In the 23rd century, humanity has become a space-faring civilization. While colonizing new planets, humans have encountered an insectoid species known as Arachnids or "Bugs", with their home being the distant world Klendathu. The bugs appear to be little more than savage, unrelenting killing machines, though there are suggestions that they were provoked by the intrusion of humans into their habitats.
In the Federation, citizenship is a privilege, earned by performing such activities as military service, which grants individuals opportunities prohibited to basic civilians. John "Johnny" Rico, his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez, and best friend Carl Jenkins attend high school in Buenos Aires. Fellow student Isabelle "Dizzy" Flores is in love with Rico, but he does not reciprocate. They all enlist in the Federal Service after graduation, despite Rico's parents disapproving of military service and wanting him to enroll at Harvard University instead. Carmen becomes a spaceship pilot assigned to the warship Rodger Young, while mentally gifted psychic Carl joins Military Intelligence. Rico enlists in the Mobile Infantry and is surprised to find Dizzy has deliberately transferred to his squad.
In Mobile Infantry basic training, Career Sgt. Zim trains the recruits. Rico is later promoted to squad leader after showing initiative and quick thinking during training exercises, and befriends Ace Levy. He later receives a Dear John letter from Carmen, as she desires a career with the fleet and now serves under Rico's high-school sports rival, Zander Barcalow. Following a live-fire training incident that kills one of Rico's squad and causes another to quit out of guilt, he is demoted and flogged. He resigns and calls his parents to ask them if he can return home, but the call is cut off when an asteroid, launched by the Arachnids, obliterates Buenos Aires, killing his family and millions of others. Rico rescinds his resignation and remains with the Mobile Infantry as an invasion force is deployed to Klendathu.
Due to overconfidence and lack of reconnaissance, the first strike on Klendathu is a total disaster, with hundreds of thousands of casualties. Rico is severely wounded in the leg and mistakenly classified KIA, causing Carmen to believe he is dead. Rico recovers and along with Ace and Dizzy is reassigned to the 'Roughnecks', an elite unit commanded by Lt. Jean Rasczak, Rico's former high-school teacher. Rico is promoted to Corporal after destroying a Tanker Bug and impressing Rasczak. After receiving some free advice from Rasczak, he finally reciprocates Dizzy's love for him.
The Roughnecks respond to a distress call from Planet "P", where they reconnoitre an outpost that has been devastated by Bugs. The distress call is a trap, and the Arachnids swarm the outpost. Rico, now Acting Sergeant, euthanizes a mortally wounded Rasczak after a buried Bug bites off his legs. After a Bug stabs Dizzy in the torso, she dies in Rico's arms as they are rescued by Carmen and Zander. Rico and Carmen reconnect and encounter Carl, now a high-ranking intelligence officer, at Dizzy's funeral. Carl reveals that there is a reason to believe an intelligent "brain bug" is directing the other Bugs and has been learning how to fight against humans. He field-promotes Rico to Lieutenant and gives him command of the Roughnecks, ordering the Mobile Infantry units under his control to return to "P" and capture the brain bug.
As Rico's Roughnecks join the mission, the Fleet encounters unexpectedly heavy fire from the Bugs and Carmen's ship is destroyed. The escape pod carrying Carmen and Zander crashes into the Bug tunnel system near Rico. Carmen and Zander are surrounded by bugs, including a Brain Bug which uses its proboscis to pierce Zander's skull and eat his brain. As it is about to do the same to Carmen, she cuts off its proboscis with a knife Zander had given her. Rico arrives and threatens the Bugs with a small nuclear bomb, which the Brain Bug recognizes. They are able to leave while the Brain Bug makes its escape. Arachnids pursue them, and Watkins, mortally wounded, sacrifices himself by detonating the bomb to kill the pursuers while the others escape.
After returning to the surface, they find that former Sergeant Zim, who had requested a demotion to private so that he could serve at the front, has captured the Brain Bug. Carl congratulates Rico and tells him and Carmen that the humans will soon be victorious, now that Military Intelligence can study the brain bug. Carl psychically scans the bug and reveals it is afraid, to the cheers of the assembled troops. A propaganda clip is shown starring Carmen (now a captain with her own command), Ace, and Rico as model servicemen, encouraging viewers to enlist in the Federation's armed forces.
