Starship Troopers, Road House, Robocop... it's likely these films don’t bring to mind the phrase "deadpan satire," but they should. Some of the most brilliant satirical films of the last five decades aren't the kind of pictures audiences view as intellectual think pieces, because any writer and director worth her salt 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 tentpole productions, as a way to quietly communicate with 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 the people making them didn't even realize their brilliant meta commentaries 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. Those two maestros have plenty of thoughtful contemporaries in horror, a genre full of movies that aren't about what they seem to be about on the surface.
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, films that 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.
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.
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.