In addition to catching up on some new releases (spoiler: I sort of liked GLASS), I had Paul Verhoeven on the brain this week. After watching the thoroughly sub-par remakes of Total Recall and Robocop, I had to revisit the originals (along with Starship Troopers, the obvious next step) and as always, I was completely delighted.
TOTAL RECALL (2012)
Okay, I know I talk about SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY all the time but I’m going there again! Occasionally when watching SOLO, I remember that the material is based material from the original Star Wars trilogy, and I think, “oh right, that’s Han Solo.” At a few points during Len Wiseman’s limp remake, I remembered how much I like the original Total Recall a something on-screen vaguely reminded me of it. There have certainly been remakes that have improved on their forebears by reinterpreting material that had a lot of room for improvement (Ocean’s Eleven, Pete’s Dragon) or going in a very different direction (Suspiria). Total Recall, unfortunately, does neither and instead shies away from almost everything that made the Schwarzenegger vehicle the crazy, hyped-up and thoroughly unforgettable experience it is.
I try really hard not to dump on movie franchises that take an R to PG-13 ratings bump, but in the (good) Verhoeven sci-fi flicks, the absurd violence is kind of the point, as opposed to a means to an end. By trading blood squibs for a more pedestrian mode of swoopy, hyperkinetic (and MPAA-friendly) action and taking out all the weird stuff like Mars and mutants, there’s nothing interesting let to hold on to as a viewer.
I should note that I watched the theatrical cut and supposedly the extended director’s cut is a little better, but I don’t care enough to give it another chance right now.
Compared to the original, the remake of Robocop is pretty useless. The first Robocop is a perfect movie. The remake is predictably forgettable and messes up some things that didn’t need fiddling with, but at least compared to the Total Recall remake by at least attempting to have some ideas. It doesn’t really work and some of the ideas are fairly undercooked, but some kind of effort is visibly being made.
In the end, the problem with both the Robocop and Total remakes is that they are conventional remakes of films that only appear to be conventional on the surface. This newer film may have a take on drone warfare to fill in for the first Robocop’s “urban politics” and the material with Samuel L. Jackson’s “shock jock” is clumsy but holds up in 2019 relatively well (though it can’t hold a candle to classic Verhoeven news footage).
*SPOILERS FOR SPLIT I GUESS?*
I missed this film during its initial run, but if I had the big reveal that it’s a quasi-sequel to Unbreakable would have been lost on me in the theater. Since my occasion to watch Split comes upon the release of Glass, my reading of the film relied on it being part of a larger unit, and not its own thing. I don’t think that’s inherently bad, even on a first reading, but it’s my only reading. It was fun looking for all the little hints, but the mystery was gone.
Split is a movie that may not be a complete home-run but, there are some very strong moments that make the whole thing worthwhile (the abduction scene in the car is particularly compelling in its use of film language to reveal information at the same pace as the characters on-screen figure it out) and James McAvoy’s suite of performances is undoubtedly showy but still thoroughly compelling. I was expecting something like a bottle movie in the vein of 10 Cloverfield Lane, but Split is a little more expansive than that with subplots that take place outside the subterranean lair and tone down the film’s potentially gimmicky nature.
Would I have bothered with Split at this point if it was not part of a trilogy? Probably not. But M. Night Shyamalan is nothing if not a shrewd marketer and showman, and his ploy worked on me.
THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART (2019)
Theatrical – 2D IMAX Digital
This movie is really good, right? Am I crazy? Why is nobody talking about this movie? The first Lego Movie was such a revelation that there’s little the sequel could do to make a similar cultural impact, but this still feels like more of a non-event than it should be. Why do I always have to stick up for the family movies? The Lego Movie 2 is really good!
The Second Part picks up directly after the first movie, and continues with the “twist” of having the LEGO narrative stand in for a family relationship. This time the focus is on the relationship between the brother and sister (played by Brooklynn Prince of The Florida Project!), takes a different tack from The Lego Movie’s bracing anti-corporatist bent and instead focuses on a message of kindness and acceptance that feels a little more in-step with current times. If possible, the form of pop music is weaponized even more this time around as The Second Part is almost a full-on pop musical with pointedly catchy songs and surprisingly funny lyrics.
This time around, the subversion is aimed a little more carefully, and finds its most potent target in the form of Chris Pratt, who is a much bigger star now than his last LEGO appearance. In addition to the main character of Emmett, he also plays a twisted amalgamation of his most popular film roles as a denial-plagued, raptor-wrangling space rogue to devastating effect. Is there precedent for a major film meta-dunking on its star this hard?
TOTAL RECALL (1990)
After sitting through the Verhoeven remakes, I wasn’t going to sleep well until I watched the originals again. They are all brilliant in their own ways, but if we lump RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers together as a loose unit we see a ton of recurring themes that reflect Paul Verhoeven’s uniquely outside-in perspective on the American blockbuster, and why they continue to be as entertaining and relevant as ever. Verhoeven’s sci-fi films may appear to be stupid on first glance, but what seem to be bizarre choices are often very deliberate and crucial to the spirit of the movie.
Take Total Recall, for example. Why would Arnold Schwarzenegger, in all of his can’t-miss-it Shwarzenegger-iness, be cast as a schlubby blue-collar construction worker named Douglas Quaid? And why would this rando guy be married to Sharon Stone circa-1990? And why is he able to brutally kill everyone in the bloodiest fashion imaginable? The true nature of Arnold’s character, and the nagging question of whether he is dreaming or not, are an integral part of the story’s structure and and add subtle shades to the film which grow more rewarding on each repeat viewing. The actual answers are not important, but they do invite parallel readings that are equally convincing.
