Thursday, December 6, 2012

Reality Scramble

Film: Total Recall
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player

It may just be the small bits of latent fanboy in me, but I sometimes get a real kick out of watching Arnold Schwarzenegger. I know he’s really at his best in roles that don’t involve a lot of dialogue (like The Terminator), but there’s a certain camp appeal to Arnie that I find entertaining. There’s always the potential for a couple of bad puns when he kills someone and you can general bet that he’ll yell, “Come on! Hurry up!” or something to that effect to whoever the woman in the picture is. Yes, a lot of his films are crap, and Arnold is never going to go down in history as a great thespian, but damn, he’s fun to watch.

And sometimes, he’s in really entertaining movies. A case in point is Total Recall, based on the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale.” On the surface, it couldn’t be simpler. A guy wants to take a trip to Mars where there is currently civil unrest. As it turns out, he’s an agent under deep cover, and the trip brings out some significant problems.

The genius of the film, though, is just how much it plays with this idea of both memory and reality. Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is a construction worker with a suspiciously attractive wife (Sharon Stone). He dreams about Mars and a mysterious brunette every night, and eventually decides that he really wants to go. But, money is an object here, and going to Mars isn’t cheap. The alternative is a company called Rekall that implants fake memories into the customer’s head, giving them all of the good parts of taking a trip into space without the risk or the necessary expense.

Doug goes, and is immediately tempted by the possibility of what the company calls an “Ego Trip,” which means going as an alternate identity. Doug opts for “secret agent” as a sort of fantasy, and lists off some things he’d like to have appear in his memories. However, there is a problem when the memories are implanted; before the techs even get to putting the secret agent stuff in his head, Doug goes berserk. It appears that someone has already been messing around in his head where they didn’t belong—Doug has been to Mars, lived on Mars, and is now on Earth to get him out of the way of someone or something.

What follows is a paranoid’s fondest dream. Every possible bit of conspiracy that could show up does show up. His wife isn’t really his wife, but someone put in place to keep an eye on him. He’s immediately attacked by a co-worker in an effort to bring him in. Suddenly there are teams of goons led by Richter (Michael Ironside) seeking to capture or kill him. A mysterious man drops off a package for him containing a personally recorded message, a number of devices, and cash. And Doug Quaid, actually a man named Hauser, is off to Mars.

On Mars, he confronts the brunette of his dreams, a prostitute named Melina (Rachel Ticotin) and his nemesis, the man in charge of Mars, Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). There are also plenty of mutants on Mars, mostly thanks to Cohaagen’s creating insufficient shelters to prevent radiation from affecting the population. And there’s a rebel leader named Kuato who might want Quaid/Hauser’s help in freeing the population of the planet from wage slavery.

What really works here, though, is the amount that Verhoeven plays with the reality of the situation. Just as we get comfortable with Quaid actually being Hauser, we’re thrown another curve. We are constantly reminded that the film essentially started with people burrowing into Doug Quaid’s brain and implanting false memories there. We’re told of the rare cases that involve schizophrenic outbursts that result in the victim’s being lobotomized. We see that everything that happens ties back in to the dream spy vacation Doug Quaid asked for. And yet throughout, we’re never really sure what is real and what isn’t.

In other words, despite being a Schwarzenegger action film, Total Recall is also a really smart film. Paul Verhoeven generally handles science fiction in a fun and interesting way (particularly in RoboCop), and he does so here as well. The special effects, almost all practical, are top of the line and still really hold up. The moment of Quaid attempting to get through customs in an incredibly elaborate disguise is one of the most memorable of the film.

It also doesn’t skimp on the violence. There’s plenty of shooting going on and plenty of killing. In fact, this is actually one of the problems I had with the film. Richter and his band of thugs are entirely too trigger happy when firing into a place that is necessarily sealed off from the outside environment. At one point, Richter manages to shatter a few windows, causing several deaths and untold amounts of property damage, but he almost never hesitates to shoot directly in front of these windows as the film progresses.

I saw Total Recall in the theater 20+ years ago and enjoyed it then. I enjoyed it today just as much. It’s held up really well; Total Recall is great fun and just enough of a mindscrew to leave you with something to think about when it’s done.

