Momentous Monday: Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director relocated to America in the 80s and who himself turns 82 in just under two weeks, is actually one of the most amazing and underrated directors of all time. The main reason for this is that once he came to America, he never abandoned his European sensibility, so while it looked like he was making genre movies, he was constantly perverting the genres.

Audiences just didn’t get it.

Then again, I think he’d been like that from the beginning. I have to say “I think,” because I didn’t hear of him until his 1980 film Spetters, and only after it finally made its way to America via the arthouse circuit. Even then, the only reason I deiced to see it was that it had sort of gay themes, three cute male leads and one hot female, and equal opportunity nudity.

I next ran across his amazing The Fourth Man, sort of a twisted next-generation Hitchcock thriller that did not disappoint and, again, involved a flawed and yet gay protagonist — keeping in mind that this was a straight director working in the 80s, and, again, while his gay male character flawed, so were his straight ones — and he was never not sympathetic to any of them.

I didn’t see his true brilliance until I saw Soldier of Orange, probably his most personal film because it dealt with the Dutch Resistance as the Nazis invaded — something Verhoeven experienced and survived as a child. This, along with his earlier films, are probably what helped make Rutger Hauer an international star, by the way, although he got noticed long before Verhoeven finally came to America and worked with him there.

That would be 1985’s Flesh + Blood, a medieval drama and not one of Verhoeven’s most memorably, not to mention that it feels a lot like Hauer’s very recent turn in Ladyhawke, with Matthew Broderick and Michelle Pfeiffer.

But then Verhoeven got a whole lot better. Or, in other words, he dropped his Dutch sensibility on the series of big budget Hollywood films he proceeded to direct for the next fifteen years, lampooned the hell out of his adopted country, and subverted the hell out of genres.

So… here are six American Films by Verhoeven, some beloved by critics and some blasted, but all of them masterpieces in their own right.

Hint: There’s a common theme in all of them and… surprise… it’s been there all along in his other works. I’ll just start with his big American Blockbusters.

RoboCop (1987)

Verhoeven burst onto the scene big time with the way-over-the-top violence of this one, starting with officer Murphy having just about every bit of his body blown off graphically, and then including such best hits as Jose Ferrer’s character knee-capped before being blown up, a guy being shot in the nuts through a woman’s skirt, Eric Forman’s dad being stabbed in the neck, unfortunate ginger being toxic-wasted into a red stain on a speeding car and, finally, the big bad being fired, shot, and dumped out a window in, admittedly, one of the worst-animated doll-arm death-falls in all of cinema.

On the other hand… what Verhoeven meant and only a few people got was that this film was absolutely meant to be an over-the-top satire of American culture of the time. And it was all right there — this was the dawn of the Reagan Era, when public prisons were being privatized, police forces were being militarized, and loyalty to company meant everything. Ironic, then, that Verhoeven made his hero a man turned robot, since this was also during the rise of home computers. His hunch was that pure technology would defeat human evil, and he might have been right.

Total Recall (1990)

Forget the abysmal remake of this film. The original is pure gold, because it pretends to be a Schwarzenegger action flick — but it’s not. Sure, he’s the hero, but the brilliant thing about this film, and where it actually pays attention to its source in the works of Philip K. Dick is this: The entire “vacation” that Schwarzenegger’s character buys is, in fact… entirely fictional.

He gets what he pays for: “Blue Skies on Mars.” He is exactly who we see that he is at the beginning, he hasn’t changed at the end, and it has all been a fantasy vacation. Notable, he didn’t bring his wife along. In fact, in the dream, his wife is the villain’s consort, so make of that what you will. This flick is just another brick in the wall of what Verhoeven is getting at. And, then…

Basic Instinct (1992)

This film got a lot of flak at the time for making the villain a lesbian, or at least a bisexual woman, but that was also missing the point. Why was this character not actually the villain but, rather, the heroine? Flashforward…

Showgirls (1995)

And, once again, Verhoeven satirizes America so hard that no one gets it. In a lot of ways, Showgirls is the flipside to Basic Instinct, but look back. That’s his thing. He works in pairs. And this was the hardest he’d satirized anything until his next film… While, on the surface, the film seems to be all about the tits, in the end, it’s really about the power of women. After all, who makes it out alive finally?

