Skip to content

Total Recall (1990)

by on 2011/11/13

“Looks like we got another schizoid embolism!”

* * *

I should love, love, love Total Recall.

It’s based on a story by Philip K. Dick — whose works also inspired Blade Runner, Next, A Scanner Darkly and Screamers — scripted by Alien writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. It’s directed by Paul Verhoeven, who also made Basic Instinct, RoboCop, and Starship Troopers.

It stars Arnold Schwarzenegger — who killed (ha!) in Commando, Predator, and The Terminator — and actors Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, and Sharon Stone. It boasts a score by Jerry Goldsmith, renowned for Planet of the Apes (1968) and the Rambo and Star Trek series . . . my god, see all those hyperlinks? I should really love this one.

Instead, it’s more an amusing excess, just shy of a guilty pleasure.

Schwarzenegger stars as Doug Quaid, a construction worker haunted by dreams of the planet Mars. He explores his obsession by visiting Rekall, a scheme which makes travel affordable by implanting the mere idea you’ve been elsewhere. It’s a kind of advanced hypnosis but, during the procedure, something seems to go awry.

Quaid rejects the new memory — violently, of course — and becomes convinced his original dreams stem from actual, repressed experiences. Everyone around him closes ranks in apparent conspiracy, when escape is suddenly offered by an unexpected ally.

It could all be very “sci-fi noir” were it not so goofy in tone.

Have you seen — and did you enjoy — Paycheck, Strange Days, and The Truman Show? If so, you may well enjoy yourself here too, assuming you wanted more blood, nudity, swearing, and Arnie’s trademark guttural gnashing.

A part of me concedes how advanced it felt upon release. In a world before eXistenZThe Matrix and Inception, the ideas of mindscapes and virtual worlds were in mainstream infancy. Total Recall bolsters its science fiction credibility with material advancements: holograms, interplanetary transit, terraforming, tracking devices, unmanned taxis, video walls, x-ray halls . . . even chameleonic cosmetics.

Its greatest foe, ironically, is the future. Time has not been kind to this production; it rarely is to forward-looking affairs. My early reaction was thinking, “I don’t remember it coming off as cheap as The Running Man.” Bog-standard props date the environment, as do the clothing, makeup, and diegetic synth Muzak.

Gru rarely comments on the elements of craft, and yet she immediately scoffed about what she called the “Rubbermaid sets”. She’s dead on. Despite a pervasive aesthetic of unpainted poured concrete, I noticed flexing walls during the fight scenes. Plus, the obvious stunt doubles, bald wigs, artificial dummies, and unblinking eyes.

Such shortfalls might have been covered up by more judicious lighting. On Earth it’s harsh and artificial, completely unflattering. Matte lines, compositing, and blue screen effects all stand out painfully. With every optical trick, a noisy patina of flecks shows up. And once you’ve stared at Mars for a while, you’ll be sick of the colour red.

The thing is, in a twisted way, those shortfalls work in its favour. They support the crazy over-the-top (non)sensibility. Our viewing became a drinking game of sorts, positing all the zany checklist items the movie had to include.

  • All right, arguments. Lots of screaming and swearing. Tons.
  • Okay, and blood. Liters of it, bursting, spurting, and streaming everywhere.
  • What about a human shield, used over and over again until it’s shredded apart?
  • Wait, no, no wait. Arnie in a head-wrap!
  • No! Arnie in drag!
  • And he has to fight an old lady!
  • And she throws his own one-liners back at him!
  • What about a little prostitute, stabbing people?
  • No! Put her on the bar . . . with a machine gun!
  • And Douglas Adams’ triple-breasted whore works in the bar!

The lunacy runs the gamut from catfights to conjoined mutants, and I realized a critical truth which I hadn’t two decades ago: this mess is less a satire than an outright hyper-violent comedy. Simply put, it’s a big budget B-flick wearing self-indulgence on its sleeve.

Total Recall is good for a laugh if you have the appropriate expectations. Its better ideas and deeper themes are best explored elsewhere.

* * *

Rated R

113 minutes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: