Paul Verhoeven: Sci-Fi and Satire


Ben Jordan reviews RoboCop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers

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Image by IMDb

By Ben Jordan

Both of my parents are British, so when I found out I was part Dutch a few years ago, I took a perverse pride in this new and exciting part of my heritage. Ever since I have felt a cosmopolitan connection towards the Netherlands, so much so that I felt ashamed to have never watched a film by perhaps its most famous director, Paul Verhoeven. His most famous, RoboCop, has been written about before here at Nouse, so I decided to dedicate this piece to a discussion of his approach to sci-fi and satire throughout his filmography, with a particular focus on RoboCop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers.

I usually never bother to write about a film I don’t like. For one, I don’t find it to be an especially fulfilling exercise. It’s often an easy case to argue, and when I do write I prefer it to be about a film that feels like it will reward the time I have spent thinking about it. One recent exception to this rule came back in November when I went to see Crimes of the Future. I hated it, and ended up having a heated debate about it on the way back. I got so riled up and passionate about my dislike of the film that I decided to go home and write a scathing review of it out of spite. Even the most stoic reviewer can only take so much, and there are times when I dislike a film so much that I feel compelled to write a review about it. Starship Troopers is one such case.

Much like The Last Jedi, the critical discourse on Starship Troopers tends to be divided between the circlejerk of people who ‘get it’ and the philistines who take its fascism at face value. Its apologists paint Starship Troopers as some kind of misunderstood masterpiece that can only be appreciated by those with a keen eye for satire. If you don’t like it, you clearly just didn’t ‘get it’. In spite of this, it isn’t exactly hard to get what Starship Troopers is going for. Its satire is relatively superficial, and though I do struggle to see how viewers in the 90s interpreted it otherwise I am not exactly sympathetic towards the false dichotomy that its fans impose.

Starship Troopers is set in the 23rd century, and tells the tale of a conflict between colonial space marines and a race of interstellar insects. It attempts to satirise the colonial undertones of American foreign policy and the propaganda machine that riles its citizens up into jingoism by depicting a fascist society of space marines – but its satire is so unabashedly brash as to be almost unbearable. Verhoeven is clearly sympathetic towards his protagonists and intersperses their teen drama with scenes of intergalactic conflict. There is a love triangle that is so generic and tacky that it puts Twilight to shame, and by the end of the film I cared so little about any of the characters that I found myself feeling bad for the insects.

I respect the intention behind it, but when viewed through the cynical lens of the 21st century Starship Troopers comes across as exceedingly cheesy. It has a schlocky B-movie feel to it that fans will tell you is a transgressive middle finger to the studio system, but in reality is just a result of the fact that the film is barely put together. Plus, it looks incredibly ugly in the way that only CGI from the late 90s can. It all added up to a distasteful experience that I was not eager to repeat, though some depraved part of me felt compelled to watch more of Verhoeven’s work, and in the weeks after watching Starship Troopers I ultimately ended up doing so.

Flashforward two weeks. Me and a couple of friends boot up an old copy of RoboCop, Verhoeven’s 1987 cult classic about a Detroit police officer who is gunned down in the line of duty and revived as the titular RoboCop. Unlike Starship Troopers, the satire in RoboCop actually has some nuance to it. RoboCop is an incisive critique of consumer capitalism and the corporations that drive it. The streets of Detroit are rampant with crime and the city hands control of the Police Department to a set of corrupt executives. RoboCop is created in an attempt to clean up the streets so the executives can proceed with their plan to create a new city outside Detroit. Though RoboCop distributes justice, his cocaine-addled creators are only motivated by profit. It’s like American Psycho if Patrick Bateman had control of a revenant android.

Like American Psycho, RoboCop can also be viewed as a critique of the economic policies of Ronald Reagan. Throughout RoboCop, Verhoeven criticises these policies and the toxic corporate culture that they exacerbate. He intersperses satirical news segments into the narrative, where the reporters present horrific tragedies in a deadpan tone; a technique that he reused in Starship Troopers. Though most of these tragedies are attributable to technology, they often involve an element of human error, evincing how it is ultimately the corrupt corporate executives who are responsible.

The release of Total Recall in 1990 marked a return to sci-fi for Verhoeven after a three year absence. The satire in Total Recall is not as clear as in RoboCop or Starship Troopers, but like in his other works Verhoeven takes a critical stance against capitalism and colonialism. Total Recall follows a construction worker who receives implanted memories of a secret mission on Mars. The planet has been taken over by the executive of a mining company who has a monopoly on the air supply. Like RoboCop before it, Total Recall is a takedown of the corporate ambition of corrupt executives. Verhoeven turns his sardonic eye from Detroit to Mars and depicts the consequences of the free market capitalism espoused by Reagan and his cronies. The Mars of Total Recall is hedonistic and apathetic, a clear consequence of the insatiable appetite of the capitalists who run it. The twists and turns of its plot keep us dependent on Verhoeven as he feeds us misinformation about the past of our protagonist. Just like how the media in the film presents an image of Mars as a prime holiday destination, and paints the oppressed rebels as terrorists.

So why does Verhoeven’s satire work in some cases and not others? Perhaps it is because both RoboCop and Total Recall have a clear target to their satire. The ideological stance of the antagonists is clear in both films, and their narratives are structured in such a way as to pit the protagonists against them. But in Starship Troopers there is no clear target. Whilst Verhoeven is clearly airing out his grievances with Reagan in both RoboCop and Total Recall, his intentions are ultimately not as clear in Starship Troopers. Perhaps this is because its satire is mixed up in the mess that is American foreign policy, or perhaps this is attributable to a misstep on the part of its director. Starship Troopers clearly encourages its audience to see the insects as the antagonists. Perhaps this is why audiences at the time failed to recognise that Verhoeven was satirising the protagonists all along.

Though Starship Troopers is not quite the misunderstood masterpiece that its fans paint it as, it still makes for an interesting case study in satire. Few films have missed the mark quite so far upon their release, or have been subject to such a favourable critical reappraisal in the years since. For fans of sci-fi and satire there is certainly a compelling case to say that no one blends these two disparate genres quite like Paul Verhoeven. Even though I ultimately did not like Starship Troopers, it is a divisive film for a reason, and since watching RoboCop and Total Recall I have become more open to the possibility that there is merit to it that I simply did not appreciate on this watch. Perhaps the fans are right after all.