(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) Contrarily to most of the movies I’m revisiting recently, I didn’t have very fond memories of Robocop. For the past twenty years or so, I’ve been remembering as an overly violent, implausible, mean-spirited piece of exploitation. Having grown older and given it another chance, however, I’m forced to be more positive upon second viewing. Oh, I still think it’s overly violent, implausible and mean-spirited (the last of which makes the first two characteristic feel even worse) but I can now appreciate that it has quite a bit more on its mind than the average action SF movie. Its preoccupation with industrial decay, man/machine relationships and corporate corruption still ring as relevant today (even more so than its recent remake), adding considerable depth to the film. It’s also, thanks to director Paul Verhoeven, a finely crafted piece of entertainment—fast, darkly funny, cleverly presented and relentless in achieving its vision. Some of the special effects are dodgy today (especially ED-209), although much of the practical stuff remains well done. Peter Weller is fine in the lead role, but special posthumous mention has to be made of Miguel Ferrer as an actor who aged exceptionally well—his character here is young and brash and detestable, but by the end of his career Ferrer had grown in his unusual features and could play a fearsome leader. It all adds up to a notionally respectable result, even though the cynicism of the film is still a bit too dark for my taste. With this second viewing, I update my appreciation of Robocop upwards and note that at a time when I’m happy when a revisited film holds up to my good memories, it’s rare that I like it even more twenty years later.
(Second viewing, On TV, March 2017) I definitely remember seeing Basic Instinct a long time ago (in French, given that I remember the crude final lines as the ridiculous “… comme des castors”) but I’d forgotten enough of it to be mesmerized by a second viewing. Even today, it remains a pedal-to-the-metal borderline-insane thriller, rich in violence and a degree of eroticism seldom matched since then. I ended up watching the unrated version (on a basic-cable movie TV channel … go figure) and it features three of the most graphic sex scenes I can recall from a Hollywood film—the Jeanne Tripplehorn scene alone is worth the watch. Not that the rest of the movie is dull—under the combined daring of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven, the film cranks up nearly every single exploitative dial to eleven. It throws in a car chase on twisty backroads because, well, why not? It throws another car chase through downtown San Francisco because, again, why not? When bisexuality and murder are the most ordinary elements of the story, that’s not even getting into the twisted psychos-sexual games played between the two characters. Michael Douglas is in peak form as a risk-addicted policeman, and while Sharon Stone is still remembered for the ice-cold danger she projects, I had forgotten how her character is balanced by some cute impishness. The interrogation sequence has been parodied endlessly, but remains no less effective today in seeing a lone woman defy half a dozen alpha males by sheer (or not-so-sheer) chutzpah. Basic Instinct is pure wilful exploitation, and that’s why it’s so remarkable. The murder mystery is almost besides the point—something that the double-ending practically dies laughing about. I still think it’s far too bloody … but that’s part of the film’s twisted fun. Morally reprehensible yet slickly executed, Basic Instinct almost looks even better twenty-five years later.
(On DVD, August 2011) For a director who helped re-shape American popular cinema with four solid hits and one legendary failure in-between 1987’s Robocop and 1997’s Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven has been really quiet since the artistic failure of Hollow Man in 2000. To see his only film since then, you’d have to find Zwartboek, a World War 2 thriller in which a beautiful young Netherlander woman is stuck between the occupying Nazi forces and the local resistance movement during the last few days of the war. While, at first, Zwartboek seems to be just another resistance film, the increasingly messy tangle of allegiances makes for a far more interesting narrative, and a striking statement on what happens after victory is obtained: Accounts are settled, resentment surfaces as aggression and accusations are more effective than doubt. Produced with what feels like a decent budget by Netherlander standards, Zwartboek convincingly re-creates the period, and features more than decent production values. There are even a few chases and explosions to reassure us that, yes, it’s that Paul Verhoeven. But much of the film belongs to the actors, starting with Carice van Houten playing a merciless role as the heroine. (WW2 cinephiles will also recognize Christian Berkel from other similar movies as Valkyrie, Downfall and Inglourious Basterds, among many others.) Amusingly for a film featuring an unusual non-Anglo-Saxon viewpoint on WW2, Canadians get a fairly good portrait as the liberators toward the end of the story. Weaker points include a framing device that robs the film of a bit of suspense, and a clunky first act that seems to run around in coincidental circles, meeting everyone twice in the small universe of The Hague. Still, while the film’s solid European origins clearly show in the amount of casual nudity and the last act’s lack of moral certitudes, the overall result is an entertaining film that more than holds up to anything else in the world.
(In theaters, November 1997) Very loud, very juvenile and very stupid adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel. It’s supposed to be loads of fun, but it just didn’t work for me. The tone oscillates between inane teenage drama and uber-gory war “comedy”: It’s either “Look at this guy get ripped in half; ain’t it cool?” or “Look at this guy get decapitated; ain’t it funny?” Unimaginably idiotic military tactics and physics make this movie really funny for even slightly knowledgeable people. Stupendous Special Effects can’t rescue a bad script, but might just net an Oscar. Only a few weeks after seeing Starship Troopers, I find my opinion of the movie sinking lower and lower, much like last year’s Independence Day. And after seeing Titanic, even the Special Effects Oscar isn’t so sure…
(Second viewing, On DVD, December 2007) I hadn’t seen this film in ten years, and the decade has been kind to Paul Verhoeven’s glossy space-opera. For one thing, I’ve seen much worse since then. For another, it seems as if the political subtext is a lot more interesting than it was years ago. It helps that this fully-loaded 2002 DVD special edition is so solidly defensive. Both of the audio commentaries, along with the new making-of documentary, are chiefly concerned about the film’s initial critical reaction, and desperately try to point out the real meaning behind the film. (For sheer entertainment value, few DVD audio commentaries in history have surpassed the one in which Paul Verhoeven keeps saying “Fascism Is Not Good”.) Both the commentaries and the documentary reveal a lot about the film and the ways the filmmakers may have screwed it up, though they’re awfully quick to blame the audience when they fail to respond to a film trying to have it both as a dumb blockbuster and a satire of such. Oh, I still don’t think it’s a wonderful film: I’m still disturbed by the gleeful gore and the nonsense science, and even for a satire there are some inner contradictions that weaken the entire atmosphere. But the direction is clean and sharp (especially after nearly a decade of increasing confusion behind the lenses), most special effects are still wonderful (oh, that lunar sequence!) and I have developed a fondness for cleaner-than-clean cinematography even as most movies have gone the other way. Starship Troopers hasn’t aged that badly, and when it has, it’s usually in the trivial details like the CRT monitors and primitive graphics displayed on such. If you think you still hate the film ten years later, do yourself a favour, rent the DVD and listen to the commentaries: I think you will be pleasantly surprised, or at least decently entertained.