Tuesday, June 01, 2010


Recalling Total Recall

By Ali Arikan
I can’t believe it’s been 20 years. Twenty fucking years. It feels like only this morning that I harassed my dad to take me to see Total Recall in October 1990 (it had opened June 1, 1990 in the U.S.) at the Metropol in Ankara, Turkey. He’d put on a half-hearted “Oh, you’re taking me to see crap again, aren’t you,” but I could see that he didn’t mind, since, despite his protestations, I knew he was as big a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger as me. Throw in excessive violence, colorful language and a prostitute with three tits, and we had ourselves a father-son bonding trip of the highest quality.

I used to rate Conan The Barbarian above all the other works in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s oeuvre ("Crom, Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you" — good times), but, having watched Total Recall twice over the weekend (for the first time in more than 10 years), I am now certain that it is the actor-auteur’s best film. Credit must of course be given to Paul Verhoeven’s characteristically manic direction as well as the perspicacious script by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, with a final rewrite by Gary Goldman. Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember It For Your Wholesale gets an “Inspired By” credit, which is apt, since the eventual film is only slightly reminiscent of the source work on the surface, but Dick’s original themes of duality, reality versus illusion, determinism versus free will remain intact, and are deftly worked in to a “mentalist he-man goes gun-crazy on Mars” narrative.

Total Recall is a positively Hitchcockian thriller, in which an every-man (well, one that looks like an Olympian) finds himself at odds with corrupt institutions beyond his understanding. Schwarzenegger plays Douglas Quaid, a pumped-up construction worker, living a humdrum life on Earth in 2084, but dreaming, literally, of a life on Mars, which has been turned into an exotic mining colony led by the unscrupulous planetary administrator Vilos Cohaagen (Paul Cox). Quaid’s wife Lori (Sharon Stone), all blond and busty and beautiful, prefers it on Earth, thank-you-very-much — if I were married to Sharon Stone (of 1990), and all she wanted to do was stay at home for a bit of how’s-your-father every morning, I’d say “Fuck Mars,” but, you know, horses for courses. Quaid desperately wants to see Mars, and, thankfully, to his rescue comes a company called Rekall, Inc., which specializes in implanting fake memories. He asks for a specialty package, in which he will have the memories of a secret double-agent. During the implantation, however, things go awry, and, very soon, Quaid, on the run from Cohaagen’s goons, led by Richter (deliciously played by the always reliable Michael Ironside), gets his ass to Mars.

The director creates a claustrophobic dystopia in Total Recall, aided immensely by William Sandell’s minimalist-cum-brutalist production design, and Rob Bottin’s impressive practical effects (this is the last major Hollywood production to mainly use physical special effects — contrast it, if you will, with the second Terminator film, which came out only a year later). Jerry Goldmsith's score is a nice mixture of classical and electronic, and the legendary composer has called it one of his personal favourites. If the film doesn't quite reach perfection (eg. Quaid's eventual betrayal by his wife and friends are telegraphed by needlessly sinister reaction shots, thereby draining the suspense), it more than makes up for it in sheer brio.

Verhoeven’s films are punctuated by random acts of senseless violence: in his best work, these are intrinsic to the film (and in his worst ones, such as the overrated Black Book, they are utterly gratuitous, like that film’s pointless “shower of shit” scene) — they are as powerful as they are purposeful. The violence in this film, 1987’s RoboCop, or 1997’s Starship Troopers ("Whose Roughnecks? Rico's Roughnecks" — good times) is ironic without being fully detached or cynical. In Total Recall, Verhoeven displays a knowing tongue-in-cheek bravado when it comes to gore: both making fun of the genre’s, and his lead actor’s, idiosyncrasies, while revelling in their visual power. Not only does Quaid impale his turncoat sidekick (Mel Johnson Jr.) with a giant stone drill, but afterwards he quips, “Screw you.” Verhoeven has his cake and eats it too, and, with another director, this could get tiresome (as in Simon West’s Con Air — “Why wouldn’t you put the bunny back in the box” — good times), but the director has such a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em single-mindedness that it becomes endearing.

Arnold Schwarzenegger would never be more affable and amiable than here — he is almost, gosh, charming. While unable to quite sell the predicament of his hero, Arnie does one better, and makes fun of himself and his on-screen persona. A welcome choice, since whenever he tries to be serious, he ends up being ridiculous in spite of himself (like in 1999’s End of Days, with its hilarious scene where the muscleman flexes his acting chops by attempting to, LULZ, cry). Watch as he spends 15 minutes with a turban made up of a towel, and you see why he was in a league of his own during the glory years of '80s action pictures. Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis have both had fun with their image, but the results were never as hilarious or genuine. My favorite scene in the entire film is Quaid’s arrival to Mars (“Two weeks…two weeks” — good times): once the authorities realize that he’s dressed up as a zaftig lady, trouble ensues, and the air seal is broken: there is nothing funnier than when Arnie tries to clutch the railings as his fake boobs bounce merrily under his dress.

But there is more to Total Recall than just machine gun wielding midget hookers in fishnets. It’s an intelligent picture that makes full use of its premise: we are never quite sure whether Quaid’s adventures are real, or a part of Rekall’s memory implants. Similarly, it’s interesting that the made-up Quaid persona, a dream, triumphs over the real Hauser — a theme with which Dick played around quite a bit (the ending to the original story suggest that the entire world, including Rekall, is a dream).

A secondary theme is that of immigration: Schwarzenegger shepherded the project, got Carolco to buy the rights, hired Verhoeven, and had total control over the script. The story of a man who wants to leave the Old World and go the new one to start anew, and “make something of (his) life” must have hit very close to home for Schwarzenegger.

After I watched the film a second time Sunday, I called my dad to tell him all about it. He couldn’t quite get his head around as to why I would watch the same film twice in one day, but then he realized whom he was talking to, and sighed in resignation. Then, after a beat, he said “The deformed baby-thing in that guy’s stomach was cool, wasn’t it? I remember you had your mouth wide open when that fucker came out.” “Yeah,” I said. “Good times.”

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I agree: Verhoeven (and Schwarzenegger) have their cake and eat it too--but in an alternate universe there are two Total Recalls: the full-bore comedy (Ghosts of Mars-Busters?) and the Dick-ensian mindf-ck. Then again, perhaps the latter works best as a kind of comedy--even the ultimately elegiac A Scanner Darkly indulges in plenty of stoner-humor.

By the way, Ari, glad I decided to Follow you on Twitter; led me here. Saw you at Ebertfest, and promised myself I'd hunt up your writing. Glad I did.
Yes, yes, and all kinds of yes. This is great, Ali. Your anecdote about you and your father going to see this reminded me of my dad taking me to a bad action flick every Monday night when I was younger. Classics such as: Under Siege, Sudden Death, and the masterpiece Judge Dread. I like your immigration reading on the film, too. I didn't know that Arnie oversaw the script and hired Verhoeven.

Oh, and I have to respectfully disagree with you about Black Book...I think that's one of the best things Verhoeven's done. Or, perhaps that's just because Hollow Man left such a bad taste in my mouth.

Anywho...this was a great review, Ali.
I'm afraid I have to respectfully disagree with this comment: "..this is the last major Hollywood production to mainly use physical special effects — contrast it, if you will, with the second Terminator film, which came out only a year later."

Actually, Coppolla's Dracula, released in 1992, is comprised of entirely practical or in-camera effects. I suppose you could argue Dracula isn't an action film but the effects work in Dracula is incredible, so I think its a moot point.
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