Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop Turns 30

How Paul Verhoeven uses a chainsaw when he should use a scalpel.

As RoboCop turns 30 years old this month it’s as good a time as any to look back on the career of director Paul Verhoeven and examine his unique oeuvre. Verhoeven’s career is marked by overreaching his talent. It is marked by attempting to deliver great, thoughtful work that comments on humanity via characters and storytelling and then settling for titillation of the lowest common denominator kind. To put it metaphorically, throughout Verhoeven’s career he’s become known for using a chainsaw when he should be using a scalpel.

Paul Verhoeven’s career began in the late 1960’s in his home of Amsterdam, Holland. Not having seen any of Verhoeven’s work I can’t say exactly what his influences were as he was rising among the ranks of filmmakers in his home country. Verhoeven split his time between television and feature work before finally moving to Hollywood in the mid-1980s where he made a couple of forgettable features before breaking out in 1987 with the blockbuster RoboCop where our examination of the director begins.

RoboCop arrived in theaters on July 17th, 1987, which happened to be the day before Verhoeven’s 49th birthday, and became an immediate smash with audiences, if not with critics. The film tells the story of a cop played by Peter Weller who is seemingly killed in a hail of bullets until he is pieced back together with remarkable mechanical features that turn him into the titular RoboCop. Seeking revenge on the drug dealers and gang leaders that plague the dystopian future version of Detroit, or what we now just call Detroit, RoboCop cleaned up the streets and Reagan-Era audiences lapped up the films no-nonsense approach to stopping crime.

RoboCop unfortunately, however, wasn’t meant to reinforce the law and order values of hardcore conservatives but rather, it began life as a dark and prescient commentary on how local police forces were becoming militarized while justice was being pushed aside in the name of protecting a frightened and cowed public living in fear of faceless criminals and hoping for something like RoboCop to shoot first and ask questions later. The film was supposed to have a darkly satirical take on modern police forces.

Then Paul Verhoeven took over and with his chainsaw over scalpel approach the dark satire of the militarization of the modern local police force became a violent exploitation film that wound up reinforcing the very values the film was intended to satirize and warn against. Verhoeven for whatever reason ignored the elements of RoboCop that were truly subversive in favor of making one of the most exploitative and violent blockbusters of all time. Don’t believe me? Check out Peter Weller’s near death scene, right before he becomes RoboCop and tell me I am wrong about Verhoeven’s chainsaw approach.

Verhoeven’s chainsaw next took aim at speculative science fiction in Total Recall. Here you have yet another futuristic dystopia with warnings about the future of humanity and how technology is slowly encroaching upon and invariably debilitating what makes us human, our memories. Based on a brilliantly trenchant and thoughtful story by the great Phillip K. Dick, Total Recall should be speculative sci-fi with a deceptively witty edge; a warning to everyone to not lose their humanity to the ever-growing convenience of technology.

In the hands of Paul Verhoeven however, Total Recall becomes little more than a straight-ahead action/sci-fi blockbuster best remembered for an alien prostitute with three breasts. Yet again Verhoeven’s chainsaw over scalpel approach pulls out the teeth of the source material in favor of the simpleminded titillation of sex and hardcore violence. While Verhoeven might tell you he had Phillip K. Dick’s wit and intentions in mind, the final product that is Total Recall barely resembles anything the sci-fi writing legend had in mind.

In 1992 Paul Verhoeven scored his biggest Hollywood coup yet when he made the sexy thriller Basic Instinct. The film became the water-cooler movie of the year for Sharon Stone’s turn as a bisexual potential serial killer opposite Michael Douglas’s super-cool PTSD-afflicted detective. The film remains among the most talked about thrillers of the 1990s and its style influenced an entire sub-genre of sexy thriller knock-offs.

And yet, once again we get only a kernel of a good idea lost in a sea of exploitation excess. The film that Basic Instinct could have been in the hands of a skilled director is one about a woman in complete control of her sexuality and who exploits her unusual comfort with sex to overpower the men pursuing her. Sex as a weapon, or more specifically the female body as a vehicle for a woman to exert influence over those around her, is a fascinating idea that with the right director could be turned into something memorably subversive.

Sadly, Paul Verhoeven directs Basic Instinct with only exploitation in mind and no real sense of how a woman like Catherine Trammell, Stone’s character, thinks and acts. Verhoeven has no interest in how Catherine thinks or why she does what she does, he only cares about ogling and exploiting the body of his star Sharon Stone, an actress with, at best, only enough talent to give a director exactly what they want minus any nuance. What could have been a powerful character piece about a powerful female figure is instead rendered as the movie where a movie star flashed her vagina.

This brings us to Showgirls, an unquestionably terrible, tasteless and boorish movie. And yet, once again, we have the kernel of a good idea buried underneath Verhoeven’s terrible direction. Showgirls tells the story of Nomi Malone, a small-town girl looking to hit it big in Las Vegas while starting out as a stripper. While writer Joe Esterhasz can take as much of the blame for Showgirls as director Verhoeven, at the core of the script is the kind of unique character rarely explored in a mainstream movie.

Nomi Malone, as played by Elizabeth Berkley, may come off as silly and borderline unwatchable, but remove the performance from the equation, as well as the awful dialogue and direction etc. and you have a character that at her core is one that is a rarity. Strippers have been the subject of several movies but few that give them any real characterization. There is an inherent discomfort that audiences have with movies that put sexuality at the forefront, especially female sexuality and Showgirls had the chance to play with that discomfort and explore it and use it as a cudgel to break down barriers.

Instead, what we get is simpleminded schlock at best and outright pornography at worst. Once again Verhoeven’s chainsaw approach to storytelling wastes an opportunity to play on subversive themes and explore a unique character. Whether it is because he is incapable or simply prefers to take the easy route to making what he assumes will be a hit movie, Verhoeven turns every moment of Showgirls into an exploitative, gross-out mess that is best viewed in the privacy of one’s home and not in a proper movie theater. Pornography is very easy to make, an honest exploration of female sexuality, on the other hand, requires a director with a great deal more skill than Verhoeven has demonstrated in his career.

The metaphor is very simple and encompasses Paul Verhoeven rather perfectly in my mind: he uses a chainsaw when he should be using a scalpel. It’s arguable that he’s simply not a good enough director or satirist to wield a scalpel but that is debatable. Verhoeven, to my mind, has the ability and even the intention to make thoughtful movies with deep themes but chooses the easier path of making simple-minded splatter movies and exploitation cheapies instead. Why else would he choose potentially challenging material like RoboCop, Total Recall or even Showgirls, if he didn’t, at the very least, have a thought about creating something beyond mindless, trashy exploitation? It’s as if he starts with a big idea then finds the idea far too challenging for his skill-set and takes the easy way out. 

Hello, Mr. Chainsaw. 

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