The Faceless Remakes of Paul Verhoeven

From the 1980s to the early 2000s, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven made a name for himself in Hollywood cinema. Working mostly under independent studios, his films became known for often being both provocative and violent. Almost every American movie he made had to be cut down to appease the MPAA. Except for Basic Extinct (1992), German cinematographer Jost Vacano shot all his American film.

In the 2010s, Columbia Pictures started remaking some of his most successful American films. Usually when a studio remakes a film, they subvert the original film in some way. Since Verhoeven’s films were already subversive and absurd in their own way, the studio decided to play the material as sincere, making the remakes palatable PG-13 products. According to Verhoeven, the worst part was that they were made PG-13. Verhoeven also felt that the films failed because a lack of humor and satire.

Biography

Verhoeven grew up as a child in Nazi occupied Holland. Verhoeven’s Dutch films tended to focus on more obviously personal subjects. Both Soldier of Orange (1977) and Black Book (2006) take place during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. His early films tended to star Dutch actor Rutger Hauer and have cinematography by Jost Vacano or Jan De Bont. De Bont would eventually become a director in his own right, making his feature debut with Speed (1994).

Many of the other films he made in his native country focused on more domestic issues than his American films. Even in his native country, Verhoeven’s work remained controversial. The accusations of Verhoeven portraying misogynistic, homophobic, and sexual sadistic behavior in Spetters (1980) led to him having trouble getting financing in his home country and ultimately seeking funding elsewhere.

In the mid-1980’s, Verhoeven went to America to make a bigger name for himself. This came after the release of his first somewhat American film Flesh and Blood (1985), which was made for Orion Pictures with American, Dutch, and Spanish financing. He still lived in Holland and made a lot of the film in Spain. Flesh and Blood marks an odd marriage of Dutch and American filmmaking. The film has a mixture of Dutch, American, and Spanish actors. Verhoeven also tried to make the studio’s notes work with his story and felt like it did not work out well.

While not as well remembered, it marked the shift in Verhoeven’s work. After discovering all the problems with Flesh and Blood, Verhoeven decided to go to America to understand how American movies were made. It became the final Verhoeven film starring Hauer.

‘Robocop’

A Detroit Cop gets destroyed, only to be brought back as a crime-fighting cyborg.

Original

Verhoeven did not want to initially make Robocop until his wife convinced him to. He referred to the film as a film that was “half-action, half comedy.”

The original Robocop’s cast consists mostly of character actors. Perhaps the biggest name actor in the film is Nancy Allen.

The Protagonist

Robocop follows Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a Detroit cop who gets destroyed by a group of criminals. Omni Consumer Products (OCP) brings him back in the form of Robocop.

In this version, Murphy regains his humanity over the course of the movie. Before his transformation, he is a loving husband and father. He even tries to model his gunplay on his son’s TV hero T.J. Lazer. After his transformation, he begins as an emotionless machine that Verhoeven only shows us glimpses of at first. Murphy’s memories begin to come back slowly until he finally realizes who his family is and who killed him.

Unlike the first film, the later films would focus more on Robocop’s relationship to children. The second film has Robocop coming into moral boundaries when one of his primary antagonists is a child. The third film focuses on him becoming a surrogate father to a child.

The Antagonists

In Robocop, the primary Villains are OCP’s number two man Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) and his right-hand man, criminal Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith).

Dick Jones has created his machine, ED-209. However, after his machine kills somebody, executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) suggests Robocop. Jones sees Robocop as an abomination and a threat to his creation.

Jones’ creation of ED-209 is a stop motion creation and resembles a beast more than a man. It squeals when it falls down.

Boddicker is a much more classically bad villain. He initially kills Murphy, delivers the one liners, and is portrayed as an all-around scummy person. His team of henchmen are also the ones that Robocop faces for most of the movie.

The World

Robocop exists in a tough gritty yet often comedic world. Murphy is a transfer from a nicer police department. Throughout most of the film, Detroit is portrayed as a burnt out lawless shell. The criminals that inhabit it often act in a cartoonish manner.

