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I know a lot of people tend to think of Ridley Scott when it comes to classic sci-fi movies since he had the 1-2 punch of directing both Alien and Blade Runner. But I think too many people forget about Dutch filmmaker, Paul Verhoeven, who directed three of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time in RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Starship Troopers (1997). I mean, just think. All three of those legendary movies came from the same guy, and his name is Paul “Showgirls” Verhoeven!
Now, if you were to ask me which of those three was my personal favorite, I would say Total Recall since I think the original (as opposed to the terrible remake) is one of the best movies of all time. But this article isn’t about me. It’s about you. And since I know different people like each movie for different reasons, I’ve broken them down into separate categories to determine which of these three groundbreaking sci-fi gems is the best. Are you still with me? Okay, then if so, get your ahss to Mars and see which movie comes out on top. Oh, and minor spoilers up ahead.
What are the events in each movie that make each story special?
A good cop (played by Peter Weller) gets gunned down and left for dead, but what’s left of him gets repurposed and turned into a cyborg. While he’s technically a new machine, he still has memories of when he was a man.
Total Recall's Plot
Based on a Philip K. Dick short story, a construction worker (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) is tired of his boring life, so he goes to a facility that gives customers the ability to go on virtual vacations by implanting false memories. But when something goes terribly wrong, our hero learns that he’s actually a secret agent who’s now being hunted on Mars. Or, is this just another part of the simulation? We never know for sure.
Starship Troopers' Plot
Based on a novel by Robert Heinlein (but really very different), Starship Troopers is essentially just a story about soldiers in the future fighting giant bugs. But to just watch this movie for the plot alone would be missing the bigger point (More on that later).
The Plot Victor: Total Recall
While RoboCop has a fascinating story, and Starship Troopers is simplistic but awesome, the victor here goes to Total Recall for keeping you guessing all throughout its runtime. And while some people hate ambiguity in their stories, one thing is certain—ambiguity always keeps people talking.
You can’t have a story without characters. Which ones are the most interesting and why in these three films?
Besides Alex Murphy, who is fascinating in his own right, the other characters in RoboCop are just as intriguing. You have the aptly named Dick Jones, who’s the dick Senior President of OCP. You have the low level criminal, Clarence Boddicker (“Can you fly, Bobby?”) played by That ‘70s Show’s Kurtwood Smith, who works for Dick Jones. And then you have near-future Detroit, which I would say is a character all in itself.
Total Recall's Characters
Douglas Quaid (played by Ah-nald) is interesting in that both he and the audience are unsure about who he really is. Add in Sharon Stone as his duplicitous wife and Michael Ironside as a villain, and you have some characters who are to die for! Oh, yeah, and the setting of Mars is like its own character, too.
Starship Troopers Characters
Yes, there are characters in Starship Troopers—Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, and Neil Patrick Harris portray some of them—but they are mostly one-dimensional fodder. But that’s intentional! Again, I’ll get to this one soon.
The Character Victor: RoboCop
Though I personally prefer the characters in Total Recall, I’m well aware that RoboCop and OCP are much more recognizable than anybody in Total Recall or Starship Troopers combined.
Most of Paul Verhoeven’s movies have a lot more to say than what’s initially on the surface. But out of the three movies here, which one has the most biting commentary?
What looks to be just some dumb action movie is actually a really smart film hidden underneath all the bullets. In many ways, RoboCop is an indictment on the media, commercialism, capitalism, and even violence itself. There’s a reason why the movie’s so bloody, and it’s not just because “violence is cool.” It’s actually quite the opposite, and it’s kind of crazy how so many people miss that point when they watch it.
Total Recall's Satire
Total Recall isn’t really a commentary on anything other than the concept of reality, which is prevalent in many Philip K. Dick stories. Blade Runner included.
Starship Troopers' Satire
Oh, man. Starship Troopers is a doozy. It’s a fascist propaganda movie that was peddled off as some mindless action flick. But the entire film is political satire masquerading as a rah-rah military film, and to view it as anything but means that you’re missing the point. It also kind of means that you fail as a human being if you find any of these soldiers admirable since yes, they’re intentionally supposed to resemble Nazis.
The Satire Victor: Starship Troopers
It takes guts to put out this kind of movie with this sort of budget, but Starship Troopers' completely nails it in the satire department.
This one is simple. Which one has the most exciting action?
RoboCop has blood and gore galore, and all of it’s exaggerated with great intention. Still, even though the film is a commentary on the numbing effect of violence, it still looks freaking badass. Especially the scenes with the stop-motion ED-209 robot. Awesome stuff.
Total Recall's Action
Total Recall is an espionage movie at its heart, so there’s plenty of sci-fi gunplay, as well as cool hand-to-hand combat. But for a 1990’s Arnold Schwarzenegger film, it’s a lot more cerebral than combative.
Starship Troopers' Action
Starship Troopers shows the effects of war as the soldiers fight alien bugs, but it’s really not all that interesting. For a much more visually impressive movie about soldiers fighting bug-like aliens, see Edge of Tomorrow.
The Action Victor – RoboCop
By being a commentary on violence, it actually delivers the most exciting action by far. Strange how that happened, but it did.
Which of these three films has left the biggest impression on film history?
Everybody knows RoboCop. There was a 2014 remake that I liked but everybody else hated, and there’s going to be another new movie. In that way, RoboCop hasn’t really ever gone away. I’m still waiting on that RoboCop vs. Terminator movie, though.
Total Recall's Impact
Total Recall had a remake in 2012 starring Colin Farrell and Bryan Cranston, and it sucked. Let’s move on.
Starship Troopers' Impact
Starship Troopers had 2 live-action sequels and 2 computer-animated movies. Despite having all these sequels, nobody really talks about Starship Troopers anymore, and it’s been relegated to cult status ever since the original.
The Impact Victor: RoboCop
As I said before, everybody knows RoboCop, which is no small feat for a character from the 1980s.
Total Recall Vs. RoboCop Vs. Starship Troopers: Which One Wins?
My heart says Total Recall, but my brain says RoboCop. So RoboCop is the victor. But which one is your favorite? Sound off in the comments.