While the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis dominated as home consoles, nothing could match the ambiance and addiction an arcade offered. There were few sights more satisfying than putting a $20 bill into the change machine and watching the avalanche of quarters fall into my cupped hands. The same goes for the feeling evoked by watching Verhoeven’s sci-fi films, RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Starship Troopers (1997). These were movies kids wanted to see precisely because they weren’t allowed to. This was when an ‘R’ rating really meant something.
The Logan Arcade, one of the trendy pub/arcade mash-ups dotting Chicago, recently hosted a free screening of three of Verhoeven’s films, an event almost custom designed to channel my childhood. The layers of sarcasm on display could have threatened to consume the experience. It was a peculiar feeling watching three satirical films I greatly love, in a place lined with machines oozing nostalgia, targeted at children, but ironically, in a 21 and older environment. It was almost emblematic of the prolonged adolescence some people are lucky (or not) to indulge in.
These days, arcades stocked with beer are in fashion, Verhoeven, however, is not. His style and tone are largely forgotten or underrepresented in today’s blockbusters. Even when his films are remade, they’re done poorly; cold copies lacking his energy, a mixture of satire, irony and, paradoxically, authenticity. Given the screening was at a venue awash in irony, the opportunity presented itself to study these three key movies and how they engage with irony, satire, and authenticity.
Total Recall (1990) the first film of the night, might be Verhoeven’s best known. Featuring one of the biggest action stars of all time, along with a famously large budget, this is also a film that makes very little sense, if approached literally. Unlike the 2012 remake, where there is zero ambiguity (and a PG-13 rating), Verhoeven’s Total Recall, based off a Philip K. Dick story and a Ronald Shusett/Dan O’Bannon treatment, is wonderfully twisty-turny.
Placed sometime in the future, Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a lowly construction worker, wedded to Lori (Sharon Stone). The Quaid is dissatisfied with life on Earth, and he is constantly plagued by dreams of Mars. When he goes to Rekall, a travel agency that sells fake memories, opting for a deluxe package, a so-called ego trip, that entails the experiences of a secret agent on Mars, Quaid is found out to be an actual secret agent, one living under deep cover, who must now retrace his steps and reclaim his old identity.
The tension of this film comes not from the interstellar conspiracy pitted against Quaid, nor the hail of bullets shot by police extras from RoboCop, who like rather like they’re wearing couch cushions as armor. It doesn’t come from Ronny Cox’s Mars overlord/corporate villain Cohagen, Michael Ironsides’s thuggish enforcer Richter, or Laurie, a fellow deep cover agent posing as Quaid’s double crossing wife. It comes from whether this narrative is real or not. In other words, is Quaid’s experience authentic, or is it a dream? The drive for authenticity, and its rejection, is paramount in this story. Rekall sells fake memories, either to Quaid in the form of a secret agent, or a bored housewife, looking for, apparently, a sexual bacchanal with stock footage weight lifters. Characters are revealed not to be whom they say they are, whether it’s Lori, the cabdriver Benny, Quaid’s coworkers, the leader of the Martian resistance, Kuato, or even Quaid himself.
Though purposefully ambiguous, toying with dream logic in an ironic way, this film feels very authentic. Not authentic in a realistic way, of course, which the 2012 remake with Colin Farrell kind of is. It’s authentic because it wholly commits to the fantasy of its filmic world. Having Schwarzenegger play any character that isn’t Conan the Barbarian is silly. Even as the Terminator, an infiltration cyborg, Schwarzenegger sticks out like several sore thumbs in a crowd. Given his presence, we can probably see him from orbit. That’s where the humor of Twins, Kindergarten Cop, True Lies, and Junior springs from—he hardly seems the type for such films.
The conceit of Total Recall is that Quaid might unwittingly be the secret agent he bought as a memory from Rekall. The film’s plot follows his purchase. Even his love interest on Mars, Melina, is identical to the woman in his dreams, and from his memory selection at Rekall. If you had to select anyone as a secret agent, Schwarzenegger would be the worst choice ever. His hot dog skin doesn’t pass for the typical construction worker’s doughy ruggedness. Throw in various references to lobotomies and a pre-Matrix blue pill/red pill sequence and you don’t quite know what’s up or down. Total Recall works because Schwarzenegger doesn’t fit.
