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Posts Tagged ‘Paul Verhoeven’

Quite a few years ago, I saw Shekhar Kapur’s adaptation of The Four Feathers, which was one of those films that almost dropped through the net completely – it didn’t get much of a release, received lukewarm reviews, and didn’t recover its budget. The reason why, I suspect, is that The Four Feathers is a stirring tale of imperial bravery, whereas Kapur’s movie was intended as a deconstruction and critique of colonial attitudes – almost a wilful subversion of the source material.

This sort of approach is very difficult to pull off. Unless you are Paul Verhoeven, apparently, for he does something very similar in his 1997 adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Over ten years earlier Verhoeven had made one of the best SF films of the 1980s in RoboCop, and while I’m not sure I’d make the same kind of claim about Starship Troopers, it’s still a typically provocative and accomplished piece of work.

Some time in the future, Earth has become a gleaming utopia; rather Americanised too, it seems, for even Buenos Aires looks like somewhere in California. Here we find Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), handsome high-school jock, his more academic girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards), and Diz (Dina Meyer), a girl who has a bit of a thing for him. Carmen wants to fly spaceships, so she enlists in the military of the Terran Federation, as this is her best chance of doing so. Johnny follows her into the service, largely to impress her, and Diz joins up to stay close to him.

Carmen gets her wish and ends up in the space fleet, while Johnny and Diz become members of the infantry. Their training proceeds, with only a moderate level of maiming and crippling amongst the recruits, but events are progressing in the wider world, with tensions growing between the Terran Federation and the Arachnids, an arthropod race from the other side of the galaxy. A devastating Arachnid attack on Earth results in Johnny and the others going to war with the invertebrate menace…

Starship Troopers, the movie, has a very strange relationship with its source novel, but this becomes a bit more understandable once you learn that it started existence as a wholly separate entity entitled Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine. When various similarities with Heinlein’s book were noticed, the decision was made to buy the rights to it and retrofit the script to be even closer to the story.

If nothing else, this explains one of the most noticeable differences in the substance of the movie – the novel’s most lasting SF innovation was the invention of powered armour battle-suits, as worn by Rico and the others as they take on the Bugs. Power armour is completely absent from the film, which mainly concerns foot infantry carrying automatic rifles and rocket launchers.

The more significant change is subtler and arguably more interesting. Heinlein’s novel is largely a vehicle for the author’s political views, and as a result the book is very right-wing, to the point where some have accused it of open militarism (written as a piece of SF for younger readers, the original publisher refused to accept it for this reason). However, what is sincerely and seriously presented in the novel is outrageously satirised in the movie – the movie is to some extent parodying the book it is based on.

As a result, Verhoeven and his scriptwriter Ed Neumeier have been criticised for wilfully misrepresenting Heinlein. The movie depicts an implicitly totalitarian, arguably fascist society, where public executions are broadcast live on TV and having a child requires a license, and one of the key points of the book is that its world is still a democratic one. There’s something to this, but on the other hand the book does contain a sequence in which Heinlein argues the case for aggressive war as a moral imperative, on apparently racial grounds.

The important thing is that whatever political commentary Verhoeven is making, it’s entirely implicit: it’s possible to watch Starship Troopers and just come away thinking you’ve watched a lavish SF action-adventure with a somewhat hackneyed story, and this does in fact seem to be what happened on the film’s original release, given the extent to which it apparently baffled audiences and divided critics. Personally I find the nature of the film as another piece of stupendously violent SF satire impossible to miss, no matter how tongue-in-cheek it is (and it is extremely tongue-in-cheek in places) – I’ve even heard it argued that the casting of Denise Richards, an actress whose dramatic range means she is really best qualified to appear in shampoo commercials, is a flag to the audience that this is not meant to be taken seriously.

