Total Recall (1990)
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Written by: Dan O'Bannon, Gary Goldman, Jon Povill, Philip K. Dick, Ronald Shusett
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Ironside, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME:116 mins
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera
In the distant future, where Mars is being colonised but is on the brink of civil war, Douglas Quaid is a construction worker who has a recurring nightmare about being on Mars with a beautiful woman who is not his wife. Against the advice of his co-worker Harry, Doug visits Rekal Inc, a company which gives you fake memories, and orders a special package that will implant memories of an adventure trip on Mars as a secret agent. However, during the procedure he goes into a violent fit, ranting about his cover being blown and how men are coming to kill him. It seems that his memory was erased. Going home, he is attacked by several people led by Harry, and he kills them all. Then, his wife Lori reveals that his original identity had been erased and a new one written in, which included her as his wife. An astonished Quaid asks, “If I’m not me, who the hell AM I?”
Every now and again a science fiction film comes along which has the best of both worlds. It’s thought provoking, unpredictable and original, but it’s also really entertaining and has lots of things like explosions, fights and gunfire that folks can enjoy even if they lose track of the story. The two examples which first come to mind are Inception and The Matrix, but an earlier one which I think tends to be sometimes forgotten is the madly enjoyable, lightning paced thrill ride that is Total Recall. Though it was a huge hit when it came out, it seems to me to be usually lumped in now with star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s other dumb but fun action hits of the period such as Commando and The Running Man, whereas in fact I consider it a far better film then Terminator 2 and almost up there with The Terminator. That’s not surprising though because I love the work of its director Paul Verhoeven, who had the ability to make films which fit perfectly into mainstream Hollywood filmmaking but retained the edge, the intelligence, the satire and the fearlessness of his earlier Dutch work.
Total Recall began life as a short story by Philip K.Dick [the great science fiction writer whose work has been quite often adapted into movies, probably most famously as Blade Runner and Minority Report] called ‘We Can Remember For You Wholesale’. Alien writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett wrote a script in the late ’70s, based on the story, but it drifted through development hell throughout most of the ’80s, passing from studio to studio. Eventually producer Dino De Laurentiis took it on with Richard Dreyfuss to star and David Cronenberg to direct. Cronenberg spent a year working on the script and then left the project, supposedly because he wanted a vey cerebral film that was close to the original story and O’Bannon and Shusett wanted Raiders Of The Lost Ark Goes To Mars. For a while Richard Rush was going to direct, then it was Bruce Beresford with Patrick Swayze as the star, then De Laurentiis gave up and Schwarzenegger stepped in, persuading Carolco to buy the rights and obtaining veto power over the producer, director, screenplay, co-stars and promotion. Arnie chose Verhoeven to direct who brought much of his Robocop crew with him, while the script, which eventually went through fourty two drafts and was completed with help from Gary Goldman, was altered to suit Arnie’s personality and image. The film had to be cut to avoid an ‘X’ rating, with some shots deleted and others using alternate takes, though it remains an extremely brutal and bloody movie. Upon release it was a big success and surprisingly got some good reviews, though it’s not talked much about now. There was initially a sequel planned called Minority Report, also featuring Douglas Quaid, with eventually became the Tom Cruise movie of that name.
Total Recall’s script is, despite all the rewrites, superb; just note how economical the opening few scenes are, establishing Quaid’s life on Earth and informing us of the turmoil on Mars, and how each new twist of the plot, from reveals about who Quaid really is [or rather was] to what Cohaagen is really up to, is fed to us clearly so we can easily assimilate it, but never at the expense of the film’s incredible pace. This is to me one of the greatest things about this movie; it’s extremely plot heavy, and constantly gives us new information, but it never seems to slow down. Once Quaid is attacked on the way home and brutally dispatches his assailants, it’s just one fight and chase after another. The highlights include Arnie’s bloody battle with a huge drilling machine, female stars Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin slugging it out [though I wish this scene could have been longer], Arnie and Micheal Ironside viciously battling on a lift, and a great gun fight which makes wonderful use of a hologram. Much of the action has, despite the fantastical setting, a violent realism about it, slightly, but not totally, moving away from Robocop’s blacker than black humour and comic-book blood spattering. Make no mistake though, the violence is still ‘18’ stuff, with neck breaking, dismemberment, impaling and other delights graphically depicted. Of course, this being an Arnie movie, there are some cheesy but funny one-liners, such as Arnie saying “consider that a divorce” after he’s shot Lori who’s saying he can’t harm her they are married. There’s some wonderful humour elsewhere though, such as the robot Johnnycab, a taxi driven by a robot, whose programmed answers just infuriate Quaid to the point that he eventually rips the robot’s head off and the robot says “we hope you enjoy the ride” as he crashes into a wall. What is so good is that this crowd pleasing stuff never jars with the complexity of the story or the mind bendy elements.
