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Things We Still Don't Understand About Starship Troopers

The year 1997 saw "Starship Troopers" unleashed upon the world. Based on Robert A. Heinlein's novel of the same name, this movie explores a futuristic military battle between humanity and an insectoid alien threat. Directed by "RoboCop" and "Total Recall" visionary Paul Verhoeven, "Starship Troopers" stars Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, and a very young Neil Patrick Harris as a group of fresh recruits who join the Federal Service to take the fight to the space-faring Arachnids.

While "Starship Troopers" didn't exactly break box office records or set the world on fire in terms of its critical reception, it was successful enough to launch a franchise of movies, cartoons, and video games. Moreover, as savvy fans know, there are a lot of differences between the original novel and the movie. This all results in a uniquely complex tapestry of storytelling – and not all of it makes that much sense when you really think about it. Whether it's confusing timelines of events, weird plot holes, silly motivations, or bizarre military plans, "Starship Troopers" contains plenty of moments and details that leave the audience scratching their heads. These are the biggest things we still don't understand about the 1997 film.

How does Zander end up training Carmen?

Out of all the confusing elements in "Starship Troopers," the timeline of events stands out as particularly baffling. A prime example of this is the fact Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon) ends up training Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) on board the spaceship Rodger Young. As Reddit user Bhudduh points out, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense when you consider the context both characters are shown to occupy.

Zander is initially portrayed as Johnny Rico's (Casper Van Dien) opponent in a jump ball game. Not only is he a sporting foe for Rico, he's also a rival for Carmen's affections throughout the film. Not long after his introduction, he appears among the students during the graduation ball. This suggests he's roughly the same age as both Rico and Carmen. Yet by the time all of them are firmly ensconced within the military, Zander has apparently risen through the ranks to become a flight instructor. Carmen, in contrast, has not even started to learn how to fly. The fact that he's a skilled pilot shouldn't even come into play here, as Carmen is considered to be one of the very best recruits in the entire fleet. There's simply no way he's that far ahead of her, yet we know he can't be that much older. It simply doesn't make sense.

Why do the bugs even attack Earth in the first place?

The main villains in "Starship Troopers" are an alien race of bug-like creatures known as Arachnids. They're a pretty creepy-looking bunch, especially to anyone with a fear of insects. However, the reason why humanity is at war with this alien civilization is never explicitly revealed. What the film does make clear is that the Arachnids have their own empire, with many conquered worlds to its name. We also know that a number of skirmishes between both sides take place right up until the breakout of full conflict. Known as the First Bug War, the conflagration apparently begins when the Arachnids bomb Buenos Aires.

This is where we get to the other confusing aspect of the Arachnids' assault. Simply put, this attack makes little sense when you actually think about it. If the bugs really do have the ability to send asteroids across vast distances and hit Earth with such precision, then why do they only target Buenos Aires? Yes, the attack kills or injures more than 20 million people, but that figure could be far higher if larger cities were targeted. It would make much more sense to either send a larger asteroid, take aim at a more populous place, or target many more cities, severely damaging Earth's ability to defend itself. Instead, all they do was prompt humanity into a devastating war ... for no apparent reason.

How do the bugs even manage to launch an asteroid at Earth?

Even if you do accept that the Arachnids are responsible for carrying out the attack on Buenos Aires, the attack itself still doesn't make a whole lot of sense. As pointed out by Reddit user Rogert2, using an asteroid as a weapon in this manner is impractical and almost impossible. The Arachnid home planet, Klendathu, is located in a system that is more than half a galaxy away from Earth. The bugs have to either propel the asteroid at far greater than the speed of light to land it in the intended spot, or have originally sent it towards the human home world many thousands of years ago. Otherwise, the big chunk of space rock could never have reached Earth in any reasonable timeframe.

This bizarre situation has led to  creative fan theories that posit the attack on Buenos Aires as some sort of false flag operation, intended to make the Arachnids look bad and gain support for the war. After all, the asteroid would have missed the planet entirely if it had not hit Carmen's ship; this glancing blow sends it off course. Even the slightest touch would have caused it to miss its intended target completely. This indicates that the collision between the ship and the asteroid might be deliberate — and full of ulterior motives.

