In honor of the 25th anniversary of Paul Verhoeven’s sleazy, painfully cringe-inducing classic “Showgirls,” I am going to take a look back at what is arguably the director’s most accomplished works, from 1987’s “RoboCop” to 1997’s “Starship Troopers.” A master satirist with a taste for outrageous comical violence, Verhoeven made an indelible mark on American cinema in the 90s.
“RoboCop” marked Paul Verhoeven’s foray into mainstream American movies. Having directed a number of Dutch films prior, Verhoeven was already in command of his craft when the film opened on July 17, 1987. Bombastic, hyperviolent and completely self-aware, “RoboCop” imagines a dystopian Detroit in which the police are corrupt and owned by a mega-corporation. The world of “RoboCop” is decrepit, cold and bleak. It critiques the influence of mass media on the general public, the dumbing-down of entertainment, the militarization of the police force and the disregard for human life that occurs when nihilism and consumerism reign supreme. The aesthetic is appropriately colorless, without a tree in sight. The hyper-violence used in the film is an effective commentary on our obsession with violence as entertainment. The absurdity of the tone helps add some levity, making the film a smart, insightful black comedy that is as compelling and relevant in 2020 as it was in 1987.
“Total Recall” (1990)
Verhoeven followed the success of “RoboCop” up with another sharp science fiction film, this time less heavy on the social commentary. “Total Recall” is nonetheless a classic. Its script is agile and confident, with Arnold Schwarzenegger turning in a marvelously campy performance. It’s a rollicking space adventure via David Cronenberg. The world-building, attention to detail, reliance on practical effects and fast pace arguably make it the director’s most entertaining work.
“Basic Instinct” (1992)
This neo-noir crime thriller starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone is a departure from the politically charged dystopia of “RoboCop” and the splashy colors of “Total Recall.” Instead, Verhoeven channeled Alfred Hitchcock in this controversial, subversive film. “Basic Instinct” takes place in San Francisco, with a plot surrounding a femme fatale (Sharon Stone), a grizzled cop who has seen and done the unspeakable (Michael Douglas), and of course, an unsolved murder. The film was initially criticized for being an exercise in style and little else, yet it has endured as an essential film from the 90s due to an iconic, icy performance from Stone (and her inconspicuous leg-crossing). With shades of “Vertigo,” “Basic Instinct” helped to revitalize film noir for modern audiences.
Finally we arrive at the crown jewel. This film has been debated for its merits, defects and defects as merits, but “Showgirls” continues to baffle on every fundamental level of storytelling. It is a film about sex and entertainment, a film attempting to illicit some sort of response, though no one who watches “Showgirls” is really sure what that response is supposed to be. Many have argued the point of “Showgirls” is to be as vile and unlikable as the world that it is capturing. Many have used this argument to claim that it is a misunderstood masterpiece. The lack of a single decent character, the sleazy cinematography and the overall trashy tone makes a grueling experience or an ironically hilarious one.
“Starship Troopers” (1997)
Verhoeven returned to familiar territory with a satirical science-fiction parody of war propaganda films, “Starship Troopers,” based on the book by Robert A. Heinlein. The film is less subtle than “RoboCop” in its obvious critique of American militarism and nationalism, though its ambitions are admirable. The film contains many of the trademarks of the director, cartoonish ultra-violence, a seeming disregard and even possible disdain for its flat characters, and gratuitous nudity. The film is a great vehicle for exploring the absurdism of fascist ideals and xenophobia. The constant reactionary and violent outbursts by the protagonists against the enemy is a clear parallel to the colonial history of America.