The primary exceptions are Murphy’s home and any locations related to OCP. These are nice slick locations.

Verhoeven also portrays every group as being interracial, from the police to OCP to Boddicker’s gang. Every group has at least one black member. However, Verhoeven never really comments on this. It just is.

The Style

As a storyteller, Verhoeven doles out information in a more tongue in cheek manner. He fills the movie with satirical media making fun of the time period. Most prominently, he features News broadcasts that both make commentary and provide exposition for the story. Verhoeven also uses long tracking shots to set up locations and characters.

Another prominent example is a hacky sitcom with the catchphrase “I’d buy that for a dollar!” The film often portrays the people who like this sitcom as dumb or unlikeable. One criminal (Paul McCrane) breaks a department store window so he can listen to the show.

In Verhoeven’s version, the violence is more pronounced. Some of it is cartoonish. Some of it is graphic. Most all of it feels over the top. Often the Bad guys and their oversized weaponry feel more cartoonish than realistic. In an interview with Empire Magazine, Verhoeven said that part of what makes screen violence more violent is the cutting. In his experience, when violence goes uncut, it often becomes cartoonish and over the top. By cutting it faster, it makes the scene more violent.

This is also the first film where Verhoeven makes the violence based on protagonists and antagonists. In the audio commentary for Flesh and Blood, he compares Murphy’s demise to a scene where a character gets chained up like a dog, cut, and shot in the hand with an arrow. However, unlike Robocop, the star of the film (Rutger Hauer) is the one acting cruel towards the character.

Remake

In 2014, Columbia produced another version of Robocop. This version had a more star-studded cast that included Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman. The film comes from Brazilian director José Padilha. During pre-production, fellow Brazilian director Fernando Merielles reported that Padilha had an extremely difficult time with the studio making the film.

More of a drama than a comedy, the new film would also examine characters and situations that the first film just glances at. This would cause the new film to run 15 minutes longer.

The Protagonist

In the remake, the audience sees more of Alex Murphy’s (Joel Kinnaman) personal life. This includes seeing whole scenes of his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son (John Paul Ruttan). These portray him as a loving father and create a relationship with him and his wife.

When Alex Murphy gets blown up by a car bomb, international corporation OmniCorp asks his wife if she would hand her severely injured husband over to science. The scientist in charge of rebuilding Alex is Dr. Dennett Norton (Oldman), a scientist trying to create better prosthesis for humans. However, human emotion keeps getting in the way of machinery. Dennett loves his work, but finds that OmniCorp wants to put him in more defense based operations.

In terms of characterization, the new Robocop remains human when they put him in the new body. He wakes up and freaks out when he sees his new body. Dennett Norton makes the point of him being in control.

However, as time goes on, the scientists find that they have to make Alex into more of a machine. They later choose to tap down his human emotions when he starts malfunctioning because they conflict with all the information they give him. This conflicts with his family, who wants the old Murphy back. When his wife confronts him about his son, Robocop returns to Murphy’s normal personality.

As a reboot, the film focuses more on how Robocop became Robocop rather than how Murphy regains his identity. He does not really become Robocop until the end, when they return him to the classic silver Robocop body.

The Antagonists

Unlike the first Robocop, the antagonists do not have as strong a connection in this version.

The main antagonist in the film is Raymond Sellars (Keaton), the head of OmniCorp. He sees Robocop as a stepping stone to creating a fully robotic police force and military. Sellars wants to repeal the Dreyfus act, a policy put in place by Hubert Dreyfus (Zach Grenier). The act prohibits the military and police from using drones and completely robotic forces on US soil. Dreyfus argues that a robot can make mistakes humans cannot because they lack a conscious or ethics.

Sellars also is in charge of designing Robocop. This includes creating a black suit for Robocop. In a deleted scene, Sellars asks if they can keep Murphy’s hand because he says that his father told him that you could tell a lot about a person by his handshake.

