More noise than signal

Total Recall

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

Paul Verhoeven is a director who seems to seek out controversy, and also one of he few directors who treats science fiction with any degree of respect. Robocop will remain a classic slice of sci-fi as well as a classic action film, and his later 1990 effort Total Recall deserves to be remembered with almost as much affection.

Arnold Schwarzenegger fills the mantle and broad shoulders of Doug Quaid, a construction worker plagued by continual dreams of life on Mars. Not as fantastic as it sounds, given that this film is set about a hundred years from now and a colony has been long established on Mars, home to a major mining program for the precious element McGuffinium, or something like that. He’s so obsessed he even asks his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) to consider moving there, much to her distaste as she refuses to even take a holiday there.

Quaid finds another way to travel to Mars however, using the services of the Rekall company. They specialise in memory implants, giving people the two week recollection of a dream holiday indistinguishable from your real memories – or your money back. Quaid snaps it up, taking on an additional option to spend his time as a secret agent, dodging bullets, killing bad guys, getting girls, saving worlds, that sort of thing. The procedure seems to go horribly wrong however, as Quaid starts getting hysterical screaming that they blew his cover. The Rekall staff think it’d be nice to write this off as him playing out the secret agent part of the program, but for one minor detail – they haven’t implanted it yet.

Panicking, they wipe his memory of any trip to Rekall and dump him in a cab back home. When Doug comes to, he’s immediately waylaid by a co-worker who had warned him against Rekall, and he’s brought a posse along for a friendly chat and a light course of cranial perforation. You can’t possibly do this to Arnie though, and he quickly dispatched him in some of the most impressive fighting of his career. Arnie fights generally involve little more than straight slugging, (he’s more of a sidearm fellow), but over the course of this film you see all manner of nifty judo and neck-snapping action. It’s actually quite far ahead of it’s time. In 1990, most cinematic violence had progressed little since the black and white days, certainly in the more mainstream Hollywood arenas. Verhoeven was perhaps the first noted western director to bring in a more kung-fu orientated style into blockbusters, away from the more specialised kick-boxing movies that Van Damme had successfully carved out a niche for. In this day and age, when every action film seems to absolutely require a far-eastern fight choreographer and as much wire-fu work as possible, the action scenes in Total Recall look positively contemporary. When dishing out plaudits for this films direction, 2nd unit helmer Wes Anderson deserves just as many as Verhoeven does.

His best friend has turned against him and his wife is no better, also attempting to shot him then doing her level best to level him. She fails, and Quaid forces her to talk. She hadn’t seen him before six weeks ago, and all of his life is a transplanted memory created by the nebulously evil Agency. While all this would cause most people to pause for reflection, Quaid is given no such opportunity as he’s chased by Richter (Michael Ironside) and his merry band of goons, quickly revealed to be agents of the governor of Mars, Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox, corporate bad dude from Verhoeven’s Robocop). You’re going to have to like chase scenes if you’re going to get much enjoyment from Total Recall, as after the first quarter of an hour pretty much everyone is relentlessly after Quaid, with the requisite number of betrayals and double crosses as Quaid tries to work out who he is, why he’s being chased so vociferously and just what the hell he’s going to do about it.

He gets some guidance from a suitcase o’ goodies given to him by a mysterious ‘old friend’, in the form of a video recording of himself. The basic message – get to Mars, contact the underground resistance movement and use the knowledge rattling around somewhere inside his head to bring down Cohaagen. It seems Quaid used to be / still is Hauser, a carrier out of dirty work for Cohaagen. He’s left with cash, passports, a nifty disguise, a niftier holographic emitter for befuddling enemies (a la the Holoduke from Duke Nukem 3D, for the aging PC gamers out there) and a one way ticket to Mars

He meets with a contact in the resistance on Mars, a hooker by the name of Melina (Rachel Ticotin) who bears an uncanny resemblance to the description of his idea girl provided to the Rekall staff. Despite an initial mistrust of the reappearing Quaid, she soon helps him in his continual evasion of Cohaagen’s goons. Eventually the truth of what Cohaagen has been hiding is revealed, as rumours of alien artifacts contained in the pyramid McGuffinium mines prove to be true and their effects would be utterly contrary to Cohaagen’s plans to keep the planet firmly under his corrupt, dictatorial rule held by the simple fact that he controls the oxygen supplies for the entire colony.

