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Totally Recalling Total Recall: Why Verhoeven’s Classics Are Getting Remade Now

A still of Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘Total Recall’. 

Late last week, prolific Hollywood producer Neal Moritz announced he would be overseeing a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film Starship Troopers. Together with Total Recall (also to be produced by Moritz) and RoboCop, Troopers is the third Verhoeven sci-fi film that will get remade, if all goes according to plan, over the next three years. This is an incredible pace of resurrection for a single director, even in the absurdly franchise and-reboot-hungry Hollywood of today.

But it also makes total sense. While they’re not a trilogy according to any traditional definition of the word, Verhoeven’s run of sci-fi classics between 1987 and 1997 share similarly dark, satirical themes and a comically bleak vision of the future. At least, it seemed comical then: Today, Verhoeven’s weird, scary visions of the future don’t seem so far off.

In RoboCop, Detective Murphy is set up to be murdered so he can be resurrected as a man-machine cop—part of a program by Omni Consumer Products to privatize Detroit’s ineffective police force and extend authoritarian control over the populace in pursuit of corporate gain. Total Recall finds Arnold Schwarzenegger, in one of his finest performances, seeking excitement in the form of an implanted memory of a trip to Mars from the Rekall Corporation. The implant unlocks a repressed memory of a second life as a secret agent, and soon Arnold attempts to unravel the mystery of his true identity on an actual journey to Mars (or does he?). Along the way, Arnold assists in the rebellion of a mutant underclass against Cohaagen, the evil corporate oligarch hoarding oxygen on Mars. Finally, Starship Troopers follows a group of apathetic high school students as they—prompted by systematic, Internet-enabled propaganda—enlist in Federation military service against a vast and poorly understood alien enemy.

As in all great dystopian sci-fi, Verhoeven uses these imaginary futures to reflect and ultimately satirize his present. What sets these works apart is the strange speed at which their grotesque, often comical caricatures have become fairly commonplace aspects of our lives. People flock to new technologies before considering their own privacy or any civil rights implications. Every upgrade in Drone and augmented-reality technology blurs the lines between machines and human warriors. Check out the Army’s YouTube page and try to deny the similarities to Verhoeven’s “Would you like to know more?” fake propaganda. Rising conflicts between the masses and corporate powers? Questionable uses of police authority against private citizens? Endless war against inscrutable enemies? Check, check, and check. Given how much we all rely on Facebook, even farming out your memories to a corporation doesn’t seem that far-fetched.

The new plausibility of these premises will likely inform the tone of the remakes. Director José Padhila has said he will focus more on the inner life of RoboCop in his take on the character. Len Wiseman, director of the Recall reboot—as well as the first two Underworld movies and the most recent Die Hard—used variations on the words “gritty” and “real” multiple times when describing his version of the Verhoeven film, adding that he chose not to shoot in 3D because it was too “overtly futuristic.” The fantastic worlds of Verhoeven’s films, which once seemed so wildly unreal, now seem right around the corner.

So perhaps gritty, realistic reboots are the way to go. But will they be as fun as the originals? Probably not. (Apparently, Wiseman’s Recall won’t even “get your ass to Mars!”) In the meantime, to illustrate the continuing relevance of Verhoeven’s worldview—which Hollywood will apparently mine for the foreseeable future—here’s a visual aid: The Paul Verhoe-Venn Diagram. I hope it helps.