The difference between RoboCop and Starship Troopers, I suppose, is that at the heart of RoboCop is a genuine and powerful human story, which Verhoeven surrounds with various elements of topical satire, whereas the story of Starship Troopers is a deliberately superficial and corny tale, solely intended as a delivery system for the satire which is what the film is really about. One striking thing about Starship Troopers is the eerie way in which it seems to anticipate American politics and foreign policy, and media coverage of them, in the years immediately after the September 11th attacks. Watching the movie now, it seems resonant and relevant in a way it didn’t at the time it was released.

That said, of course, while the movie may only superficially be an SF action movie, it’s still an extremely accomplished one – Verhoeven knows when to play it straight and pull out a superb set-piece action sequence, and does so at various points in the movie – the Them!-meets-Zulu battle at the outpost is as good as anything in Aliens. He’s helped, of course, by a score from Basil Poledouris, the best composer in the Hollywood if you want to make bombast sound fun (also the only one to play a redshirt in Star Trek), and special effects which still stand up well today. In terms of the casting, Verhoeven seems to have been actively searching for blandly good-looking young actors (see comments on Denise Richards above), but he also finds a chunky role for veteran genre actor Michael Ironside, who delivers a perfectly-pitched performance – I can’t imagine anyone else delivering a line like ‘His brain has been sucked out!’ with quite the same degree of ambiguity – is he playing it absolutely straight or engaged in a deadpan send-up of the whole thing? It’s impossible to tell. Perhaps he’s doing both.

Then again, the same is true of all of Starship Troopers – it’s both an exploitation movie and a vicious parody of exploitation movies, a lavish war film and a parody of war films – apparently hugely excessive and dumb, but at the same time very subtle and clever. The one thing it’s not, except on the most superficial level, is a genuine attempt at an adaptation of Heinlein’s novel. No-one else has made SF movies with the same level of wit and sense of gleeful mischief than Paul Verhoeven, and few people have matched his level of technical ability as a storyteller. Starship Troopers requires you to engage your brain in a way that few other Hollywood SF action movies do, but that’s hardly a criticism, especially when this is what makes it such a rewarding piece of entertainment.

 

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I remember seeing the front cover of a UK movie magazine about five years ago and being slightly amused by the strapline, which went something like ‘RoboCop! Total Recall! Starship Troopers! CLASSIC SCI-FI SPECIAL!’ (needless to say, all of those movies were supposedly being remade at the time, though one of them seems not to have made it out of development hell). Now, whether or not you consider all of them to be CLASSIC SCI-FI is really up to you (personally, I’d say that the original RoboCop is a genuinely great film, Starship Troopers a fascinating and extremely accomplished one, and Total Recall just another Hollywood mangling of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers) but what is really indisputable is that the magazine could definitely have billed itself as a PAUL VERHOEVEN SPECIAL with no grounds for argument whatsoever. And there certainly is something special about Verhoeven, though whether in a wholly positive way or not is something many people might debate.

Paul Verhoeven arrived in Hollywood in his 40s and very nearly got typed as a science fiction movie director – he was initially in the frame to direct Revenge of the Jedi, as it was then called, but lost any chance at the gig when George Lucas actually sat down and watched one of his Dutch movies – he was concerned, Verhoeven later recalled somewhat drily, that ‘the Jedi would immediately start ****ing’. Lucas’ suspicion that Verhoeven’s muse was wont to lead him into non-family-friendly territory was arguably confirmed when the director later oversaw the notorious erotic thriller Basic Instinct and the just plain notorious Showgirls.

Things have been quiet on the Verhoeven front for a while now – no American movies since Hollow Man in 2000, a typically restrained take on the Invisible Man story (NB: irony is present), and no Dutch movies, either, since the period thriller Black Book in 2006. At the age of 78, you might have assumed he had taken to the role of Grand Old Man of Dutch Cinema and was enjoying a well-earned retirement, but you would be wrong. He has a new movie out, Elle, and I think it is fair it say it is not quite like anything he has ever done before.

