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) (Blu-ray) (published August 10th, 2012) are also available.
"I'm telling you, your brain will not know the difference! And that's guaranteed, or your money back!"—McClane (Ray Baker) in his sales pitch to Doug Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger)
David Cronenberg faithfully adapts Philip K. Dick's classic short story, "We Can Remember for You Wholesale" for the tense and intimate story of an ordinary accountant (Richard Dreyfus) named Quail who discovers that he is really a secret agent. Oh wait, that was all a dream.
Facts of the Case
Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is an ordinary, everyday, monstrously beefy construction worker who appears to have been constructed in a mad geneticist's lab. Dissatisfied with his life, and apparently the fact that he is married to the wooden Sharon Stone (playing Lori), he wanders down to Rekall for a virtual vacation to Mars. But his world is quickly turned upside down, as he discovers that he is really Arnold—oh wait, I mean to say, an invincible secret agent/killing machine who can slaughter his enemies, save Mars from an evil dictator (Ronny Cox), and shatter every bit of glass on the entire planet.
I must admit up front that I have always been a sucker for this film. First, it is based on a Philip K. Dick story. Second, I taught this film (along with the original 1966 story) six semesters in a row for a course on narratology, focusing in particular on its carefully delineated plot structure. After all, this is a movie where the entire plot is announced early in the first act, then repeated again at the halfway point. Is Total Recall's self-conscious use of the conventions of the action genre accidental, or part of a deliberate parody?
And that has always been the puzzle of Total Recall, why I find this film holds my interest long after my memory of virtually every other Arnold movie has faded away. Is this film completely over the top because Paul Verhoeven is heavy-handed and obsessed with sex and violence? Is this film over the top because Paul Verhoeven is parodying the excesses of the violent action movie? Is it real, or is it a dream?
As I noted in my earlier review of Verhoeven's Dutch breakthrough, The Fourth Man, there are two Paul Verhoevens (much like the two Arnold's in this movie, the heroic Quaid and the villainous Hauser—or the good girl Melina and the bad girl Lori, or the twinning effect of the hologram—well, you get the point). The "good" Verhoeven is a slick satirist, exposing the hypermasculine rhetoric and fetishizing of violence of late-era corporate capitalism. Check out Robocop or parts of Starship Troopers to see what I mean. The "bad" Verhoeven seems to be exactly what his twin condemns: a misogynist with a fetish for garish violence. Check out Basic Instinct and Showgirls. In this regard, Total Recall is a difficult film to approach. When Quaid defends himself from the bad guys by using the corpse of an innocent bystander as a shield, are we meant to laugh at the excessiveness of the scene, or cringe at its inhumanity? When Quaid survives explosive decompression without so much as a nosebleed, are we meant to brush this off as a minor plot hole characteristic of Hollywood action movies, or are we meant to laugh in disbelief?
Total Recall does everything an action movie is supposed to do—and does it so completely excessively that we can never be sure if it is making fun of itself. Need gore? How about ridiculous amounts of it, all staged with Grand Guignol glee. Need an action hero? How about Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose cartoonish physique is as bombastic as Jerry Goldsmith's pounding score. Need punch lines to follow each killing? Arnold delivers sneering non-sequiturs that seem drained of humor ("Consider that a divorce!" "See you at the party, Richter!") as if to heighten their inappropriateness.
Need broken glass? Let's break all the glass on Mars (and plenty on Earth as well) in the hyperbolic finale.
A film like Total Recall should not work. It should be so preposterous that it self-destructs. Indeed, when Arnold tried to recapture the feel of Total Recall's tricky balance of sincerity and parody in The Last Action Hero, he failed miserably. Why?
The script. Although Schwarzenegger credits Verhoeven in the commentary track as the guiding hand behind the film, its success really hinges on the screenplay, variously worked through dozens of drafts by Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett, and Gary Goldman. Do not look too much for Philip K. Dick's influence here: apart from the initial premise (Quaid, or Quail in the story, goes in for a virtual vacation and discovers he is really a secret government assassin) little remains of the original tale, in which the real protagonist is the salesman McClane and the division between fantasy and reality collapses completely. In Total Recall, the divide remains: there is ample evidence on both sides as to whether Quaid's experiences are reality or merely a dream (or worse, a psychotic break). The script successfully plays in both directions, allowing the viewer to make up his or her own mind as to whether to buy the film's gaping plot holes and bombast as part of the action formula or a send-up.
