Paul Verhoeven's Mass Media
Making prescient cultural critique available to action-movie audiences.
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In between their big-budget action set pieces, Paul Verhoeven’s best known films Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Starship Troopers (1997) give glimpses into the cultures of several not-so-distant futures. By presenting us with snippets of diegetic mass media, Verhoeven fleshes out these worlds, making them more familiar and more real. Embedded TV shows, news stories, and advertisements present us with issues like sexism, corporatocracy, and the prison-industrial complex in Robocop; class warfare and the politics of terrorism in Total Recall; and state-sponsored violence and the specter of fascism in Starship Troopers.
The media of Verhoeven’s dystopias play a role in creating and maintaining these worlds by producing ideological structures. Watching these manufactured news stories, which feel simultaneously familiar and strange, we reflect on the mass media in our own lives, and its role in making inequalities seem normal and desirable.
By using Hollywood blockbusters to satirize mass media’s role in manipulating public consent for the status quo, Verhoeven’s radical messages end up reaching action-movie audiences, rather than just the cinephiles eagerly awaiting the new Adam Curtis documentary. Now that we find ourselves facing the implementation of police drones, indigenous uprisings against corporate environmental exploitation, and politicians who increasingly leverage the fear of foreign invaders to secure their own political power, these films seem not only astute but prescient.