Starship Troopers, Road House, Robocop; it’s likely these films don’t bring to mind the phrase “deadpan film satire,” but they should. Some of the most brilliant satirical films of the last five decades aren't the kind of picture audiences view as intellectual think pieces. because any writer and director worth her knows satire is not broad comedy, like parody, but rather an act of becoming the thing you wish to critique and taking it apart from the inside. Many of these movies are couched in the language of tent pole productions, as a way to quietly influence the masses.
Some of these films work better than others, but that’s not to say any are bad; some were simply trying to do too much too soon. For instance, 1974’s Death Race 2000 predicted the 21st century’s preoccupation with audiences voting for the onscreen pain of contestants, but we’re just now figuring out how accurate and insightful those predictions are, from a film many dismiss as exploitative nonsense. With others, it's possible they people making didn't even realize they're brilliant meta commentaries on themselves.
The best self-aware movie satires barely even acknowledge that they’re satires, instead choosing to lean into their genre and let the audience figure it out. Directors like Paul Verhoeven and Brian De Palma have made entire careers out of making films that perfectly play into their audience’s sensibilities, while also saying something about the people who paid to see the film and the world around them.
If you’re confused about what all this means, take a look at this collection of movies you thought were stupid but are secretly brilliant, then hop into the comments to nominate other films you think are trying to do something more than genre trappings will allow.
Starship Troopers may be one of the most misunderstood films of the 20th century. At the time of its release, it was dismissed as a foolish, basic sci-fi movie with a higher-than-average budget and a lot of bare breasts. Critics, and many audience members, somehow missed the overt references to Nazi Germany, and the meditation on a nation (or, in this case, a planet) swept up jingoism inspired by a state-run media. Also, seriously, how do you not know a movie with a title as farcically generic as Starship Troopers is a satire?
Besides director Paul Verhoeven's warning to audiences of how easily governments make the masses complicit in fascism, the world of Starship Troopers is one in which who you are is determined by nothing more than standardized test scores. The dumb jocks become marines whose only purpose is to be fodder for war, and a culture of heroism is built around their acts so they never stop to consider how they're being exploited. Meanwhile, the smart kids climb the ranks and help perpetuate the cycle to keep themselves out of harm's way. It surely bears pointing out that Verhoeven, who is Dutch, lived through Nazi occupation as a child.
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Paul Verhoeven is seen by some in the cinematic community as a hack, a man obsessed with base violence and all things vile. What such criticism ignores is the director's pattern of pointing out the world's (and, lets face it, America's) obsession with violence and cheap thrills. Is he reveling in repugnance, or rubbing the audience's (and capitalists's) face in its own sh*t?
One of the most obvious instances of Verhoeven's satirical riffing on companies selling people sh*t and audiences gobbling it up are the "I'd Buy That For a Dollar" segments of the original Robocop, which hold a mirror to catchphrase-oriented garbage sitcoms of the late 80s and early 90s (and of course comment on the notion, prevalent in the Gordon Gecko days of the 1980s, that everything is for sale). Behind and all around its straight forward sci-fi narrative, Robocop offers insightful satire on out-of-control capitalists and the dangers of unchecked partnership between corporations and governments. There's something deliciously ironic about Verhoeven's habit of spending hundreds of millions of corporate dollars brazenly criticizing corporate America.
The rest of Robocop is essentially a funnel Verhoeven uses to force feed the audience violence until they choke on robots shooting each other. "This is what you want? Have so much of it you get sick!" Verhoeven seems to be screaming from behind the camera. Of course, the cynic would say capitalism always wins, because Robocop failed to light the world on fire with its satirical vision, and two completely unironic sequels followed.
#12 on The Best '80s Action Movies
#53 on The Greatest Movie Themessee more on RoboCop
People really didn't get Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives when it was released in 1986 (Maybe because the colon in the title makes it look as much like an academic paper as it does a slasher film?). After five films of sexy teens getting chased down by a machete-wielding maniac, writer/director Tom McLoughlin decided to burn the whole thing down and rebuild Jason in the image of true horror gods, the Universal Monsters.
The initial plan for Jason Lives was to make the previous film's protagonist, Tommy Jarvis, the new villain, but anyone with a pulse can recognize how terrible an idea that is. Rather than make some mealy-mouthed garbage, McLoughlin created what is essentially the Bride of Frankenstein of the Friday the 13th series, a totally gonzo masterpiece of insanity.
Jason Lives is blatantly self-aware, as much a satire of itself as it is another chapter in the Friday the 13th franchise. In one scene, a man's face is smashed against a tree and leaves the imprint of a smiley face in the bark. Also, did you know Jason is brought back to life in the movie when lighting strikes a metal rod someone is using to destroy his corpse?
Here's an excerpt from the script:
Standing in the middle of the road, illuminated by the headlights... JASON. He holds the deadly spear before him. Needless to say, Lizbeth is becoming more afraid.
LIZBETH: Darren, we better turn around.
LIZBETH: Why? Because I've seen enough horror movies to know masked weirdos are never friendly.
The pinnacle of the film's genius comes toward the end, when a shot of a hamster running in a wheel cuts to a kid in bed at summer camp reading Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit.
#37 on The Best '80s Horror Movies
#37 on The Best Movies of 1986
#71 on The Goriest Movies Ever Madesee more on Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives
Pain may not hurt, but lack of critical acclaim does. Most viewers only know Road House from its infinite weekend plays on TBS, but the film that introduced Patrick Swayze to a million horny step moms wearing Harley Davison shirts did more than teach us it's okay to rip a man's throat out after he informs you of what he did in prison. Like the films of Paul Verhoeven, Road House is in part a satire of what people think they want to see. Call it ironic self-commentary (or the ironic vision of the viewer).