None of the students wear gloves while dissecting bugs

This particular detail isn't a major issue like some of the other plot holes on this list. Nevertheless, it's still a deeply confusing moment that has no doubt left many viewers wondering exactly what the heck is going on. In one scene, Rico and Carmen are in a science class, dissecting a dead Arachnid alongside their fellow students. Throughout the entire scene, the only safety precaution anyone takes is donning some very basic plastic goggles — and said goggles don't even form a seal around their eyes. There are absolutely no lab coats, no hairnets, and, most gruesomely of all, no gloves.

As anyone who's ever taken a halfway decent science class knows, this is a disaster waiting to happen. The bug-like aliens are a relatively new species to humanity, and top scientists make it clear that very little is currently known about them. Yet everyday students are allowed to handle their bodies without any sort of protection. At the very least, dissections such as this should be approached with gloves and aprons, especially since the Arachnids are a species that can spit acid and survive in very different environments. Advanced safety precautions are a must — yet these students are less well-equipped than an average high school chemistry class.

Why are the Arachnids never seen using any form of technology?

According to "Starship Troopers," the Arachnids are an interstellar power in their own right, who have conquered a wide variety of planets. They can apparently travel around the galaxy with relative speed and ease, and boast a significant degree of martial might. In many ways, this makes the aliens very similar to the Pseudo-Arachnids depicted in Robert A. Heinlein's original "Starship Troopers" novel. But that's where the similarities end between the antagonists featured in the film and book.

In the 1997 film, the bugs are never shown using any kind of technology whatsoever. While the Pseudo-Arachnids of the novel are just as intelligent as humans and have access to laser weapons, spacecraft, and machinery, the Arachnids in the movie are never shown using any kind of technology at all. Instead, they seem to use specialized species to carry out many different tasks. But this still doesn't explain exactly how the bugs pose such a threat to humans, or how they garnered their empire in the first place. They don't seem anywhere near as advanced as the United Citizen Federation, which makes it hard to make sense of them as a real threat.

Why is the technology of this future so primitive?

Depending on whether you're watching the film or reading the book, "Starship Troopers" takes place at vastly different points in time. The novel suggests the action is happening centuries in the future, while the movie depicts it as happening in the 23rd century. Even if you only consider the 1997 release, that still places the story roughly 100 years from now. Given where weaponry was 100 years prior to our current year, such a jump should see a major advancement in combat-centric technology.

In many parts of "Starship Troopers," this holds true. The United Citizen Federation and humanity as a whole has become capable of colonizing alien planets, traveling faster than the speed of light via the Cherenkov Drive, and creating huge powered suits such as the Marauder MK-II. None of these things are possible right now, which means that in the century-or-so that passes in the film's timeline, humanity makes some impressive advancements.

Yet this is far from the case in every area of the movie's fictional military. The soldiers of 1997's "Starship Troopers" lack the elaborate powered armor of the novel, which protects the entire body. They're only thinly armored, and have dangerously exposed faces. Even more baffling is the fact that their weaponry seems to be at practically the same level as today's. The Morita Assault Rifle boasts only one apparent innovation in its mounted shotgun. In every other respect, it appears to be a standard gun.

What's the point of Rico joining the military?

Why does Johnny Rico join the military? "Starship Troopers" never makes the answer to this question clear. In the novel, Juan Rico joins up because his best friend Carl is doing so, and he feels that it's the right thing to do. It also gives him the ability to vote in future elections and grants him full citizenship, which some characters discuss at greater length. However, this isn't what happens in the film. Here, Johnny appears to join simply to stay close to Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) and his love interest Carmen, though this motivation is only barely sketched out. He also expresses a desire to travel and see the galaxy, as demonstrated in the scene where he argues with his father about joining the military. But it's clear that Rico is from a well-off family and has no real reason to join the Federal Service, as he could go traveling with funds provided by his parents. In fact, they even offer to send him on an expensive trip.

While he may well have very strong feelings for Carmen, joining the military when a major war is happening with the Arachnids makes little sense for Rico's character. Even more confusingly, Carmen is set on being a pilot and Johnny is only qualified to join the infantry. These are two very different divisions, which should keep them far apart from each other.

