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Our reviews of Schwarzenegger: 4-Film Collector's Set (published May 22nd, 2009), Total Recall (1990) (published September 12th, 2000), Total Recall (2012) (published January 7th, 2013), and Total Recall (1990) Special Edition (published October 18th, 2001) are also available.
Get ready for the ride of your life.
Just in time for a wholly unnecessary remake, Lionsgate double dips on the Paul Verhoeven/Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi classic Total Recall. Is the new special "Mind Bending Edition" worth an upgrade?
Facts of the Case
Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is an average guy. He works on a construction site. He has a beautiful wife, Lori (Sharon Stone, The Quick and the Dead). But he dreams of more, and, luckily, there's a company that's able to give it to him: Recall, an organization that implants memories that feel totally real. Quaid goes to Recall to be implanted with the memories of an adventure as a secret agent on Mars, but before he knows it, he's being hunted down by people trying to kill him. It turns out that Quaid might not be who he thinks he is—he might be Douglas Hauser, a former employee of Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox, RoboCop), the governor of Mars, and that Hauser had his memory deliberately wiped after learning something about an alien technology that would change life forever on the Red Planet. So it's off to Mars for Quaid (or Hauser), where he hooks up with Melina (Rachel Ticotin, Con Air), who may be an ex-girlfriend, and continues to be hunted by Cohaagen's number two guy, Richter (Michael Ironside, Starship Troopers) and his own wife. Will Quaid uncover the secrets of Mars? Will he experience TOTAL RECALL and figure out who he really is? Will he wish he had three hands?
Arnold Schwarzenegger will always be one of my favorite movie stars, and his science fiction movies—Predator, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and, of course, Total Recall—are among my favorite of his movies. I've got a theory that all of Schwarzenegger's movies cast him as "The Other" as a way of explaining away his cartoonish physique and thick accent, and the genre trappings of science fiction allow him to play "Other" in a way that his regular action movies don't. He can be a killer robot from the future, or a clone, or, in the case of Total Recall, a possible double agent with no memory of who he actually is. Either that, or just an ordinary guy sitting in a chair, dreaming of an exciting life as a spy.
Teaming up with Dutch director Paul Verhoeven in Total Recall, based (loosely) on Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale," is a perfect fit for Schwarzenegger, as the director is willing to go just as over the top in his filmmaking as Arnold is in his acting. Schwarzenegger is so larger than life on screen that Verhoeven's solution is to make everything surrounding him so crazy out there that the star seems positively restrained by comparison. And go out there he does, creating a futuristic Martian civilization that actually feels unique in a genre populated by sameness. What once seemed state-of-the-art now feels somewhat dated, though the world that Verhoeven and his FX team create out of prosthetics, rubber appliances, models and miniatures feels much more tactile and lived-in than the current glut of slick, CGI-laden genre stuff we get these days. Total Recall won an Oscar for its special effects, which may come as a surprise to the younger or uninitiated viewer, but there is a kind of invention on display in the movie that makes it feel novel and special even after the effects have gone out of date.
Total Recall still gets a ton of credit for being one of the great "mind f—k" movies of the last two decades, but some of that has been blown out of proportion. Yes, it plays the game of "is it real or is it Rekall?" throughout its running time, but only every once in a while. There are hints dropped in from time to time that the events of the movie are just Quaid's fantasy, but it's not really a constant in the narrative. In some places, it feels tacked on just to add some psychological heft to the story. I'm not complaining, though, as it's one of the aspects that makes the movie resonate. I wouldn't suggest that without it, Total Recall would be a straightforward story—there's nothing straightforward about a movie that features a three-breasted woman, a little person prostitute brandishing a knife and a mutant prophet that appears out of a man's stomach—but it at least gives us something to think about once the movie has ended. It may be futile, as the movie isn't all that interested in providing concrete answers, but most Schwarzenegger action movies are pretty brainless. This one at least respects us enough to pretend it isn't.
Though Total Recall is one of Verhoeven's least subversive science fiction films (at least compared to RoboCop and Starship Troopers), it's not without the Dutch director' usual sense of humor. Sometimes, it's just the absurdist touches of the future, like the perpetually cheerful robotic cab driver, JohnnyCab (voiced by the great Robert Picardo, no less!). But Verhoeven is also looking to subvert Schwarzenegger's persona as the Superman, casting him as an "everyman" almost as a joke just so he can acknowledge that Arnold is not every man. In doing so, Verhoeven teases out what might just be Schwarzenegger's best performance—he projects vulnerability and confusion in addition to getting off his usual neck breaking and silly one-liners. The director deserves much of the credit for that, too; in the special features of this new Blu-ray, he confesses that he pushed the star to do take after take after in the hopes of getting the best possible performance. It paid off.
Most of the time when reviewing Blu-ray discs, we here at DVD Verdict are attempting to determine whether or not a Blu-ray's technical specifications warrant an upgrade over the standard DVD copy the reader may already own. Total Recall is a first for me, as it's the first time I've been faced with double-dipping on a Blu-ray. The good news is that Lionsgate's new "Mind-Bending Edition" of Total Recall is a huge improvement over the previous HD version of the movie, originally released in 2006. That version boasted problematic image and audio quality and virtually no special features. All of that has been corrected by the unfortunately-named "Mind-Bending Edition," which looks and sounds fantastic and ports over much of the bonus material found on previous DVD versions. The 1.85:1 widescreen image, presented in a full 1080p HD transfer approved by the director himself, looks more like the original theatrical release than any past incarnation of Total Recall. Fine detail is incredible throughout, there's a nice layer of film-like grain over the entire image and the color timing is back to the filmmaker's intentions. That means that skin tones can occasionally appear slightly washed out and much of the palette is drenched in earthy browns and reds, but Total Recall has always been kind of an ugly movie. This new Blu-ray restores it to looking exactly as it should. The lossless 5.1 DTS-HD audio track kicks all kinds of ass, too, with clear dialogue and lots of great ambient effects. Separation is always cleverly and tastefully used, and both the score and the action set pieces have a real kick to them. This version is like watching a whole new Total Recall.
Many of the bonus features have been restored, as well. One of the only new features is a 30 minute interview with director Verhoeven, recorded for this edition. It's a great talk, too, in which Verhoeven is very honest about some of the movie's problems and very smart about everything that works about it (getting Schwarzenegger as the lead, he says, was the best thing that could have happened, as it allowed him to give the movie a lighter and broader tone. The commentary that Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger recorded for the 2001 special edition DVD has been ported over, too, and it's a very entertaining listen, if not that informative. Verhoeven is his usual energetic self, getting worked up about even the smallest of special effects details (he's very hung up on the color-changing nails of the receptionist at Rekall), while Schwarzenegger is there mostly to lend star power and to describe what he's doing on screen at all times. Also included is a vintage "making-of" featurette, a longer documentary on the film's long journey to the screen, a piece on the movie's special effects, an HD photo gallery, a "restoration comparison" which wipes the new, restored HD version of the movie over clips of one that looks pretty terrible and the movie's original theatrical trailer, presented in standard def.
Over 20 years since it was first released, Total Recall remains one of Schwarzenegger's best movies. And while the 2012 remake can't touch it in terms of quality, we still need to be thankful that it exists—if for no other reason than because we finally got a Blu-ray release of the original that's well worth owning. This is the version you have to have.
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