It’s been 21 years since we watched Johnny Rico evolve from wide-eyes civilian dissecting space-faring insects in his high school science class to Mobile Infantry trainee, sand later, a seasoned roughneck. But there’s one scene from director Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 cinematic interpretation of Robert Heinlein’s 1959 military sci-fi classic Starship Troopers that remains iconic not for what we see, but for what most of us missed.
Yes, we’re talking about that shower scene.
In the span of two soapy minutes, the infamous shower scene from Starship Troopers gave us a glossy, vivid 90s-style depiction of men and women in an infantry unit living, training, eating, sleeping, and yes, bathing together. The moment is playful, flirty and yet transgressively light. The movie premiered at a time before nudity was mainstream, and the scene was so radical that Verhoeven agreed to strip down for filming to put the cast at ease. It often gets head nods as a progressive depiction of service, mostly due to its debut nearly two decades before the U.S. military integrated combat arms.
It makes sense why: We see a bunch of space grunts, of all races and backgrounds winding down after a long day training, united in their willingness to serve and their desire to kill space bugs. But there’s something dark being hinted at amidst all the suds and space soldier stories — and there’s a good chance it went by unnoticed amid the scene’s other distractions.
The shower scene occurs during the movie’s first act, a broadly utopian depiction of a totalitarian society — one structured around the principle of military service as the sole path to citizenship — that is smack in the middle of an intergalactic war with a race of intelligent bugs. Kitten, one of the fresh recruits and a would-be writer facilitates the “get to know the squad” portion of the film; the result is, in some ways, a window into the moral and ethical social commentary that were largely jettisoned in Starship Troopers’ transition from book to screen.
To service members and veterans, some of the banter and backstories may even seem a little familiar. Sprinkled throughout the scene are the standard reasons for joining the military, namely, social and economic mobility: One guy wants off the farm; another joins to pay for college; and a third wants to make a career of it. And of course, there’s the romanticized trope of the young man heading off to war to find himself and win acclaim, or love, from those back home — though in Rico’s case, it’s over a highschool crush that ends with him being brutally Jody’d.
But like the recruiting adverts for “why the Mobile Infantry is right for you,” the scene quickly takes a dystopian turn when one of the recruits explains that she’s “going in for politics … You gotta be a citizen for that, so here I am.” Another remarks that she enlisted because “I wanna have babies. It’s a lot easier to get a licence if you’ve served.”
I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I saw that movie as a teenager, the significance was lost on me — mostly because there were pretty people showering, like a naked who’s-who of Beverly Hills, 90210 extras. It was probably more than my hormone-addled teenage brain could handle, and that may have been by design. With the distance of time, however, the dialogue is a strange contrast to the lighthearted nudity of the sequence, a commentary on how mundane and banal the planet’s militarized fascism has become.
“The idea I wanted to express was that these so-called advanced people are without libido,” Verhoeven told Empire in 2012. “Here they are talking about war and their careers and not looking at each other at all! It is sublimated because they are fascists.”
That “the nudity might even be part of the movie’s illusion: a way of getting you to focus on everything besides the point” is a theory Entertainment Weekly explored in a 20-year anniversary breakdown of the sci-fi space opera’s shower scene. Tucked in between the generic lures of military service are the red flags that their world is deeply flawed. This is not a huge shocker if you’ve been paying even attention to the “service guarantees citizenship” mantra in the recurring propaganda newsreels, but it’s in this scene that the movie makes it clear exactly what military service entitles you to: political agency and the right to have a family.
Take a moment to let that sink in: Every aspect of their life is controlled by the state. Then consider that in the Mobile Infantry, they’ve got leisurely shower time, bed-mounted TVs in the barracks, and a glimmer of freedom, not to mention all those sweet MI benefits they can collect at the end of their service, like babies and a seat on a city council. In the campy future-world of Starship Troopers, there are no screaming drill instructors ordering Mobile Infantry recruits to scrub their nasty bodies on a countdown as they clamour, three or four to a shower head, to soap and rinse, before sprinting to change over for whatever grueling ordeal comes next. But, like all totalitarian “utopias”, what lies beneath is far more sinister.
In our present-day democracy, there are only two circumstances where your daily life is structured and controlled by the state. One is the military, which we volunteer for; the other is prison. In Starship Troopers, we see the inverse, where every aspect of life is controlled by the government, and the only way to secure greater personal freedoms, is to elect to serve. It makes the shower scene, wrapped in steam and flesh, a visceral commentary of life without freedom — you won’t miss what you don’t know.