It’s absurdly apparent how accepted violence is in film and TV. Don't get me wrong, I think violence is a part of life and can be shown on TV if it works for the story. The issue is that audiences can say that violence in real life is inherently bad as we stand in line to watch a film where people are killed in the crossfire. There is a thrill to violence that has numbed the US audiences, and Paul Verhoeven knows how to exploit the hypocritical parts of human nature in his films.
Verhoeven is a filmmaker that people either love or hate. He started his career as a mainstream filmmaker in Holland, but his high-brow melodramas that put sex and violence on display made finding financing for his films a challenge. Verhoeven then moved to the U.S. and was shocked by the casualness of violence and sex in the media, but knew it was the perfect place for him to create his vision. Verhoeven was able to showcase his reaction to American culture and excess because he was an outsider.
Some critics refer to Verhoeven and his work as brilliant, subversive, and a top-tier satirist, while others discredit him as kitsch, misogynistic, and purely sadistic. Are his films really as deep as he thinks they are? Wisecrack discusses in their video what makes Verhoeven’s works provocative and smart through his ability to tell a long-running joke on the audience through exploiting the American desire for violence and sex.
Check out Wisecrack's full video here:
The nonsensical violence for the audience's fascination
In his biggest films like RoboCop, Starship Troopers, and Total Recall, Verhoeven injected sci-fi elements into an action film formula to mask his true intentions as something other-worldly. Whether it be a revenge thriller, spy adventure, or war film, all these films had cartoon-like violence that put the audience's lust for blood on full display in a morally ambiguous way.
The heroes are average Joes who believe they are built for something bigger but can turn violent the moment the opportunity presents itself through propaganda or advertisements. Verhoeven said, "After what went on in the Second World War and we saw what people were capable of doing to one another, audiences simply wouldn’t buy the idea of perfect heroes anymore.”
Heroes can be complex characters that struggle with their dark side, but Verhoeven pushes the envelope and blurs the moral line of what makes a character a good guy or bad guy.
Verhoeven grew up in Nazi-occupied Holland, where he was exposed to the unimaginable horrors of war. Walking past mutilated bodies, executions, and burning buildings was a constant occurrence in Verhoeven’s childhood. Verhoeven detached himself from the horrors of his life and acted as if he were watching a movie play out to cope with his trauma. His characters reflect his own detachment from the horrors that surround them.
Total Recall makes Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) the hero of his own story, but he carelessly uses and kills innocent people to his advantage. Quaid uses a civilian as a shield in one scene, and the bullets tear the man's torso to shreds. The man no longer is a human, but a tool Quaid uses to achieve his mission. The brutality of the murders is so extreme that it becomes the focus of the film while a simple plotline ties the violent scenes together.
Starship Troopers follows a similar pattern to Total Recall. Attractive young adults are drawn to the idea of joining the federation and killing a bunch of bugs. The characters want to get into the thick of the violence, and all they needed was a push from their government to become the killing machines they have always wanted to be. People don’t care if the violence looks realistic or not, because all they want is to see someone’s head get chopped off by a winged alien and then see that alien blown to bits for its crime. The violence is nonsensical on purpose to act as a subversive commentary on the audience's fascination with violence. All people need is for violence to disguise itself as justice for people to peel back their masks and present their feral desires to the world.
The human shield in 'Total Recall'Credit: Tri-Star Pictures
Nothing is real if it is a joke
One of the biggest theories revolving around Total Recall is whether or not Quaid was experiencing real or false memories. This argument comes from viewers noting how the doctor explains the entire plot of the film to Quaid in 30 seconds, and how a Rekall technician notes that Quaid’s “trip” will end with blue skies on Mars. Everything discussed in the Rekall building happens throughout the film and even ends with blue skies on Mars, but Verhoeven intentionally let the audience question the reality of the film so he could draw attention to the unreality of the violence on display. There is no need to take violence seriously if what you’re watching isn’t real, right?
Verhoeven believes that action films are inherently silly, and captures this joke of extreme and unrealistic, everyday violence by putting normal people in over-the-top situations. In RoboCop, the camera cuts to the news to show footage of an oppressive government before jumping to commercial advertising for a game about nuclear war. Quaid in Total Recall drinks his morning smoothie while watching people die on the news, just as the news in Starship Troopers shows mutilated bodies from the war. There are even commercials advertising to tune in for live executions.
Verhoeven is critiquing how human nature has allowed a world to grow numb to violence. The U.S. audience, who views war and oppressive governments through the news, is far more numb than anyone else.
Casper Van Dien as Johnny Rico in 'Starship Troopers'Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing
The joke is always on the viewer
People love to see horrible things happen to other people. Verhoeven creates a story that seduces the audience before making it clear to the audience that they were admiring evil the whole time. An audience can be so busy rooting for the troops in Starship Troopers that we fail to recognize that we are rooting for the bad guy. The troops are a part of a fascist empire and commit genocide against an intelligent alien race without a second thought. Verhoeven’s joke in Starship Troopers is getting an audience to support pseudo-Nazis even if we say we could never support a Nazi regime.
No joke was better than the one from his Razzie-award-winning film Showgirls.
Showgirls is a typical "rags to riches" story that follows Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) as she climbs her way up to fame. It is a Hollywood-wannabe dream that we’ve seen countless times. Instead of making it pretty, Verhoeven shows the cruelty of the entertainment industry and sets the film in the glitzy and artificial land of Las Vegas. Nomi’s ascent to fame is anything but glamourized. There is hardly any difference from where Nomi starts to where she finishes. Her dream is rotted by the one thing that drives most people: sex. No matter how hard Nomi tries to fight this idea, her dreams can only be realized through sexual transactions. Her body is what makes her famous, and when she realizes this, she walks away from the show.
Our obsession with sex becomes the butt of the joke in Showgirls. Sex is what deprives Nomi of her dream, and the dances are designed to make us laugh as we watch our sexual desire become absurd. The scandalous dances mock the Hollywood dream by obscuring what its purpose truly is. Is it to give a woman with talent a place to showcase her skill or is it for our pleasure and entertainment? In the end, the audience is the one who paid money to see the same story told over and over again. We are invited to look, reflect, and stay away.
'Showgirls"Credit: MGM/UA Distribution Co.Verhoeven’s films are his reflection of what makes our world chaotic. We can say we don’t like excessive violence or sex over and over again, yet we can’t help to feed into it because our desire to watch is so strong. There is nothing wrong with putting human nature on display, because that is what filmmaking is all about. It’s a reflection on the world you see, and you have the freedom to mock it however you see fit. In the end, the joke will always fall onto the audience, for we are the ones invited to look and watch in silence.
What are your thoughts on Paul Verhoeven’s films? Let us know in the comments below!