Isabelle Huppert gives an astonishing and arguably very courageous performance as Michele, a businesswoman in her middle years who runs a production company making suspiciously Warcraft-esque video games. Verhoeven puts the audience on notice that they are not in for a comfortable ride by opening the movie literally seconds after Michele is the victim of a violent sexual assault by a masked intruder in her home. Neither director nor actress shy away from the sheer awfulness of this, but the first sign that this is not a conventional approach to this topic comes when she simply tidies up the wreckage and gets back to her normal routine, not bothering to even tell her friends, let alone call the police. The incident seems to have left no impression on her at all: when the lead designer at her company unveils a unpleasant piece of animation which appears violently misogynistic, Michele’s response is to complain that it just isn’t visceral enough for their target audience.

The fact of the rape looms over what otherwise would mostly seem to be a smart and sardonic comedy-drama about life in modern Paris, as Michele contends with her ex-husband taking up with a much younger new partner, her somewhat embarrassingly oversexed mother, and her useless great lump of a son (Jonas Bloquet) and his psychotic girlfriend. Everyone is very sophisticated and French – Michele herself is discreetly sleeping with her best friend’s husband, and also seems to be rather taken with her hunky married neighbour (Laurent Lafitte). C’est la vie, as I believe they sometimes say in the Netherlands.

However, the film frequently and unsettlingly shifts gears and transforms itself into a rather disturbing thriller: it soon becomes apparent that Michele’s attacker is not yet finished with her, as anonymous texts reveal he is still taking an interest in her life. Nor is she quite as indifferent as first appeared to be the case, judging from her recent purchases of pepper spray and an axe…

Your first thought might be that Paul Verhoeven has chosen to make a film in French (his first) because France is relatively close to home for him and thus a bit less of a gruelling commute than flying off to Los Angeles or New York City. This is not the case, apparently, because Verhoeven did want to make Elle in America, as an English-language movie. The movie obviously stands or falls by the central performance, and on the director’s wish-list were names like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sharon Stone, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, and Marion Cotillard. Apparently all of them refused to participate; neither was an American studio willing to finance the film.

You may perhaps have gleaned some inkling of just why this film had the great powers of Anglophone cinema closing their curtains and pretending to be out when Verhoeven turned up on their doorsteps with the script – the tonal shifts alone mark Elle as an unconventionally audacious movie – but, I promise you, this is pretty minor stuff compared to the way Verhoeven gleefully takes a wrecking ball to all manner of social and sexual taboos in the course of the movie. Describing Elle as hugely provocative is an understatement.

And yet he manages to get away with it, making a film which is as manifestly intelligent and deftly controlled as the best of his work. How does Verhoeven work the trick? Well, the script is viciously clever, for one thing – from the start, it is clear that Michele is not quite wired up the same way as other people, and there is a monstrous never-to-be-discussed piece of family history that has left the deepest of scars on her. On the other hand, you are distracted from wondering exactly how messed up she really is by the fact that she is always a fascinating and amusing character, if not always a completely sympathetic one. Huppert’s performance is really breathtaking; I rather suspect the fact that she didn’t win the Best Actress Oscar may come to be viewed as a historic injustice. The way the movie deals en passant with issues such as the state of modern manhood, misogynist culture, and the role of religion in the world also means you are never short of food for thought.

The sophistication, dark humour, playfulness, and sheer transgressiveness of Elle has led some to suggest that there is something rather Hitchcockian about it, and I can see where they’re coming from – even though this is rather more extreme than anything Hitchcock ever made. But it also has that slight sense of misogynistic suspicion about it, the distinct feeling that women are somehow implicitly enigmatic, unpredictable creatures. That the movie also manages to be inarguably feminist, with the only characters possessing any real agency being women, is just another of its baffling achievements.

