10 Great Self-Aware Genre Films That Are Worth Your Time

6. Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)

Genre: Nationalist Action Film/Propaganda


At first glance, this CGI-loaded sci-fi action film essentially looks like an attempt at a James Cameron’s Aliens for the Roland Emmerich era, and a pretty entertaining one at that. But when it comes to the American works of Hollywood infiltrator Paul Verhoeven, there’s always more than meets the eye or, to put it another way, there’s exactly what meets the eye.

The film’s stiff acting, contrived plotting, problematic politics and distractingly intense gore all serve to push the accepted elements of the typical 90s blockbuster to their limits and, in the process, Starship Troopers sneakily subverts the nationalist tendencies of its testosterone-fuelled genre.

Drawing clear inspiration from the Vietnam War and prophesising the lead-up to the War on Terror, Verhoeven creates an intentionally dishonest work of imperialist propaganda – a scathing anti-war film disguised as a pro-war film disguised as a popcorn film. It’s basically one long deliberate straw man argument, right down to the literally dehumanised enemies.

In a militaristic future where citizenship is earned through service to the country, the young Rico graduates from his ultra-competitive high school and offers himself to the meat grinder of war as a Mobile Infantry soldier to fight giant alien bugs.

As his superiors keep getting killed, Rico rises through the ranks while the hazing and deaths around him harden his patriotism. Rico’s parents are the only characters who object to his enlistment and even their early deaths in the film turn them into cheap motivation for their son to keep fighting.

The Federation is his guardian now, so he adopts the slogans and harsh practices of his dead predecessors, eventually promising to shoot anyone who doesn’t do their job in his alarmingly young squad, but the film also finds time to appeal to more lustful sides of the male ego.

While Rico’s primary love interest is the unconvincingly sunny Denise Richards, it’s another grateful woman who is given the privilege of dying in the arms of our apparently lovable hero but not before assuring him, “It’s alright, ‘cause I got to have you.” So perhaps giving yourself over to the state to be used as fodder in the colonisation of a far off planet isn’t such a bad idea. If Starship Troopers is anything to go by, you’ll look damn cool doing it.


7. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)

Genre: Conservative American Thriller (and, indirectly, the Western)


Regardless of whether you buy into the liberal or right wing interpretations of the Dirty Harry films, it’s hard to deny the rush of adrenaline you feel as Clint Eastwood blows another street creep away. That right there is one half of what David Cronenberg’s disconcerting thriller is about.

It’s a curious truth that, for many of us, there are few experiences in cinema more exhilarating than that of rooting for one skilled killer over another. This is highlighted when small town father and husband Tom Stall becomes a real-life hero of the week after he kills two robbers attacking his humble restaurant.

Viewing his actions as a sad necessity, Tom only wishes for life to carry on as usual. But the media hype attracts the attention of sinister mobsters who believe that Tom was once one of them and is now living under a new identity.

Stylistically, A History Violence seems to paint a simple dichotomy of good and evil between the inviting colour of Tom’s quaint community and the dark attire and facial disfigurements of the villains. Yet the black-and-white worldview suggested by its visuals is muddied by the story. While the sunny, nostalgic town looks like it was taken straight out of a conservative election campaign video, Cronenberg wants you to probe the film’s warm, sentimental surface.

The key is in realising that this film doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Politicians speak of the importance of the American family but moviegoers cheer for the lone wolf with a gun because violence is as American as baseball, cheerleading and high school bullies. This film asks whether you can reconcile the American hero with the American ideal.

A History of Violence is more a comment on societal development and human nature in general than a specifically US-aimed sociocultural or political statement. Nonetheless, its style is all American because Hollywood happens to be the world’s leading influence in popularising models of both domesticity and heroically violent masculinity.

There are killers living in the heart of society but you don’t need this film to tell you that. Just think back to the old John Wayne westerns where the Duke claims a victory for patriotism as he guns down criminals and Injuns, bringing his country a step closer to civilisation with every bullet he fires.


8. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

Genre: American WW2 Film


Though 2003’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 was the moment when Tarantino transitioned from Godard-indebted pastiche artist to genre cinema chameleon, Inglourious Basterds was the film that finally saw him use his cheeky retro streak to effectively express an idea more substantial than ‘I’ve seen a lot of movies’.

The eponymous mob of sadistic Nazi-killers are basically a psychopathic version of the Dirty Dozen but the excessive brutality isn’t just Tarantino being Tarantino. It’s also a keen-eyed commentary on the relation between history and cinema, both of which it seems are written by the winners.

It’s no coincidence that the most pitiless of the Basterds is played by Hostel director Eli Roth. Tarantino is at liberty to turn history into blood porn, so long as the carnage comes at the appropriate group’s expense. The film allows us to see the humanity of individual German soldiers but their bravery, conviction and even their personal ideologies count for nothing because they’re ultimately playing for the wrong team.

The Leni Riefenstahl references and the central premise of a state-produced action film that literally makes a screen star of a German war hero reminds us that the Nazis once had their own era of propaganda. Now it’s time to see ‘the face of Jewish vengeance’. Those shocked by the history-rewriting climax may not be familiar with such wartime B movies as Hitler: Dead or Alive which demonstrate how the Third Reich has been fair game in Hollywood from their very first crimes against humanity.

