If you write enough fiction and you spend enough time analyzing fiction in all its forms, you start seeing certain patterns and rules that make stories memorable. We might not know it at the time, but stories stick with us because of elements that often lurk hidden in the background. One of those elements is character motivation and interaction.
Nearly every interesting character has a struggle of Need vs. Want. Disney movies use this dynamic, and it’s often made explicit with the protagonist singing a song about something they want at the beginning, followed by a song about realizing what they need near the resolution. The songs might be geared to make that more obvious to a younger audience, but it’s still a fundamental way of managing character motivation and inter-personal conflict.
Without getting too writerly about it, a character shouldn’t generally know exactly what they need in the beginning in the story. It’s only through the events of the story and their own revelation that they begin to understand what they truly need to be fulfilled (or on their way to fulfillment).
Flat characters usually have a want that is the same as their need. There might be obstacles towards pursuing their goal, but once they achieve it, there’s no revelation because they’ve achieved their quest. And more often than not that comes across as unsatisfying.
Most of the films we’ve talked about on Save the Movies have the Need vs. Want dynamic. Cats Don’t Dance has Danny’s desire to “do what he loves” conflicting with Darla Dimple’s desire to stay at the top. Danny’s a bundle of optimism and good-natured ambition, and he’s fairly straight-forward. His want and need are in tune. It’s only when they fall out of tune that he struggles. Meanwhile, Darla Dimple’s pathological desire to crush anyone she perceives as a threat comes from more than a simple desire to be a star. Darla has an overriding need to be adored and in the spotlight. That need takes the form of a feigned America’s sweetheart act, but it’s just an act. Darla is the Lex Luthor of her universe. Her need to be praised and respected is overwhelming and destructive. Her want to be a movie star is just how she’s chosen to feed it.
In this scenario, Danny is her Superman, a character who challenges her need simply by existing. What drives her to destroy Danny isn’t merely her jealousy as an actress. She must bring him down because she can’t understand him. His presence alone vexes her. Danny and Darla’s conflict stems from a fundamental difference in their needs, and their every interaction plays on that. And their needs are more than just to be in front of a camera.
But what about Starship Troopers?
Starship Troopers is a movie that subverts that expectation. Every character is intentionally a flatly motivated soldier. There’s some variation in their outward behavior, but all the characters are in tune with what they need. And what they need to do is kill bugs.
It works because Starship Troopers is modeled after propaganda films, where conflict is externalized in simplistic ways. The first time I watched the film, I found myself disappointed that there was no real resolution to the story. Throughout the story, there are hints that the war between the humans and bugs could be ended with negotiation and care. The introduction of the intelligent brain bug is a chance for both societies to sit at the table once for all. Neither is interested. This isn’t a story about people growing and changing into a more nuanced worldview. This is a story about the dirty enemy and how they ALL MUST DIE!
The only character growth at all in the film is watching our central protagonist, Johnny Rico, go from reluctant soldier to military ideal. He exists to fight, as much as a drone as the bugs he fights against. None of the characters ever questions their role in this war or the costs. It’s irrelevant. It’s presented in a flatly heroic manner.
Which brings us to the real Want vs. Need of Starship Troopers, and I think it’s the want of the audience to experience a fun sci fi action movie, but the need to realize how destructive the basic philosophy behind such stories can be.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good action movie. They’re viscerally exciting and can be a lot of fun. But without examination, they can create the unspoken assumption that the best way to settle a conflict is to punch someone until they give up. That is, sadly, often true, but it still should be challenged regularly.
Two superhero films of last year used this model with interesting differences. In Captain America: Civil War, a battle of ideologies (as well as some outside manipulation) leads to a physical battle between heroes. It works in that movie because these are still heroes and not trying to kill each other. Meanwhile, BvS: Dawn of Justice is a big dumb fistfight between two idiots who can’t take five seconds to actually talk to each other. And, sure, it’s fun when Batman and Superman fight, but it’s less fun if they’re required to be incompetent rage monsters to do it.
I don’t know if Starships Troopers is a challenging movie or not, but I do know that it’s an indictment of violence as narrative and the dangers therein. Its unsubtle violence, flat characters, and non-ending all play on that. Do we care why characters fight? Or do we just want them to fight?
It’s not an easy question, but it’s one I find myself asking more and more.