Can You Fly Bobby?
It is fair to say that Paul Verhoeven has seen a lot. An acclaimed filmmaker in his native Netherlands, he’d grown up seeing the horror of war of first hand whilst WWII erupted all around his childhood. In interviews he speaks of dodging mutilated corpses on his daily walks to school. As he grew up and eventually became a filmmaker, he could enjoy his calling as an auteur, creating artistic European fare which would become acclaimed all around the world. It was all ruined for him however by a change in government. It was time to take the plunge and go to Hollywood.
Verhoeven had been sent the script for RoboCop. At first, he dismissed the idea out of hand – but his wife read the script and suggested he reconsider. On her advice he did so, and Paul Verhoeven found himself on the set of his first American film.
So began a renaissance in Verhoeven’s career. A fascinating new path which offered Western English-speaking audiences the action and special effects they craved, but still managing to keep hold of his European sensibilities.
RoboCop was a hell of a calling card for Paul Verhoeven’s arrival. Produced by Jon Davison and written by Michael Miner and Ed Neumier, it told the tale of Alex Murphy. A police officer in a near future Detroit. A run-down city on the verge of gentrification into the gleaming futuristic metropolis of Delta City. Before this project could begin – something had to be done about the rampant crime.
After the presentation of a new law-enforcement unit ED-209 spectacularly fails OCP, which runs the police, executive Bob Morton proposes the RoboCop project. Use the body parts of a dead cop to create a cyborg police officer.
After an unfortunate run in with Clarence Boddicker and his gang of sadistic miscreants, Murphy unwittingly volunteers to become this cyborg.
His activation proves to be a resounding success, signaling perhaps a brighter day for Old Detroit. However, when memories resurface of his former life he finds himself faced with an internal struggle to regain his identity and bring his killers to justice.
Despite the unwieldy title, RoboCop was a resounding success for all involved. It was unlike any other sci-fi action movie of the time. As a human heart beat under the metallic chest of it’s cyborg protagonist one too beat under the schlocky surface of the film.
Peter Weller became a minor star in the title role. The real star however was Paul Verhoeven himself.
Despite the futuristic setting, the film very much commented on the time it was made. The year of our Lord 1987. Never losing sight of his European perspective, Paul Verhoeven cast an outsider’s eye on the era of capitalism, big business and Reaganomics. He presented to audiences a future America where corporate sharks hunt their rivals like prey, resorting to murder and aiding and abetting known criminals to bring their diabolic schemes to fruition.
The irony is, despite his robotic makeup, Murphy ends up being the character in the film who has the most humanity. He is certainly the most sympathetic.
Paul Verhoeven calls it his “American Jesus” film. An ambitious claim for sure. It is all there however if the viewer wants to really look. Murphy’s grisly death has some resemblance to the Crucifixion. Verhoeven strongly believed that he needed to be crucified before he could be resurrected. There is also a scene toward the end where it looks like he is walking on water.
Its little details like this that add to the uniqueness of the film. Also, there is Murphy’s touching plight. Despite the three Prime Directives (fourth: Classified) that control his actions which bear similarities to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, one thing that cannot be suppressed is his human soul. No matter what happens to him, no matter what has been done to him his previous life is calling out to him that he knows he must reconnect with.
The film was a massive hit with critics and audiences.
Get Your Ass To Mars
Verhoeven had arrived. Not only that, he had come to the attention of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Verhoeven’s next film was 1990’s Total Recall. A project that had gone through years of development hell until Schwarzenegger and Carolco Pictures got involved. Based on the short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale by science fiction legend Philip K. Dick it told the tale of construction worker Douglas Quaid. Seemingly a happily married construction worker he has the perfect life. A life that would be perfect if he were not haunted by dreams of a mysterious woman and the planet Mars.
He finds himself in the offices of Rekall Inc. Purveyors of virtual vacation he wishes to purchase the memory of an all expenses paid Mars holiday. He opts for the Secret Agent package, but something goes awfully wrong.
It appears that he has really been there in the past but can’t remember. It also seems that he is not really Doug Quaid! As hitmen suddenly attack him, he’s thrust into a wild adventure. An adventure that will take him to Mars where he must team up with a gang of rebels and find out who he really is.
But is this really happening?
Verhoeven further explored themes he touched upon in RoboCop. A quest for identity. Satirical swipes at consumerism. A diabolical villain played by Ronny Cox , who Cox starred as Dick Jones in RoboCop and returns here as Vilos Cohaagen.
Like Kurtwood Smith’s evil Clarence Boddicker in the previous film – here we have another henchman who has his own personal beef with the film’s hero. Michael Ironside portrays the ruthless Richter, and like Boddicker, he has an antagonistic relationship with his boss.
Written by Ronald Shushett, Dan O’ Bannon and Gary Goldman, Total Recall was a box office smash.
For his next two movies Verhoeven would leave sci-fi behind him. 1992’s Hitchcockian thriller Basic Instinct was a huge hit that generated a fair amount of controversy. Follow-up, 1995’s Showgirls, was a complete disaster. An abject failure for Verhoeven. He needed to salvage his career and reputation and set about doing so by returning to what he did best.
I’m Doing My Part!
1997’s Starship Troopers could be a crystallization of the ideas and trademarks we saw previously in RoboCop and Total Recall and Verhoeven achieved this by plucking out some of the best parts that made those films work so well.
He would once again work with RoboCop screenwriter Ed Neumeir, composer Basil Poledouris and producer Jon Davison. From there he reused the trope of satirical news broadcasts/infomercials designed to give a taste of what the world was like and provide exposition.
From Total Recall he bought back the actors Michael Ironside and Marshall Bell. Also the themes of travelling to another planet to face the bad guys and become a hero.
When it came to satire Verhoeven really was not messing around this time. He was never exactly subtle about it before but here he gleefully waves it around like an unruly child who has discovered how to swear.
Earth is at war with the deadly arachnid bugs on the Planet Klendathu. If you decide to serve with the Intergalactic Federation your social status is updated from Civilian to Citizen. Citizen status opens new opportunities and fringe benefits not usually available to the lower class. But to enjoy these privileges you must go to war. And survive.
Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is a high school student who joins up with the Federation in order to impress his girlfriend Carmen, who has joined to become a pilot. He finds himself assigned to the Mobile Infantry.
When the arachnids launch a surprise attack on Buenos Aires that kills Rico’s parents, he and his gang of fellow soldiers rocket off into space to face the deadly bugs head on. The battle for mankind has begun.
Critics did not know how to take this movie when it was released, and reviews were not kind. Over the years though it has been reappraised.
The film is based on the 1959 novel by Robert A. Heinlein which at the time of its publication was controversial. Heinlein was accused of glorifying fascism and militarism.
With this in mind the funniest thing about Verhoeven’s adaptation is that it does not shy away from these elements. In fact, it faces them head on and completely skewers them. This does not adapt the novel with a straight face. One could say it mocks it.
All three of these films feature some rather graphic violence – but in this one all bets are off. Verhoeven laughs at it. His childhood desensitized him to such things.
Whilst the film depicts a future society that has reached the stars they have not done it in the spirit of peace and exploration. They have done it in the pursuit of conquest and war.
And much like in RoboCop (and in Total Recall to some extent) the masses are coerced into accepting it through the screen they have in every room of the house.
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