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Freedom of Choice: The Science-Fiction Films of Paul Verhoeven

Written by on February 14, 2014 

Jacques Rivette, in speaking of Paul Verhoeven, said the Dutch filmmaker’s philosophy was “about surviving in a world populated by assholes.” Every one of his films takes the world’s rotten core as something of an absolute given, and, in turn, the only minor victory that’s even possible is merely getting through it all. In fact, “minor victory” would be the key term: although his science-fiction works essentially abide by traditional “action-film” narratives, the ends their protagonists reach are never truly instances of good conquering evil; many even straddle the very line between these two moral classifications.

With a remake of one of his classics hitting theaters today, we take a look back at his quartet of science-fiction films. Read on below:

RoboCop (1987)

Instead of an action-packed sequence centered on its title character, RoboCop begins with a television broadcast, establishing in one fell swoop what is, seemingly, the entire state of both future Detroit and that not-so-distant-future America’s culture and politics: the reduction of news to minute-sized bites, omnipresent Reaganomics, and, most hilariously, the promise of many ridiculous consumer goods, which would naturally take up equal screentime as this so-called televised journalism. But this future Detroit is most frightening when shown to be in the corporate possession of seemingly every public service — including the police force, which is in heavy disarray due to rampant crime.

Interestingly, however, the film makes a point near its beginning to compare the fatalism of each corporate and police sector: the risk of a younger executive popping in with a new idea for the former, the constant officer deaths within the latter, and the eventual overlap between them resulting in the creation of the titular half-man / half-machine.

The fallen Officer Murphy is basically rebuilt to be a cliché, as so naturally fits within a world which consists entirely of catchphrases. Yet what Verhoeven provides, with Murphy, that he doesn’t communicate through other characters is point-of-view; once Murphy is transformed, his vision has become malformed into what’s essentially a surveillance camera. Eventually, though, the only sense of sight this man has are his memories — the one instance in which his wife and child are actually seen, and could thus actually be said to exist. Every one of Murphy’s point-of-view shots renders him as either opposed or alone, particulary when seen moving through the private space of his vacated old home that, now, is just another consumer good for sale, or through the public spheres where’s he regarded in a godly fashion, if not as an actual being.

Perhaps this is why RoboCop is, ultimately, Verhoeven’s most emotionally engaging film, being that it’s a narrative of self-realization. The identification with the machine is central to Verhoeven’s personality: always siding with the freaks, or, more aptly put, victims. Specifics of sympathy are, still, a tricky thing to pin down in his films, as anyone who isn’t the recipient of it is likely subject to the most brutal and mocking of violence, including a shot to the crotch of a potential rapist that channels the castration-panic so key to many of his films (as most explicitly expressed in his Dutch thriller The Fourth Man).

Of course, considering Verhoeven’s familiarity with erotic films, that the human body is central should come as no surprise — but what RoboCop exemplifies is his eagerness to not just peer at it, but also turn it into a cartoon. There’s the blown-apart body of an executive in the ED-209 massacre, or even the two-part joke of a criminal goon being mutated by acid and, then, swiftly getting decimated by a moving car.

This, while emblematic of why Verhoeven could never really be labelled a “humanist,” at the very least sets the stage for this film’s concluding “Murphy, Sir.” Just the utterance of one thing genuine is, by the end, somewhat of a triumph.

Total Recall (1990)

Continuing in RoboCop’s path, Total Recall follows a character’s self-realization in a cesspool of a future world selling product after product — yet instead of having him be its victim, he is, instead, navigating the very transparent pleasures it’s built upon, in particular the new identity that a product supposedly promises.

While treading a line between fantasy and reality, Total Recall doesn’t necessarily emphasize subjectivity in the sense of point-of-view camera work (e.g. RoboCop), but, rather, by creating a world where it’s impossible to not be looking at something. (Television screens are scattered throughout personal and public spaces, from the home to systems of transit.) It’s only natural that the protagonist, Quaid, would be lured by both the personal and the commercial, for he can only attain his dream of Mars through a phony contraption simulating the actual experience — which naturally raises the question of if “the following” is real, or merely the kind of male escapist fantasy peddled out every week in cinema and on television.

The caster of this gaze is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, while obviously unable to serve as a relatable everyman à la Peter Weller, Verhoeven carefully uses to subvert star image itself. While Schwarzenegger was cast early in his career for an imposing stoicism, Total Recall instead makes him as expressive as possible, even contorting his body to plastic heights via various make-up effects, such as the hilariously grotesque way his face and eyes bulge from exposure to Mars’ surface at both the film’s beginning and end.

Unlike any other Schwarzenegger picture, however, the repercussions of his actions are initially in complete view; when Quaid looks at the blood on his hands after the gunning down of multiple goons, there is then the cut to a bird’s eye view of all the dead bodies left in his wake. Yet he seems accepting of it, later relishing one-liners and violence as he gets deeper in, thus coming closer to the typical Arnold Schwarzenegger protagonist. Quaid’s conscious choice is to avoid pacifism and favor the near-nihilistic retaliation of the action-hero.

Yet being that Quaid is still the dominant white male, Verhoeven’s sympathy is more towards Mars’ deformed mutant inhabitants who Quaid ends up helping. A Marxist tract is even formed through their narrative of being workers screwed by a greedy business head (Ronny Cox more or less reprising his role from RoboCop), and subsequently working to overthrow him through revolution — or, as more commonly referred to on the all-knowing television screen, terrorism.

But while this revolution seems to have ended in success, was it even real? Quaid even questions this, but he’d rather see the victory in this ambiguity — and, if nothing else, that’s his choice to make.

Continue to Starship Troopers and Hollow Man >>

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