This brings me to go into how clever the movie is, in particular its script is. You can interpret the majority of it in two ways, with the final scene actually very similar to Inception’s totem pole in what it does. What impressed this time round, and this was something I hadn’t noticed before, is that several times characters explain things that happen later, and even the basic plot, without actually seeming to. In particular there’s a scene about half way through where a certain character tries to convince Quaid that he’s living in a dream and that certain things will happen if he remains in this state, things that actually do happen throughout the second half, but it’s very subtle so you may not notice it. I can’t stop going on about how superbly balanced all this is; you can listen carefully and try to pick up all the intricacies of the story, or you can just enjoy the almost nonstop ass kicking. Verhoeven says that, despite all the versions of the script, the final one was actually very similar to the very first draft, and I reckon that’s true, considering how smooth and seamless it is.
Technically the film is excellent. It was one of the last major films not to heavily employ CGI [though it was used in a few minor scenes], and watching it this time, I felt great pangs of nostalgia at scenes like the camera swooping over models of the Martian landscape, or Quaid’s heavy robot-like disguise as a woman coming off in front of hundreds of people, a moment which really wowed me on first release. So what if a shot of the model head isn’t too convincing? Such scenes would be done with CGI now and I bet they wouldn’t look as great. Actually, I’ll correct myself; they may look better in terms of smoothness and design, but they may not look like they’re actually there, which is a problem so much CGI has. Another effect I think is really good is the puppet of Kuato, the diminuitive ‘freak’ who is able to live inside another person. Rob Bottin created such a convincing character that some people thought he was real. The blood and guts look superb [CGI blood just doesn’t work for me], and are aided by wonderful sound effects, such as celery being snapped to give the impression of arms and necks being broken. Mention of the sound leads me to Jerry Goldsmith’s terrific score [even if the main title track is a variation on that of Basil Poledouris’ Conan The Barbarian score], which has some pulsating action cues and seamlessly mixes synthesisers with a traditional orchestra, giving the soundtrack a slight futuristic feel without overdoing it. My favourite track is when Quaid, aided by Quato, remembers what a certain place of great importance to the story was, and as the camera soars through and above a striking set, which is full of tunnels and deep recesses, the music has a grand and almost spiritual quality in what is a beautiful combination of music and images.
It’s fair to say that the film’s star is probably the worst actor in it, but it’s also fair to say that he’ s perfect in most of his film roles, which were often shaped to fit him, and in Total Recall, while he doesn’t at all convey the astonishment his character should be constantly having, he does give a reasonable impression of somebody who is extremely tough and strong but is clearly out of his depth in the tangled web he is caught in. Rachel Ticotin nicely manages to be “both demure and sleazy” [as a character says], as Melina the heroine, but for me there wasn’t nearly enough of Sharon Stone as his wife Lori. Apparently Verhoeven wanted her to be topless in a scene where she is on top of Arnie and she refused, but he later got his own back on her during Basic Instinct, whose main female character, played by Stone, was inspired by Lori. Micheal Ironside, in a part Kurtwood Smith was offered but declined because it was too similar to his role in Robocop, adds another great villain to his huge list of such roles, here, aided of course by the script, playing it slightly tongue in cheek. Ronny Cox is simply pure evil as Cohaagen, a really convincing portrayal of an emerging dictator. If there’s one major thing Total Recall possibly lacks, its ‘heart’, or rather ’emotion’. Even though a movie of this sort shouldn’t automatically have much of that, one should perhaps care more about Quaid’s journey than we should. The film is never less than totally engrossing from beginning to end, but it’s hard to empathise with the central character. That’s possibly a problem with most of Arnie’s roles though. I can’t think of much else that is wrong with Total Recall. It’s both a great action movie and a great science fiction movie that picks you up right from the beginning, takes you on a wild, crazy journey, puts you down at the end and leaves you with a grin and a feeling of “wow”! As for the remake? Oh yeah, I’d forgotten that’s coming up.