In order to properly understand Starship Troopers, one needs to understand its casting. At some level, casting is the de facto entry point for any of Verhoeven’s American films over the decade from Robocop to Starship Troopers. Total Recall, although somewhat muted by its need to be an Arnie vehicle, definitely gestured toward using the big lovable lug as a critique of the idea of an Arnie film. More successful was Basic Instinct, where Verhoeven cast a seemingly unaware and genuine Michael Douglas more for his weathered, aged wrinkles and flagellating variant of all-American thuggery. And one doesn’t need to explain Showgirls these days, a work where Verhoeven cast (cruelly so, at that) the young whippersnapper Elizabeth Berkeley and forced her through all manner of gross, grotesque abuses on screen in a meta-commentary on the way in which her character, and young Hollywood starlets altogether, are forced to go through the wringer to find success, leaving others in their wake and losing their dignity and respect for themselves as they forced to do the unthinkable.
How does one approach the colossal elephant in the room that is Showgirls? Outside of perhaps Battlefield Earth, it may be the most lambasted and popularly despised film of the past quarter-century. At the time of its release, it was an unmitigated commercial disaster (unmitigated commercial disasters being the unofficial theme of the film year that was 1995), and to this day it almost universally reviled. Those that don’t revile it, a group that includes a heavy swath of more youthful critics and viewers who indulge in the film for its unapologetic descent into high camp and subversive anti-populism, mark it as some sort of misunderstood modern masterpiece. It is a deeply confusing film that openly solicits both interpretations with arms wide open and no concern whatsoever that its two guests have opposite aims and hate each other. But that is Paul Verhoeven for you folks, and whatever you think of Showgirls, it is probably, for better or worse, the culmination of everything he stands for. It is nothing less than The Paul Verhoeven film. Continue reading
Joe Eszterhas, at the height of his power and world-damaging, rampaging misogyny in 1992, gifts Basic Instinct with an absolutely torrid, huffing, wheezing, terrible screenplay. This much cannot be denied. Everything about the screenplay insists and states that which it could have implied, adds in unnecessary and morally offensive complication whenever it can, and generally lives by the motto “why say something better when we can say it more?” It is a bottom-feeding early ’90s erotic thriller screenplay if ever there was one, indulging in the stupidest amounts of shoddy characterization and faux-drama it possibly can. It is as if he lost a bet and had to write it and market it against his will. Except, of course, Joe Eszterhas doesn’t seem to have a kind view of women, let alone lesbian women, and, from his other screenplays, we can assume he loved damn near every word of his oppressive money-maker.
And now we’ll take a short look at Dutch madman Paul Verhoeven’s ’90s American pictures, for during the 1990s Verhoeven was one of the few mainstream directors consistently operating at heightened level of mania and adventure in the film world, ever-pursuing and challenging his particular brand of satire until it became almost indistinguishable from truly making the bad movies he was satirizing. Plus I just reviewed Robocop, so it seems like I might as well continue on from there…
Ultimately, Paul Verhoeven’s American films, especially his American action films (always the more sensible and less delirious of his offerings) live and die as much by the strength of their satire as by how well they ape what they are critiquing. Now, Total Recall, his adaptation of Phillip K Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”, is a satire of sorts, but not a particularly wide-reaching one. It’s not marinated in quite the same joie de vivre to decimate aspects of the corporate cultural capital excess and disregard for human life prominent in Robocop, but nuggets pop through. The central idea is a joke at the expense of modern American society, largely that they would rather live an imagined reality than genuine affection, adventure, or meaning found in everyday reality. And at that, they would prefer not to find real pleasure but to purchase false ones through a company, to purchase “memories” of events through a corporation rather than to actually experience them, thus turning joy and memory into corporate products. This is heightened material for an action film, especially one in 1990, and if Verhoeven explores this theme less than he would explore his themes in his preceding and subsequent American films, it is admirable that he tackles it at all. Not to mention, as with Robocop, he made a pretty damn fine action film, satire or not, anyway.
Paul Verhoeven doesn’t know the meaning of the word nuance, and Robocop provides at least the opening arguments for why the world is a better place for it. Brash and brutal in its own quintessentially ’80s way, Robocop also chomps at the bit to lose itself to the royal flush of political satire that stamps out the dark heart of ’80s consumerist ultra-violence and the evils of capitalism with gusto and flair. Under its sleek, brawny hood lies a personality-surfeit aimed squarely at other ’80s action films. But the film never lowers itself to the tiredness of irony, instead opting for a sort of loving critique of action cinema that plays with its inadequacies and idiocies by exaggerating them and acknowledging that an anti-action film would be a hypocrisy most foul. When Truffaut claimed that any war film that wanted to hate war was dishonest because a war film innately positioned war as a form of excitement, the same could be said to apply to action cinema. Thus, while Robocop gets entangled in its conglomerate mass of neo-fascism and broad-sword crypto-leftism, it’s always glad to exist, always happy to be a film we’re watching, and never per-se anti-action … even if its political message chastising media violence considered along with the fact of its own hyper-violence may not be the most easily reconcilable tension in the film world.