Road House helped create the blueprint for non-western westerns. Meta westerns. Whatever you want to call them. Those movie that take western tropes and turn them on their heads, gleefully subverting expectations and satirizing the cartoonish stereotypes audiences expect from marquee genre films. More specifically, Road House takes the Yojimbo premise - a mysterious man rides into town and saves the saloon by fighting all the bad guys - adds some Shaw Brothers influence (and Sam Elliot's dulcet baritone), and casts the classic American macho action hero as a man most well known for his ballroom dancing skills.
Of course, it's possible Road House is so bad, and painfully unaware of how bad it is, that it plays like a satire but somehow isn't. To quote Roger Ebert's review, "Was it intended as a parody? I have no idea, but I laughed more during this movie than during any of the so-called comedies I saw during the same week."
Even if Road House's genius is an accident, it's present.
#28 on The Best '80s Action Movies
#78 on The Greatest Movies for Guyssee more on Road House
Demolition Man doesn't have much of a reputation in the 21st century. It was advertised as a straight up, muscle bound throwdown between mega stars Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes upon its release in 1993, yet some critics recognized bits and pieces of satire piercing the veneer of masculine bravado. As Richard Schickel wrote in Time, "Some sharp social satire is almost undermined by excessive explosions and careless casting." Writing in The New York Times, Vincent Canby derided the movie as an anti-PC desire to return to the rapey idiocy of the Reagan years.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and it's now safe to say Demolition Man is a genius satire with perfect casting. Wesley Snipes plays the antagonist with vaudevillian relish, while casting Stallone as a 20th century Neanderthal struggling to adapt to a socialist utopia is an incisive commentary on America and our taste for violence, stupidity, and perversion. Hell, his character's name is John Spartan, a combination of the most American of white American names (John) and a culture of ancient, homoerotic warriors (Sparta). Sandra Bullock is in the mix, too, as Huxley (Aldous reference!), a future cop assigned to hang out with Stallone.
Yet Demolition Man is far from a simple send up of classic American masculinity and Old West chaos rules. It takes its utopian peaceful PC society to task as much as it points out how unsustainable the opposite is. It's impossible to prevent malice from manifesting, and new speak oppression hardly helps matters. Violence is wrong, as is robbing people of the free will that begets violence. Perhaps more than anything else, Demolition Man is a conflicted, gleeful, nihilist manifesto. No matter what, we're f*cked. Might as well have fun like Wesley is.
#29 on The Best Movies of 1993see more on Demolition Man
By 1993, Arnold Schwarzenegger had been on top of the Hollywood action world for over a decade. There was nothing left to do except blow it up. Enter Last Action Hero, a film that cleverly took the tropes of some of Schwarzenegger's biggest films (Commando, Terminator 2) and pushed them to the extreme or subverted them completely.
While Last Action Hero is mostly seen as lesser popcorn fare, it's actually an exploration of why people find the action genre so appealing. It's also the only early '90s blockbuster that asks audiences to consider whether consciousness extends past our meat bags and into the minds of our creations, while dressing Schwarzenegger as Hamlet. Marinate on that.
#23 on The Best Buddy Cop Movies
#65 on The Best Movies of 1993see more on Last Action Hero
What could be dumber that a movie about skydiving bank robbers who also love to surf, and the FBI agent who loves them? A lot of things, actually. While the plot of Point Break sounds like something a six year old made up after a handful of Sweet Tarts, the execution of the film is brilliant and breath taking. Thanks to Road House, we know Patrick Swayze elevates any screen he graces. Under the direction of Kathryn Bigelow, he and Keanu Reeves explore a platonic love affair between two masculine bros.
Like the more blatantly satirical Fight Club, Point Break explores the natural point at which masculine bravado meets homoeroticism, and what it means for two men to be in love but never make love. Those crashing waves symbolize so much. Everything else in this film is incidental. Except the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
#12 on The Best Buddy Cop Movies
#25 on The Best Bromance Moviessee more on Point Break
In the decades since Paul Bartel's Roger Corman-produced film about weirdoes trying to kill each other while driving cross country was released, Death Race 2000 has become closer to reality than you may care to admit. Couched in this ridiculous film, whose lead character is named Frankenstein, you'll find the type of foresight only possible when a science fiction film swings for the fences and throws out any hope of realism.
Aside from presaging the horrid nature of reality television and its ironic detachment from reality, Death Race 2000 explores the near-insatiable blood lust of television audiences that disassociate themselves from the bloodshed, pain, and embarrassment of contestants losing a televised "reality" contest (and their dignity). Or just the bloodlust of TV audiences in general, in the era of Game of Thrones, when expectations of rape, slaughter, malice, embarrassment, stupidity, and gore loom so large even hackneyed spy dramas have graphic rape scenes in their pilots.
When Death Race 2000 takes a break from skewering television viewers and the media that courts them, it makes succinct points about domestic terrorism and the lengths to which some will go to to get their point across. Parts of the film may be goofy (we're looking at you, Sylvester Stallone), but its ability to identify unique American problems makes this movie a brilliant satire of a future it predicted with creepy accuracy.
#27 on The Best Racing Movies
#23 on The Best '70s Sci-Fi Moviessee more on Death Race 2000