But the story arc that draws the most attention to the film’s metatextuality belongs to Tarantino’s own Jiminy Cricket, Christoph Waltz. The hilarious and terrifyingly inscrutable Colonel Hans Landa seems strangely knowledgeable but removed from the world we see him inhabit, like a jubilant trickster playing horrifying dress-up. It’s as if he knows he’s on a sinking ship so is set on having his fun before getting out while the getting’s good.

But, as the ‘Jew Hunter’ himself observes, you can’t control the nicknames your enemies bestow upon you. Though some tellingly brief snippets of dialogue allude to America’s own shameful history of oppression, Inglourious Basterds never lets you forget what nation is operating the camera. So when the war is over, there’ll be no clean break for Hans Landa.

As long as the entertainment industry is giving itself free rein to carry out cinematic payback, the offenders of history will forever be marked by their sins, like a swastika carved on the forehead.


9. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)

Genre: Exploitation


Spring Breakers, the most gracefully controlled, mainstream-baiting film yet from cinematic terrorist Harmony Korine is the big screen equivalent of a rusty ball of barbed wire. It’s nearly impossible to get a firm grasp on it without getting your hands bloody.

Those who bought into the film’s ‘good girls gone bad’ marketing (complete with stunt casting) and who let themselves be led by their hormones into the theatre were most likely disappointed by the menacing and woozy atmosphere. But anyone expecting an obvious takedown of Girls Gone Wild exploitation or vacuous teen debauchery were also left wanting.

It’s a film of deliberate sensory excess with colour-drenched visuals, a pounding Skrillex soundtrack and brazenly gratuitous T and A shots but its sense of irony isn’t in the service of easy slut-shaming or party-pooping. Rather this provocative, cruelly comic semi-satire is more slippery in its insights, sincerely basking in the glow of free and inconsequential youth while cunningly letting slip the reality behind the illusion.

The film’s dark, racially charged, intentionally simplistic venture into turf wars in its second half is foreshadowed early – first by the scene of Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens ignoring a lecture on the civil rights movement to communicate their enthusiasm for the male anatomy, and then by its shot of Benson drinking alcohol from a squirt gun while a Lil Wayne poster looms in the background.

This is what it looks like when the mindset of middle-class teenagers who make gang signs when they pose for Facebook photos is brought to its swaggering extreme.

Films that draw an analogy between criminal life and the American Dream are almost as old as the medium itself but Spring Breakers posits that criminality (or at least the pretence of it) is now an integrated part of the dream. The warped new suburbs-cultivated meaning of the word ‘gangsta’ collides with the word’s literal definition as cultural appropriation triumphs over the actual culture.

Yet not even a ridiculous James Franco as an out-of-his-depth armed robber can break Korine’s straight-faced admiration for his selfishly self-determined leads as they dance with their shotguns before an apocalyptic sunset. There are no personal repercussions but they leave a trail of destruction behind them and emerge in a state of solipsistic bliss, happy to have played criminals for a week.


10. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013)

Genre: Action/’Asia Extreme’


With a title that references the influential wuxia A Touch of Zen, Jia Zhangke’s four-part political drama may initially come across as a radical departure from his highly restrained previous efforts. More conventionally stylised than anything he’d made before, each of the film’s segments follows a similar arc of having an individual pushed too far by circumstance and who eventually commits a striking act of bloodshed.

These brutal climaxes clearly draw inspiration from a distinctly Asian variety of action films, revenge thrillers and exploitation flicks but the gratuitous violence jars with the relatively quiet build-ups.

That all four parts of the film are based on true, often governmentally suppressed stories confirms these instances of genre immersion to be another example of the director’s trademark hallucinatory realism, to be placed alongside the buildings of the Three Gorges Dam blasting off into space in Still Life or the sudden excursions into animation in The World.

Humiliation is a recurring emotion in this outraged depiction of modern day China and this is evident in the trope-ridden stylisations of real life tragedies, turning sorrowful, desperate acts into escapist entertainment. Jia takes the sting out of the violence – and particularly the emotions that motivate the violence – by reducing it to genre flourishes.

Paradoxically, this actually underscores the sad authenticity of the actions, taking a nation of film viewers to task for their indifference to the downtrodden citizens and monstrous greed all around them. Just look at how the scene of a man shooting two individuals for a handbag is followed by the sight of people casually watching the Johnnie To action flick Exiled on a bus.

The extravagant carnage is of a piece with the obsequious welcome party that one corrupt boss gets upon arriving in his private plane and the high-class brothel that dresses its women in military uniform – all hollow distractions from true ugliness.

For all the problems that have emerged in the impersonal shuffle that is China’s rapid westernisation, the full extent of one character’s reaction to an online news article reporting the death of a dozen people in a mine explosion is to write ‘WTF’ in the comments section. A Touch of Sin highlights this emotional remove by giving the audience exactly what it wants in the most inappropriate of contexts.