In a much more personal editorial piece than our normal critical anaylysis, Alaster Philips takes an enthusiastic look at the work of the Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, best known for his blockbuster films of the eighties, Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, but with a much greater scope in arthouse cinema and innovative storytelling. Celebrate the 75th birthday of this great and often misunderstood artist with Geek Chocolate.
I’m not going to lie, in fact I’ll sing it from the slightly fascist looking, moderately dystopian, police state roof top. I’m a fan of Paul Verhoeven.
I’ll start, but not at the beginning. In 1997 I went to the cinema to see Starship Troopers. I dragged two friends along with me because as far as I was concerned they had to see it. A couple of hours later we left the cinema, I loved it, I mean really loved it; they on the other hand looked at me like I was a four-legged arachnid from outer space.
True, it’s not for everyone, but I was hooked. As soon as I could, I got my hands on a copy of Robert A Heinlein’s book which I have read no less than half a dozen times. In his angular and shoulder-padded style Verhoeven managed to capture the essence of the book.
In a nutshell, it’s a futuristic society where minor crimes suffer corporal punishment and public floggings and serious crimes are punishable by death. The rights that we might take for granted in a liberal democracy – such as voting or even being allowed to start a family – are only granted to Citizens, a status attained by civilians who serve a term of national service in the military.
Johnny Rico, is a kid from Buenos Ares with aspirations of citizenship. The novel describes his political, educational, ideological and literal fight to attain that goal; the movie adaptation focuses primarily on the fighting aspect with no let-up on gore, yet still manages to hold on to the ideology of the politics throughout. I think that this is one of Verhoeven’s talents, that despite being a beautiful-people action fest, he keeps that subtle political thread going throughout the film.
Verhoeven’s films have style: angular, colourful but muted, a contrast to the blunt instrument of television advertising, and both are used in Starship Troopers where we have a classroom full of kids being influenced by an ideological teacher, but at the outbreak of war television becomes an even greater instrument of the state for propaganda against the enemy, but more importantly for recruitment.
Verhoeven uses television advertising to juxtapose the view of the near future showing us something that is familiar to a consumerist society and often done with humour such as in Robocop with the immortal phrase: “I’d buy that for a dollar!”
In Total Recall it tempts our hero to undergo a mind altering procedure with the siren call: “Recall, Recall, Recall.” Television is used again by the villain Cohagen in an announcement reminiscent of Orwell’s image of Big Brother to undermine a rebellious movement.
The televison set is the audience’s patch of familiarity in the distorted worlds of his films, but it is also Verhoeven’s narrative tool, for example in Total Recall where the hero Douglas Quaid is transfixed by the screen, wide eyed and grinning in a hypnotic stupor, an expression Arnold Schwarzenegger pulls off effortlessly.
The dusty futures that Verhoeven depicts are on the outside edge of desirable, a matt grey knife-edge between ideal and truly awful.
Why am I in veneration of Verhoeven? He is capable of just telling a story, something that many directors can’t accomplish.
When you strip it back, as Verhoeven does, down to the bare bones, before adding his style and flourishes, often violent, often controversial, the end result is something which I feel is quite special.
Exploding plastic heads, boxy modes of transport that look like they’d be more at home scrawled on the back cover or a twelve year old’s school jotter, and a decades old idea of a grubby future: I’d buy that for a dollar.
Verhoeven’s science fiction work depicts either absolute control or total anarchy – and usually balances precariously between the two.
In RoboCop, Detroit is being over-run by gangs and violence, the authorities losing a brutal war, but technology becomes the saviour when police officer Alex Murphy is killed and his body donated (stolen) as the biological component of the city’s answer to fighting crime as supplied by sinister corporation OCP. He becomes an icon of hope, pulling a decaying society back from the edge of total anarchy.
In this future technology is flawed, where a malfunction during a demonstration of the precursor to RoboCop proves fatal for a board member, the company president too angry at the failure of his project to care about the deceased colleague while the remaining board members see an opportunity to exploit.
One of these opportunities is the creation of RoboCop, symbolising a symbiotic relationship between man and machine where technology can suffer malfunctions or is restricted to a preordained set of commands, and humans are removed from control without instruction or rule. This turns into a fight between hardwired programming and free will, the emotion of the human side, Murphy winning over the programming, with the ambiguity being whether he is seeking justice or revenge.
The man over machine theme recurs in Total Recall when Quaid has an itch that can only be scratched by going to Mars. Human nature forces itself through, even with the tiniest seed growing as a discomfort in the hero that ultimately leads to a resolution, a muscle bound messiah leading his people across the deserts of red planet to the promised mountain of salvation.
When we look back on the 1980s, when RoboCop was released, it shows a time when purs
uit of wealth, and through it supposed betterment, was paramount. Verhoeven reinforced this with materialism and the shameless hunger for power, implying that for the right price, there is nothing you can’t have. It pandered to the capitalist drive of the time in a dark portrayal of absolute wealth and absolute poverty with nothing in between. So much revolves around the importance of dreams, human desire and the need for fulfilment.
Yet for a man who depicts violence and baser human urges with such flair, Verhoeven himself is loyal, with a roster of recurring talent both in front of and behind the camera, working with Rutger Hauer four times in their homeland on Turkish Delight, Katie Tippel, Soldier of Orange and Spetters then again once both had moved to Hollywood in the only fantasy film Verhoeven has directed, Flesh & Blood.
Twice each he has worked with genre favourites Michael Ironside and Ronny Cox, and on three of his films, Flesh & Blood, RoboCop and Starship Troopers, the soundtrack was provided by the late Basil Poledouris. RoboCop brought Peter Welller to a wider audience than the cult film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, and he has maintained that relationship with science fiction right through to Star Trek Into Darkness.
It is a mark of a true artist that there can be no indifference to his work, and Verhoeven has satisfied that, from the notoriety of Basic Instinct, to the thirteen Golden Raspberry nominations for Showgirls, then turning his back on Hollywood to critical acclaim with Black Book, yet it is in his science fiction films he speaks of the highest aspirations.
Total Recall depicts the culmination of one man following his insatiable need to go to Mars for the ultimate betterment of mankind. There is that single and insular need for one outcome, the expansion of an individual’s knowledge that is portrayed no better than the lumbering carnage of a body builder.
I recently watched the remake of Total Recall, and when I say remake I mean evisceration. When I heard about it I was excited; when I read the cast list I was intrigued; when I watched it I was just lost.
That’s Verhoeven’s talent; the beautiful and the brainless can fill the screen with sex, violence, and special effects but he keeps a few pervading ideas of core human desires like wealth, ideology and hope running throughout, interspersed with mutants, aliens and exploding plastic heads. “I’d buy that for a dollar.”