The film started life as a script called Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine. When similarities, especially the "bugs", were pointed out between this and the novel Starship Troopers, plans were made to license the rights to the book and tweak character names and circumstances to match. Verhoeven had never read the book, and attempted to read it for the film, but it made him "bored and depressed", so he read only a few chapters:
I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring,...It is really quite a bad book. I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn't read the thing. It's a very right-wing book.
The "bug planet" scenes were filmed in the badlands of Hell's Half Acre in Natrona County, Wyoming.
Several cameos in the film include producer Jon Davison as the angry Buenos Aires resident who says to the FedNet camera "The only good Bug is a dead Bug!" and screenwriter Ed Neumeier as the quickly captured, convicted, and condemned murderer in another FedNet clip. Former U.S. Marine Dale Dye, whose company Warriors, Inc. provided technical military advice on the film, appeared as a high-ranking officer following the capture of the Brain Bug ("What's it thinking, Colonel?"). Mark Wahlberg and James Marsden turned down the role of Johnny Rico, which ultimately went to Casper Van Dien.
Two nude scenes were kept in the original version (the co-ed shower and a bedroom romp between Rico and Dizzy), although these were modified in the broadcast version. The cast agreed to do the co-ed shower scene only if Verhoeven agreed to direct the scene naked, which he did.
Director Verhoeven, producer Davison, writer Neumeier, creature effects designers Phil Tippett and Craig Hayes, and composer Basil Poledouris were all involved with the original RoboCop film. Actor Michael Ironside was also considered for the role of Murphy/RoboCop. Ironside appeared in Verhoeven's Total Recall.
In the audio commentary on the DVD or Blu-ray release, Verhoeven remarks that he had hoped to cast actors whose age more closely matched that of the characters—and indeed of real-world soldiers—but that the producers felt such actors would look too young. The teacher and leader of the "Roughnecks" in the novel are combined into one role played by Ironside.
Test audience reactions led to several minor changes before the film was released. Originally, it was clear that Carmen was torn between Rico and Zander. Test audiences, regardless of gender, strongly felt that a woman could not love two men at once, so scenes which portrayed this were cut. These audiences also felt it was immoral for Carmen to choose a career ahead of being loyal to Rico, to the extent that many commented that, in so doing, Carmen should have been the one to die instead of Dizzy. While admitting it may have been a bad commercial decision not to change the film to accommodate this, the directors did cut a scene from after Zander's death where Carmen and Rico kiss, which the audience believed made the previous betrayal even more immoral.
Because the movie originated from an unrelated script, with names and superficial details from the novel being added retroactively, there are many significant differences between the original book and the film While the original novel has been accused of promoting militarism, fascism and military rule, the film is attributed to satirize these concepts by featuring grandiose displays of nationalism as well as news reports that are intensely fascist, xenophobic, and propagandistic. Verhoeven stated in 1997 that the first scene of the film—an advertisement for the Mobile Infantry—was adapted shot-for-shot from a scene in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), specifically an outdoor rally for the Reichsarbeitsdienst. Other references to Nazism in the movie include the Nazi German-esque uniforms and insignia of field grade officers, M.I. undress working uniforms reminiscent of Mussolini's Blackshirts, Albert Speer-style architecture and propagandistic dialogue ("Violence is the supreme authority!").
In a 2014 interview on The Adam Carolla Show, actor Michael Ironside, who read the book as a youth, said he asked Verhoeven, who grew up in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, "Why are you doing a right-wing fascist movie?" Verhoeven replied, "If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn't work, no one will listen to me. So I'm going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it's only good for killing fucking bugs!"
Likewise, the powered armor technology that is central to the book is completely absent in the movie. According to Verhoeven, this—and the fascist tone of the book—reflected his own experience in Nazi-occupied Netherlands during World War II.