There are many things about Elle which are as impressive as anything I’ve seen in a cinema for a very long time, but I would still hesitate to recommend this film unreservedly to anyone I didn’t know well: it is just so extreme and challenging in so many different ways. One thing which I am certain of is that this doesn’t feel like the work of a man pushing 80 years old: it has the energy and appetite for mischief, the desire to challenge and cause trouble you would normally associate with a much younger artists. It almost goes without saying – but there’s an abundance of life in the old dog yet.

 

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As someone who became a teenager in the Eighties, it’s always a bit unpleasant to be reminded just how long ago that was – but one sign that we’re talking about what’s now a somewhat dim and distant past is the vagueness of many people’s memories about it. Another is the reappearance of films which, at the time, were slightly disreputable pieces of mainstream entertainment, but now revived as classics of their era.

I’m not saying that Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop doesn’t warrant such treatment, but it’s a bit startling to someone who recalls contemporary verdicts along the lines of ‘could be quite a good movie, but spoilt by some of the sickest violence I’ve ever seen’. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that not one but two people I mentioned it to remembered it as a Schwarzenegger movie – and one of them was scornfully corrected by someone else, declaring it actually starred Paul Weller.

Well, a version of RoboCop starring the Modfather would certainly be interesting, but also very different from the one we’ve got, which is headed by Peter Weller, and it was this one I saw back on the big screen recently. Verhoeven’s movie is set in a not-too-distant future instantly recognisable as an exaggerated version of the Eighties – TV news reports and fake commercials scattered throughout the movie play with topical concerns like Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ initiative, nuclear paranoia and consumerism.

Crime is running out of control in the city of Detroit and the recently part-privatised police department is struggling to cope. The department’s corporate backers at the OCP corporation have a plan to make money out of this by deploying military robots in support of human officers, but the scheme hits a snag when the prototype proves a touch trigger-happy and blows away a (relatively) innocent yuppy during a boardroom demonstration. The disgruntled head of OCP orders a back-up plan to be activated.

This leads us to the story of dedicated cop Alex Murphy (Weller), recently transferred to the toughest part of the city. Along with his partner Lewis (Nancy Allen), Murphy finds himself pursuing vicious gang boss Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) into an abandoned factory. The two split up and after Lewis momentarily forgets basic police academy training (‘don’t look at the criminal’s todger’) she is knocked unconscious. Attempting to arrest the gang single-handed, Murphy is (literally) shot to pieces, and his remains whisked away by medical personnel…

Some time later someone new arrives at Murphy’s old precinct, operating as part of a classified OCP program. The new guy is also a dedicated cop, but one largely composed of shiny bullet-proof titanium. This is the product of the back-up plan: RoboCop, a cyborg police officer combining cutting-edge technology with human experience and judgement. But Lewis is pretty sure she knows where RoboCop’s human component came from – the question is, does anything of the original man’s personality survive beneath the armour plating?

I began to notice a while ago that RoboCop had become one of those films which, whenever I found it in progress on TV, I would – circumstances permitting – find myself sticking with to the end. If that’s not a mark of quality, then I don’t know what is, but sitting down and watching it in a theatre has only reinforced my opinion that this is a severely underrated classic.

The reasons why this film isn’t more widely appreciated are not that difficult to discern, but it’s interesting to compare RoboCop with the original Terminator, a film which enjoys healthy critical respect. They’re both hardware-driven SF action movies, and intensely violent in places, but I think the difference lies firstly in the fact that The Terminator has at least one pretty good sequel (whereas all the RoboCop follow-ups to date have been distinguished only by their mediocrity) and that James Cameron has carved out a niche for himself as a respected (i.e. financially successful) innovator and auteur with movies like Titanic and Avatar, while Paul Verhoeven has soiled his own reputation by doing movies like Basic Instinct and Showgirls.

