Artisan // 1990 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // September 12th, 2000
They stole his mind. Now he wants it back.
Science fiction fans owe a lot to Philip K. Dick, the man who gave us the novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" In the hands of Ridley Scott this book became Blade Runner, one of the true classics of science fiction cinema. Dick also wrote a short story entitled "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," which in the hands of Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, Showgirls, Basic Instinct) became Total Recall. Dick was known for his stories that questioned reality and identity, the basic constructs that define our perception and existence. "Wholesale" predates "Androids" by two years, and makes similar use of falsified memories to question the true identity of its protagonist. Total Recall follows lowly construction worker Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Conan the Barbarian, The Running Man, Predator) as he discovers that you really should be careful what you wish for, because you may have had it already.
As the movie begins, Quaid is having recurring nightmares about an expedition to Mars gone bad. He is obsessed with Mars, and wants desperately to go there as a cure for his own mundane existence. His wife Lori (Sharon Stone, Basic Instinct, Jewel of the Nile, Sliver) belittles his obsession and ridicules his dreams. One day, on the way to work, Quaid sees an advertisement for Rekall, Inc., a company that specializes in implanting false memories of exciting experiences, providing virtual vacations of a sort. Intrigued, Quaid makes an appointment and discovers that he can take a mind-trip to Mars for much less than the cost of an actual trip. It is guaranteed to feel real; in his mind, he will have experienced every detail of a two-week stay on Mars. But wait! There's more! For just a few additional credits, Quaid can have memories of Mars not as himself, an average guy on vacation, but in any one of a number of exciting roles. He can go to Mars as an international playboy, a famous athlete, or a secret agent. Quaid finds the secret agent fantasy irresistible and agrees that the price is well worth it.
In short order he is strapped to a machine, and two technicians prepare to implant his vacation memories. However, the process does not go smoothly, and Quaid suffers a "schizoid embolism." He is delirious, violent, and babbling about Mars and thinks that the Rekall technicians have "blown his cover." The techs page their supervisor for help, and he is understandably irritated at the difficulties. He is stunned when the technicians tell him that they had not yet planted the ersatz memories. It becomes clear to him that Quaid's longing for Mars was actually a subconscious sign of a previous history, and that someone very powerful has erased his memory. He tells the technicians to patch Quaid up, remove any memory of visiting Rekall, and send him home.
At this point a wild and violent chase begins leading Quaid through a maze of deception and intrigue, and eventually to Mars itself. Quaid is pursued by an interplanetary hit squad led by Richter (Michael Ironside, Starship Troopers, Top Gun, Scanners), who is a top lieutenant to Vilas Cohaagen (Ronny Cox, Deliverance, Beverly Hills Cop, Taps), the administrator of the Mars colonies. An unknown accomplice gives Quaid a suitcase containing important equipment and information, including a video message from himself. It seems that Quaid is actually Hauser, a top-secret operative of the Martian administration. Hauser's image tells Quaid that he has had a change of heart, and has decided to join the rebel forces that are trying to spark a revolution and that Quaid must go to Mars.
Once on Mars he finds Melina (Rachel Ticotin, Raging Bull, Fort Apache, The Bronx, Falling Down), Hauser's contact in the resistance and apparently his former lover, although Quaid remembers nothing. Quaid joins up with a resistance movement of mutants, hookers, and the downtrodden working masses. It seems that Cohaagen has been gouging people on the price of the most valuable commodity on Mars -- air. He also has them living in cheap biodomes that do not properly filter solar radiation, so a generation of mutants has sprung up, many of whom have psychic abilities. The leader of this resistance movement is a mysterious figure known only as Kuato. Quaid must meet him in order to unlock the secrets that are contained in his hidden memory. What he discovers unlocks an ancient mystery that will change the future of Mars forever.
This is clearly a plot driven story. The events in Total Recall sweep the characters along inexorably to the conclusion. Verhoeven and writer Dan O'Bannon have created an intricate plot with a fair number of holes, but it all goes by so quickly that you probably won't notice. Indeed, the film takes on a dreamlike quality at times, where events transpire and situations metamorphose with exhilarating speed. There are some great uses of foreshadowing, especially while Quaid is in his apartment watching the news, or in the Rekall offices preparing for his memory implant. The foreshadowing in this movie serves to cast doubt on the reality of everything that happens later. Is it real, or is it a figment of Quaid's imagination? Was it dreamed up by bored techno-geeks? Verhoeven tries to play a lot of mental games and challenge the audience's perception of reality, just as a good Philip K. Dick story should. He succeeds to a great degree, leaving the questions to hang unanswered even in the last lines of dialogue. Along the way he creates a believable picture of life in the Martian colonies, thanks in large part to some Oscar-winning special effects.
Total Recall's biggest asset is Schwarzenegger's performance. While it is often drowned out in the blood that soaks this movie, Arnold gives a fairly subtle performance as Doug Quaid, an average Joe, somewhat henpecked, who just wants to go to Mars. In the first third of the movie he is scared, confused, and not sure that he can trust what he perceives to be reality. As the plot progresses he loses a measure of this vulnerability and moves closer to the "Ahnuld" we all know and love, but there is still an element of humanity that is missing from a lot of his stereotypical action performances. (As a side note, it is a rare film indeed that includes ordinary construction workers in its vision of the future. It's a nice touch, and strangely reassuring. It's also pretty impressive that these guys can use pneumatic jackhammers with no ear or eye protection or hard hats, but I digress.) Rachel Ticotin is convincing but underused in her role as Melina, the resistance fighter.
