3. Robocop (1987)
A dedicated young cop (Peter Weller) is fatally injured in the line of duty while attempting to apprehend the leader of a brutal criminal gang and is brought back by the corporation-owned police force as cyborg Robocop to clean up near-future Detroit’s crime-ridden streets.
Verhoeven’s big Hollywood debut works as a kick-ass ultraviolent 80s action movie if that’s all you want from it, but it can be so much more. Inspired by, and perhaps even beginning as an adaptation of “Judge Dredd”, Edward Neumeier’s screenplay takes themes of corporate greed and over-reaching law enforcement to the extreme during Reagan’s presidency, but has only become even more terrifyingly credible over time.
We have Verhoeven’s wife to thank for his involvement at all (she pointed out what could be done with the subtext of such a brash story), and the glee he shows in portraying the dastardly OCP suits and the satirical TV advertisements is obvious.
A man of few monotone words, Robocop is embodied by the highly controlled movements of Weller, who also brings a real pathos to the character as he tries to break his programming and regain his humanity. This helps to justify his extreme actions to bring real justice to his city – he’s essentially a gun with a repressed soul.
Recommended for you: Every Non-English Language Best Picture Nominee Ranked
2. Starship Troopers (1997)
Upon graduating high school, a group of friends living in a fascist utopia join the Mobile Infantry and go to war against intelligent space bugs.
Starship Troopers only works if you’re in on the joke.
After growing up in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, Paul Verhoeven knew only too well the horror of war and the power of an unwavering belief in fascist ideals. Re-teaming with Robocop screenwriter Edward Neumeier, Verhoeven used the unquestionably militaristic source material by Robert Heinlein as a way in to a bold satirical skewering of far-right ideology.
Neumeir stated about the film’s world: “you want a world that works? Okay, we’ll show you one. And it really does work. It happens to be a military dictatorship, but it works”.
The teenage soldiers, portrayed by Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Neil Patrick Harris among others are blissfully unaware of the kind of system they are playing a willing part in, a system where you need to serve in the military in order to vote, because it works.
Verhoeven said that, “All the way through I wanted the audience to be asking, ‘Are these people crazy?'” Even if you don’t do this automatically, Harris turning up in the final act wearing an SS uniform should clue you in.
Starship Troopers, completely misunderstood on its release and dismissed as a gung ho, dumb soldiers vs alien spiders movie quite rightly now holds a place as a beloved cult classic.
The VFX by Phil Tippett’s team still look remarkably polished and Verhoeven’s love of gore helps to emphasise the unglamorous horror of front-line warfare even if the soldiers are fighting swarms of giant insectoids. But it is the subtext, almost so cartoony as to become text, that makes everything work if you’re prepared to pay attention.
1. Soldier of Orange (1977)
This war film documents the journey of a group of university friends in Leiden (including Rutger Hauer, Jeroen Krabbé and Derek de Lint) through the Second World War and the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Some collaborate, some resist, and some meet a tragically early end.
Perhaps Paul Verhoeven’s most personal film of all despite being the most expensive Dutch film ever made (just as Katie Tippel was only two years earlier), Soldier of Orange dials back on the director’s usual excess and unfolds its story gradually and movingly over half a decade, making sure we know each of the students and their relationships intimately in order to make their various experiences through WWII all the more powerful.
Paired with its sister film Black Book, Verhoeven explores the two sides of Dutch collaboration and resistance during the war and refuses to offer a simple, easy to digest assessment. Each of the students could be said to represent a war film archetype and a particular view held by the Dutch as their country was ravaged by war, but there are nuances, contradictions and multitudes to be found within the group and every difficult decision they make.
Most memorable are the polar opposite moral and ideological paths taken by Erik (Hauer) and Alex (de Lint), the former fighting valiantly with the Dutch resistance and later on his arrival in the UK with the RAF, the latter siding with the enemy and joining the SS, both meeting again at a lavish Nazi party and Erik forcing Alex into a belittling ballroom dance routine.
Soldier of Orange is Verhoeven’s masterpiece because he is brave enough to take his country to task for questionable actions during war while also acknowledging the impossible choices presented to people, particularly young and impressionable people living in a country on the brink under occupation.
He populates his operatic, tense and exciting historical examination with characters all along the spectrum of shades of grey, never resorting to easy stereotypes in order to accurately document the waking nightmare that the Netherlands went through thirty years before his film was made.
Recommended for you: Ridley Scott Films Ranked
Many viewers will not able to get past Paul Verhoeven’s propensity towards extreme violence and graphic sexual content in order to interrogate what he is actually trying to say within his eclectic filmography. He is a satirist, a theologian and a shock merchant, and though he often seems to be trying to get as much nudity and gore on screen as possible for its own sake, there’s usually a point to it all as well.
Are you a Verhoeven lover or hater? Do you prefer his unfettered European work or his attempts to shake up Hollywood? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to follow @thefilmagazine on Facebook and Twitter for more insightful movie lists.