What's with the dangerous live-fire exercises?

One of the most memorable scenes in "Starship Troopers" involves a live-fire training exercise that takes place when Rico is acting as squad leader. During the exercise, he tells a recruit to remove their helmet when it malfunctions. This decision leads to his squad mate's death when he is subsequently hit with a stray bullet. Rico is punished by being flogged and temporarily quits the military out of shame. But following the attack of Buenos Aires, he changes his mind and returns.

As ABC News elucidates, live-fire exercises are an essential part of any military, as they give soldiers the chance to experience what combat is like in real-life situations. But they're also inherently dangerous because genuine ammunition is used and accidents do happen. This has certainly led to real-world deaths over the course of human history, but that doesn't excuse the shoddy way in which the live-fire exercise in "Starship Troopers" takes place. As Reddit user MaximusNerdius points out, this training exercise almost seems designed to get someone killed, as it takes place in the middle of a camp with little to no safety precautions. This begs the question why it even takes place at all.

Why is the military so obsessed with sending infantry units to fight the bugs?

Anyone who's seen "Starship Troopers" knows the Mobile Infantry — the basic troops of the Federal Service — doesn't exactly do all that well against the Arachnids. Various battle scenes scattered throughout the movie showcase just how ill-equipped these unfortunate soldiers are for fights against the insectoid aliens. Their weapons don't cause much damage to the creatures, and their armor does little to protect them against the attacks they face.

These factors have led many viewers, including Redditors SonOfScions and TiSapphire, to question the tactics of the movie's military. The top brass appear content to keep sending wave after wave of Mobile Infantry squadrons at the Arachnids, knowing full well they can't do much damage. In fact, the military seems to focus entirely on infantry troops, rather than the potential that lies in powered armor, tanks, or even air support.

Worst of all, the troops are seemingly sent running towards the enemy, rather than moving in an organized way. Any sort of strategy might give these soldiers a better shot of defeating their enemy and saving their own lives. But whoever's in charge seems to think simply throwing more men and women at the problem will work, despite its obvious failure rate.

Why are military ranks seemingly given out like candy?

The timeline of "Starship Troopers" is somewhat confusing but it seems like the events all take place within a year of each other. This doesn't just make it hard to keep up with what's going on, though — it also throws up some issues with the way various main characters get military promotions. For example, by the time Rico is finished with basic training, Carmen appears to be an experienced and accomplished pilot. His best friend Carl is sent off to join Military Intelligence after being recruited. By the time the gang next meets up near the end of the film, he's become a colonel. This is a huge promotion, as that rank is one of the highest an officer can hold before becoming a general. It usually requires decades of service to attain.

Rico himself has an equally impressive series of promotions under his belt, none of which make sense. He's quickly made squad leader after joining the military, and becomes a private upon graduating. Later, he's promoted to corporal, and then to acting staff sergeant. Not long after this, Rico is offered the position of lieutenant by his former friend Carl. It's a breakneck rise through the ranks that has pretty much nothing to do with reality.

Couldn't they just nuke the bugs from space?

The Arachnids are a classic bunch of movie aliens, as weird looking as they are formidable. Their exact motivations and thoughts, however, are never stated in "Starship Troopers." Instead, viewers are left with the propaganda given out by the human military, and a line about the bugs possibly being provoked by human aggression, as the Federal Service entered their space. It appears that the human leaders simply want to wipe the alien species from the galaxy, leaving humanity as the sole interstellar power.

If this is the case, though, why doesn't the military use powerful nuclear weapons to simply destroy the alien worlds, rather than sending invading forces? Capturing a brain bug is one of Military Intelligence's aims, but this wouldn't even be necessary if the bugs were wiped out completely. The scientists would have no reason to study the Arachnids if they were no longer a threat. The armed forces certainly seem to have the power to do this, as Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside) mentions his squadron will land on Tango Urilla after it's been glassed.

Other possible explanations don't hold up either. One excuse may be that the military wants to colonize the Arachnid planets, which would make destroying them disadvantageous. But every bug-controlled world we see is a rocky and apparently barren place that doesn't look particularly valuable. If the military really wants to defeat the bugs, a more devastating attack would make much more sense.