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A Review of "The Act of Killing" and "Starship Troopers"

Last week, I managed to stumble onto an incredible film double feature entirely by accident.  I could certainly ramble on for pages, but I'll try to keep this somewhat brief, so let me start with a couple of short reviews of the two movies I saw.

A Short Review of Starship Troopers

I first saw this movie in the theater when I was thirteen years old.  It was a very odd and confusing time for many reasons, not the least of which was the way I saw, internalized, and reacted to ugliness in the world.  1997 was that final, strange year of my life in which I saw no issue with horrific violence and yet I felt a cold tremble in my spine if anybody said "the F word."

Initially I loved this movie on an entirely superficial level, the same way I reacted when I first saw Verhoeven's other works like Total Recall and Robocop.  I heard people use the word "satire," but I didn't really understand what people were talking about even if I had a general concept of it.  Then I had an odd sort of "falling out" with the movie where I just thought it was very foolish and silly.

It had been at least ten years since I saw the movie before revisiting it again last week.  Wow, what a difference a decade makes.

My only thought now is, "How is it possible for anyone (over the age of 24) to view this as anything but a satire?"  It's so obvious it practically strangles you.  Johnny Rico is a square-jawed American boy who lives in Buenos Aires with other Americans - which can only be explained by an off-screen territorial conquest - in a world where basic human rights, like voting and having children, can only be earned through service to a military state.  Human beings fight a gung-ho war against an enemy they don't even try to understand and glamorize conflict with no more depth than a comic book.  Even all of the uniforms they wear are basically just Nazi and Fascist knock-offs.

Starship Troopers is at least as clever as Robocop, if not even more so.  The most terrifying thing about it is that anybody could watch it and not see it as a funhouse mirror to our own militaristic frenzies.  If you take this movie at its face, then you have to be either a) naive, or b) willfully ignorant.  That second one scares me more than I can put into words.  More on that in a bit.

My Rating: 4 / 5

A Slightly Longer Review of The Act of Killing

I am painfully unaware of world history outside of Europe and the United States.  It's something I hope to remedy over the next few years.  I've garnered bits and pieces of Asian and African history in my late twenties, but not much more than what I would call "trivia."

It's a shame.  I don't know if you know this, guys, but Asia is, like, big. That's an awful lot of history to not know.

More to the point, it wasn't even until I read about The Act of Killing that I learned much of anything at all about Indonesia.  And considering that it is the fourth most populous country on the planet, that's a problem.  Any nation with that many people needs to be given attention on the world stage, regardless of their politics, religion, or culture.  That's just too many people to ignore.

I imagine I'm probably not unique in my ignorance.  And for that reason, I'd say that The Act of Killing is an incredibly important movie.  Even though it is not an extensive look into the history of Indonesia, it presents a troubling picture of a sleeping giant that many of us probably don't even think much about.  Even if all the movie did was provoke a thought, it would be important.

But it delves so much deeper.  This is an in-depth look at the psychology of mass killings in Indonesia during the 1960s, specifically those carried out by individuals who don't seem to fully understand a global picture of the event.  The subject(s) of the documentary are a couple of aging war criminals who do not view themselves as criminals at all.  In fact, their actions from the '60s - in which they slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions - are celebrated even to this day in Indonesia.

If you've read about The Act of Killing at all, then you already know the premise: the director asked the people responsible for killing to re-enact the murders and then documented the results.  They gleefully complied, thinking that what they were doing was putting together a movie to glorify the wonderful history of their country.  Why would that not be a good, proud thing to do?

And although there are snippets of guilt that you see here and there - most dramatically in Anwar Congo, who, despite possibly being responsible for more deaths than anyone else, ends up being the most sympathetic figure - nobody really seems to fully make the connection that what happened in the '60s should be lamented.  The most chilling scenes are those where the people re-enacting the scenes realize that what happened was cruel and even admit that it was evil.  You would expect that most people would want to walk away from the project at that point.  Instead, these people - including high-ranking government leaders - view this more as an inconvenient problem with how the murders are portrayed.  "We don't want people to think that we're bad," they say.  "We were cruel, but we cannot be seen as cruel or people might get the wrong idea about us."

Somebody who commits evil unknowingly or ignorantly can be sympathetic, if not redeemable.  But there is nothing more chilling than seeing somebody who knows that something is evil and defends it, anyway.  To be fully cognizant of cruelty and carry it out has got to be some kind of litmus test to tell whether or not your soul is dead.

Why You Should Watch Both Movies Together

Anwar Congo was part of a gang that scalped movie tickets before he started killing people for the state.  And he directly explains that he found inspiration to kill from the movies he saw; he modeled himself after gangsters and dancers that he saw in film.

When the individuals re-enact their murders, they want to film them in the style of the movies that they found most enjoyable at the time, including gangster movies and - perhaps most disturbingly - musicals.

Starship Troopers is a movie that glamorizes mindless violence and devotion to a military state for satirical intent.  The Act of Killing is about people who actually are glamorizing mindless violence out of devotion to a military state, without any satirical intent at all.  Imagine a world where these same people succeeded in making a science-fiction movie about their murder spree and released it internationally for the world to see.  Would it look much different than Starship Troopers?  And how would we react upon seeing it?

Or, perhaps more horrifyingly - reverse it.  Give these people Starship Troopers and ask them what they think.  Will they indulge in the mock-lessons of the movie?  Will they embrace the ideologies that Starship Troopers is trying to tear apart?  And could they use it as the framework for a new reign of terror?

Last week, I made light of the fact that Malibu Express can be viewed as a satirical take on masculinity even though it was almost certainly created with sincerity.  The re-enactments of The Act of Killing could similarly be seen as unintended satire, but there is nothing funny about it.

That's right.  I found a way to connect Malibu Express to The Act of Killing.

I think a double feature of Starship Troopers and The Act of Killing would be very eye-opening for a lot of people because it reminds us of an important reality in this world.  One man's parody is another man's fact.  I guess the important thing is being able to understand how to shift your own lens from one to the other.