Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall (1990)Synopsis: Get ready for the ride of your life.

Arnold Schwarzenegger explodes out of the year 2084 A.D. with gut churning, white knuckle, non-stop action, as he smashes his way through a horrifyingly real fantasy world, complete with a gorgeous but deadly wife (Sharon Stone), and into a mind-bending, nightmarish reality of a Martian mining colony ruled over by a terrorizing dictator (Ronny Cox), who can alter reality to suit his whims. The red planet erupts with rebellious mutants, the fire of an alluring and mysterious woman (Rachel Ticotin) and a vicious and savage enemy. In this film, directed by Paul Verhoeven (Robocop), with special effects by Dream Quest (Academy Award® for The Abyss), it’s total war, total action, total Schwarzenegger… TOTAL RECALL.


Total Recall (1990) 7.75

eyelights: the concept. its many twists. the cast. the sweeping arrangements. the make-up effects. Schwarzenegger’s acting chops.
eyesores: the sets. the score’s over-enthusiasm. the make-up effects. Schwarzenegger’s thick accent.

“If I am not me, then who the hell am I?”

In 1990, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a superstar. He had been building up his Hollywood cred for years, but the masses accepted him fully in 1988 when he transitioned from action to comedy in the super smash ‘Twins’ with Danny DeVito. Although he fully intended to continue making more accessible fodder, his next project returned him to his action roots.

That project was ‘Total Recall’.

Based on the short story by Philip K. Dick (of ‘Blade Runner‘ fame) and directed by then-hot director Paul Verhoeven, who had just shot up the box office with his unexpected hit ‘RoboCop’, ‘Total Recall’ would continue Schwarzenegger’s streak as Hollywood’s crowned champion, bringing in over 250 million dollars worldwide, a massive amount by 1990 terms.

The film, which had been in development for over 16 years, had seen many directors and stars attached to it through the years. It was only thanks to Schwarzenegger’s growing clout that it got made: he got Carolco to buy the rights to it from legendary producer Dino De Laurentis, who had been sitting on it, and got to choose all the players, including Verhoeven.

Naturally, the script, which was initially closer to Dick’s original story, “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale”, had to be adapted for its new action star, and further rewrites took place. In the end, ‘Total Recall’ was transformed into a satirical sci-fi action thriller, and is subtly mind-bending, leaving the audience unsure of the veracity of what’s on screen.

The basic plot is as follows: Douglas Quaid is a construction worker who dreams of moving to Mars. Since his spouse won’t relocate due to its political instability, he decides to visit Rekal, a company that implants false memories, allowing people to remember experiences they couldn’t otherwise have. Naturally, he asks for a full two-week package for Mars.

The problem is that the procedure doesn’t go as planned: he reacts terribly to it even before being implanted with new memories. Soon thereafter, he finds that unsavoury characters are chasing him and that the people closest to him are helping them. His only means of escape: a suitcase that was left for him to use by Hauser – a man who claims to be the real him.

From that point onward Quaid is barely a step ahead of his pursuers, trying desperately to uncover the truth about his life.

I still remember the first time I saw ‘Total Recall’, in the basement of a high school acquaintance, with a few other friends. They were smoking cigarillos and we had a blast watching this engrossing picture. Since then, I’ve watched it maybe a half-dozen times, enjoying it without fail; it was utterly imperfect, but it was a great deal of good fun nonetheless.

Watching it now, I was surprised by how much it holds up. The script is relatively sharp for the genre, the performances are surprisingly decent (Arnie displays much more subtlety than you’d expect), the action sequences remain exciting, the pace is terrific, the score (with a theme reminiscent of ‘Conan the Barbarian’) is excellent, and the twists are memorable.

Even the sequences that don’t work as well still manage to engage the viewer: for instance, the moment Quaid pulls a huge transmitter from his skull is ridiculous but jaw-dropping, and the contrivance of his arrival on Mars at the same time as his pursuer is flushed out by a mixture of comedy and cool special effects. Somehow, Verhoeven was able to gloss those over.

And, granted, there are other annoying issues, like Jerry Goldsmith’s score being overly-dramatic at times, some of the sets looking a bit fake (although the Martian surface really looks splendid), and the make-up/puppet effects being clearly artificial (Kuato looked cool anyway, and practical effects are better than CGI), but those details can easily be brushed aside.

I think one of the things that really helps ‘Total Recall’ is the cast, even if the performances wouldn’t have won any Academy Awards:

  • As noted above, Schwarzenegger was excellent in the part of Quaid/Hauser; you believe him as both everyman and as action hero, as good guy and bad. It’s certainly one of his better performances, range-wise.
  • Michael Ironside is always great to watch; that gaze is killer. Although he frequently lacks nuance, he has edge – which he brought in spades to the part of Richter. He makes anti-heroes cool and villains cheerable.
  • Ronny Cox was suitably authoritative and despicable as Cohaagen. Granted, he played a very similar character in Verhoeven’s ‘RoboCop’, but he’s so damned good at it that a little type-casting is okay.
  • Sharon Stone balanced sweet and deadly admirably well here, landing her the lead in Verhoeven’s next film, ‘Basic Instinct‘. And she is so bloody hot here it’s ridiculous. I remember the impression she left at the time.

The rest of the cast was all terrific as well, with Rachel Ticotin standing out for her pristine beauty, and Mel Johnson, Jr. as Benny, a cabby who keeps popping up everywhere. Again, none of the performances are award-worthy, but the group coalesces well – much in the same way that the cast of ‘Predator‘ did too. Whoever was in charge had good instincts.

If there’s anything I hold against this picture, and frankly it’s only just come to mind while watching it this time, it’s that the basic premise makes no sense: How can Rekal create false memories? Doing this would imply erasing old ones, which in turn would create all sorts of gaps and conflicts in a person’s memory; there’s probably no way to induce this safely.

I’m guessing the safest way to do it would be to stamp out a period of time that was inconsequential or even unpleasant, like a period of time where one was bed-ridden. And even that might have consequences, albeit minor ones. The only 100% foolproof way would be to actually take the required time off. But, then, why not live the experiences for real instead?

Naturally, all of this is just an excuse for creating suspense. Since Quaid doesn’t know what’s real and what isn’t and that we’re left slightly unsure about some of what’s transpiring, we’re caught up in his search for the truth; we want to know what is going on as much as he does, even as we are made aware of conspirators in his life, some extremely close to him, watching.

But Verhoeven purposely allowed ‘Total Recall’ to be ambiguous enough that it is possible that much of the picture is taking place in Quaid’s mind, under the effects of the Rekal process (hence the fade-to-white ending). He is adamant that the first 20 minutes are reality, but he leaves the rest up to the audience to decide, perhaps taking a cue from ‘Blade Runner’.

Whatever the case may be, ‘Total Recall’ is an engrossing motion picture. It may not be the classic that ‘Blade Runner’ has become, being largely a mass-market thrill-ride, but it’s one of the more memorable productions of the ’80s and of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and Paul Verhoeven’s careers. And there’s just enough meat on it to stimulate not just the senses, but the imagination.

…before implanting itself in one’s memory.

Date of viewing: April 8, 2015

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