The '80s and early '90s were home to some of the most iconic sci-fi movies ever made, and chief among them were director Paul Verhoeven's pulpy satirical works. Movies such as Total Recall and Robocop struck a cord with audiences back then - which is why Hollywood decided to remake them during the height of the remake craze in the late 2000's. Fans of the original movies had a lot to complain about, but it's only now that Verhoeven himself had something to say about Hollywood's updates of his works.
Why So Serious
In a recent interview with Collider, the director shared his thoughts on recent revisions of his dystopian thrillers. The remakes of Total Recall and RoboCop lacked much of what made the originals well-loved cult classics. For Verhoeven, one of the major flaws in both remakes was not the lack of the R-rating, but their missing sense of humor.
Somehow they seem to think that the lightness of say 'Total Recall' and 'RoboCop' is a hindrance. So they take these somewhat absurd stories and make them much too serious. I think that is a mistake.
He went on to elaborate on the new RoboCop's faults, emphasizing that the remake missed the joke of what was a purposefully absurd sci-fi plot.
Especially in 'Robocop' [remake] when he awakens they gave him the same brain. He’s a horribly injured and amputated victim, which is horrifying and tragic from the very beginning. So we didn’t do that in RoboCop. His brain is gone and he has only flashes of memory and needs to go to a computer to find out who he even is. I think by not having a robot brain, you make the movie much heavier and I don’t think that helps the movie in anyway... It becomes more silly or absurd, but in the wrong way. Both those movies [Total Recall and RoboCop] needed the distance of satire or comedy to situate it for audiences.
Despite tackling issues such as class divide and the inhuman nature of capitalism through means of grounded yet fantastical sci-fi worlds, Verhoeven's Total Recall and RoboCop never forgot to give audiences a good laugh, even in dark and deadly situations where humor might disappear. Some fans would even go as far as arguing that these movies were never meant to be social commentaries in the first place. It just so happened that Verhoeven's personal politics showed up in otherwise straightforward action movies.
The new versions of Total Recall and RoboCop, on the other hand, took themselves too seriously. These remakes prioritized forcing the originals' interpreted satirical messages into audiences' faces instead of saying something new or simple making an entertaining movie. The end results were pandering retreads of Verhoeven's thoughts that felt more outdated and pretentious than timely and thought-provoking.
The Depth In Hyperbole
Paul Verhoeven successfully conveyed his opinions and questions to audiences through comical exaggerations of social concerns and cartoonish yet relatable human characters. Doing so helped make his thoughts about the world we live in or the political climate of his time accessible to casual moviegoers and serious film buffs alike. Sometimes, automatic gunfire and a gallon of fake blood speaks more than an Oscar bait film's five minute slow-motion montage of a character's brooding set to somber music.
This is why Paul Verhoeven's signature mix of creative insanity and intricate satire still leaves a strong impression on new generations of viewers. If commentaries and opinions such as his were told as seriously as some critics demanded, it would beg the question why a soundbite from the nightly news' talking heads was turned into a movie when a documentary would have sufficed. The beauty and fun of film is that it's a visual medium of expression, and people like Paul Verhoeven know how to take full advantage of it.
There's a time and place for a serious story, and the same goes for a darkly humorous one. In a time when movies are locked in a gritty arms race that began after the success of the Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy, a bit of humor and self-indulgence is both relaxing and refreshing. Obviously, no amount of Guardians of the Galaxy styled jokes would have salvaged the new iterations of Total Recall and RoboCop from being pale child-friendly imitations, but a hint of self-awareness would have saved them from being just another disposable action movie from the 2000's.
Paul Verhoeven always has a specific vision in mind when it comes to his films, and he never backs down from it nor does he water it down for the sake of a younger audience. His movies may not be critic darlings or instant classics, but there's a good reason why they only grow better with time. He may not be making as many movies as he used to nor is he that keen on revisiting the genre that made him a cult icon, but today's movies can learn a thing or two about balancing depth and wit by watching the stories Paul Verhoeven brought to the big screen.