Legendary European director Paul Verheoven is making another movie next year. In January 2015 the Dutch auteur will film Elle, an adaptation of Philllippe Dijan’s novel Oh…, a psychological victim-to-vindicator thriller in which a violated businesswoman plots revenge against the assailant who stalked and raped her. The film stars Isabelle Huppert and will be Verheoven’s first feature since 2006’s sensational Dutch thriller Black Book, becoming his debut French-language production. The pulpy premise seems entirely fitting to Verheoven’s skill set, and the casting of Huppert reminds us just how much the filmmaker is able to recruit big stars in controversial projects.
Those with a passion for cinema will know that even though Verheoven is a European director who made his name making provocative films in his native Holland, it’s his work in the 1980s and 1990s as an A-list Hollywood director that resonates most strongly. Verheoven’s canon of adult blockbusters during this period, some being the most expensive movies produced at the time, were cultural sensations drenched in ultra violence and explicit sex. Yet what was wondrous about his output is how layered the movies are: on the surface obscenely entertaining but functioning on another level imbued with highly intelligent political, ideological, psychological and theological subtexts. Not every movie Verheoven made in Hollywood struck gold, but when he did it created an impact, consequently auguring millions for studios. RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Starship Troopers are just some of Verheoven’s classics.
Things changed in 2000 with the release of Verheoven’s Hollow Man, a state of the art loose reimagining of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, the film thematically playing on Plato’s Ring of Gyges conceit whereby the philosophiser posits the notion that powers of invisibility may compel even righteous people to commit felonious crimes. The movie cost a fortune ($95 million), the budget mainly devoted to stellar visual effects. Hollow Man was Verheoven’s biggest hit since Basic Instinct ($190 million worldwide), but neither the filmmaker nor Hollywood was entirely satisfied. The mood was changing. Adult blockbusters were proving too expensive and risky to produce. Verheoven returned to Europe and Hollywood limited its commitment to adult blockbusters.
Back then there was a clear distinction between what movies offered and what television provided: the two mediums strangely swapping places in recent years. Almost fifty years ago the Motion Picture Association of America campaigned to do away with the puritanical enforcement of the 1930s Hays Code in favour of a more modern film ratings system which is still in operation today. The argument was that conservative limitations imposed by the Hays Code infringed America’s right to freedoms of expression and compromised artistic integrity, though it more likely had a lot to do with American cinema’s perpetual fear of competing with television. Television was a threat and the only way around it was giving audiences something they couldn’t get at home. The 1970s to 1980s saw Hollywood produce movies rife with style, sex and violence, all in the service of catering to a more liberal viewership than previous eras. Even though these films were adult-orientated, the rating systems weirdly enough allowed people under the age of seventeen permission to watch adult movies if accompanied by a grownup. The aim was to maximise Hollywood’s income and this new system ensured that. Adult blockbusters were for everyone, regardless of whether it was appropriate.
The adult blockbuster was a powerhouse at the American box-office. Audiences flocked to see movies that revelled in heightened aggression and machismo. This is best demonstrated by Rambo: First Blood Part II which blitzed The Goonies at the summer box-office in 1985, the former making almost double what the perennial kids’ classic achieved during its run. American audiences wanted to see things suited to adult sensibilities; demanding movies loaded in excess but executed with serious attitude.
Even up until fifteen years ago Hollywood was still keen on producing adult blockbusters made with sizable budgets. The Matrix, Fight Club, Sleepy Hollow, Eyes Wide Shut, The Insider and The Green Mile were all major studio productions, none budgeted at less than $60 million each (unadjusted for inflation!), released intact with adult skewing certifications. Hollywood had thrived on adult blockbusters for the past thirty years and the assumption was that families stayed at home to watch cutesy things on television but came to theatres to see stuff broadcasters wouldn’t dare commission.
Fifteen years ago also saw the theatrical release of American Beauty and the television series The Sopranos air on HBO. American Beauty was a studio produced adult drama that won Oscars and made over $350 million internationally, while The Sopranos became an adult drama that was referred to as the greatest television series of all time, winning even more plaudits and changing our expectations of television’s dramatic capabilities. Watching American Beauty today one can safely assume that it was the last of its kind; a Hollywood adult blockbuster which would now be more at home on television rather than produced as a standalone feature film. Television has become the home of adult drama while cinema has courted family attendance by providing expensive animated films and pricy PG-13 action flicks. The adult blockbuster has been thrown under the bus in favour of four-quadrant movies.
The last few years has seen Hollywood engage in a system of insipid sequels and creatively bereft reboots. Brands have become vital signifiers, the notion being that recognisable cinematic products generate greater revenues than untested original ideas. Paul Verheoven’s original adult blockbusters like RoboCop and Total Recall have been remade as PG-13 family-friendly products. The remakes are just as violent but the depiction of blood and gore is limited to facilitate a more dishonest vision of brutality, all the while eradicating intelligent subtext to appease less demanding tastes. Even Verheoven’s seminal sci-fi epic Starship Troopers, which used fascist imagery to cleverly point out certain aspects of jingoism in American society, is undergoing a brainless remake proposition that will remove political satire to accommodate a more patriotic agenda.
The Hollywood adult blockbuster cannot die just yet, not if studios fail to recognise the fact that society is getting older and those with economic prospects are choosing to delay starting families. This ought to mean that the demand for adult blockbusters should be booming. The last month saw the release of a rebooted The Equalizer and crime thriller Gone Girl, both bona fide adult blockbusters, but they’re hardly ushering in a cycle of similar studio-backed titles. Hollywood’s focus remains on creating broad sweeps: films that at once target those in the Midwest as well as those in developing countries, thus producing features which abide to strict codification and uniformity.
Hollywood really missed a trick by not approaching Verheoven to direct next year’s adult blockbuster in-waiting, Fifty Shades of Grey. Rather than the corporate, restrained, anodyne soap opera we’ll probably get that’s designed to placate share holders, the studio had a chance to give the film an identity shaped by someone with cinematic personality as opposed to making the movie―one expects, judging by the trailer―imaginatively redundant. Rather than bringing on board people who can elevate the project to loftier heights, the studio has attached personnel to follow lustreless boardroom orders.