Starship Troopers (1997)

If you take this film on face value, you’re not going to get it. But, really, it’s the logical extension of Verhoeven’s RoboCop world. You’re especially not going to get it if you’re a fan of the Heinlein works it’s based on, mostly because Heinlein was kind of a Libertarian douche, by which I mean “selfish child who thought he was better than everyone else,” q.v. Ayn Rand.

But, in American terms, Verhoeven was always an outsider, and this is one where he went for it. While pretending to go all-in for American jingoism and bullshit, he actually made an incredibly anti-war movie, and made it funny and biting satire at the same time.

Hollow Man (2000)

Forget the recent Invisible Man, a shallow attempt by Universal to become Disney. This film, twenty years ago, is the real deal. It basically is The Invisible Man, under a different title, casts a Hollywood heartthrob, and then Verhoeven lets him do everything that any toxic male asshole would do, given the power to be invisible. And naked. And both at the same time.

And this film happens to be the key to all of the others, because the thing that Verhoeven has been toying with and exposing all along, even back to his Dutch films, has been this: Toxic Masculinity. And there’s not even a question about that. Now, I haven’t seen any of his films post 2000 — Black Book, Tricked, Elle, and Benedetta — but I have seen enough of his works to think that it’s the whole toxic male thing he’s been railing against since the very beginning of his career.

And why shouldn’t he? After all, it’s what the Nazis used to ruin his childhood and his country, right?

Nerding out on Star Wars: Why The Rise of Skywalker worked for me

In which I unleash my inner Star Wars nerd. WARNING: Spoilers galore. If you haven’t seen The Rise of Skywalker yet, stop here, unless you want major plot points revealed. And, most importantly, remember that like all artistic criticism, this is just my personal opinion. Your mileage may vary, and you’re not wrong. I’m not wrong. All art is entirely subjective and personal to the observer. 

Okay. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been a major Star Wars fanboy since forever and why not? It was the major mythology of my childhood, and has carried on through three trilogies, two spin-off movies, and a couple of series.

I will admit to a few things, though. One is that I never really got into Clone Wars because the 3D animation style just didn’t mesh with the Star Wars universe I knew. Two is that while I’ve seen and enjoyed some of the Mandalorian (and Boba Fett was one of my favorite original trilogy characters) I don’t subscribe to Disney+, so rely on friends for viewings.

Three, finally, is that I never got into all of the extended universe stuff in terms of books, comics, etc., but, apparently, that’s all non-canon now, so I guess I won on that front.

All that said, my personal Star Wars film rankings are as follows…

  1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
  2. Episode IV: A New Hope
  3. Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
  4. Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
  5. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
  6. Episode VII: The Force Awakens
  7. Solo: A Star Wars Story
  8. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
  9. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
  10. Episode II: Attack of the Clones
  11. Episode I: The Phantom Menace

The Rise of Skywalker had big shoes to fill but, honestly, I think it filled them by paying off all of the promises made and, no, it did not erase anything set up in The Last Jedi, which did not erase anything set up in The Force Awakens. Remember: Characters lie, or see things from a “certain point of view.” That was established way back at the beginning in Episode IV.

To me, Episode IX played out in the inevitable way it had to. My only complaint about the saga is that a certain character who debuted in Episode VII and was set up to be the villain did not survive through IX, although they died nobly and redeemed. Still, I somehow knew from the first moment we met that character that they’d be doing the ol’ Anakin in reverse saga. And if that wasn’t and isn’t obvious to complainers, I don’t know what movie you watched. Also keep in mind that Luke saved his father from the dark side while Ben was saved from the dark side by his father, or at least what was most likely a force projection that took all of his mother’s energy to make happen, so that we also got a nice little symmetry with the Skywalker sibs, who both performed their last heroic act on a far-away planet in order to turn Kylo Ren back into Ben Solo, and wound up force-ghosting because of it.

