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.
- 11987 VOTESPhoto: Warner Bros
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. it also cannily played to increasing corporate ubiquity (all restaurants are Taco Bell following the "franchise wars"), "wellness obsession," and the escalating hysteria over "cancel culture" decades later.Smarter than most people think?
- 21823 VOTESPhoto: Columbia TriStar
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.
Would you like to know more?Smarter than most people think?
- 31181 VOTESPhoto: MGM
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.Smarter than most people think?
- 41093 VOTESPhoto: Lionsgate
How many movies have you seen where a hitman comes out of retirement to avenge the death of his dog? One. John f*cking Wick. This movie could have easily been a run-of-the-mill angry-middle-aged-man movie about your classic post-Taken invincible silver fox who karates his way to a final boss and drives off into the sunset with a quip and a babe. Instead, it undoes every trope of Hong Kong action-inspired cinema of the early 90s, while making sure audiences get the biggest bang for their buck. Gun fu? Check. Night club shoot out? Oh yeah. A scene on the docks? F*ckin' a right. Also, Eastern European bad guys, because duh.
There's not one scene in this film that would be out of place in Lionheart or any other movie where a smarmy guy tries to fight his way to the top of an organization, but the script is so well written the audience doesn't need characters to break the fourth wall to understand John Wick is as much a commentary on action films, and onscreen violence, as it is a movie in which the protagonist stabs his way through a busy nightclub.Smarter than most people think?