Macaulay Culkin Breaks Down the Brilliant Satire of Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers, 1997. Photo: TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series Underratedwe chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.

In 1997, Starship Troopers marked the finale of the Triple Dutch, Paul Verhoeven’s trilogy of hyperviolent, satirical science-fiction flicks that began ten years prior with RoboCop and anchored in the middle by 1990’s Total Recall.

A futuristic, big-budget bug-versus-military movie, Starship Troopers should’ve been a surefire hit, especially in a post–Independence Day blockbuster ecosystem that made alien-invasion movies with a sense of humor in vogue and bankable again. Troopers also had momentum in its favor, with a release date that was slated after two other sci-fi smashes that year, Men in Black and The Fifth Element. Unfortunately, extraterrestrial fatigue had set it in, and critics and audiences failed to show up or connect with Verhoeven’s graphically gory, giant brain-sucking-monster-bugs space opera.

The film has amassed a cult following over the last 20 years, and one of its most passionate and vocal fans is Macaulay Culkin. The 37-year-old Golden Globe–nominated screen legend celebrates Starship Troopers’s sincerity and subversive presentation for what it is: a big, dumb, American action film that parodies big, dumb American jingoism, reactionary propaganda, and imperialist violence. Culkin — who began dabbling in the world of satire with the recent launch of his Bunny Ears website and comedy podcast — wishes more viewers would appreciate Verhoeven’s self-aware wink.

The performances, Culkin says, are where Starship Troopers finds its magic … especially since the actors seem to be oblivious to what kind of movie they’re actually making.

I can’t tell you how excited I am that you picked a political satire from Paul Verhoeven as an underrated comedy.
Are you kidding me? Starship Troopers is one of my favorites of all time. I actually watched it again just to kind of pregame for this chat. I have watched it altogether hundreds and hundreds of times. It was one of those films where, at first, I was quietly a fan of it. Then I discovered on a message board — you know IMDb had those message boards — that there was actually a subculture for Starship Troopers fans. I was like,This is amazing! I don’t have to be in the closet anymore!” I showed it to my girlfriend about two months ago and I just remember laughing so much, especially with somebody watching it for the first time. So when this came up, the chance to talk about an underrated comedy, I just remembered how much I was laughing my ass off at Starship Troopers. And I’m pretty well-versed in the film. It was kind of a perfect marriage.

Why do you think it didn’t connect as an effective satire with audiences back in 1997?
Of course it all starts with Verhoeven. Starship Troopers is part of his dystopian future trilogy. It was RoboCop, Total Recall, and then Starship Troopers. He grew up in Nazi-occupied Netherlands. He was working out how he was affected by that type of violent nationalism through these films. In Starship Troopers he’s skewering that kind of propaganda and greed and all those things that made their way to America. I think a lot of audiences at first didn’t know they were watching a political satire because the actors themselves didn’t know they were in a satire. I liked Verhoeven’s philosophy going into this whole thing — it feels like he just hired some soap actors and didn’t really tell them there was a comedic tone. You can’t really ask actors to act bad. You hire bad actors and just don’t say anything. [Laughs.] I think that’s a big chunk as to why Starship succeeds.

Is there a particular performance that you find the funniest? 
Michael Ironside is my hero when it comes to this film. He is just amazing. He plays the hardass Commander Rasczak. His presence and his earnestness when he says lines like “The goddamn bugs whacked us, Johnny!” or “The only good bug is a dead bug!” — he is just so, like I said, present. He steals the movie. For the most part you got some young actors who didn’t really know what they were walking into. Like, Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards definitely didn’t know they were making something satirical. So what makes it so funny is everyone is playing it incredibly straight. Jake Busey, who I actually really love in this, is playing it like it’s for real. I’ve liked a lot of his work, but he is 90 percent teeth in this movie. Nobody really knows what kind of movie they’re in. They think they’re just in some action-adventure movie, shooting at evil aliens. Even now, it’s not listed as a comedy, but I’m always rolling on the floor laughing at certain lines. I think Neil Patrick Harris is the only one really aware of the movie he’s in.

Even though the film is a vicious critique of American jingoism, Verhoeven still cared enough to make it a big, fun, good-looking popcorn flick. 
It’s still a proper blockbuster. He had the budget and put it to good use. It does hold up. That’s the thing — it’s all the sincerity that makes it work. He could’ve easily made all the bugs and aliens just look corny and terrible. There’s something about the fact that everyone is trying their hardest. Even Verhoeven, who’s the only one who actually knows what the end result was going to be. I know it strays a lot from the source material too. From what I know, the film is virtually nothing like the book. If you were going into this project and you’d read the book beforehand, you might be thinking you were getting into a proper Space Marines kind of thing. You’d be expecting to do something like Halo: The Movie. Instead it’s just so campy and good.

Has watching Starship Troopers in 2018 changed how you view it, especially as Trump is sincerely proposing the idea of a Space Force?
Space Force. I kind of want to do a Power Rangers punch whenever I say it. Trump hasn’t recruited any bug psychics … that we know of. But I haven’t necessarily framed it or modernized it in that kind of context. I think those kinds of qualities and that type of critique is timeless in the same way that it was prevalent in the ’30s. Totalitarianism is always something that’s there and prevalent, no matter what. And that’s what Verhoeven is critiquing.

You’ve recently parachuted into the world of satire and parody with your Bunny Ears site and podcast. How did that come about? 
An actress friend of mine was really into the Goop lifestyle thing, so I thought it would be funny if I did my own version, except it would be all about whiskey and injecting crystals or something stupid like that. Then I kind of got the ball rolling in my head, and for about two years it was just an on-and-off idea. I kept on banking a lot of material and ideas, just mocking lifestyle brands and pop culture and those kinds of things. Everyone has these ideas but never follows through on them, but this was one of those times where it finally felt like I had enough to make it real. I’m surrounded by a good enough team that we actually started pulling this off.

Did you just put out a call and the comedy writers came flocking?
It started by bringing in a great editor-in-chief with Shawn DePasquale. Daniel O’Brien from Cracked, who I’ve always been a fan of, came onboard too. We also have great writers and editors for the site, like Amanda Mannen and Hana Michels. Not to mention my great podcasting partner Matt Cohen. So we put it all together and then it was off to the races. I’m always impressed with their pitches. It’s taken on a life on its own. Everyone understands what it is and no one is on autopilot. Everyone really gets it. It was one of those things that started off as comment in passing two years earlier that is now, all of a sudden, a thing where we have 30, 40 people just doing amazing work. It’s really cool.

So it’s the opposite of Starship Troopers: Everyone understands what they’ve signed up for.
[Laughs.] Yes, exactly. It would be kind of great if I recruited a bunch of writers who didn’t know it was a parody. All the aspiring Goop writers who got rejected? You’re hired!

What can listeners expect from the podcast?
My philosophy going into it was that it’s not necessarily themed in some specific way. Sure, sometimes we do themed episodes — Desert Island lists or favorite animated characters or maybe we’ll play a game. But sometimes we’ll talk about nothing. The thrust of Bunny Ears is that I want it to feel like a room that you’d want to be in if you just happen to walk in, where you wanna hang out with us. It’s that simple. When we have guests, we don’t really interview people. If they want to plug something, they can plug it and all that stuff, but it’s honestly just us hanging out.

Macaulay Culkin on the Brilliant Satire of Starship Troopers