Project xCloud preview app for iOS has expired. Unfortunately, we do not have a path to bring our vision of cloud gaming with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate to gamers on iOS via the Apple App Store,” a Microsoft spokesperson tells The Verge. The company also alleges that Apple “consistently treats gaming apps differently, applying more lenient rules to non-gaming apps even when they include interactive content.”

Microsoft goes on to say that it’s interested in making xCloud and its Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription available on iOS devices. It also references the ESRB and other regional equivalents to the US video game rating board as evidence that Apple could use third-party content evaluations in deciding whether to allow cloud gaming apps onto iOS. But as it stands right now, it doesn’t appear like Apple is willing to play ball.

“All games available in the Xbox Game Pass catalog are rated for content by independent industry ratings bodies such as the ESRB and regional equivalents,” Microsoft says, implying that it believes that review should be sufficient rather than having Apple apply its own policies to each individual game. (Xbox Game Pass Ultimate offers access to over 100 titles.) “We are committed to finding a path to bring cloud gaming with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate to the iOS platform,” the statement goes on to say, though it’s unclear what exactly that path will be, given the impasse.

Here is Microsoft’s full statement:

Our testing period for the Project xCloud preview app for iOS has expired. Unfortunately, we do not have a path to bring our vision of cloud gaming with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate to gamers on iOS via the Apple App Store. Apple stands alone as the only general purpose platform to deny consumers from cloud gaming and game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass. And it consistently treats gaming apps differently, applying more lenient rules to non-gaming apps even when they include interactive content. All games available in the Xbox Game Pass catalog are rated for content by independent industry ratings bodies such as the ESRB and regional equivalents. We are committed to finding a path to bring cloud gaming with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate to the iOS platform. We believe that the customer should be at the heart of the gaming experience and gamers tell us they want to play, connect and share anywhere, no matter where they are. We agree.

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