Along with an updated ED-209, the remake also adds a whole bunch of faceless androids. They walk alongside the creature. In this version, they exist as background figures. Early in the film, Murphy gets compared to one of these more efficient machines. Since they do not have faces, the audience does not relate to them as much.

In the remake, the man who kills Murphy is crime boss Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow). Vallon works with corrupt cops to carry out his crimes. Murphy had been investigating him when this happened. When Murphy confronts Vallon, Murphy discovers that the chief of Detroit police (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) was involved.

Robocop’s investigation and discovery helps motivate congress vote for repealing the act, effectively destroying it. However, Robocop’s later heroic actions motivate the president to veto the decision.

The World

Like the rest of the film, the world of the new Robocop has a larger scope to it. The film takes place in America, the middle east, and Asia.

Robocop gets assembled in an Asian country rather than in Detroit. He walks through a factory of Asian workers. When he gets outside, he tries to escape by jumping over a wall and running through a field of workers in rice picker’s hats.

Whereas the original primarily focused on police and Detroit, the new film also focuses on how this technology can be used in the military. It opens on a news crew covering a story in the middle east before cutting to the main story.

New Technology

Besides the androids and military weapons, the advances in technology are a little less obvious. The audience will occasionally see a character watch something on a futuristic holographic screen, but the technology feels more contemporary rather than futuristic. Everybody is more connected than they were with the old Robocop.

With the advances in technology, the new Robocop is able to do more. Murphy basically has the internet built into his head now. He can track multiple people through security cams. However, this overloads his actual brain functions, forcing the Doctors to make more

The Style

Padilha’s craftsman approach almost feels like watching different television programs. It alternates between storylines that feel like newscasts, scientific dramas, and gritty TV cop dramas.

Like Verhoeven, Padilha also uses a newscast. However, this time it is more of a Fox news type organization than the regular nightly news. The lead anchor is Pat Novak (Jackson), who stands and commentates. Padilha opens the film with Novak doing vocal exercises. While Novak supports Sellars’s plans, the film’s actual actions contradict his commentary. Instead of ending on the Robocop story like the first one, Padilha ends on Novak spouting rhetoric before cutting to credits, which play over The Clash’s cover of The Crickets’ “I Fought the Law.”

Padilha has some fan service moments in his film. For example, he includes the “I’d buy that for a dollar” line. However, it is a character saying that he could not sell Robocop over a faceless machine (“I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar”).

Padilha chooses different styles to shoot the film in based on the situation. When it comes to the gritty streets of Detroit, Padilha shoots the film in a handheld style. The shot that reveals the protagonist follows him from behind before revealing his face. The calmer scientific world is shot in a more conventional locked-down style. It also has a lighter color palette than the criminal world.

‘Total Recall’

Unsatisfied manual labor worker Douglas Quaid dreams of something more. He lives with his loving wife Lori and works alongside his best friend and co-worker Harry. He gets a chance to live out his greatest fantasy by Rekall, a company specializing in the technology. They give him the fantasy of being a secret agent, only to realize that he is actually a secret agent.

In the next few hours, Quaid will become a fugitive from justice, learn that both his wife and best friend are really his enemies, and that he is not really Douglas Quaid.  In his quest, he will meet Melina, his true love and a member of the resistance he actually works for. Now it is up to him, Melina, and the resistance to stop evil businessman Cohaagen, who plans to colonize a world of peaceful citizens for his own business interests.

However, Quaid finds himself questioning what is reality or not. Identities get blurred. Characters betray each other often.

Original

The original Total Recall comes from some of the most prominent voices in action, science fiction, and horror of the time. The Philip K. Dick story inspired it. In the original story, the character is much meeker than the star of the movie: muscular action star Arnold Schwarzenegger. At one point, Richard Dreyfuss was attached to the role.

