Paul Verhoeven is an underrated filmmaker in Hollywood. Many think of him as simply a purveyor of trash, and it is true that he’s the man responsible for SHOWGIRLS and BASIC INSTINCT. But the Dutchman is also behind three of the smartest, most important American science-fiction films of the 80s and 90s – ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL and STARSHIP TROOPERS.
The man is a very clever director. He gets satire, and manages to present some challenging and brave material in hugely entertaining, engaging packages.
Verhoeven has sadly also been on the receiving end of an insultingly hollow remake of Total Recall, and two more remakes of RoboCop (the yawn-inducing trailer released last week) and Starship Troopers are on their way.
Beyond basic greed, why does Hollywood want to have another stab at this trio of sci-fi masterpieces? Here’s a breakdown of what makes Verhoeven’s three most successful sci-fi films so impressive and ground-breaking and why the remakes miss the mark (and the point).
Like BLADE RUNNER and the JUDGE DREDD comics, both of which apparently heavily inspired it, RoboCop takes a cynical view of the future of law enforcement. Set in a near-future Detroit in the middle of a financial crisis and infested with violent crime, Edward Neumeier’s script for RoboCop touches on such sci-fi staples as robotics, A.I and free will, in addition to mercilessly satirising product marketing, big business and the justice system. Verhoeven takes these big ideas and adds his trademark hard-hitting extreme violence and cheeky humour to produce an incredibly satisfying end product.
The remake due next year does not look promising. The first trailer was bland, and made it look like every other sci-fi actioner produced over the last decade. The film is going to be rated PG-13 in the US, as director José Padilha insists the material doesn’t need to be bloodily violent to have the same impact. He’s wrong on that account. In Verhoeven’s original, the violence served a very tangible purpose; every act of brutality committed by Robo or the villains had an instant, visible consequence. This is going to sound a little distasteful, but imagine what impact Alex Murphy’s death scene would have lacked if you didn’t see him horribly brutalised in such a manner. It made you detest the criminals, and gave the later revenge plot line real dramatic weight, but you never forgot that these were real people (on-screen) being killed. The remake is going to be tame, ineffective and dull, despite an impressive supporting cast. It’s PG-13 to make money, nothing more.
TOTAL RECALL (1990/2012)
Yes, it’s a silly Arnie film. But it’s a really smart silly Arnie film. This adaptation of sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick’s short story WE CAN REMEMBER IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE is transformed by Verhoeven into a sprawling adventure involving spies, conspiracies and memory implantation. There’s big action sequences, Arnie one-liners, deformed mutants, a three-breasted lady and impressive animatronic and makeup effects – what’s not to like? Verhoeven and his writers also never feel tempted to answer concretely whether Quaid’s (Schwarzenegger) adventures really happened, or whether they were in his head, making it one to ponder and debate. It’s an early 1990s INCEPTION.
Len Wiseman’s 2012 remake claimed to be going back to the source material. That is a lie. It references Verhoeven’s film in terms of plot, character and even imagery far more than it ever does Dick’s short story. It doesn’t even take place on Mars, but instead in a Blade Runner rip-off dystopian Earth. It looks admittedly fantastic, and there’s a nifty car chase scene on a magnetic road, but it’s just too serious and emotionally empty – the characters are just so mechanical and unsympathetic, the script clumsy and lacking in elegance. The ambiguous nature of the plot is also mostly lost in the theatrical version, and only in Wiseman’s director’s cut is there a real hint that it might have all been a dream. It’s strange that the film ended up being so disappointing.
In remaking Verhoeven’s least nuanced sci-fi (discounting HOLLOW MAN) you hire a competent (if conventional) director who drains all life from the story, cast a better actor in the lead (Farrell) who somehow comes across as more wooden than Schwarzenegger, and have all the gloss of a big-budget blockbuster but largely ends up as unmemorable.
STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997/TBA)
Starship Troopers is often perceived as Paul Verhoeven’s dumbest sci-fi film (again, discounting Hollow Man), and that’s largely due to people taking it seriously. I don’t mean that Verhoeven and screenplay writer Edward Neumeier intended the whole thing to be one big joke, rather that the whole chest-pumping hyper-masculine frat-boy portrayal of the military doesn’t necessarily reflect the political leanings of writer and director. Rather this adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel is satirising it and its associated right-wing views.
Verhoeven’s film puts the intergalactic war between man and the alien “bugs” on-screen in the manner of a pretty straight action movie. It also reproduces some of the political debates found in the novel. But something is profoundly different from the novel. Everything – the characters, the dialogue, the imagery is exaggerated to almost comic extremes (the officers of The Federation dress like the SS!). Everyone looks like they’re starring in a World War II propaganda reel – “I’m doing my part!”. Verhoeven and Neumeier also reprise their love of satirical commercials from their earlier collaboration on Robocop – “Would you like to know more?”. Starship Troopers is a satire, and it’s making fun of the extreme anti-communist views of the novel’s writer.
I’m not sure I agree as some do that Heinlein was promoting fascism in his book, only responding to his world at the time; communism was seen as a major threat to American liberties in the 1950s, and he was using the medium of science-fiction storytelling to warn against it. Loud, brash and deceptively clever, Starship Troopers may well be Verhoeven’s greatest sci-fi masterpiece.
And of course, a remake is on the way. Still “in development” and without any concrete attachments as yet, will it underwhelm as Total Recall did and RoboCop surely will? I fear the worst. Not only does Starship Troopers not need to be remade (the effects have aged remarkably well, and the satirical subtext is as hard-hitting as ever) I fear that the filmmakers will be tempted, like with the RoboCop remake, to make it suitable for pre-teens to maximise profitability. Starship Troopers is not a story for children, it never has been and it never will be. By it’s very nature, with its underlying political commentary (comic or not) it’s a story very much for adults.
They’ll probably add in the most glaring omission from the novel in Verhoeven’s original adaptation – the power armour the mobile infantry wear to fight the bugs. Admittedly, this has blockbuster potential, but again, why should children think warfare is cool? I’d also like to see anybody try to present the book’s military politics straight-faced and not be accused of being fascist today.
Film remakes are here to stay, and sadly some filmmakers are victims more frequently than others. Of course, you can always go back and watch the original, but how many are missing out on them altogether just to see another bright, shiny and empty reimagining? Who else has been a victim of multiple remakes? Join me next time to find out. SSP