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But if the more puritan-minded amongst us were able to see beyond the carnage- and cunt-fueled controversies, several other more universal virtues would become immediately apparent. First, Verhoeven is a master craftsman. Robocop creatively circumvents sci-fi's noirish visual clichés with brightly lit, wide-angle compositions that pop, creating a three-dimensional space into which the dynamic Steadicam plunges, whips around, doubles back, all in way that's so carefully coordinated with character movement you may not notice it. Or take the infamous interrogation scene in Basic Instinct, how the thrust and parry of the dialogue is mirrored in the staccato montage and smoothly gliding tracking shots. Or the stage performances in Showgirls. The combination of candy-colored mise en scene and the sheer athleticism of Elizabeth Berkley's performance yields a pure-cinema dance spectacle worthy of The Red Shoes.
Second, Verhoeven is extremely adept at storytelling, and his Hollywood works are models of classical construction. Total Recall is such an engrossingly propulsive story because the through line is ruthlessly economical—yet there's enough incidental detail and clever misdirection that it never feels mechanical. Add to that the ingenious conceptual coup, straight out of Phillip K. Dick, in which the Joe Sixpack protagonist (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has the memories of an interplanetary adventure implanted directly into his brain, only to discover mid-procedure that his real memories have been wiped and that he really is a secret agent from Mars. Unless, of course, this is all just the preprogrammed dream. The Möbius-strip irresolvability of the scenario sustains both possibilities straight through the end credits, giving each scene a contrapuntal complexity that is, in the most literal sense, quite cerebral. As Arnold's character so eloquently puts it (in a film packed with many of his most memorable one-liners): "That's the best mind-fuck yet!"
But the double realities of Total Recall are more than a clever structural gimmick, they also constitute a self-reflexive narrative device: diegesis becomes discourse and discourse diegesis. Great fodder for a master's thesis, great fodder for masturbation (did we mention the chick with three tits?), Total Recall works on so many levels I'm starting to feel dizzy. Which brings me to the third point: Paul Verhoeven may be the greatest ironist Hollywood has seen in the last thirty years. The baroque erotic-thriller Basic Instinct self-consciously sends up the misogyny of classical film noir—allowing the criminal femme fatale to go unpunished while subordinating the hardboiled detective figure to the role of object in her antisocial sexual fantasies—while managing to be both genuinely erotic and undeniably thrilling. Starship Troopers has been discussed above, but let me add only that its straight-faced subversion of gung-ho militarism is a satire worthy of Swift's A Modest Proposal.
And as for Hollow Man... well, nobody's perfect.