Monday, July 2, 2012

Total Recall


Total Recall
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Michael Ironside, Sharon Stone

Back in my college days, there was this philosophy professor who was absolutely revered. He had won every single conceivable teaching award out there and had started the honors program, of which I was a part, personally teaching the first course in the program, a philosophy class called “The Nature of Inquiry.” Everyone knew him, and everyone loved him. His name always seemed to be mentioned in hushed tones of awe. At the beginning of every school year, he would personally take the new members of the program to his home for a party. At this party, he always showed Total Recall.

Also back in my college days, where I met my husband, I also met my husband’s friends. They loved to get a few (dozen) beers on and watch Total Recall and laugh hysterically at line after line after line.

I mention this to point out on how many levels Total Recall works.

In the unspecified future, planetary space travel has been made not only possible, but easily feasible. Doug Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is having recurring dreams of Mars, despite the fact that he’s never been there. His unsupportive wife Lori (Stone) dismisses his obsession, so he seeks out the company “Rekall,” which specializes in implanting “fake” memories of trips never actually taken. He asks to have memories implanted of a two week trip to Mars where he is a secret agent instead of a construction worker. That’s when things begin to unravel. Quaid has a bad reaction to the implantation; turns out he’s ACTUALLY a secret agent (or is he?!?!), and his life isn’t really his life. Lots more plot complications ensue, Quaid goes to Mars, fights with rebels, battles for air, is relentlessly pursued by bad guy Richter (Ironside), makes out with Mars prostitute-slash-freedom fighter Melina (Ticotin), all while the body count piles up.

There are many ways to enjoy Total Recall, the most obvious of which is as a cheesy, silly, sci-fi action romp. It certainly succeeds well as an action film. Verhoeven doesn’t shy away from violence (perhaps a point he made most clear in Starship Troopers), and there are shades of that ridiculous, borderline comic(sometimes not so borderline) levels of bloodletting in this film. Bad guys die in plenty of gruesome and ridiculous ways, progressing in creativity as the film continues. As ever, the bad guys, armed to the teeth with large caliber automatic weapons, seem completely incapable of hitting anything they aim at, while Arnold’s single small gun manages to pierce body armor time after time. The best action shot in the film, though, has to be that of the midget prostitute going to town with a machine gun on top of a bar. By that point in the film, that’s exactly the kind of the ludicrous action shots Verhoeven is indulging in, and it’s a helluva ride.


Well, that takes care of the action, but what about the rest of it? The special effects make Total Recall the silly, cheesy sci-fi film that it is. One of the last big films made without the use of computer effects, everything we see in Total Recall is due to make-up, green screen, stop-motion, or miniatures. Honestly, it’s almost refreshing. I know they’re remaking this flick, but it will lose a great deal of its charm. Yes, the effects are kind of silly, but the whole movie is kind of silly. The effects make me laugh and they make me smile, and they help me buy in to the completely artificial world of Total Recall. Dammit, I like these effects. The effects also let Verhoeven play with his surreal sense of humor. The three-breasted mutant, the vagina-face man, Arnold’s “two weeks” large lady, all have an absurdity to them that would be muted were they done with computers.


But there’s so much more to the appeal of Total Recall than action or dated make-up effects. Many films have decent action and decent effects, but they’re not included in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Perhaps the most outstanding feature of Total Recall is its fascinating plot. Based on Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” the screenwriters had rich and imaginative source material, and made good use of it. The questions of memory, identity, and existence itself are raised multiple times, and herein was the appeal seen by my philosophy professor. Compared to other mainstream films, The Matrix comes close in terms of raising similar questions, but Total Recall goes back and forth so many times between what is real and what is not that I think it plays better with the concept. At a point about two-thirds of the way through the film, we have jumped across the line of memory versus reality several times, and we finally think everything is figured out. Then the movie pulls a major mindfuck on you, and everything seems back to square one. It’s enthralling, and rare that it manages to stitch together fantastic action sequences with a truly compelling, memorable, and highly original plot.


It’s uncanny and a little unnerving just how many of the “wacky sci-fi contraptions” that the “future” held in Total Recall, made in 1990, are now common. Video conferencing or any sort of face-to-face phone call is now standard; my mother prefers me to contact her via Facetime rather than call her cell. Arnold walks through a security scanner that shows only a person’s skeleton and any concealed weapons they may have as he makes his way to the subway; anyone who has gone through a security checkpoint in the US in the last year knows that this technology is now available. I saw scientists in Total Recall using tablet computers; of course, they weren’t called tablets at the time, but that’s what they had. I wonder, in another twenty years, if further technology from Total Recall will have joined our everyday lives.

I once had the immense pleasure of seeing Total Recall on the big screen with a theater full of appreciative fans. It was remarkable how everyone seemed to laugh at the same silly lines. “Get your ass to Mars,” “Consider this a divorce,” “Screw you!”, “Give these people air!” and “See you at the party, Richter,” all said with Arnold’s limited acting abilities and thick Austrian accent, brought the house down. For one-liners, Arnold fares incredibly well here.

Overall, Total Recall is a wildly entertaining and highly satisfying sci-fi action flick. Sure, it’s not super-taxing, and yes, the effects are dated, but if you accept the film in spite of this, it will not fail to entertain you.

Arbitrary Rating: 8.5/10


  1. It's been ages since I've seen this, but I have fond memories of it. I should probably find it again one of these days, especially since a new version is coming out.

    "Arnold's limited acting abilities." Poor guy.

  2. Fondly - you're right, I think that's how most people see this film, and I'm certainly one of them.

    Oh please, at least Schwarzenegger never TRIES to pretend he's a great actor. I respect that he stays pretty squarely within his limited abilities, sticking to what he does best.

    I am endlessly amused that most of Schwarzenegger's characters have typical American names, despite his obvious accent. Doug Quaid? Really?