The film includes visual allusions to propaganda films such as Why We Fight, Triumph of the Will and wartime newsreels, and the symbols and certain clothing styles of the Federation are modeled on those of the Nazis (e.g., windbreaker, suits, cap, etc.; moreover, the military intelligence officers' uniforms bear a striking similarity to those of the Allgemeine-SS).
The use of Nazi imagery for the film's American heroes occasioned comment. At the time of the film's theatrical release, the filmmakers did not explain their reasons for this choice. Some viewers interpreted it as satire, and others read it as a celebration of fascism.
In the DVD commentary, Verhoeven states his intentions clearly: the film's message is that "War makes fascists of us all". He evoked Nazi Germany's fashion, iconography and propaganda because he saw it as a natural evolution of the post-World War II United States. "I've heard this film nicknamed All Quiet On the Final Frontier", he says, "which is actually not far from the truth." Edward Neumeier (who had previously worked with Verhoeven on RoboCop) broadly concurs, although he sees a satire on human history rather than solely the United States. Verhoeven says his satirical use of irony and hyperbole is "playing with fascism or fascist imagery to point out certain aspects of American society... of course, the movie is about 'Let's all go to war and let's all die.'"
On release, Starship Troopers received negative reviews from American critics. In a round-up of the best films of 1997, The A.V. Club critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky called the film "too damn well-made for its own good" and said that it confused audiences and critics. On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, which collects both contemporary and modern reviews, it has a 63% approval rating based on 59 reviews. The cite's consensus is: "A fun movie...if you can accept the excessive gore and wooden acting." On Metacritic, it has a rating of 51/100 based on 20 reviews, indicating mixed or average reviews. The film was panned by Janet Maslin of The New York Times, Jeff Vice of the Deseret News, and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, all of whom called it shallow and oriented toward teenage, male science fiction fans; Ebert had previously praised the satire in Verhoeven's Robocop. Calum Marsh of The Atlantic disagreed with these critics in his 2013 article on the film, which he called a "...satire, a ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism...[that] critiques the military–industrial complex, the jingoism of American foreign policy, and a culture that privileges reactionary violence over sensitivity and reason." In an article for Salon, comedian and writer Aasif Mandvi criticized Casper Van Dien's casting as whitewashing compared to the characters Filipino origins in the book.
Starship Troopers was nominated for a number of awards in 1998, including the Academy Award for Visual Effects; the film won Saturn Awards for Best Costumes and Best Special Effects at the 1998 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, USA Awards.
The film series has four sequels which includes two live-action films, Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004) and Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008) and two animated films, Starship Troopers: Invasion (2012) and Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars (2017).
There was also a 1999 spin off CGI animated half-hour television series entitled Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, which lasted for just one season and ends on a cliffhanger without a proper finale.
In 1997 Avalon Hill released Starship Troopers: Prepare For Battle!, a board game based on the film version rather than Heinlein's book. Its gameplay focused on limited skirmishes rather than larger battles. The "Skinnies" do not appear, nor is there a political element. Avalon Hill had previously released a game called Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers in 1976.
A real-time tactics video game titled Starship Troopers: Terran Ascendancy was released in 2000. This game also incorporated the powered suits in Heinlein's novel into the Verhoeven version of the Mobile Infantry. It was developed by Australian software company Blue Tongue Entertainment.
A first-person shooter game also titled Starship Troopers was released November 15, 2005. This version was developed by Strangelite Studios and published by Empire Interactive. Set five years after the events of the film, the game also featured Van Dien voicing the in-game version of Johnny Rico.
Sega Pinball released a pinball machine based on this movie.
The film was released simultaneously with a graphic novelization, which retold events from the film. There were also additional series that were released based in the Verhoeven universe, though not directly related to the film. Further series were published by Dark Horse Comics and Markosia.
The film was followed by the CGI animated television series Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, which is loosely set inside the events of the film just after Rico and Diz join the Roughnecks but before Rico gets promoted.
In December 2011, film producer Neal Moritz announced plans to remake the film. In November 2016, Columbia and Moritz announced the writing team of Mark Swift and Damian Shannon had been signed to pen the screenplay.