The Best Bad Movie
Because beginnings are for declarations, let me start out with something self-evident: the world is full of bad books. By bad, I mean not worth your time, much less the paper they’re printed on. It might seem like heresy for librarians to say such things, because for us, the important thing isn’t supposed to be what a person reads, but the fact that he reads at all. And while that thought is floating through your head, I’ll see your astonishment and raise you an eyebrow by adding that the ratio of bad books to good is not even close. If it were, good recommendations wouldn’t be so important.
And it’s not just books. The world is awash in hi-fi escapism: there’s bad music, worse film, and unspeakably wretched television everywhere you look. In fact, I’ll bet you ten bucks that right now, as you’re reading this, you’re within arm’s length of a crap book, crap film or crap television show. I’m within easy reach of a dozen or more myself.
My purpose here is not to slag off bad entertainment. Instead, I’d like to sing the praises of a particular subset of crap that is actually good entertainment disguised as bad. Some call them guilty pleasures, although I’ve never understood why pleasure must involve so much guilt. I prefer to think of works like these as redemptively bad—those that are so memorably awful that they transcend their flaws and convert them to goodness. Think of it as cultural alchemy.
One of my favorite examples is Paul Verhoeven’s remake of Robert Heinlein’s classic sci-fi novel Starship Troopers. It’s always dangerous to make films based on books, but that’s nothing to Verhoeven, who brought us such bad classics as Total Recall, and my personal favorite, Showgirls, which featured some of the worst dialogue ever spoken. If you can imagine your cheeks aching from two hours of continuous grimacing, then you’re halfway to empathizing with me.
Starship Troopers features a no-name cast of beautiful twentysomethings who are charged with defending Earth against malign insects from an adjoining galaxy. Following an unprovoked attack on their home planet, our heroes join the armed forces and go forth to do battle with the bugs. The cast travels through interstellar space in futuristic warships, goes head-to-head with murderous vermin and eventually emerges victorious. All of the usual sci-fi themes are present: humans vs. aliens, copious fight scenes, a diabolically happy ending. There’s even a love triangle.
Verhoeven’s key is excess: the bombastic dialogue, the vacant expressions of the actors, the absurd plot, even the bloody battle scenes, which are at once so graphic and so humorous that you sometimes forget what you’re watching. Excess offends the senses, but humor dispels that tension, and this is Verhoeven’s saving grace: at just the point when the movie risks becoming too serious for its own good, Verhoeven is there with some droll quip, some overacted sequence, to remind you that this is Hollywood, and of all the ridiculous things in the world, none are more ridiculous than Hollywood. Again and again, he's on the verge of turning serious, slowly building tension, only to deflate it with humor.
Who knew that humor could be so transformative? Maybe all this redemptive badness is little more than a change of perspective, like reading a Harlequin romance as if it were a book of humor rather than a bodice ripper. Even if you wouldn't use a romance as a blueprint for your love life, that doesn't mean it's not good for a laugh. So I hope you’ll enjoy a good bad classic of your own over the weekend. Me, I’m going to watch an old favorite of mine: one set in space, with a no-name cast, and just the proper amount of excess.
(MOVIE) Starship Troopers (1997). Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Starring Casper Van Diem, Denise Richards and Neil Patrick Harris.
(BOOK) Starship Troopers (1959). By Robert A Heinlein.