And there’s your explanation for that last scene, by the way, you’re welcome.

Lucas is famous for saying that his films rhyme, and a triple trilogy is actually the ultimate act of Aristotelian drama. Ari is the one who created the three-act structure or beginning, middle, and end, even if he was doing it in five act plays. But if you want to take that to its logical extreme, each part of that also has its own beginning, middle, and end, as does each part within that.

Now, just taking the three trilogies and ignoring the extra films, what do we get? Nine three-act films. And it’s always the second act that gets messy (Episodes II, V, and VIII) and the third acts that sometimes wrap it up too quickly (Episodes III, VI, IX.) First acts have to deal with introducing the characters and themes sometimes successfully, sometimes not (Episodes I, IV, VII.)

End result? Three by three by three, which is three cubed, which is twenty-seven. If you’re writing any kind of three-act structure, that is your basic beat-sheet right there.

Thematic rhymes

First acts, Episodes I, IV, and VII (Phantom Menace, A New Hope, The Force Awakens): Intro the innocent: Anakin, Luke, Rey. Send them on a quest they didn’t ask for. Pop them out the other end as a hero.

Second acts, Episodes II, V, and VIII (Attack of the Clones, The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi): Show your heroes a taste of failure, put them at odds with their mentors, and let the villains seem to win in the end.

Third acts, Episodes III, VI, and IX (Revenge of the Sith, Return of the Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker): End your hero’s arc, although this one gets interestingly tricky, because it’s different for each trilogy. In the prequels, Anakin goes from innocent to Sith Lord Darth Vader. In the original trilogy, Luke goes from naïve farm boy to master Jedi, although it’s also the story of Darth Vader going from evil Sith Lord to destroyer of the Empire (although not really). In the sequel trilogy, we start with Rey, but it’s as much Kylo’s story, so while she goes from innocent scavenger to “Be All the Jedi!”, he goes from Big Bad to redeemed hero, perfectly echoing his grandfather Anakin’s storyline in the first six films.

Don’t forget the ultimate big bad, Palps himself. More than any other character, his arcs repeat in each of the three trilogies. In the original trilogy (IV-VI), he only appeared as an idea in the first, had a couple of brief cameos as a hologram in the second, and then came on full force in the third.

Likewise, in the prequel trilogy (I-III), Palpatine starts out as a dedicated servant to Queen Amidala, becomes Chancellor in the second film, and reveals his true self and takes over power in the third.

Finally, in the sequel trilogy (VII-IX), Palpatine is nowhere to be seen in the first episode, apparently not present in the second, although the third makes it clear that Snoke was really his Count Dooku so that he was there all along, and then in the third film he comes back full force and nastier than ever.

Anyway… I’m happy with how it turned out, and I’m not the type of fan who feels it necessary to flame creators who don’t get it “right.” Why? Because, ultimately, I’m not the one creating it, so I have no right to complain. And that’s probably the most important lesson. If it ain’t your franchise, try appreciating what the creators do with it instead of explaining why they screwed it up.

Neither Face nor Feelings

A while back, the website BigThink had an ultra-short science fiction story contest. This was my entry, which took first place — your Thursday night bonus.

No carnefab Manager liked hearing from an NFA Inspector, but especially not when the message said, “Fieldspec high neuro count. Site audit 213245-1330. Pres Req.” Paul Ingersoll read the message and checked the time. 213245-1312.

“Shit,” he muttered. He barely made it to the factory floor before the Inspector arrived and gave Paul the lot number from the batch in question.

“Restaurant stock, Mendocino,” he explained. “Chef reported a twitcher.”

Paul checked the number, heart sinking — one of their “perfect” batches with ideal genetics. Every vat in this factory was churning out a thousand kilo slab that had been born from those cells. Now the government said every batch from that lot might be useless. No. Not might. Was — if the Inspector’s results confirmed the chef’s report.