The audio mix is listed as Dolby Digital 5.1. It makes good use of the surround channels especially in some of the intense firefights, and also for music and atmospheric effects. Those of you with subwoofers will probably get your money's worth out of this one. Jerry Goldsmith's score is adequate, fairly standard 1990s action fare. There is one notable exception, which is the main title theme. This piece is so close to "Anvil of Crom" from Conan the Barbarian that it is a wonder Mr. Goldsmith didn't get sued for copyright infringement.
Total Recall is a two-sided disc. One side contains a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen presentation, and the other side contains the, ahem, "standard" presentation. According to the IMDb a new transfer was created for the DVD release, at least the widescreen presentation. Extras are fairly standard, and are the same on both sides of the disc. They include cast and crew histories, a teaser trailer, and a full trailer. Both trailers are presented full-screen, and in a refreshing contrast to current practice make the movie look exciting without giving away all of its secrets. The other extra is a basically useless "Coming Attractions" feature, which consists of two pages, each containing 10-15 thumbnail pictures of case art for upcoming DVD releases. Nothing interactive here, and the pictures are almost too small to make out anyway. There is also an oddly crippled scene selection feature, about which more later.
Total Recall is extremely violent. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of Verhoeven or Schwarzenegger. However, I had not seen it in eight years prior to renting it for this review, and was a little amazed at how over the top some of the violence was. Don't get me wrong; I don't mind violence if it is part of the story and moves the plot along, as in Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart, or even Conan the Barbarian. However, there is a lot of blood and gore in this film that is purely gratuitous. One scene in particular comes to mind. After an unimaginative slow-speed chase that could have been lifted from any one of a dozen low-grade actioners, Quaid et al take refuge in the brothel/resistance hangout that serves as Melina's headquarters. Richter and his goon squad pursue our heroes into the establishment, only to find that they have disappeared in a blatant rip-off from either Raiders of the Lost Ark or "Hogan's Heroes." In his frustration Richter brutally guns down one of the, err, "employees" of the establishment. A massively bloody shootout ensues. All of this does absolutely nothing to advance the plot, and appears to be included only to reinforce Richter's status as a really really bad guy. This scene, which includes a midget prostitute armed with a shotgun and played for laughs, also reinforces a disturbing misogynistic undercurrent that surfaces periodically throughout the movie.
There is a reason I did not mention any of the actors apart from Schwarzenegger in the Evidence section. Cox and Ironside as the two main villains are completely, laughably over the top. Stone seems like a badly cast lead in a high school class play, careening from near catatonia one moment to high melodrama the next. When she isn't chewing the scenery she may as well be a piece of it. In fairness these are good actors who have turned in many respectable performances in their careers. A good measure of the blame needs to be placed on a script that makes them recite clunky, clichéd dialogue. Cox in particular is a victim of the script, including one ridiculous scene where, in a fit of rage, he smashes a goldfish tank and watches as the fish flop about on the floor, gasp, and die.
As I stated earlier, a new transfer was apparently created for this release. That seems a pity, because it is just not very good. It is far from unwatchable, but does have some pronounced flaws. Image quality varies from too soft to overly sharp, sometimes within the same shot. I can recall at least one instance where the picture sharpened up noticeably during a scene. The effect was similar to suddenly remembering to turn on the autofocus on a camcorder -- very noticeable, and very distracting. Colors are washed out and faded, and skin tones are far too pink. This improves considerably in night scenes, and shadow detail is excellent. Well-lit scenes have clearly been artificially brightened, and anything white positively glows, whether it is a fluorescent light or Arnold's teeth. There is a lot of shimmering due to over-enhanced sharpness; check out the entire scene in the Rekall salesman's office in Chapter 7. There are some noticeable blips and scratches in the picture, especially in the very beginning of the movie and at the end, but everything in between is clean.
The full-frame transfer is not even worth discussing. It is not the same clean, overly bright transfer used for the widescreen presentation. It is dark and shadowy, with many more picture defects, again concentrated towards the very beginning and very end of the movie. Color levels and skin tones are much better, but there is a lot of grain in the picture, especially in the darker scenes. For example, the climactic scene in the reactor room on Mars looked as though it had been taped from TNT's "Movies For Guys Who Like Movies" during a thunderstorm over Atlanta.
The menus on both sides of the disc are identical. They are garish and hard to read. This includes the text screens of cast and crew bio information. Looking at the screens long enough to read the bio information is pretty hard on the eyes. The bio information does not include a full filmography, but rather a selection of "featured films." As an example, in Schwarzenegger's case this leads to the glaring omission of the Conan movies.
The scene selection feature for this movie is, as noted above, oddly handicapped. You can only select certain scenes, specifically 8, 10, 12, 15, 17, 23, 28, 32, and 39. Not a big problem as most players can select any scene at random, but still a minor annoyance. The Coming Attractions feature is completely useless. The inclusion of the two trailers for the film is a nice touch, but they lose some points for full-screen presentation, even on the letterbox side of the disc.
A decent action flick, with considerably more thought required than the average Schwarzenegger movie. With a better script that concentrated on characters rather than gunfights we might have had a real classic on our hands, one that could be mentioned in the same breath as Blade Runner. As it is, it makes an enjoyable popcorn flick for a Saturday afternoon rental. Schwarzenegger fans will want to add this one to their collections in spite of its flaws.
The movie is narrowly acquitted. After considering Mr. Verhoeven's record, including the Starship Troopers debacle, this court places him under a restraining order forbidding him to come within 200 yards of any more classic sci-fi literature. The studio is chastised by the court for a sub-par transfer, but is released without punishment due to expiration of the statute of limitations.
Court is adjourned. See you at the party, Richter!
Review content copyright © 2000 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer
* Teaser Trailer
* Cast and Crew Biographies