When the Film Society of Lincoln Center announced a Paul Verhoeven retrospective entitled “Total Verhoeven,” a nod to his 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Total Recall, it seemed like a fitting tribute to the 78-year-old Dutch director. His wide-ranging and consistently controversial career spans the erotic thrills of Basic Instinct, the glitterbomb nightmare of Showgirls, the cheery fascists of Starship Troopers and now the acclaimed feminist revenge thriller Elle. He’s always been one step ahead, a visionary whose darkest views of humanity seemed vindicated by America’s decision to put Donald Trump in the White House.
Overnight, a screening of Verhoeven’s 1987 cyberpunk satire RoboCop, followed by a Q+A with the filmmaker himself, went from a pleasant mid-week diversion into a harsh reckoning with a future that suddenly seemed closer than ever. With a dystopian United States setting, RoboCop features a privatized police force in Detroit, backed by a blandly malevolent corporation, that transforms a dead police officer into a walking, talking one-man army. It can happen here.
That abrupt shift in tone, from reality to unreality, is mimicked everywhere in RoboCop. One minute, the film is an off-kilter buddy comedy about a stoic cop and his bubblegum-chewing partner. Next, it’s a bleakly hilarious corporate satire, complete with hookers and coke orgies. Bodies are shot up, mutilated and thrown through windows. There are campy critiques of consumer culture in fake ads for nuclear war board games and automobiles with terrible gas mileage. Murphy dies, RoboCop is born and it’s a brave new world.
In a lively discussion after the film, Verhoeven talked at length about how these stark variations in tone and style were his attempt to create a cinematic language that reflected the relentless pace of life, drawing as much from TV’s quick commercial cutaways as it did Piet Mondrian’s groundbreaking explorations of neoplasticism. Verhoeven’s shrewd grasp of media power, and its ability to manipulate and shape people’s minds, gives RoboCop a sharp satiric edge that resonates even more now than it did nearly 30 years ago. “I’d buy that for a dollar” — an often repeated nonsense catchphrase from a fictional TV show — has all the comedic power of a rictus grin in the age of “Make America Great Again.”
RoboCop was a first for Verhoeven in many ways; it was his first film in Hollywood, and his first foray into the science-fiction genre after years of graphic Dutch realist fare like Turkish Delight and Spetters. But he intuitively understood the power of genre to tell stories that resonated more deeply than a straight drama or action film ever could. In this grim vision of a fascist society, despair, beauty, pain and grace jostle for space, sometimes all within the same moment. It doesn’t follow a clear-cut path or a straight line, but exists as a powerful expression of the universe’s absurdity in the face of tragedy, with the cyborg Murphy resurrected as a Christ-like figure to save the citizens of Detroit from themselves (so OCP can profit off them in their faux-utopian Delta City).
Verhoeven talked about how his childhood spent avoiding Allied bomb raids is reflected in his pessimistic view of humanity, and how his films capture what he calls the “true face of society.” Without a trace of irony or anger, but instead a sly kind of wisdom, he commented that “peace is the true abnormality,” a stark declaration in a world of rapidly failing governments and institutions. It only took three decades for RoboCop to go from a sci-fi thought experiment to prescient documentary. What do the next few hold?
Adrienne McIlvaine (@mizocty) lives in Brooklyn and has written about film and television for Time Warner, Cut Print Film, FilmFish and HelloGiggles. She keeps the ticket stubs of every movie she sees and wishes there were more films like The Wicker Man (not the Nicolas Cage one). She’s also a fierce advocate for going to the movies by yourself, The Counselor and reading the book first.