RoboCop at least shows Verhoeven’s talent as a storyteller as well as his occasional penchant for wild excess. What’s most impressive is the way he turns the movie on a dime, executing remarkable changes in tone and mood while never putting a foot wrong. The initial ED-209 test sequence is astounding in its sudden eruption of graphic violence, but it’s played as vicious farce and remains very funny throughout. And yet only a few minutes later, the sequence in which Murphy is first maimed and then executed by Boddicker and his men – even more graphically – is genuinely, viscerally nasty and remains uncomfortable to watch even now.

The thing about RoboCop is that you’re never ever in doubt of which bits you should be laughing at, which bits you should be thrilled by, and which bits should move you. The movie has plenty of all three, often in close proximity, and Verhoeven’s choreography of them is exemplary. This is a much funnier film than I remembered, but perhaps the reason I overlooked the humour is the quality of the central story, which is a serious one, honestly done. Peter Weller may have been cast ‘due to his ability to convey pathos with his lower face’ (presumably this is just a fancy way of saying he has a sad-looking chin), but he delivers a brilliant mime performance once Murphy is incarcerated in the RoboCop armour. This combines with the direction and Basil Poledouris’ marvellous score to ensure you’re always aware of the character inside the suit: the movie is about Murphy reclaiming his human identity in a hellishly materialistic world, and the focus on this stops it from becoming just an ultra-violent cartoon like the sequels.

The structuring of the script is mostly flawless, with the only real issue being some unnecessary subplot activity. The result of this is that the man ultimately responsible for Murphy’s predicament is killed by someone else halfway through the film, resulting in Murphy’s final showdown being with a main villain he doesn’t have much of a personal beef with – given that the guy’s main crimes are a) being an unpleasantly ruthless corporate scumbag and b) killing another unpleasantly ruthless corporate scumbag, the script has to work quite hard to contrive a reason for Murphy to single him out for attention at all.

Still, the political and corporate satire is just another thing that marks RoboCop out as something different and special. It has become routine in some circles to accuse this film of ripping off the British comic Judge Dredd, with the addendum that this is one of the reasons why the Stallone Judge Dredd movie was so poor – all the best ideas had already been used.

Verhoeven himself admits the influence, and I suppose there’s a vague visual resemblence between RoboCop and Dredd to go with the peripheral wackiness and satire. You can certainly argue both operate in the same ‘fascism for liberals’ area. But even so, I think this is easily overstated. For one thing, as I’ve mentioned, RoboCop is about Murphy reclaiming his human identity – and inasmuch as Dredd’s ever had one, I suspect he would probably treat it as an impediment in the execution of his duties! The two characters are facing different directions, Murphy in a much more conventional one.

The same can be said of the wider movie. One of the most interesting things about the Dredd strip is the intellectual tension that it creates for the reader, given that the stories are generally about an unyielding enforcer for a brutal totalitarian autocracy – we shouldn’t be cheering for a character like this, and yet for some reason we still do. Judge Dredd‘s own brand of black humour and satire surely arises from this, but it has a distinctly different flavour from that in RoboCop.

This does not stop RoboCop from being a much more impressive movie than it appears at first glance. Verhoeven occasionally lets his love of going OTT get the better of him – the incidental transformation of a minor bad guy into a Troma-esque toxic waste mutant being the most obvious instance – but for the majority of the time this is a movie that knows exactly what it’s doing and is doing it extremely well. It may not have the punk edge or earnestness of The Terminator, but I would still say this is a wittier, funnier, more intelligent and arguably more moving film – perhaps this is the textbook case of a terrific original movie being slimed by having too many substandard follow-ups associated with it.

Certainly its reputation shows no signs of recovery. In the last year I’ve seen The Artist, Damsels in Distress, Touch of Evil and even Le Quattro Volte all playing to packed-out theatres at the Picturehouse. The revival of RoboCop – a one-off showing – attracted less than a dozen people, even after the company cunningly advertised it as showing in French (or possibly this was a printing error). Oh, the shame. Oh, the snobbery. Maybe next year’s remake will lead people to reassess this film properly – but, sadly, I doubt it.

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