As with any Verhoeven joint, there is plenty of material here that many will consider of questionable taste and your mileage may vary but there’s so much good stuff here. The production design and special effects are still mostly spectacular, and it’s always great to see Michael Ironside.
What makes a perfect movie? Is there such a thing? In all seriousness, the only movie I can immediately think of that I would consider “perfect” while not being too much of a hipster would be Paddington 2. Why? Point to any individual element in the film in any narrative or technical aspect and you can find excellence, and it is delightful and engaging from scene to scene and minute to minute. I love everything about Paddington 2.
So the crucial question: is RoboCop really as good as Paddington 2? Does it spark as much joy? Fuck yes it does, RoboCop is incredible.
Total Recall has a grander visual scope and Starship Troopers has bigger ideas, but in RoboCop seemingly everything from the cast to the nutty, heightened tone to the offhandedly brilliant script converges in every single scene to make a film that never stops being a joy to watch. It works as a dumb popcorn movie, but it’s actually an extremely smart popcorn movie with a lot to say about class, crime and consumerism, a biting satire that still hits all the right notes. RoboCop is also ironically the most human of Verhoeven’s sci-fi fare, and the plight of the protagonist is actually taken seriously and isn’t subsumed by the film’s overall message. On top of that, it features one of the most iconic moments of extreme, graphic violence ever in mainstream American cinema in the ED-209 scene, and it’s just as hilariously insane today.
STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997)
There are a handful of movie-watching experiences from my youth that I consider truly formative, and seeing Starship Troopers late at night on cable at too young an age was definitely one of them. At the time I didn’t really get the whole fascist angle, but I did know that it was weird that a movie that looked so good and so expensive got away with being so insanely violent. That’s the key to Verhoeven’s brilliance: this dumb-looking movie keeps being rewarding in different ways over time, and is complementary to audiences at multiple cinematic reading levels. Looking back today, it’s perhaps even more shocking than ever that such a baldly subversive movie got made at such a high technical level; it’s a hundred-million-dollar faux-propaganda film about American space Nazis.
If RoboCop was Verhoeven’s most human work, Starship Troopers is pointedly the opposite. The characters, narrative and visual storytelling all work in service of the fascist satire, not just for the sake of being cool (it’s been well documented that the cast was hired more for their, ahem, Aryan looks than their talent). Pulling visual inspiration from Nazi propaganda like Triumph of the Will and framed as a classic WWII-style propaganda feature, Starship Troopers appears to advocate for a future society that is prototypically American-looking and nakedly, horrifyingly fascist. Plenty of heightened Verhoeven choices clue us in: why does all of the Earth-bound material look like, to use a modern reference, a CW show? Why are all the people so eerily perfect-looking? Why is everyone in Buenos Aires white and apparently American? Why does Neil Patrick Harris show back up in the third act looking dead-eyed and wearing what looks like an SS officer uniform?
Even putting the message aside, Starship Troopers is also one of the best-looking special effects movies ever made and will likely never be topped in terms of its combination of CG and large-scale practical model work, especially for a film that is so unabashedly hard-R in terms of violence. It looked pretty convincing in 1997, and it still does today. High art masquerading as dumb schlock, a classic.
Theatrical – DCP
I’ll admit up-front that I don’t feel fully qualified to say much about M. Night Shyamalan’s epic conclusion to his oblique superhero trilogy, though after seeing it I feel sort of thankful I didn’t spend almost two decades waiting for it. Whatever anybody’s expectations of the ultimate conflict between Mr. Glass, The Horde and whatever you call Bruce Willis (Mr. Unbreakable?), Shyamalan makes sure to snuff them out as coldly as possible.
The first act plays out in a fairly logical way, as Mr. Unbreakable searches for and eventually confront McAvoy’s Horde. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know all three characters are placed together at a mysterious psychiatric facility under the care of a shifty Sarah Paulson and at this point the movie politely sits down at a table, pushes its chair in, places a napkin in its lap and proceeds to systematically eat the established rulebook for the superhero genre. This isn’t inherently good or bad, but there’s no denying that the shift in setting knocks the wind out of the movie and it never comes back. The climax of the film isn’t a superhero brawl, but a group therapy session. Bruce Willis has very little to do. The script talks about comic books like it’s from another dimension.
There are plenty of nits to pick and there’s a good chance some of it went over my head, but I have to give Shyamalan credit for putting up the money and making this nutty movie that seems to exist mostly for its own sake.
THE RUNNING MAN (1987)
I was looking to watch something that matched at least vaguely in tone with my week’s Verhoeven-ing, and I decided on this forgetting that Demolition Man was also sitting on my shelf. In theory, this hokey, gaudy satire about a deadly game show of the future should be pushing similar buttons to something like Robocop, but it’s simply not close to as interesting or complex. AH-nuld stars as a man framed for murder and placed in a game show where death row inmates fight against crazy assassins for a national audience. There’s some seriously potent 80’s cheese to be had which is its own kind of fun, but there’s no reason to take The Running Man very seriously.
With Total Recall still on the brain, I went back to Satoshi Kon’s anime mind-bender for another movie about dreams. The story revolves around a stolen device that can hack into people’s dreams without their knowledge, and the film pushes an “are they dreaming or not” conceit to the max. Basically, after the first act almost any character could be in a dream space at any time, which allows for any scene to fly off the rails almost instantly. The result is a film that constantly keeps the audience guessing and invested, even as the plot begins to lose the thread by the end.
Akira is one of those classics I can appreciate, even if I don’t completely “get it.” A sprawling, sci-fi anime epic whose plot is too nuts to handily describe, Akira also remains a formidable technical presentation. Every time I get new speakers, this is one of my first test discs. Hearing Akira on my new 5.2 surround system for the first time was just as terrifying as I was hoping for, and the final half-hour remains just as disturbing and bewildering.