Alien (1979) screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ron Schusett decided to write the script on spec. They wrote about 40 drafts of the script. Schusett also served as a producer on the final film. Body horror director David Cronenberg became attached to the project and wrote 12 drafts. However, Schusett found Cronenberg’s version too faithful to the original story. The mutant characters in the film are remnants of Cronenberg’s version. After that, Schwarzenegger decided to ask independent company Carolco to buy the property and hire Verhoeven.

The Protagonist

By design, this film’s Doug Quaid is basically Arnold Schwarzenegger. When Schwarzenegger hired Verhoeven onto the project, they had a whole bunch of scripts, totaling 5,000 pages. Needing a way to simplify the project, Verhoeven and writer Gary Goldman decided to build it around Schwarzenegger’s strengths. This included lightening up the script and making everything a little more exaggerated to fit the already larger-than-life Schwarzenegger.

At the beginning of the film, Quaid lives a comfortable, yet unsatisfying life. He feels like he was meant for more. He also keeps having dreams about Mars.

His wife Lori (Sharon Stone) feels happy where they are and feels that Quaid is just experiencing some jitters from the recent move. He watches the News and she changes the channel.

When Quaid discovers his true identity, he learns that he has to go to Mars, which Rekall directed him to do as part of his mission as a secret agent.

The Antagonists

The main Villains in the film comprise of Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), Richter (Michael Ironside), and Lori. There are also many minor Villains and Guards on Mars. In this world, nothing is no certainty and anybody can betray Quaid.

Richter has a romantic relationship with Lori. The film often suggests that Richter feels threatened by the more masculine Quaid.

Throughout the movie, Quaid also faces various secondary antagonists. Often these people will present themselves as Quaid’s friends before turning on him. Early in the film, his friend Harry (Robert Costanzo) tries to talk him out of going to Rekall. When Quaid does not listen to him, Harry reveals that he was put there to keep Quaid out of trouble and tries to neutralize him with a group of people. Quaid kills all of them singlehandedly. Similarly, on Mars, helpful mutant Cab driver Benny (Mel Johnson Jr) reveals himself as a traitor later in the story.

Along with these physical antagonists, there is one psychological antagonist. Midway through the film, Rekall’s Dr. Edgemar (Roy Brocksmith) and Lori meet with Qauid try to convince him that he’s dreaming. Quaid points a gun at Edgemar’s head and say that it will not matter if he shoots him because he is dreaming.

Quaid’s final villain turns out to be himself. In both versions, Quaid turns out to be Hauser, Cohaagen’s right hand man who becomes a member of the resistance. In this version, it turns out that Hauser has been playing along to infiltrate the resistance.

The World(s)

Total Recall has two worlds: the more muted saccharine world of Earth and the colorful often sleazy red world of Mars.

Earth is defined mostly by greys and blues. It is meant to lull Quaid into a sense of false security.

Mars is full of reds. On Mars, Quaid visits an upscale hotel and Venusville, a sleazy underground full of mutants. In Venusville, most all of the women are mutant prostitutes. Perhaps most famous in lore is Mary (Lycia Naff), a prostitute with three breasts.

The Style

Total Recall is a product of its time. Its primary purpose is to serve as a star vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. This means giving him good one-liners, making him a likable protagonist, and putting him at the center of a fun movie.

It takes place entirely in artificial worlds, whether it be Earth or Mars. These are both worlds that humans have created. Most of the time, the only time one sees actual plants in Total Recall is when they peek out over a wall.

Remake

In 2012, Columbia produced a much slicker remake of Total Recall starring Colin Farrell in the Quaid role. Len Wiseman directed the film. Verhoeven said that he would see the film because Farrell resembled the Quaid of the story more than Schwarzenegger did.

Whereas the original film opened on Quaid’s dream, the remake opens on a written prologue explaining the world of the film. While the original plays with the ambiguities of whether or not the story is a dream, the remake does not as much. The theatrical cut has a much less ambiguous ending than the director’s cut.

