Paul Verhoeven’s World of Ultra Violent Science Fiction, …and Showgirls.

Paul Verhoeven on the set of Robocop
Paul Verhoeven on the set of Robocop

Just in time for the new reboot of the much coveted and adorned ultra-violent 80’s classic ‘Robocop’, what better time than now to have an all enveloping, all encompassing look at original director Paul Verhoeven’s career outside of his birthplace. His filmography has inadvertently cemented the director’s position somewhat – as a Sci-Fi auteur – a fan favourite; a name that is championed, due to his satirical take and political underpinnings within the genre. Subsequently, looking at Verhoeven’s North American tentpole produced films – Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man – it may come as a surprise, much to the demise of fans, that Verhoeven has been quite open about the fact that he has never been much of a Science Fiction fan, which is quite hard to believe considering.

Similar to ‘John Carpenters’ cult classics, Verhoeven’s films have often been overlooked at time of release and retrospectively looked back upon with a newfound respect (i.e. Starship Troopers and in a very loose sense Showgirls [many people eventually came around to the Elizabeth Berkely starring softcore pornographical-esque film in a so-bad-its-actually-quite-good fondness], who wouldn’t mind watching a scantily clad Berekely being way out of her depth – literally and figuratively – in a pool with a script that reads like tell-me-all article in a top-shelf magazine). Starship Troopers took its time to find an audience, but its staying power was due to good word-of-mouth. It is a film that still holds up to this day in its exposition of overtly jingoistic views on warfare, alongside visual effects still stand the test of time. The Hollow Man was a visually entertaining flick with a theme based on deinvidualisation and anonymity, and how far that sense of anonymity drives someone to the deep dark recesses of their sexual desires.

Like many directors – when moving between genres – Verhoeven still projects the same sensibilities, imprinting his brand of sex and violence with exploitational, consummeristic, and political undertones. All mixed with a Faucauldian nod, taking a distasteful aim at institutions, incorporating disciplinary technological advancement as a means of control. Or more simply put; imbalanced power relations where dystopian backdrops can further highlight the rich/poor divide which still holds as much relevance now as it did back in 1987. Verhoeven juxtaposes historically anachronistic tragedies’ and sets them against bleakly futuristic dystopian scenery to great effect. The use of implicit undertones such as Nazi symbolism/imagery is evident in both; Robocop and Starship Troopers respectively, with SS influenced attire donned by Kurtwood Smith and Neil Patrick Harris’ characters, which are modelled on ‘Heimrich Himler’. Furthermore, it is overly evident in Starship troopers, that on earth – the hierarchical societal patternisations are implicitly paralleled synonymously with the pre-WW2 Nazi occupied Germany.

Verhoeven manages to craft, not only visually adept thrillers, but, deep and thematically rooted criticisms of the status quo – implementing satirical social commentary; embedding it within a bleakly cynical liberalism – to opine on issues such as gentrification, corporate greed, the unhealthy balance of power, which; coming from a European perspective – offered a less insulating view into American politics – with the dutchmans’ critique of westernised policies camouflaged within his science fiction movies; fuelled with anti-war sentiments and explicitly satirical commercials taking aim at the army’s recruitment process, in reigning in youth, during their more impressionable years. Verhoevens’ Robocop was a heartbreaking story of a man conflicted between his being programmed as an obedient tool of law enforcement, and a man lost; dealing with trace familial memories; dealing with connectedness of the human spirit, and love. Robocop is Verhoevens’ Jesus allegory, looking at the materialistic vs the humanistic. It is a story of an avenging angel.

Peter Weller as Robocop
Peter Weller as Robocop

RoboCop was released in 1987 and written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. The film stars Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O’Herlihy, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, and Ronny Cox.

The film is set in a crime-ridden Detroit, Michigan in the near future, RoboCop centers on police officer Alex Murphy (Weller) who is brutally murdered by a gang of criminals and subsequently revived by the malevolent mega-corporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP) as a superhuman cyborg law enforcer known as “RoboCop“.RoboCop includes themes regarding the media, gentrification, corruption, authoritarianism, greed, privatization, capitalism, identity, dystopia, and human nature. It received positive reviews and was cited as one of the best films of 1987, spawning a franchise that included merchandise, two sequels, a television series, two animated TV series, a television mini-series, video games and a number of comic book adaptations/crossovers. The film was produced for a relatively modest $13 million.

Arnold in Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall
Arnold in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall

Total Recall was released in 1990 and based on the short story by Philip K. Dick called ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, the Screenplay was written by Ronald Shusett and the film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, Ronny Cox and Dean Norris.

The film is based on the story of a man who goes for virtual vacation who goes to the colonised planet Mars, an unexpected and harrowing series of events forces him to go to the planet for real (or is it, in fact, real?). The films theme revolves around memory implantation as he has vague memories of being a secret agent fighting against the evil Mars administrator Cohaagen. The film touches on themes of hedonism and ethics. Hedonism is the ancient and popular view that the only valuable thing in human life is pleasure, and the only thing of disvalue is pain. (Here ‘pleasure’ is taken generally, to mean mental states that feel good to us, and ‘pain’, mental states that feel bad.).

Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man with Kevin Bacon
Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man with Kevin Bacon

The Hollow Man was released in 2000 and was written by Gary Scott Thompson and Andrew W. Marlowe and the film stars Kevin Bacon, Elisabeth Shue, Josh Brolin, Rhona Mitra, Kim Dickens

Hollow Man portrays a scientist who achieves invisibility. Being invisible, he realises he can commit crimes without detection. Free from all threat of punishment, he soon questions whether he has any reason to act morally at all. This film is, in fact, a presentation of the ‘Ring of Gyges’ thought experiment from Plato’s Republic. The film touches on the themes of anonymity and the theory of deindividuation; how anonymity can lead someone to question whether morals are needed in life or not.

Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers
Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers was released in 1997 and was adapted to screen by Edward Neumeier and based on the book by Robert A. Heinlein, and the film stars Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris, Clancy Brown, Denise Richards, Michael Ironside,

The film is based in the distant future high school kids are encouraged to become citizens by joining the military. What they don’t know is that they’ll soon be engaged in a full-scale war against a planet of alien insects. The fight is on to ensure the safety of humanity. Starship Troopers is a subtle and insidiously subversive movie that proved frighteningly prescient in the wake of post-9/11 uber-patriotism. Both Heinlein’s book and Verhoeven’s film are valid and interesting political statements at opposite ends of the spectrum. Heinlein’s novel was criticized as fascist at the time of its publication. The movie is as much a sendup of the original novel as it is a satire of jingoist American politics. Despite the squeaky-clean heroes plucked straight from the soaps, there are all the great anti-war elements such as the Mormon extremists, the multiple-amputee mobile infantry retirees and the propaganda shorts masquerading as news. However, the vast majority still seem to regard Starship Troopers as a popcorn movie and refuse to consider that it might be something more. Much like most of Verhoeven’s films then.

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