#176 Total Recall

(1990, Paul Verhoeven)

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

It was my birthday yesterday, so I figured I’d pick a film myself from the list instead of letting a random number generator pick for me. And as an antidote to all those self-indulgent European diary movies I’ve sat through lately (see my last review) I figured I needed a dumb Arnie action movie to balance things out.

Not that Total Recall is entirely dumb. Based on We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by regular mind-screw sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, this is a tale of memory implants and blurred realities. AHNULD plays Douglas Quaid, a construction worker who would love to go and visit the colonies on Mars, prompted by his recurring dreams about the planet. Despite protests from his wife Lori (Sharon Stone), Quaid visits a company named Rekall who can implant memories of a trip to Mars in his head. However, things take a turn for the strange when attempts to implant a memory of being a secret agent reveal that he already is; he’s just had his memory wiped. Or at least so it seems…

There are two distinct sides to Total Recall. The first is the big dumb Arnie-led action movie, with explosions and one-liners galore; the second is a typical Philip K. Dick story where you’re never entirely sure what’s real. And guess what? I like both of those things, so I like Total Recall!

So, let’s look at the first side of the movie, since this is the most prominent. The plot is your typical excuse plot for lots of blasting, with an over-the-top bad guy, a bunch of smooth talking resistance fighters, mutants, and plenty of comedic Arnie moments. It’s overblown, it’s silly, and it’s absolutely glorious.

Arnie himself is on top form here, throwing out jokes at every turn as he takes out waves of faceless goons in full-on AHNULD mode. He provides several standout moments, particularly as we move to Mars and the resistance escalates. But he’s also supported by equally entertaining performances all around him, from the incredibly hammy Michael Ironside as head henchman Richter to Rachel Ticotin as the typical love interest sidekick.

Of course, the movie is full of clichés, but it doesn’t take itself seriously for a moment, and that makes it highly watchable. That said, the use of clichés may be smarter than they first appear. Let’s examine that second aspect of the movie.

I love Philip K. Dick’s work. From the debate of Deckard being a replicant in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (aka Blade Runner) to the split personality of Bob Arctor in A Scanner Darkly, Dick has made a career out of making us entirely unaware of who his protagonists really are. Total Recall is another perfect example of his trademark, adapted perfectly by the scriptwriters who brought us the equally excellent Alien.

You see, it’s not clear if the events of the film are real beyond Quaid visiting Rekall are actually happening or if they’re all part of the memory implant. If things feel like dumb action movie writing, it’s entirely possible that it’s all part of the fantasies the memory implant provides. So all those clichés? All likely put in by whichever hack designed the secret agent implant and done very deliberately by the real-life scriptwriters.

The clues are all there. Many of the events in the later portions of the movie are mentioned ahead of time by Rekall employees, and the interaction with the executive who visits Quaid in his hotel room is never fully resolved, leaving the question of what’s truly real hanging at the end. This sense of mystery is what really elevates the movie above other clichéd action movies.

Sure, at times the movie can feel a little dated. It’s very much a product of the early nineties, and AHNULD’s presence doesn’t help in that regard. The infamous three-breasted prostitute felt tacked on and added to be “edgy” and “different”, and there were times when the scenery felt a little wobbly. Those robotaxis certainly appeared to be made of some very flimsy material at times, for instance.

But as an overall package, Total Recall is excellent. A fun action ride of a movie, but with an interesting and very subtle psychological twist.

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Rachel Ticotin, Michael Ironside & Ronny Cox
Written by Phillip K. Dick (short story – “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”) and Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon & Gary Goldman
Produced by Mario Kassar & Andrew G. Vajna
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography by Jost Vacano
Edited by Carlos Puente & Frank J. Urioste

Favourite Scene: When a Rekall representative turns up on Mars to inform Quaid that the entire thing is in his head…or is it?
Scene That Bugged Me: There’s a shootout not long after Quaid gets to Mars where a glass window gets smashed open exposing everyone to the vacuum of Mars. One question: why is flimsy, easily breakable glass the only protection the colonists are given against that harsh Martian atmosphere?!

Watch it if: You like AHNULD at his best
Avoid it if: You prefer the remake

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Posted on April 17, 2013, in 1990s, Action, Sci Fi and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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