All of this gives the film a dream-like quality. Verhoeven was picked to direct this film by the lead, not the other way around. Because of that, the inverted, black-is-white-white-is-black, quality of this film shines. What’s thought authentic becomes its opposite, whether it’s through someone’s identity or Quaid’s ability, if he really is a construction worker, to mow down dozens of highly trained goons without suffering a scratch. He pulls Ping-Pong sized probes from his nose, gets sucked into the vacuum of space, and endures shots to his balls ad nausea. Quaid simply cannot die.
That’s the hallmark of dream logic, and Total Recall, despite its humor and irony, is a strikingly sincere film in that regard.
Some serious pest problems in Starship Troopers (1997)
Starship Troopers, the most encompassing and epic of Verhoeven’s films, might also be the most misunderstood. Taking elements from Robert Heinlein’s novel, with a script from frequent collaborator Edward Neumeier, Verhoeven draws heavily from his own experiences growing up in Nazi occupied Holland. As a child he saw a downed British pilot spread across the ground like so much peanut butter upon bread. Coming across this scene of devastation, blood, guts, and gore at too early an age left a deep scar on his psyche. The director-to-be realized how the human body was nothing more than meat. That both amazed and infuriated him.
Violence has always been a big part of Verhoeven’s films. People die in horrible circumstances, and he often depicts this violence in heightened, sometimes comedic ways. This has led to accusations that Verhoeven is a sadist, a cynic, or that he presents the dissection of the human body as something served up for spectacle. Just look at the heat generated by Showgirls, which might lend some credence to that theory.
In this film that features a truly ‘90s cast of Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Jake Busey, Clancy Brown, Neil Patrick Harris, and Ironsides, people die in copious amounts. It’s the story of a futuristic war set against interstellar arachnids that a fascistic Earth finds threatening, complete with Leni Riefenstahl-esque Triumph of the Will propaganda shots and slick looking SS officer outfits Harris dons without batting an eyelash.
Critics believed that Verhoeven was too enthusiastic about a film that appropriated Nazi imagery. He was accused of being a closeted believer of a reprehensible ideology. Nothing could be further from the truth. Depiction doesn’t equal endorsement. Agatha Christie isn’t a fan of murder, despite writing about it for decades.
And much like Total Recall, this second film of the night makes very little sense. The soldiers of the Mobile Infantry, who again look like extras from RoboCop wearing couch cushion armor, are pitted against giant insects that could rip their faces off. Johnny Rico, Van Dien’s character, fights a war against two-story sized bugs with a machine gun that is largely ineffective. There are even scenes of fighter jets suppressing the bugs on bombing runs, only to pave the way for fragile humans in laser tag outfits stalking across alien planets with weapons from centuries ago. Sure, ground forces do their best, but this isn’t a mission of conquest—it’s a mission of extermination.
Our puffily-armed protagonist of Robocop (1987)
Though the characters and setting are enthusiastic about the war, the audience is prodded to be appalled. Scenes of soldiers snapped in half, sucked out into the vacuum of space, burned alive by aircraft carrier sized fire beetles, or having their brains slurped out, are genuinely terrifying and gut churning. The violence, and its consequences, is open and honest. We cringe in our seats while the characters on screen cheer and celebrate the slaughter.
But that’s the point. War is hell. Verhoeven uses the violence to bring attention to how absurd and wasteful warfare is. Humans die by the millions and what’s achieved? Nothing. By having puny humans fight giant alien bugs with little more than glorified AR-15s, Verhoeven shows how stupid war is, though in a backhanded, ironic way. For a director who is known for violence, blood, gore, and guts, Verhoeven might be the most pacifistic filmmaker out there. Though this is a satirical send up of militaristic sci-fi films (think James Cameron’s Aliens), he draws from his understanding of meat. Starship Troopers shows plenty of that. It also shows how easy we might send this meat to die for us, or become this meat ourselves.