Why to watch Total Recall: Films based on the work of Philip K. Dick tend to rock.
Why not to watch: You’ll never know what really happened.


  1. Loved this movie. A case could definitely be made either way, i.e., that the events of the film are mostly inside Quaid's head, or that what we're seeing is really happening. A lot is at stake: if it's all a dream, then the film's real conclusion is that Quaid gets lobotomized. But if it's all a dream, if we're really exploring Quaid's artificial memories of Mars, then why does the film switch point-of-view characters and show us, for example, dialogue between Cohaagen and Richter-- an exchange Quaid had no access to?

    In my younger days, I was inclined to think the whole Martian adventure was real. Nowadays, I'm not so sure. And I like that ambiguity.

  2. The fact that we see things that happen without Hauser/Quaid on screen and that these things fit is what leads me to think that it might all be real. There's even a little foreshadowing before he goes to Rekall that leads me in the same direction.

  3. I, too, saw this at the theater more than 20 years ago--during a tornado nonetheless. I suspect I remember the film more for the tornado than anything else. Still, I thought the story was interesting and it kept my attention. The acting was bad, bad.

  4. I'm with you, Steve. Along with this being one the most fun Schwarzenegger movies, this has the dynamic duo of character actors with Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside. Both of those guys can do no wrong, especially in a movie like Total Recall.

  5. @Kim--yeah, the acting isn't fantastic. I don't really care, though. With a Schwarzenegger film, I'm not expecting Shakespeare in the Park.

    @Dan--It's hard to dislike Michael Ironside, and I do love Ronny Cox. I always forget that he's in Beverly Hills Cop, and I recently discovered that he was in Deliverance. Gotta love the guy!

    1. Ronny Cox is all over the '80s and early '90s. Robocop is his most glorious bad guy role, along with the great Kurtwood Smith. Both Ironside and Cox have started showing up in TV roles recently, and they're still awesome even in small parts.

  6. I remember when I saw it in the theatre, at the end I was just waiting for him to wake up in the chair at Rekall. Glad he didn't.

    Great movie, although I think you've actually understated the graphicness of the violence. :-)

    1. Yeah, I probably did. Evidently, the original cut of the film was X-rated because of the violence.

  7. When this movie fist came out I watched it all the time on HBO because of that three breasted woman and because I was 12. It wasn't until years later that I learned it was actually a great, psychological film from some fascinating source material.

  8. It's pretty damn campy, but it's also a lot of fun and probably a movie that had little to no reason to be remade. Oh well, I guess Hollywood can't keep their paws off of a sci-fi classic. Good review SJ.

  9. @Alex--Everyone remembers the three-breasted woman! It's one of the things I immediately thought of when I put it in the drive!

    @dtm--No kidding. I have no desire to see the remake.

  10. I saw the re-make, it was definitely better looking than the original, but that's about all it had going for it. Despite the camp, the original is a lot more interesting and endlessly re-watchable.

  11. I left a comment yesterday, but I don't see it here. Did it go to Spam for some reason?

  12. @Klaus--Not having seen the remake, I can't comment, but that doesn't surprise me.

    @Chip--Not there. I'm at a loss.

  13. Okay, let's think. I wrote about why the original is all in his head and I wrote a couple sentences about the remake. I think it went something like this:

    The first time I saw this film I thought it was real. The second time I watched it I saw something that showed me it was fake. I'll explain. SPOILER WARNING
    When they are getting ready to implant the secret agent fantasy in Quaid's head they show some images. Among them is the alien atmosphere creator that we see at the end of the film. No one would have known about it to include it in a fantasy scenario, so it has to be all in his head.

    I saw the remake. It's a decent film. The people that were disappointed with it were either pre-disappointed because there was a remake being made at all, or the ones who were looking to re-visit the goofy fun of the original and instead got a serious action film. Other than a high level view of the plot the two films are really apples and oranges. I myself was hesitant because I had read that they were not going to do a trip to Mars. As it turned out the plot still delivered what it needed to without it (downtrodden, rebels, haves/havenots, etc.) It's definitely not a run right out and see it kind of movie, but if you were curious about it then I would say don't let the negativity dissuade you.