The Protagonist

The remake’s Doug Quaid is almost like a Disney hero brought to life. Whereas the first film has Quaid say he wants more, this film goes into great detail about how he wants more. Quaid lives in a crappy apartment, reads Ian Fleming novels, and says he wants more often. He and his friend Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) have a whole bit about switching seats, just to change routine. On top of that, he has just been passed over for a promotion.

His seemingly American wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale, then wife of director Wiseman) tells him that she knows that is not what he wanted, but that they making it work. When she turns out to be a double agent, she drops the American accent.

In a change from the original, Quaid builds the androids he will eventually fight. He also claims that a scar from his hand is from shooting himself making one of them. It later is revealed that it is a gunshot wound he has.

The Antagonists

In the remake, the filmmakers decided to simplify the villains and kill fewer of them. The primary antagonists consist of Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) and Lori. There is no Richter in this movie. Cohaagen simply has an implied relationship with Lori.

Similarly, they also combine the secondary antagonists of Harry and Dr. Edgemar into another character of Harry. Instead of confronting Quaid early on in the film, Harry meets with him at the mid-point to convince him that he is living in a fantasy. In this version, Harry tells him to shoot his love interest Melina (Jessica Biel) to wake himself up. Quaid shoots Harry when he notices a tear in Melina’s eye, instead of a bead of sweat on Harry’s head.

Like the Robocop remake, Quaid mostly faces off against a faceless army of androids in this version. The film also features human police, but often obscures their faces behind masks. Even in scenes with humans, androids will be covered more often in close-ups unless there is a central antagonist in the scene.

The World

Cohaagen’s plan revolves around Earth rather than Mars. This change makes it so Quaid does not really leave Earth. In fact, many of the action scenes have the leads jumping or falling off something. However, in this world, Earth has been split up into a new world order.

Whereas the character in the original lives in a very nice world, the character in this film basically lives in a slum. His apartment is a sickly green. The outside looks like China town and has a red tint to it. He also lives near the movie’s version of Venusville. When he goes to Rekall, it exists in Stairway to Heaven, a sleazy orientalist brothel. Sporting a goatee and blonde dye job, John Cho plays the implanter less like the original’s used car dealer and more like a black-market dealer.

The majority of the movie takes place in settings that are cool colors, such as blue. BUF, the Special effects team who designed the city, describes it like this on their site:

“The city’s atmosphere is peculiar: wet as if it had just rained, with cool colors of blue-gray dominance and high contrast, dense to the point where we can barely catch a sight of the sky, a structure of buildings with a suspended road network that runs through the heart of the city and elevator buses connecting the city’s strata.”

This pretty much covers the sort of world the majority of the movie takes place in. Another change from the original story is that Quaid and the other characters travel on a transport that goes through the center of the Earth. There is a featurette on the DVD about it.

New Technology

The original Total Recall takes places in a pre-internet, pre-cellphone world. Characters used payphones and other items now considered archaic in the original. In the remake, characters have built into their hands.

The original had the characters mostly taking public transportation or using cabs with a humanoid robot. Another addition to this movie comes in the form of hover cars. They play a small role in the action scenes.

While the original also had face changing technology, the new film changes it. In the original, it is a physical disguise. The remake makes it into a digital creation, like a hologram. Similarly, Quaid communicates with himself through a hologram rather than the original’s portable TV.

The Style

The style of the film most closely resembles director Len Wiseman’s previous Underworld trilogy. This is his one of his two non-Underworld project (the other being the Die Hard Installment Live Free or Die Hard (2007)). Wiseman makes the film slick and cool, with lots of lens flares and blinding lights.

Wiseman mostly puts the original movie in the background. The three-breasted woman from the original appears in the original appears in the remake as a walk on role. Similarly, one of Quaid’s disguises (a fat red-haired woman in a yellow outfit) in the original appears in front of a disguised Quaid in this movie. Mars is mentioned in passing.