RoboCop, the night’s final film, introduced Verhoeven to American audiences (Turkish Delight, notwithstanding) and is the apotheosis of his career over here. Once again pairing with writer Neumeier, Verhoeven crafted a film that is both deeply funny and horribly violent. It also has a razor wit, deployed barber-like, best done by an outsider viewing a culture that’s asked him to come aboard, make a movie, and have everyone involved make a great deal of money.
RoboCop features a robotic policeman that fights crime in rundown, deindustrialized Detroit. That premise might have sounded laughable during production, ripe for a Cannon Films exploitation flick, or something from the imagination of Roger Corman. Though this film can be schlocky, it knows, full frontally, what it wants to be. When Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a recent transfer to the bankrupt, hard-pressed Detroit Police Department is brutally killed by criminals, execution style, audiences are rightfully horrified. One, our protagonist has been offed quite early. Two, the violence is shown openly and honestly. Instead of cut-aways or quick edits, Verhoeven shows what bullets do to the human body.
Yet, in an earlier scene, when a young executive is gunned down by a malfunctioning robotic prototype, blasted apart in a hail of squibs, quite similar in execution to Murphy’s murder, it’s played for humor. And it is darkly humorous in its excess. Two separate scenes, with two similar events, elicit two very different emotional responses.
This happens because Verhoeven know when to interject moments of sincerity and honesty. Although Starship Troopers is broken up by quick propaganda films, providing exposition and defining the film’s tone, RoboCop pioneered Verhoeven’s satire. The Detroit of the future exists in a hellish America trapped in the ‘80s. Corporations are running amok, putting fingers in every conceivable pie. Cities are bankrupt, poverty is ever-present, social services seem nonexistent, and the police are on the path to privatization.
This is presented as satire.
The goal with satire is to adopt the position you disagree with in an effort to push it to absurdity, thereby undercutting your opponents. While funny, it can hamstring the earnest and effectiveness of the argument you’re advocating. Yes, we know what you oppose, but what do you really stand for? Irony and satire can be a dead end, especially if operating in the mode of ‘blank irony’, as outlined by David Foster Wallace, where the goal is simply to poke and mock. Adopting an ironic pose, resplendent in a detached cool, conversely acts as a shield, keeping one safe from seeming to care too much about anything. But it’s too easy to take a stance because it asks nothing, risks nothing, and results in little more than snark.
Verhoeven, for all of his use of irony and satire, effectively modulates his tone to demonstrate what he cares about. He can make us laugh at the ultra-violence and capitalism gone wild, but brings the narrative a dose of earnestness with, for example, Murphy’s execution and the consequences of violence. The blood squibs are excessive and brutal, but even bad guy drug dealers are shown to suffer. One example is the death of Jesse D. Goins (Joe P. Cox). When he’s blasted by RoboCop in the climatic action scene, his chest explodes. Normally this is par for the ‘80s action film course. However, when he slips to the ground, dying in the arms of Ray Wise’s Leon Nash, the camera lingers on his corpse as his fellow criminals sprint off. He dies alone, forgotten in the dirt.
The camera, however, hasn’t forgotten him. We focus on his death and here Verhoeven shows his deep concern with human suffering. Despite how heightened and over the top the action is, there’s grit, a type of realism to the violence, at least in its consequences, that few films can match.
So, what do Verhoeven’s three sci-fi films have to say about irony and satire? Don’t be afraid of being controversial. Be honest. Take a stand. Make a point. Behind all the yuks and blood, there is a deeply concerned and involved filmmaker. But that seems to be a stance largely abandoned. Just look at Verhoeven’s remakes, their overwhelming blandness and lack of engagement signals how effective satire and irony is a form forgotten, at least, in contemporary blockbuster cinema.
It makes sense. Humor is subjective, dependent on culture and context. In today’s global marketplace, humor can be a liability. Some comedies play poorly overseas but superheroes and dinosaurs translate. Of course, when you try to make a movie for everyone, you end up making it for no one. Verhoeven’s style and his concerns are targeted and specific. He is deeply concerned with the body and the individual, and with identity. His earnestness is delivered soaked in blood.