“I looked at American society in a kind of dazed way when I was doing RoboCop,” director Paul Verhoeven told us earlier this year. Back in the mid-80s, when he was better known for his Dutch films like Soldier Of Orange and The Fourth Man, Verhoeven was still getting used to the pace and tone of American culture – and his outsider status arguably fed into the wry, spikily satirical edge in all three sci-fi films he made while in Hollywood.
“It was all so different from living in Holland,” Verhoeven recalled. “A lot of my, let’s say, amazement, at American society is in RoboCop; in the commercials, in the news reels and so forth, and even the certain distance to the characters.”
The same thread of detached fascination runs through RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers; in each advertising and television serve as the background hum to the violent stories going on in the foreground. They provide colour, context, and more than a little humour – but Verhoeven’s use of ads runs even deeper than that. Through his movies, Verhoeven and his writers explore the different ways television can be used to manipulate or pacify us.
Let’s take a look at each in turn…
“Nukem: Get them – before they get you!”
Verhoeven’s first Hollywood film captures an 80s era of corporate ruthlessness and cash-grabbing with an effect that matches Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, and equals even Brett Easton Ellis’ 90s novel about the decade, American Psycho, in terms of incisive, bloody satire.
The director has often said in interviews that, with RoboCop, he saw the opportunity to create his own American messiah, a heroic figure who fights for the forces of good. And indeed, RoboCop truly is a resurrection story for the computer age, with a martyred cop literally tortured to death by a group of gun-toting criminals raised from the dead by scientists.
Housed in a new body made of polished steel, RoboCop is a hero moulded by the descendents of Henry Ford; a metal law-enforcer available in any colour you like, as long as it’s silver.
Rather than introduce the movie’s futuristic setting with an opening text crawl, as movies such as Blade Runner resorted to, scriptwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner cleverly set the stage via a series of news reports, commercials and other snippets of TV offal. This is something not uncommon in sci-fi literature – such novels as War With The Newts by Karel Capek and The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner make frequent use of newspaper clippings and adverts to add texture and colour to their stories.
RoboCop’s use of television clips, meanwhile, was extremely unusual in sci-fi cinema back in 1987. And while the use of them wasn’t Verhoeven’s idea – they were already there in Ed Neumeir and Michael Miner’s script – he certainly pushed them to the fore.
The screenplay opens with a violent shoot-out in which we’re first introduced to Clarence Boddicker and his gang of cop-killing criminals. Verhoeven excised this, beginning instead with the first of a series of glib Media Break news reports courtesy of preening anchorman Casey Wong (Mario Machado, who played the same role in movies throughout the 80s) and his female co-anchor, Jess Perkins (Leeza Gibbons).
We’re introduced to a future directly informed by the news that dominated the late 80s; the threat of nuclear war looms large, and President Reagan’s Star Wars project (where warheads could be launched from Earth’s orbit) has been realised. Most importantly, we learn that Detroit has become a criminal battleground, with the deaths of several officers treated with indifference by Omni Consumer Products, a company contracted to run the police force on the city’s behalf. OCP’s Dick Jones (Ronnie Cox) is introduced here, setting up the character’s ruthlessness in one brief scene.
RoboCop’s opening sequences feel like someone bemusedly flicking through US TV channels in their hotel room, and Verhoeven’s clearly enjoyed bringing his outsider’s sensibility to the film. There’s crass comedy courtesy of Bixby Snyder, whose occasional cries of “I’d buy that for a dollar!” provide the movie with one of its most quotable lines, and latterly one of the most naggingly persistent tweetbots on Twitter.
Reagan-era Cold War politics are aggressively sent up in the family board game Nukem (sales slogan: “Get them – before they get you!”), which turns the horrifying prospect of nuclear Armageddon into an evening’s cheery entertainment.
Then there’s the 6000 SUX, a fictional vehicle which, according to its slogan, is “An American tradition”, offering “8.2 Miles Per Gallon”. Advertised with a Ray Harryhausen-esque stop-motion dinosaur, its skewering of America’s appetite for big, thirsty cars is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. (You can also spot a cameo of Paul Verhoeven himself in this ad if you’re quick.)
The SUX reappears later, and is also mentioned in a brief hostage sequence in which a disgruntled, gun-waving council worker says, “I want a new car… with reclining leather seats, that goes really fast and gives really shitty gas mileage!”
The American automotive industry looms large throughout RoboCop. Its Motor City setting is certainly no coincidence, while the lumbering ED-209 robot prototype, so ungainly compared to Robo himself, appears to be a science fiction embodiment of an industry losing ground to more competitive vehicles brought in from overseas. “I had a guaranteed military sale with ED-209! Who cares if it worked or not?” OCP’s Dick Jones (Ronnie Cox) rages in one key exchange.
Verhoeven’s use of adverts and television is integral to his story and the people in it. We see how TV affects how RoboCop’s characters, as they quote from it and are influenced by it. Its adverts depict a bleak image of a future society not unlike our own – where news provides a glimpse of horrible reality (police slaughter, looming nuclear conflict), and then various companies sell us an outlet for our fears, whether it’s a bad-taste family board game, high-tech internal organs, or a shiny new car with shitty gas mileage.
Total Recall (1990)
“Have you always wanted to track the mountains of Mars… but now you’re over the hill?”
Even though it appears to be little more than an action vehicle for man-mountain Arnold Schwarzenegger at first glance, Verhoeven’s next film, Total Recall, uses advertising in a different yet equally vital manner.