Wiseman also ends the film with Quaid and Melina kissing. However, not before having a fakeout scene where Lori pretends to play Melina using a face changing technology used earlier in the film.

‘Starship Troopers’

A group of recruits goes into the military and heads off to fight bugs on another planet.

Original

Starship Troopers comes from the book by another Science Fiction writer: Robert Heinlein. Verhoeven hated Heinlein’s original novel.

With this film, Verhoeven reteamed with many people. From Robocop, screenwriter Edward Neumeier, executive producer Jon Davison, and Visual Effects Supervisor Phil Tippett return. Verhoeven also casts Total Recall cast members Michael Ironside, Marshall Bell, and Dean Norris.

The Protagonist

The primary lead is Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), a recruit from Buenos Aires. From a wealthy family, Rico is somewhat bright, yet unmotivated. Primarily, he cares about his relationship with Carmen Ibañez (Denise Richards), a much more motivated student who plans to join starfleet after graduating. His parents (Christopher Curry and Lenore Kasdorf) oppose him going into the military because they feel it will ruin his life. However, Johnny disobeys them so he can keep his relationship with Carmen.

After his parents are killed by an asteroid sent by the bugs, Johnny decides to fight in the war against them.

The Antagonists

In Starship Troopers, the military fights aliens known as bugs. These creatures often rip humans apart, except for their leader, who sucks out human’s brains. The designer of the bugs, Phil Tippett, had previously designed ED-209 in Robocop.

Early on in the film, the recruit’s biology teacher (Rue McClanahan) makes the point that humans are not as great as they think they are. Oftentimes the humans that get destroyed by bugs are the ones who act in an arrogant, selfish, or cowardly manner.

The World

Like Total Recall, Starship Troopers consists of the human world and an alien planet. In both cases, the human planet looks immaculate, while the Alien planet looks gritty and worn out.

The main characters come from a Buenos Aires that is predominantly white and European. Verhoeven said he wanted the cast to look like they had walked out of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935). However, the film also treats Buenos Aires as if it were the United States. When Pvt. Ace Levy (Jake Busey) plays the violin in one scene, he plays “I wish I was in Dixie,” a song that refers to the Southern region of the United States.

The Style

In a way, this is perhaps one of the most personal films made in America, as it deals head on with fascism and how countries become fascist. It portrays the characters as ironically heroic.

Verhoeven once again adopts the commercials and news stories he used in Robocop. In this film, the viewer gets to watch them on what looks like a 1997 computer screen rather than a television.

Like Total Recall, the film takes place in in two worlds. There’s the comfortable artificial world of the protagonist, which feels almost like soap opera or a parody of a teen movie. The love triangle has Rico decided between two classmates: the more superficial Carmen and the more down-to-Earth Dizzy (Dina Meyer). In a normal movie, Rico would end up with Dizzy. In this movie, Dizzy gets killed off and the romantic drama held throughout the film proves inconsequential.

Then there’s the bug world, which is the closest one gets to a natural setting. The ending of the film has the heroes cheering on the torture of their enemy before the film cuts to a Propaganda ad.

Remake

The remake of Starship Troopers is in development and cannot be analyzed as thoroughly as the others. Verhoeven has derided the planned movie, which plans to stick closer to the Heinlein novel. Feeling that the novel was fascistic and militaristic, Verhoeven tried to make it a commentary on the nature of fascism and how people do not realize their fascist nature.

Conclusion

In both remakes, the filmmakers made cleaner less violent versions of Verhoeven’s original films. While the originals were satirical and provocative, the remakes aimed for a sincerer dramatic approach.

After making Hollow Man (2000), Verhoeven returned to Holland to make more personal films. It became Verhoeven’s only film to earn an R rating without appeal or cutting. Hollow Man marked a point in Verhoeven’s career where he felt like he had made a completely impersonal film. It made him decide to stop working in Hollywood.

While Verhoeven has moved on to other works, potential new remakes of Robocop and Total Recall have been announced again.