This week’s biggest release is José Padilha’s remake of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, a SF classic that’s one of the crown jewels of 80s Hollywood. It’s the second of Verhoeven’s major films to be remade in recent years, following Len Wiseman’s tepid take on Total Recall. I get why major movie studios are keen to remake Verhoeven’s work. They are, after all, consummate Hollywood films, though not for the reasons most people think. Verhoeven’s a known satirist, but his particular brand of satire is one of ultraclassification. In his American work particularly, it’s difficult (and often impossible) to discern where the satire begins and ends, which is why his most trenchant works often resemble deficiency. The point isn’t necessarily to parody Hollywood but to out-Hollywood Hollywood, to push its various tropes beyond the point of ridicule into a sort of hallowed albeit hypercritical space.
After the jump, you can see my five favorite Verhoeven films. Regrettably, I’m not all that familiar with his earlier work, so this list might read like a “greatest hits,” but any excuse to write about him is a good one.
5. The Fourth Man (1983) Aside from Black Book, this is the only Dutch Verhoeven film I’ve seen, and I like it very much. A sort of spiritual prequel to Basic Instinct, the film grapples with religion and delusion, not so subtly suggesting that the two are pretty much the same. The satire isn’t quite as prominent as in his American work; instead, there’s a heightened surrealist edge punctuated by visions of sex and violence and crucifixions.
4. Starship Troopers (1997) The most biting satire of Verhoeven’s career, so trenchant in its depiction of the military-industrial complex that its anti-imperialist themes were initially mistaken as pro-fascist. It’s a gruesome film that doesn’t shy away from the inhumanity of military combat, but the material is treated so passionately that a bizarre air of glorification hangs over the action, a testament to Verhoeven’s rakish sensibilities.
3. Black Book (2006) I finally caught up with this one in the last year or so, and it instantly became one of my favorites, easily the most classical of the Verhoeven films I’ve seen. It’s the sort of “prestige picture” that actually earns the honor. Made in his native country, it’s less capricious than some of his works, a melodrama that artfully exposes complicated, deep-seated character traits and neuroses.
2. Showgirls (1995) As I’ve posited previously, this is a true film maudit, long held to standards it doesn’t aspire to by the arbiters of proper (ahem, boring) taste. The cheap Las Vegas milieu is the epitome of sleaze, but it’s presented to the audience as if it were lavish and desirable, all the better to exemplify the inner desires of the characters. The film’s superficial sheen shrewdly evokes the perils of stardom when taken as as life’s optimal end. If you don’t feel connected to the story, the characters, the setting, or anything else, it’s because you’re not supposed to.
1. Total Recall (1990) A dizzying mashup of comic-book sensibilities, lingering Reagan-era angst, Jean Baudrillard, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chin. This is pop filmmaking of the highest order, a SF actioner with legitimate insights into poststructuralist ideas of simulated (i.e., cinematic) realities that sacrifices nothing in the way of entertainment and Hollywood flair. Plus, Ronny Cox rules as the villainous Cohaagen.