Again, Verhoeven employs television to set the film’s futuristic backdrop; this time, protagonist Doug Quaid (Arnie, of course) watches the news while fixing a protein shake, where freedom fighters are shown attacking corporate forces on Mars. Two things are noteworthy in this scene: one, how utterly unmoved Quaid is by the violence shown in the report, and two, that television news is again used as a platform for corporate propaganda, with Ronnie Cox’s evil Cohaagen appearing in a press conference to denounce the violence that’s interfering with his business plans.
Quaid is a physically imposing yet credulous man who’s easily swayed by the soothing jingles of advertising. Dissatisfied with his workaday existence and plagued by dreams of a life on Mars, he sees a promo for a company called Rekall on his commute to work, and is intrigued by its promise of implanted memories. Even the pleas of his best friend (“Don’t fuck with your brains, pal – it ain’t worth it”) can’t dissuade Doug from heading to Rekall’s concrete-clad headquarters.
There, Quaid’s fed some slick sales patter by Bob McClane (Ray Baker), a company rep who’s the movie’s equivalent of a dodgy used car dealer. In a hustle that’s sure to see him earn some extra commission, Bob even convinces Doug to upgrade to a more expensive secret agent optional package.
Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of Quaid is key, perhaps, to Verhoeven’s intention behind the movie. Look how easily swayed is by Bob’s sales pitch; at the childlike, gleeful expression on his face when he lowers himself into the Rekall chair, and his subsequent bafflement when everything he thought he knew about his life begins to fall apart – or at least, appears to.
Hints of what happens to Quaid on Mars appear on the Rekall commercial near the beginning of the film – implying, perhaps, that the dreams Doug had of the planet were actually triggered by the ads that play on the subway every morning. If you take the view that everything happening after the first 20 minutes of the film takes place in Doug Quaid’s Rekall fantasy (and this is certainly the reading Paul Verhoeven intended, as he revealed on Total Recall’s DVD commentary track), then it was the power of advertising that inspired Doug’s dreams of Mars, in turn creating his desire to go to Rekall to ‘experience’ the planet for himself, and ultimately leaving him in a lobotomised state in a high-tech dream chair.
Read in this way, Total Recall is a movie about a man whose mind is destroyed by the power of advertising and the slick patter of a snake oil salesman. Verhoeven’s hidden message, perhaps, is that any company selling impossible dreams in its commercials should never be trusted.
Mind you, those ads did have an incredibly catchy jingle…
Starship Troopers (1997)
“Join the mobile infantry and save the world – service guarantees citizenship. Would you like to know more…?”
In this 1997 adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s novel, Earth has become a fascist state where citizenship is earned through service in the mobile infantry. Once again, Verhoeven uses television to set the scene, this time with a laughably gung-ho military recruitment commercial broadcast by the Federal Network.
Oddly, Verhoeven hated Heinlein’s source novel, and in the August issue of Empire, Verhoeven made no secret of his feelings toward it. “I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring,” the director said. “It really is a bad book.”
Verhoeven’s disdain feeds into the very core of his adaptation, which inverts the pro-fascist overtones of the novel, depicting instead a future where society has become unthinkingly devoted to military power. Here, advertising is used as pure propaganda, expressly designed to provoke a xenophobic, knee-jerk response in its fascist audience; “The only good bug is a dead bug”, is the defining slogan for the war with insect-like alien creatures on the distant planet Klendathu.
Starship Troopers’ opening commercial, Verhoeven later revealed, was inspired by filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda feature, Triumph Of The Will.
“When the soldiers look at the camera and say, ‘I’m doing my part!’ that’s from Riefenstahl,” Verhoeven told Entertainment Weekly back in 1997. “We copied it. It’s wink-wink Riefenstahl.”
Similar Third Reich imagery is used throughout the film, from the blandly Aryan beauty of its cast to the Gestapo-like outfits on their backs. “I tried to seduce the audience into joining [Starship Troopers’] society,” Verhoeven said, “but then ask, ‘What are you really joining up for?’”
Not all critics got Verhoeven’s ironic use of Nazi imagery – and some even accused the director of producing right-wing propaganda himself – but as with his previous sci-fi movies, the subtexts are clear to see if they’re observed carefully enough. And looking back over Verhoeven’s trilogy of classic sci-fi movies, we can also see how his use of television and advertising gradually evolves.
RoboCop presents a media-saturated future that directly reflected 80s America, where television reigned supreme. In Total Recall, we meet a man so desperately bored with his life that he answers a TV advert’s seductive call, and becomes submerged in a fantasy he’ll never escape. And in Starship Troopers, we see a future society brainwashed into conforming to the commands of its government, and where television has become a conduit for state propaganda.
Just look at the way the comical yet chilling moment in the clip below, where kids stomp on bugs (“doing their bit for the war effort”) while a doting mother claps and grins maniacally.
As Verhoeven once put it, “War makes fascists of us all” – a sentiment that still holds true today.
“I have a feeling that both movies are pointing out elements of American society that were of course there, but not so on the surface,” Verhoeven told us. “But lately, they have come to the surface – it’s this ultra right-wing direction, isn’t it? Especially Starship Troopers, that’s pointing out a fascist utopia, in fact. I’m not saying the United States is moving in that direction completely, but feels a bit that way.”
Of course, Verhoeven’s trilogy of sci-fi films can easily be enjoyed as action movies, and on this level, they’re pretty much unbeatable. But it’s the additional layers of satire that truly elevates his films to classic status; and if there’s a theme that unites them all, it’s in the way they quietly explore how the media has the power to pacify and manipulate.