Verhoeven seems to come down on the "it's all a dream" side in the commentary track, while Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to favor the notion that he (and yes, he clearly identifies himself with Quaid) really gets to kill bad guys and be a hero. Although Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger spend a lot of time on the commentary track explaining the action on screen, the film's dual structure does require explanation for those viewers who always treated the movie as conventional. Verhoeven spends a good deal of time noting the details that call that mundane reading into question, like the fade-to-white at the final shot or the glimpses of Melina (Rachel Ticotin) and the alien reactor in the beginning. While all of this is stuff that I discussed with my students years ago, most casual viewers may not have considered these more subtle details buried among the spraying blood and exploding glass.
Arnold, however, clearly relishes the broad strokes of the movie, sounding gleeful every time violence or sex pops up in the film. And he seems conspicuously silent when Verhoeven notes the film's environmental messages or attacks on corporate totalitarianism. It is nice to have him aboard however, and he and Verhoeven do seem to get along well.
Artisan packs a lot more extras besides the commentary track into the gimmicky, round metal case. A thirty-minute documentary, "Imagining Total Recall," walks us through the film's troubled production history, although much more is made of Bruce Beresford's time on the project (with Patrick Swayze in the lead) than Cronenberg (who would have been well-suited to it, and played with similar ideas later in his Philip K. Dick-inspired eXistenZ). The documentary is quite interesting and substantive, although the interview segments seem punctuated by non-sequitur film clips. For example, screenwriter Ron Shusett mentions having to take vitamin shots while filming in Mexico, and the documentary cuts to a clip of Quaid wrestling with a woman wielding a hypodermic gun.
A five-minute interview with Dan McCleese of NASA provides a genuinely informative look at the real Mars, illustrated with some nice NASA demo footage. A conceptual art gallery and photo gallery provide timed segments showing off design work and behind-the-scenes shots of the production (and no padding with still shots of the movie itself). Three short scenes (Quaid's opening dream, the "decompression" climax, and the dénouement) are compared to their storyboards in another gallery. In a "production notes" essay, we learn some information not covered in the documentary or the commentary track. Here, Verhoeven calls the film's look (which takes advantage of Mexico's "New Brutalism" architecture) "pleasantly and entertainingly disturbing." And that about sums up Total Recall in a nutshell.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not all of the extras are winners, however. "Rekall Virtual Vacations" is rather inconsequential: a set of three self-looping, thirty-second, full-frame "environments" (Martian dunes, a mountain scene, and a beach) with environmental sounds (or creepy electronica for the Mars scene). This reminds me of a sort of television version of an environmental-sounds CD, and I wonder who will actually play these after an initial look. The trailer section is pretty clunky to watch as well. No menu here, but two trailers (a standard trailer which is badly edited and gives away way too much of the movie, followed by an intriguing teaser trailer) and six television spots, all edited together into one long segment.
As for the film itself: while Rob Bottin's wonderfully chunky makeup effects and Goldsmith's propulsive score hold up well over the years, the film is starting to show its age. Under Verhoeven's wash of colored lighting (pale green on Earth, red on Mars), the image seems a bit soft and faded. Artisan has, I suppose, done the best it can with this anamorphic transfer. Perhaps the color tones are kept a little softer here in order to keep all the layers of red lighting during the Martian scenes from bleeding and overwhelming everything, but it tends to make everyone during the Earth scenes appear a bit sickly.
"Pleasantly and entertainingly disturbing." Indeed, Total Recall has held up pretty well over the years, and the debate over what to make of its "dream versus reality" premise has only become more relevant as reality becomes progressively more virtual. This is still Arnold's most substantive movie (although his performance demonstrates, in keeping with the borderline-parody tone, no subtlety whatsoever—but so do all the other performances here) and will probably continue to remain interesting long after he has faded from sight. Paul Verhoeven has yet to top this one as well. The ultimate '80s action movie (and perhaps the death-knell for the entire genre), Total Recall is still a fun ride.
The court is split on the issue of whether Quaid is really a hero, or merely a lobotomized vegetable. In the meantime, all charges against this film are dropped. Besides, Verhoeven is still serving time for Showgirls.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track with Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger
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