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Not Quite Total Recall: Taking the Paul Verhoeven out of Paul Verhoeven Films…

I’m actually a pretty forgiving guy when it comes to Hollywood rebooting and remaking older films. After all, these newer films don’t diminish the original. It’s fantastic if a writer and director can boldly reimagine an established property like Christopher Nolan did with Batman Begins, but there’s no big loss if the film fails. We’ll just collectively forget about, return to our cherished DVD copy of the original and there’s no real problem. So I actually don’t mind Hollywood returning to familiar themes, plots, characters, settings and ideas. However, with Hollywood producing a spate of blockbuster remakes of cult Paul Verhoeven films, I can’t help but wonder if they are completely missing the point.

Head wrecking…

Total Recall is, of course, the big example. The remake of that classic sci-fi film is due for release next month, and we’ll see what we make of it. However, casting is already taking place on a new version of RoboCop to feature Gary Oldman and Hugh Laurie. And there’s a newer version of Starship Troopers on its way. I sincerely wish the best of luck to the studios and producers on all these endeavours, but I can’t help but think there’s a very fundamental miscalculation taking place here.

It’s also worth conceding that you could argue that Total Recall is actually more of an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, the short story that inspired Total Recall. As such it could be contended that this isn’t really a remake so much as a fresh adaptation of familiar source material. If that is the case, however, it seems rather strange that the remake exists so firmly in the shadow of the 1990 sci-fi classic.

There’ll be trouble…

Why use the name of the movie and not the original short story? Why include the three-breasted lady? It seems quite clear that the film is consciously emulating Verhoeven’s film, rather than trying to put an entirely new spin on the source material. It feels strange to hear the director argue that “you can’t make Total Recall without certain things.”

It’s a familiar pattern we’ve seen quite a bit before. Studios attempting to cash in on the cult credibility of a geeky movie by producing a remake or a sequel after a bit of time has passed. Recently, for example, we’ve had a new version of Fright Night and Tron: Legacy, both successors to films that nobody had really been clamouring to see. Sure, there are strong and dedicated fans of those films (and I count myself among them), but the major studios seem to be hoping to leverage that success by bringing these cult hits to a bigger and broader audience.

Right on trek…

Basically, everybody is looking for the next version of Star Trek, the franchise that J.J. Abrams and his colleagues rescued from a pop culture coma and turned into a major blockbuster for Paramount. Suddenly Star Trek was cool, not that fans had ever doubted it. Industry types probably doubted it plenty, making the success a massive surprise. It’s hard not to read into the current cult necromancy as a result of that film’s unexpected success. The idea is clear. There must be another similar success story out there waiting to be found, and the studios are going to find it.

However, I can’t help but feel like they are excavating in the wrong place. I love Paul Verhoeven. I think the director is wry, intelligent, subversive and brilliantly aggressive. I think that a lot of his films are pretty much “must watch” for any fan of genre cinema or eighties movies in general. I think he’s a director who deserves far more acclaim and recognition than he has received, and is a film maker with a genuine gift for the medium that gets lost in the sensationalism that his movies create. I respect the man and his work.

More remakes for Hollywood to sink their teeth into?

And, even then, I will concede that he will never be a blockbuster director. On the pop culture Richter scale, my parents and my better half will never know either his name or his distinctive style. My brother will probably recognise and appreciate his touch, but probably won’t remember the name that goes with the in-your-face satire and ridiculously over-the-top sensationalism. His films will never be blockbusters. Maybe some remake or reboot or reimagining might, but nothing anywhere near Verhoeven’s unique, uncompromising and challenging vision will ever be smashing box office records.

And that’s fine. That is, after all, why we love him. Verhoeven genuinely does things that no mainstream movie director would feel comfortable doing. It’s hard to imagine any director pulling of Starship Troopers with the same perfect combination of gore, cheese and subversive irony. The Robo-Cop films fell apart without him, because nobody else could mix the cocktail of absurdity, satire and pathos that made the movie so good. Movie studios want to adapt Robo-Cop, Starship Troopers and Total Recall because they think they can produce version of these films friendly to a broader audience, but they miss the point: there are no versions of these films that are friendly to a broader audience.

Facing up to it…

Total Recall, for example, will be PG-13. While there’s some debate about the age rating on the finished product, RoboCop will apparently be staying away from the themes Verhoeven dealt with “so strongly.” And then there’s this gem of a quote in discussing the Starship Trooper reboot:

“Verhoeven made his movie a critique of fascism,” says Jaffe, “whereas Heinlein was writing from the perspective of someone who had served in World War II. Y’know, one man’s fascism is another man’s patriotism…”

Here’s the problem. There comes a point where you’re not really remaking or rebooting a Paul Verhoeven film. You’re just taking the name of something that was a bold and respected piece of science-fiction and branding it across something far more generic and conventional.

“Keep the disc in case we need to reboot!”

The studios are effectively trying to leverage the cult success of these films into more popular success by removing what made them cult successes in the first place, and filling the empty space with generic action movie clichés. It isn’t that these films endured because of the titles, or the very rough outlines and ideas. There’s very little in those three movies that you wouldn’t find in a whole host of generic cheesy sci-fi. However, it was Verhoeven’s unique voice that made these films stand out from the crowd, and it’s that same voice that means mainstream audiences will never quite latch on to it like they did to Avatar and Titanic.

It just seems self-defeating for studios to acknowledge the cult credentials of these films by deciding to bring them to new audiences, while also stripping out all the elements that made them such niche successes in the first place. I’m not angry, I’m just confused. It seems counter-productive to devote so much energy to developing these films as big blockbusters with wide-appeal when that wasn’t what they were designed for. There are just so many ideas better suited to that approach, and it seems like a pointless waste of energy to ignore that the relative success of these films is rooted in how niche they are, rather than independent of it.

Paul Verhoeven

5 Responses

  1. I am probably one of the only science fiction fans who completely disliked Verhoeven’s “Total Recall”. While I appreciate the visuals (well, most of them–Arnie’s bulging eyeballs on Mars was laughable and not in a good way), the film always left me feeling sick to my stomach. I can’t explain that reaction, but it’s there nonetheless. However, I love “Robocop” and appreciate “Starship Troopers” for its satire, which is lost on most people it seems. The trailer for the updated “Total Recall” actually looks very good, though stealing visually from two other Phillip K. Dick adaptations–“Minority Report” and “Blade Runner.” I don’t mind another telling of a book if it’s done in a new or more faithful way. Remaking “Robocop” seems completely unnecessary, though with the cast and the viral marketing they started, it seems they’ve set off on the right foot.

  2. I think a large part of rebooting, remaking, or retooling old cult classics is that there isn’t as much as pressure. It’s an easier cop out for studios to f**k with the vaguely familiar, as opposed to house hold names and films. It’s also cheaper, most of the time. It’s low risk, high reward (if it works well) and like you mentioned in the beginning- a lot easier to just give up on and move back to our old DVDs if the finished product is piss poor.

    Either way, however, your review is very well written and explains a lot. Good job.

  3. This is a very well-argued series of points. I guess I have been a Verhoeven fan for some time, since I love all those movies of his you mentioned!

    To me, what you’re talking about is akin to the complete exclusion of Wes Craven from the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot. The result was a schlocky piece of garbage with only the new premise and Jackie Earle Haley being redeemers.

    Scratch that! It was the IDEA of Jackie Earle Haley as Freddie after seeing his Rorscach. The execution was so-so.

    I suppose we’ll see how far the Verhoeven reboots go. Should be interesting!

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