REVIEW: Total Recall [1990]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 113 minutes | Release Date: June 1st, 1990 (USA)
Studio: TriStar Pictures
Director(s): Paul Verhoeven
Writer(s): Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon & Gary Goldman /
Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon & Jon Povill (story) /
Philip K. Dick (short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”)

“A man is defined by his actions, not his memory”

By the time Total Recall began filming—about a decade after its Hollywood genesis—quite the team of science fiction luminaries had been assembled. With inspiration from Blade Runner‘s Philip K. Dick; a script by the creators of Alien, Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon; the directorial expertise of RoboCop‘s Paul Verhoeven; and The Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, out front, this colossal undertaking was put atop the shoulders of dreamers. Spring-boarding off the question of whether reality can be proven alongside an authentically seamless virtual world, an unwitting participant in a dangerous game of political subterfuge, capitalism, and rebellion wades through half-truths and fabrications in order to grab hold of something real. A man yearning for a taste of adventure, false memories bought on a whim end up uncovering a pre-existing elaborate scheme of espionage buried deep within.

Far from the exquisitely minimalist approach to memory taken by Dick in his We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Total Recall turns the meek Douglas Quail—an office worker with a hidden God-complex—into an idealistic, muscle-bound construction grunt named Douglas Quaid. The simple fact Schwarzenegger performs the role makes any stunning realization of physical prowess with a violent streak obsolete as we find ourselves waiting to discover when such things will be unleashed. Instead of making secret agent fantasies the manifestations of a subconscious pushing through artificial walls in his mind, the cinematic Douglas simply wants to visit Mars to experience the stolen minutes of romance dreamt each night. While Dick delved thematically into man’s ego for heroics via a series of stunning revelations from the past, Shusett and O’Bannon adapt his concepts into an action-packed adventure of the present.

The ego is still a huge part of the process, however, as Rekall—the futuristic corporation implanting memories so the customer believes they’ve truly lived them—deals their trademarked “egotrips” as added bonuses to a fantasy vacation literally too good to be true. Why escape reality as yourself when you could lounge around as a millionaire playboy or gallivant across exotic locales as a James Bond-type putting your life in peril with each step? A platform for bored cogs languishing within the monotonous drone of unfulfilled lives, what if that boredom was a result of a memory already altered? What if the urge for excitement leads someone to be implanted with the exact thing he lost? Can one’s intrinsic desire to be who he is free him from suppression to unconsciously escape the lie?

Fortunately for Quaid the answer is yes. Unfortunately, discovering his identity makes him a wanted man. Those he trusted are revealed to be plants sent by the mysterious Agency to watch over him; the reasons why only found on the red rock haunting his dreams. Still unsure if he’s been there or simply remembers what he paid Rekall to implant, a mission for redemption is laid forth that may or may not be real. Silenced by Cohaagen (Ronny Cox)—the malicious bureaucratic leader of Mars accruing riches by selling air to the now mutated populace of settlers who built the planet’s intricate cliff-faced cities—the knowledge he erased from Quaid’s mind could potentially lead chief rebel Kuato to victory. Torn between who he is and who he was, Douglas must choose whether to save the innocent or help nail their coffin shut.

Coined a “thinking man’s action flick”—a demeaning term, I think—Total Recall uses Dick’s Big Brother ideas to tell its politically motivated tale of greed, corruption, and dystopic horror in a surprisingly fun way. While the unfortunate citizens of Mars slowly die from poverty and environmental tyranny, their eccentric artistry titillates thanks to Lycia Naff‘s iconic chest, disgusts with Kuato, and endears itself through Sasha Rionda‘s mutilated child. We relate to their plight because they are deformed humans and not aliens, allowing Schwarzenegger to become a savior of men. But alongside the drama lies a welcome level of campy humor in both performances and situations. Cheesy lines coexist with over-the-top violence as the futuristic world put on display allows for creativity to run rampant—as much a showcase for its big budget effects as it is the overblown action.

Both actors and machines—Mel Johnson Jr.‘s sidekick cabbie Benny and the robotic Johnny-Cab respectively—add snarky comedy while awesome sci-fi staples like holographic projections excite in their realism. The production design itself stands apart from its contemporaries as far as artistic vision goes especially since the lack of digital compositing meant everything onscreen save the x-ray weapon scanner was shot on camera and meticulous combined together in post. Stark, concrete architecture of the New Brutalist persuasion of Mexico City served as Earth while Mars was created in miniature; animatronic puppetry is utilized as identity becomes hidden physically and mentally; characters are mowed down in a bloody mess of carnage originally landing the film an X rating; and Quaid’s two love interests get the chance to rumble hand-to-hand while the boys play with their guns.

Rachel Ticotin‘s headstrong, badass revolutionary counters Sharon Stone‘s duplicitous wife Lori—a memorable performance worth revisiting once aware of the twists and turns to come. Cox’s Cohaagen is the perfect amount of sleaze, Marshall Bell and Dean Norris are effective revolutionaries, and Michael Ironside‘s Richter pursues Quaid with an unrelenting tenacity unafraid to hide the enjoyment he’d have killing his target. But while these characters fit nicely inside the narrative’s playground for social commentary and inventive spectacle, it’s Schwarzenegger who really impacts the story. I could see the producers’ original choice of Patrick Swayze aligning more with Dick’s Quail, but no one other than Arnold could embody the physicality needed for Quaid. An autonomous sibling to its source material, Total Recall is cinematic splendor at its most ostentatious and an exhilarating romp that works whether you delve below the surface or not.

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