Starship Troopers

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Almost 20 years later, Starship Troopers has only gotten more incisive. Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier (co-writer of Verhoeven’s Robocop) construct an elaborate pisstake around Robert Heinlein’s militarist sci-fi novel, framing an otherwise standard issue war narrative about humanity against a varied collective of giant space bugs with the most fascistic embellishments. Kangaroo courts leading to televised executions; screeching, chickenhawk talking heads quick to shoot down anything resembling reason; teachers openly promoting genocide as legitimate solutions; news reports shot like Riefenstahl propaganda flicks; eugenics hints in dialogue; Doogie Howser as a scientist in an SS coat, no opportunity is wasted to twist the source material in the most mean-spirited fashion possible, director and writer laying bare their contempt of a society which valorizes killing for God and country above all else.

Perhaps the most sly touch of all is how little humanity Verhoeven allows these people to show. Chiselled and predominantly Aryan, despite a first act which takes place in Argentina, the cast–led by wooden Casper van Dien–have motivations ruled by pettiness and vapidity, rising through the ranks as much by a combination of nepotism and slaughtered predecessors as it is by any skills they possess. The only time they’re alive is when they’re killing or eyeing one another for a lay. This actually puts them a step down from the bugs: with their varied castes and a mindset ruled by collective well-being of the hive, they embody a form of self-sacrifice the faux-individualism the humans only pay lip service to. Their swarming isn’t out of malice, but an attempt to grind to a halt a force hellbent on extermination.

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Anything You Say May Be Used Against You

robocop2014 This year’s Razzie awards got me thinking about Jose Padilha’s Robocop remake. This is because it got zero nominations, despite being the most dull and inept piece of filmmaking from a big-budget Hollywood production I’ve seen in years. Picking apart the script, and the way the movie strips out all semblance of nuance, characterization, or subtext Paul Verhoeven’s original film had, is easy. Too easy, yet it’s honestly no worse in this regard than the original’s two sequels. However, the one area in which the movie spectacularly fails is its action sequences. The movie is slick but weightless, gunfights shot in jittery camera angles and edited to cut away from any sort of impact, especially when New Robocop gets around to using actual guns instead of a taser (way more than an hour into the film). This highlights the stark difference between the films.

’87 Robocop is a violent movie, depicting bodies ripped apart by gunfire and blood spurting every which way. It’s a film as much about violence as it is about showing violence. I first watched it in the impressionable 5-10 year range, because my parents are awesome. As much as I loved the movie as a kid (and still love), however, the violence stuck with me in a manner I found unsettling. Every time I watch it, to this day, I always forget just how gruesome it gets and flinch. There’s an ongoing discussion here in America about violent media desensitizing people to violence. That exposure to fictional violence actually makes children more likely to commit violent acts themselves later in life. My own experience is, statistically, negligible, but I’ve found the more grotesque the violence depicted, the more often I feel repulsed by it (even when I’m finding it compelling material to watch). Alex Murphy’s death in Verhoeven’s Robocop acts like a snuff film. You’re watching a man executed by firing squad, the force of the rapid, repeated impacts severing his arm at one point, Murphy’s face contorted in agony. The noise is deafening, a wall of sound closing around the eardrums unless the volume is turned way down. This isn’t violence in service to plot, this is showing what the effect of that violence looks like. This carries forward through the rest of the film: when Robocop confronts Clarence Boddicker’s gang in the drug factory, Verhoeven doesn’t shy away from what his hero’s super-loud, rapid-fire pistol does to his targets. We’re watching a wrecking ball in action, and people are broken in its wake. Far from desensitized, there’s a sense of actions having consequences. Verhoeven is eating his cake and having it, too, with a violent hero elevated to iconic status, but he never downplays what that violence is.

’14 Robocop is all posture, though. When a “major” character (insofar as any of the people in the movie portray one) is killed off in a play on ’87’s factory raid, the sequence is cut so fast–the death seems to be in a place unrelated to where the guy was two frames prior–it looks like a faceless goon is killed instead. This is a guy Robocop devotes himself to hunting down and it plays like nothing of importance happened (hell, I thought the guy escaped). And while ’14 Alex Murphy had a gruesome fate, it was mostly offscreen (he’s crippled in an explosion, which is barely shown) and has no connection to any portrayed violence. These aren’t human beings torn asunder by instruments of murder, but pieces of cardboard knocked down in a carnival shooting gallery (the sound effects for the guns even sound like children’s toys). In addition to just plain sloppy action directing, there’s a further sense nothing these people do has an effect on the people they do it to. Nobody bleeds. And nobody can fault the studio-desired PG-13 rating for this either: the rating was created because of a heart being pulled out of a chest in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; more recently, Batman broke Sal Maroni’s leg by dropping him off a fire escape in The Dark Knight (a scene which evoked audible discomfort in the audience both times I saw it in theaters). Violence, when depicted properly, is a sensory experience, and often an uncomfortable one. If nothing is felt, if the audience is desensitized, it’s because the filmmakers don’t care if you feel something, which worries me more than whether a five-year old sees someone’s hand blown off.

“Will you find what you were searching for, Or did you bury the dream?”

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As well-regarded as Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop is, it’s amazing people forget how perfect it is. Balancing science fiction, action so violent it could only be 80s, biting satire, and even religious allegory, nothing in the movie is wasted. The death and billion-dollar resurrection of Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) recalls the Jewish myth of the golem as much as it does pulp hero The Lone Ranger, life from death and animate from inanimate. Set amidst the backdrop of a cartoon version of 80s America (the faulty ED-209 robot and an insipid sitcom with the catchphrase “I’d buy that for a dollar!” are running gags), the roboticized Murphy becomes a blunt tool for the military-industrial complex (Dan O’Herlihy’s well-meaning Chairman, blind to cutthroat execs played by Ronny Cox and Miguel Ferrer). Murphy’s former life–a wife and son, his partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) and murder at the hands of villain Clarence Boddicker (the wonderful Kurtwood Smith)–is a haze seen in dreams which blend into his digital video vision. These and certain tics (Murphy’s driving habits and iconic gun twirl) signify his personality endures beyond physical form. It’s dormant beneath programming, but there (similarly, Detroit’s citizens seem conditioned to enjoy the sitcom). While Peter Weller is rightly remembered for various deadpan lines like “Your move, creep” and “Come quietly, or there will be…trouble,” it is his body language which makes his Robocop performance worth repeated viewings. Hidden behind a metal helmet for most the film (like Judge Dredd), Weller communicates Murphy’s awakening with subtle lip quirks and minor deviations from the tunnel vision stride he is programmed for, climaxing in an angry outburst when he goes to his family’s abandoned home. Like Detroit, he’s numbed and broken by self-serving interests, but the person is still there. And a person is beautiful.