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2017

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2017-08-24

Melbourne Cinémathèque: Paul Verhoeven's Starships Troopers [1997] and Robocop [1987]

I saw my first film on DCP in 2009, so it has only been ubiquitous a few years, but already 35mm feels evocative of an earlier analogue age. The imperfections on the print seem to smell like popcorn, though there was none in the cinema at ACMI for the Melbourne Cinémathèque screenings of Paul Verhoeven's films Starship Troopers and Robocop.

The films have similar intentions, depicting a militarised and propagandised society, with Starship Troopers being considerably more extreme and less subtle than its predecessor. 

Starship Troopers is set in a globally unified 2197 in which everyone has American accents and knows who the bad guys are: the bugs. Nationalistic propaganda is depicted with overstated irony and we seem to be in permanent war with the sub-human and sub-intelligent beasts, whose territory we may have arrogantly encroached upon. 

But no matter, because the battle against evil unifies us as a society and citizenship (as well as voting rights) is the exclusive privilege of those who have served in the military. Even as millions are slaughtered in futile battles, more are recruited in hope of serving the society that entirely encompasses and protects them. 

Despite all the political satire, the film is not to be taken too seriously. It wields Hollywood cliche, bad acting, elaborate special effects and video game-like violence to the purpose of pure movie fun and thrills, tensing up at the threat to our heroes as we laugh at how ridiculous it all is.  The film wants it both ways: to satirise American military chic and "freedom", as the ability to choose to die for your country (or planet), and to totally relish in the thrill of the Hollywood science fiction action war film, with its big budget, special effects, exciting music and editing and pretty actors, and it mostly succeeds.


Starship Troopers is a bit thin on the irony though, and Robocop is a more successful and satisfying film in every way.

Robocop is set in the nearer future, in which the Detroit Police department has been contracted to a private company with some pretty nefarious intentions.  Now that the Police have been privatised, the next step is to mechanise the cops themselves and so crime can be fought by programmed and emotionless machines without human error, but perhaps with the type of error that only machines, psychopathic corporations and fascism can offer.

Robocop can be interestingly compared to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises (2012) with very interesting implications.  I have already written about how Nolan's film supports the fascist notion that the masses are dumb and helpless and must be saved from evil by psychopaths in uniforms and masks.  Nolan's Interstellar (2014) also presents the idea that the masses must be lied to in order to save them from what they're not capable of understanding.  And Nolan's films are presented without irony or humour.  We must trust in our great institutions and we must not question them because we are ignorant to the complex manner in which they will save us.  This seems to be the ideology of the 21st century Hollywood machine.  The '80s and '90s were different.  Rewatching the four Batman films released between 1989 and 1997 there is an astonishing lack of any ideological underpinnings in all except one of them, Batman Returns (1992).  This film chooses Catwoman and Penguin as the villians, but in both cases the real villian is not even the dim, charming and manipulable mayor, but Max Shreck (a vampire?), the corrupt corporate executive who is responsible for traumatising both Catwoman and Penguin into the dangerous freaks they become.  The film is ultimately feminist and anti-corporate and causes us to question the powerful institutions that do not necessarily have our best interests at heart.  Quite contrary to Nolan's suggestion that we have blind faith in them to save us from evil because we are inherently ignorant.

Verhoeven, in Robocop, plays with both of these elements, fascistic violence overcoming crime, and the vapid money-obsessed corruption of our corporate class, with considerable wit and fun.  The technocratic violence is effective against crime, but only when it is combined with a human element, as in the half-human/half-robot, but it is ultimately doomed to failure because of the compromises of the perverted intentions of the executives running the institution.  And although the masses are not necessarily depicted as stupid in Verhoeven's film, they are saturated with an incessant and compellingly stupid media pumping them full of inanity as coke-driven criminals and coke-driven executives unleash violent crime on their vulnerable city.

It all sounds rather serious and intense the way I am describing it, but it is actually constantly fun and funny, thrilling and stupid, offering you the dumb thrills you learned to love as a child and the clever irony you need as a thinking adult.

Both of Verhoeven's films draw you into the dumb violence of Hollywood and its fascist ideology of redemptive violence led by all-powerful institutions, but they also ridicule its grotesque consequences and the ludicrous propaganda supposed to convince us of its efficacy.

But if you're in the right mood, they're just fun too.

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