Wednesday, January 9, 2013

I do not care for Paul Verhoeven

A great many lovers of action and SF enjoy Paul Verhoeven.  I do not.

Please note that there is a difference between not liking a director and thinking he is crap.

For me, most of his films don't seem to know whether they are trying to tell an interesting story or be off-the-wall mindless action. As for mindless action, he's far superior to the Michael Bays of the movie world. However, if I see a Michael Bay film, I know it's going to be ridiculous. Too often, Verhoeven has taken material that could have been interesting and engaging and filled it with silliness.

I'll address some of his movies, and then make some general observations.

I don't have any complaints specific to the movie, see

Total Recall
Here's a potentially great Science Fiction plot that became action schlock. The concept is fascinating. A man awakens mysterious memories during a fake-memories-for-entertainment session, gets caught up in political intrigue and revolution, isn't sure who he is or who he can trust, and there's a great moment where the actor from the Recall advertisments shows up and says "You aren't really here. This is all in your head," making for a potentially awesome Pan's Labyrinth-esque open ending that makes you wonder what was real.

That does happen in the film, but it's terribly heavy-handed, particularly the ending.
Ahnold: "I just had a terrible thought... what if dis is all still a dream?"
The Girl: "Then kiss me quick before you wake up."

Starship Troopers
One of the things that made Robert Heinlein so interesting is that he would frequently present his readers with a society following a different philosophy than what we are used to, and tried to convince you that it was good. Democratic fascism, Anarcho-Capitalsim, Athiesm, Eugenics, all manner of unorthodox marriage customs, and more. This is why the only people who say Heinlein is Fascist are people who have only read Starship Troopers. (In the book, you do not get the right to vote unless you have served in the military. It so happens that most of what the military does in this future world is build & maintain infrastructure. There is also discussion about the ineffectiveness of pacifism.)

Ok tl;dr, Starship Troopers, the novel has some thought-provoking ideas. It also has powered armor, which is a concept that Heinlein invented, and Japan later became psychotically obsessed with. There's also a coming of age, a father-son relationship arc, and some interesting ideas about how a future military might function. None of that is in the film.

What is in the film are a lot of very pretty people who appear in movies, as opposed to actors. Also there's Neil Patrick Harris, but his bit part can't save the movie. Again, my biggest problem with the film is that he took potentially interesting material and turned it into schlock. He could have simply abandoned the title and called it "Space Army Film: Set in the Future... of Space!"

Basic Instinct
I confess I haven't seen this since the 90's. I remember it being "okay."

Cliche ridden, embarassingly bad acting, not enough sex and nudity to be fappable, not enough substance to be engaging. It's like reading Maxim when what you really want is Hustler.

Black Book
This film has some very good aspects, especially the denouement in Palestine, which is gutsy and poignant.  It's the most mature film of his I've seen.  He still indulges in excess (see the pubic hair dye and excrement dumping scenes), and at times feels clumsy, but still far superior to his previous work.  Perhaps he's maturing.

General reasons why I don't like Verhoeven:

How he handles violence and gore:
I have no problem with movie violence. When people hurt or kill each other, it's a grizzly thing and films shouldn't sugar coat it. However, the way Verhoeven approaches scenes of violence makes me think that he thinks that it's hilarious... or that he's masturbating to it.

A scene that drives this home for me is in Total Recall. Ahnold is being chased by Michael Ironside et. al. through a crowded building. The baddies open fire at Ahnold while he's on an escelator, killing several bystanders. Ahnold grabs the body of one of the bystanders and uses it as a shield. The baddies empty their clips into the guy, and we get plenty of shots of blood bursts. Ok, that's grisly but reasonable. But then Ahnold gets to the top of the escelator, drops the body, and runs away. Ironside etc.. are close behind, and we're treated to a closeup of them intentionally stepping on the bullet-riddled body, complete with *squish* sound effects and more blood spurting out of the guy. Really Paul? This dead bystander is a joke? 

As for Starship Troopers, let me get this straight, the aliens want to learn how we think, and do this by sucking out our brains through a straw, thus completely destroying our brains? Of course, when the human scientists want to study the aliens, and they do this by forcibly ramming an industrial blender into the vagina... er... mouth of an alien. Perhaps both the humans and aliens are retarded.

There is stuff like this in Robocop as well, particularly a guy melting from toxic waste, then getting splattered across the front of a van. Horribly gruesome deaths work in a horror film, but for an action film, it fucks up the tone.  I'm here to have a good time, not be grossed out.

Yes, Paul. I'm watching your movie. Calm the fuck down:
Paul Verhoeven films generally feel like they're jumping up and down and waving their arms, trying to get my attention. All good movies hold our attention, they shouldn't feel like they're trying to do so. I get this vibe from his DVD commentaries and interviews as well.  He makes me think of a teenager tripping on red bull.

Yes, I understand that Verhoevens films are satirical.  I get that he likes to take shots at fascism, nationalism, consumerism, and so on, but  Verhoeven's style of satire is like a Mt. Dew XTREME commercial. I love me some satire.  Dr. Strangelove, Monty Python's Life of Brian, damn near every Coen Brothers film is satirical, and these are some of my absolute favorite movies.  What makes them work is that they're played straight.  They're not screaming "GET IT?  THIS IS SATIRE!  SEE HOW OUTRAGEOUS EVERYTHING IS???

Perhaps Verhoeven's style simply isn't my cup of tea.  Perhaps there are qualities to his films that escape me.  The simple fact is, I generally find him and his movies annoying.


  1. I'm sure he LOVES all the great movies you've made!!! Ass

    Seriously though, I can watch total Recall over and over again. Mainly because it makes me chuckle, and I like ultra-violent action movies with a pinch of sci-fi thrown in.

    1. Notice how he goes on and on about his disdain for the man, but implies he owns several of his films on DVD? Quit feeding the system, MAAAAN!

    2. I have a love-hate relationship with Total Recall. It has all the makings of a truly exceptional science-fiction / action / mind-bending movie, but feels like it was directed by a fratboy.