Whatever its other cultural merits, the decade 1990-99 did not leave us many great science-fiction movies. Most of its offerings were bad sequels and expensive dogs like Stargate. The exceptions mainly subverted or played around with established SF tropes. Men in Black gave us a twist on the First Contact theme (the Aliens are here and we've secretly absorbed them into our culture), Galaxyquest both lampooned and paid homage to fandom, and The Matrix cleverly inverted the occult modern fantasy genre typified by the X-Files (there isn't a fantastic world just below this one's surface – our everyday world is the fantasy). While marketed as a space-war action movie, 1997's Starship Troopers fit into this subversive sub-genre.
The source material which Starship Troopers subverted was Robert Heinlein's now-classic novel (1959). Heinlein set his tale in a future society where flogging is legal, voting and office-holding are restricted to veterans, military service resembles a civics lesson, and war redeems all participants, or all of the good guys anyway. Heinlein did recognize that he needed to tell an actual story, so he included a halfway-decent coming-of-age story and a space-war narrative, in which humans in power armor (a concept RH invented) fought a race of alien insects. The author made it clear, though, that he mainly wanted the novel to showcase his speculations on civic virtue; since RH originally wanted to market Starship Troopers as a young-adult novel, he also indicated that he wanted people to take his vision seriously.
The movie, directed by Paul Verhoeven, does take Heinlein more seriously than perhaps even he intended. Verhoeven and script writer Ed Neumeier recognized that a society so wedded to redemptive violence and skeptical of social democracy would quickly become fascist, so they presented Heinlein's humans as, essentially, space Nazis. Rather than preach against Heinlein, however, the filmmakers turned the movie into propaganda for the space Nazis: structuring the first act of the film as a high-school drama, the second as a recruiter's vision of boot camp (ample food, coed showers, a tough-but-fair drill sergeant played by Clancy Brown), and the rest as elements of a special-effects-intense war movie with lots of scary bugs and explosions. Video newsreel clips provide a window into the giddily-militaristic larger society. Private Johnny Rico's (Casper Van Diehn) rapid ascent in rank and loss of his family and colleagues, including the attractive athlete who dies almost immediately after seducing him (Dina Meyer), tell us how one becomes a real adult in this society. Rico's brilliant friend Carl (Dougie Houser) provides an alternate model of maturity, as he evolves from teen psychic to mad scientist to, essentially, an SS officer, or at least someone with the same wardrobe.
In the end, the surviving good guys fulfill their short-term missions, and the movie tells us “They'll keep fighting – and they'll win!” - though perhaps with more emphasis on the first than the second part of the phrase. The audience is left unsure whether they've been had, which is perhaps the point.
I'm sure Heinlein's more humorless fans, the kind who dominated the 2013 Worldcon, hated this film. Serves them right.