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Non-Review Review: Total Recall

Total Recall, to quote the lead character, whoever or whatever he may actually be, might just be “the best mind%&@! yet.”

"Dammit Cohagen, give these people some air!"

I’d honestly make the case that Verhoeven’s Total Recall stands alongside Blade Runner as the very best of Hollywood’s seemingly countless Philip K. Dick novels. While the vast majority of Dick’s stories have a killer hook, it takes considerable talent to transition those ideas to the big screen – just look at the volume of failed adaptations hinging on otherwise solid material. While Ridley Scott reimagined Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep with a dull and muted almost noir-tinged future, Verhoeven takes just about the opposite approach, converting We Can Remember It For You Wholesale into bright bubble-gum science-fiction. In both cases, however, I’d suggest the skill of the adaptation rests on the confidence brought to the project by the people bringing the story to life.

Dick’s fans can claim that Hollywood has a history of abusing and manhandling the author’s ideas – and that’s a prfectly fair claim. After all, it seems reasonable to use the phrase “loosely adapted”to refer to the movie in question. Still, I’d argue that Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger manage to expand and elaborate on Dick’s core themes, and I welcome a lot of what the pair bring to the table. While the ingenious idea at the heart of the movie – the idea of implanting false memories into a person’s head as a commercial exercise – belongs entirely to Dick, Verhoeven’s undeniable style compliments it nearly perfectly.

Pyramids of Mars...

After all, a movie where you can’t be certain what’s real and what isn’t – whether the action we’re seeing is really happening or a delusion playing out in our hero’s subconscious – is perfect for the sort of absurdist overstated approach that Verhoeven brings to the film. In Robo-Cop, Verhoeven turned up the violence in order to parody the American action movie blockbuster, a parody so subtle that the movie became an action movie blockbuster in its own right. Here, Verhoeven’s ridiculous hyper-violence (to the point where I wonder if he got a discount on bulk orders of fake blood) makes us wonder if this is the fantasy of somebody who has watched far too many Hollywood action movies.

While the ambiguity left at the end of the movie will never be as hotly debated as “Deckard is or isn’t a Replicant”, I think that the debate over whether the adventure that our construction worker has on Mars is his real life or a fantasy playing out as his mind goes into free-fall has added to the movie’s longevity. Each viewer will inevitably reach their own conclusion, and it’s to Verhoeven’s credit that he keeps things relatively open to interpretation. Do the giant motorised drills constantly crashing through stone walls represent the very walls of our lead’s reality crumbling to dust, or are they just mining vehicles being used in an ambush? Is the bright flash that ends the movie sunlight, or the vast emptiness of a lobotomy. There’s no easy answer, and it helps give the viewer something to think about.

X-Ray-ted...

Of course, the fact the movie is well-made aside from the intriguing central premise is also something to enjoy about it. Verhoeven populates the film with the same sort of sarcastic materialism that we saw in Robo-Cop, with Quaid’s life seemingly directed by commercials airing in public places as much as by his dreams. Branding is everywhere – a giant Coke billboard is visible early on, and Pepsi is being sold en masse on Mars. Quaid stays at the Hilton on Mars, a decidedly upper crust establishment when there exists an entire class struggling to pay for the oxygen they need to breathe. Hell, I even smiled at the idea that Mars has its own newspaper – “Mars Today”, befitting the conscious parallels that Verhoeven was drawing between Martian and American Independence.

I’m a sucker for old-scale model work, and so I adore the production design for the film. Sure, a lot of the model work is quite obvious, but the film isn’t trying to sell you on the “realism”aspect of it all – it’s meant to feel slightly surreal and absurd, and the production design plays that up, whether it’s a Martian monorail or some of the special effects used to bring the movie’s mutant population to life. And, of course, it being a Verhoeven movie, it goes without saying that the make-up is impressive, if occasionally more than a little bit gory.

Face off...

The cast is interesting. Sharon Stone and Arnold Schwarzenegger aren’t the best actors on the planet, so there’s something slightly staged and awkward about their performances, almost self-conscious. It creates this sense that it’s all being staged like some large-scale pantomime that isn’t designed to convince the audience that they’re watching “real people.” Schwarzenegger in particular is an actor who is widely mocked, but has demonstrated a very canny choice of roles (at least in the eighties). The bodybuilder was one of the driving forces in bringing the movie to the big screen, even pressuring for a larger marketing budget and insisting that he couldn’t convincingly play an accountant. I think he deserves a great deal of credit for getting the movie made, and I think that a lot of the movie’s success deserves to be credited to Schwarzenegger.

The supporting cast is populated with Verhoeven regulars. I have to admit that I’m disappointed that mainstream success never really beckoned for actors like Ronny Cox or Michael Ironside, but perhaps that’s because Verhoeven was the only director who could cast them perfectly. I don’t think any actor other than Michael Ironside could have given the relatively small role of Richter a larger presence, and Ronny Cox was seemingly born to play these sorts of sleazy corporate officials.

A couple of problems...

I’d argue that Total Recall is a classic, and one of the highlights in the filmographies of both Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger. It’s got everything you need for a truly classic film – from a high concept to a snazzy execution. It’s out of this world.

4 Responses

  1. Great review and agree that this is a classic sci-fi movie and one I still remember. What are your thoughts on the remake?

    • Actually, I was at a film festival a little while ago where Sony demoed some of the footage from the remake. Like The Amazing Spider-Man footage (which was surprisingly good, even if the CGI Lizard needs some work), I found my position on it flipped. I thought it was unnecessary and pointless – and, to some extent, it still is. But it does look like an attempt to do something markedly different, with a whole new design aesthetic and atmosphere, rather than a direct attempt to ape the original. I’m not expecting anything ground-breaking, but I’ll give it a shot.

  2. Alright..I’m sure I’m going to see it as well, but must say I’m not expecting it to be better than the original…

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