The Inspector was already at the nearest vat, a large, open-topped box full of pinkish liquid. Inside sat a rectangular red slab, riddled with veins and marbled with fat. This slab was only at five hundred kilos, so had a few weeks to go, and had never given any indication that it was anything but an entirely senseless block of artificially grown meat, built from cells that divided without consciousness. That was the point — to produce meat with neither face nor feelings. It had worked for nearly a century, except for the two times that it hadn’t, both long before Paul had been born.

The Inspector pulled out a wand and touched it to the slab. There was a blue flash and snap and the slab twitched along its entire length. “Okay,” Paul thought, “Not world end without genetics,” although he knew he was lying to himself.

The Inspector tapped his forearm repeatedly, sending notes to a government computer. Then, emotionless, he pulled out a biop kit, dipped a finger on each hand into a vial of blue goo that grew sterile gloves up to his wrists, sprayed anesthetic on the slab and proceeded to gingerly poke it with a rod that plucked out a small cylinder five millimeters wide and deep. He stuck the rod into a hole in the biop kit case, then sprayed the wound with healer. By the time he peeled off the gloves, the results came back, Paul feeling ill as he waited for the hammer to fall.

“Neuro count exceeds Fed Regs by one hundred sixty parts per million,” he finally said. “Recall ordered for every batch from this lot. You retire the rest. We confiscate the original germ lot. Sig off inspection and results, please.”

The Inspector held out a flat pad and Paul touched his palm to it. What else could he do? They had been producing bad meat and nobody noticed. It probably wasn’t in the original germ lot, but mutations were always possible, and so were deviations with stem cells that decided to grow into

something besides meat, fat, veins and red blood cells that were kept oxygenated by the vats. Still, stem cell deviations generally led to things like hair or teeth, sometimes a hoof. They rarely led to the development of brain cells — so rarely that this was only the third time it had happened, and Paul Ingersoll was the poor unlucky son of a bitch in charge of the factory where it happened. Had been in charge. All the recalled meat that wasn’t already dead would be euthanized. The meat in this factory would be retired, the employees held on retainer until a clean germ line was brought in. Paul, however, would be transferred. Not retired, and not laid off. He would carry the responsibility for this problem for the rest of his career, which was a long time, since he was only twenty-seven.

* * *

The warehouse known as “The Old Cows Home” covered thirty square kilometers in the California desert. Inside were endless rows of swimming pool-sized vats where retired meat went to live because nobody was sure whether it was aware or not and nobody wanted to take the chance that it was. Perhaps the bad meat that had already been sold was lucky. Even if it did develop consciousness, four minutes out of the vat without oxygen would have killed it or severely damaged any sort of brain, so it was easy to think of as dead, and no one would feel guilty if tasked to destroy it.

The retired meat was not so lucky, and neither were the people who had to deal with it. It had to be treated like a living thing, brought from the vats to the warehouse on life support, then re- installed in the larger vats, to be left for… nobody knew how long. The lots already here had arrived thirty-eight and sixty-two years previously, and were still going strong and growing. Each vat started with one slab, the size of an adult cow. The oldest slabs had filled half their 2,500 cubic meter vats, and it was time to worry about what to do when they started to outgrow those. Thanks to the Compassionate Food Act of 2034, amended 2070, killing the slabs would be murder; letting them die, negligent homicide. Paul’s job now was as one of the nurses to all this meat that would have been food had it not developed nerves and at least some rudimentary feelings. Maybe.

Everything was predicated on “Maybe.” Maybe this meat felt pain. Maybe not. No one knew because the world of 2132 was black and white, either/or, and the only way to answer the question was to commit a prohibited act. As long as there was any chance that these inanimate slabs of protein might experience an unpleasant sensation, the question was considered answered, and the answer was, “They are our responsibility for as long as they live.”

If they ever became sentient, and vengeful, Paul hoped that they would understand — they had been created out of the desire to feed the planet humanely.

* * *

You can read this story where it was originally published at BigThink.