Monday, March 11, 2013

Paul Verhoeven

It is easy to label Paul Verhoeven’s films as a cinema of excessive sex, blood and violence. However, these tags just refer to the surface of the films. Revisiting the following three films revealed the presence of multiple layers underneath:

Robocop (1987)
Total Recall (1990)
Starship Troopers (1997)

Robocop and Starship Troopers are razor sharp satires that are packed with social, economic and political commentary. On first glance, these references are overshadowed by over the top sequences which grab all the attention and become the film’s major talking points, such as the extremely violent killing of Officer Murphy (Peter Weller) in Robocop. Murphy’s killing is brutal but it fits in the film’s context of portraying a society where violence is used to drive all social, economic and political policies. For example, brutal force is used to evict the poor out of their homes in order to build a safer and cleaner new Detroit. And the residents have no choice but to use violent means to fight back. The rise of violence & crime is in turn used to justify the need for building more destructive killing machines so that peace can finally be achieved. RoboCop shows a society that is constantly in war with itself and depicts how once the war machine is started, it will never stop. The faces making the political decisions will change but an endless cycle of building bigger weapons will continue. In this regard, the film correctly anticipates the rise of private corporations in getting lucrative government contracts to protect society.

RoboCop not only targets private security firms but throws its net over all corporations. The appropriately named Omni Consumer Products (OCP) has its hands in every aspect of society and citizens can’t escape its influence. OCP not only thrusts its products down citizens throats but also creates weapons for them to kill or be killed. The media is not spared either and the hilariously depicted fake newscasts in both RoboCop and Starship Troopers shows how a culture of fear is created and controlled by a small group. When RoboCop was released back in 1987, news channels didn’t run 24 hours / 7 days a week. So the film can be credited as correctly predicting the state of contemporary news channels which repeat the same stories over and over again.

RoboCop and Total Recall also show that policies which deny basic equality to all citizens will force the have nots to fight for their rights. And when these citizens demand their rights, they will be labelled as troublemakers and attempt to be crushed by those in power. The enforcement of force is made possible by a collusion between government, corporations and certain elements of the police.

Even though Paul Verhoeven didn’t direct RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3, those later films continue the story, themes and style explored by Verhoeven’s film. For example, in RoboCop 2 Murphy’s programming is altered by those in charge to make him more friendly so that he is not seen as a cold killing machine but instead a friendly killing machine. This example is another piece of witty satire which shows how corporations use media spin and public relations to shift public opinion.

Other related reading

Aaron Light has an excellent essay about Verhoeven & his "Cinema of Excess".

Robert Koehler’s interview with Paul Verhoeven.


It is not surprizing that the remake of RoboCop (2014) will be directed by José Padilha whose Elite Squad films contain a biting social commentary about violence between the poor and the police. Padilha’s films don’t feature any satire so his selection appears to indicate that the remake will be a more serious and darker examination of society.


Sam Juliano said...

Too often Verhoeven's style trumps the significance of his screenplays, a fact you have here given some meaningful thematic heft with a cogent consideration of his three most popular commercial films. I saw TOTAL RECALL recently on the big screen, and have always seen the worth of ROBOCOP. I have yet to connect with STARSHIP TROOPERS, but I know I am in the severe minority there. Another wonderful post Sachin!

Sachin said...

Thanks Sam. Yes, I do see the worth of Robocop now but when I first saw the film, I walked away with only the surface memories.