Sometimes popcorn movies can be every bit as stimulating, if not more so, than serious movies. There are movies that I have seen that try to convey a serious political message, but they end up failing, because they tell a sort of journalistic truth. They might tell you what happened and when, but they leave out any kind of ecstatic truth of the human condition, and therefore fail to leave a deeper emotional impression on you.
I remember seeing the movie Syriana and coming away with very little of an impression from it. It was a movie that tried to convey our political and moral failings in the Middle East. But anyone with half a brain knows that we acted immorally at times under the Bush administration. If you are going to make a political film you need one that makes you feel strongly, as well as think. The purpose of a political feature film is to make you think, but the best ones always draw you in on some kind of deeper emotional level. At the very least, as film is largely a visual medium, they should have some kind of stark images that imprint themselves upon the imagination.
Meanwhile, popcorn movies chief concern is to entertain. If something is entertaining and fun you are likely to come back to it. The best directors of popcorn movies, like Paul Verhoeven, can paint outside the lines and include subversive imagery and ideas while putting trashy entertainment at the forefront. The movie Starship Troopers, if you are an action or sci-fi fan, is a great movie to watch every once in awhile. The movie is, on surface level, about a futuristic army fighting aliens that look like giant bugs. However, Verhoeven’s movie touches on all kinds of ideas concerning society and how it militarizes itself.
The society in Starship Troopers is a fascist society. Only citizens that have performed some kind of government service can vote. The young good looking actors are often dressed in uniforms that resemble Nazi uniforms of the 1930’s and 40’s. Often in war we dehumanize our enemies so that we can kill them. The enemies in Starship Troopers are literally bugs and this is meant as a metaphor for this process of dehumanization. Almost all of the grown-ups in this movie are scarred or maimed, several missing limbs, and they send the young beautiful kids off to war. The movie also features several humorous and subversive commercials that are based on old World War II propaganda pieces. (I’ll include an attachment of one at the end.)
When I would see absurdities concerning the War on Terror, I often think of something like Starship Troopers more than I would think of a more serious movie like Syriana. Starship Troopers is not high art. But because its chief manifest is to entertain, it pulls you in and you remember it. It also uses a fantastic setting to create absurdities that point to the absurd in our own culture. I’m not saying that popcorn movies should have a higher place in our culture than serious movies. I do think in this case, if you look at what they are trying to achieve, I think Starship Troopers is more successful than Syriana. However, I’m simply trying to say that you shouldn’t discount popcorn movies as being a place where meaningful social commentary can happen. There are clearly plenty of movies that are meant to entertain that even fail at that. But put in the right hands a genre movie can be a great way to slip a subversive message to a large audience.
Notice that there is a guy in the above Starship Troopers commercial that says the, “The only good bug is a dead bug.” General Phil Sheridan said during the Indian Wars that, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” I also love in this commercial when the kids are stepping on bugs at the end as they are being taught to hate the enemy. This is good fun subversive stuff packed into an action sci-fi movie.