As is pretty much always the case with Arnie films, by the end of it he’s killed the bad guys, got the girl and saved the planet. In fact, pretty much as the Rekall salesman promised. Wait a minute, you don’t think…? Naaaah. It can’t all have been an implanted memory. Could it?

Well, considering the general idea for Total Recall is from a Philip K. Dick story, a man famed for his musings on the natures of identity and reality, there’s a very good chance it is. Certainly Verhoeven thinks so, and there’s enough hints to pick up on in the movie that he may not be pulling your leg. The salesman pretty much runs down everything that happens for the remainder of the film, and that’s in the first ten minutes. Still, that’s so vague that it can’t be conclusive proof. More damningly, a doctor is introduced to Quaid while on Mars, attempting to convince him he’s still strapped in a chair at Rekall in the middle of a schitzoid embolism and tries to get him to swallow a red pill as a symbol of his desire to return to ‘reality’, a concept later stolen for you wholesale by the Brothers Wachowski for their sci-fi idea-thievery hodge-podge The Matrix.

While the salesman only gave generalities, this doctor describes what happens in the remainder of the film exactly. Suspicious. Of course, Quaid dismisses this as yet another Cohaagen ‘mindfuck’ and clinically dispatches of the good doctor before resuming his run & gun antics. The ending can’t really tell us much, it’s certainly unlikely but as a sci-fi film you have to expect the odd utterly unbelievable concept now and again.

The nice thing about the movie is you can make an equally convincing case for it all to have actually happened. Once you accept the film’s basic tenet, that playing around with implanting and messing with memories is feasible, everything that happens to Quaid could conceivably happen. The ending in particular might hint at it happening, Rekall say that their memories will be indistinguishable from ‘real’ ones, so why would they create a scenario in Quaid’s mind that’s going to be obviously exposed as false any time Mars is shown on telly? Giving the planet a breathable atmosphere isn’t exactly a minor detail, y’know?

The thinking man’s action film then? Perhaps, but thinking isn’t the main reason to see this. It is, after all, an action flick above all else, and damned if it isn’t a terrific one. Verhoeven is famed for excess, and it’s fit this genre perfectly. Everything crashes along at a breakneck speed, and the audience has as little time to take a breather as poor old Quaid does as a never ending stream of military types attack continually and relentlessly. Verhoeven’s touch is everywhere, even the details like Arnie using an unfortunate bystander that takes a stray bullet form one of Richter’s goons as a human shield, the corpse taking dozens of Quaid-bound bullets and being battered to a pulp before Arnie uses him as a makeshift weapon, throwing him at the advancing guards. Richter shows his disregard for human life and death by running over a corpse, stomping on it’s chest rather than make that brief detour around it..

If sci-fi isn’t handled right it quickly becomes laughable. Key to avoiding this is to have the actors believe in their parts, and Total Recall utterly succeeds. Arnie is rarely credited as a good actor in the conventional sense but he’s as convincing as he’s ever been here, confused and determined in equal parts. Sharon Stone shows a few elements of subtlety I would normally associate with her performances and she throws a mean high kick too. Michael Ironside and Ronny Cox are worth buying the film for on their own, Ironside playing the hardass, slightly psychotic henchman to perfection and Cox even more deliciously scheming, manipulative and eventually barking mad that he was in his similarly excellent turn in Robocop. Yeah, perhaps it’s a little over the top at time, but this fits with Verhoeven’s over the top take on the action film genre.

It’s one of Arnie’s more explicitly brutal movies, only to be expected with Verhoeven helming providing the usual headaches for the censors, but it works so well it’s hard to pick flaws. Given the setting, Verhoeven’s oddities in taste extending to psychic mutants and dwarf hookers (and a hooker with three breasts, stunningly) seem almost normal. The only flaws are ones that come with age. For the most part the settings are grim and utilitarian, set in New Mexico using buildings with a style of architecture known (incredibly) as Neo-Brutalism, and these all work well. Some of the special effects haven’t fared quite so well.

Along with many of the crew, Rob Bottin returns from Robocop to provide the animatronics and other visual effects that would almost certainly be CG these days. While his work on Robocop still stands up to inspection today, the things he’s been asked to do on Total Recall are just a little bit too bizarre to look good. I’ve no idea what would happen to humans on exposure to Mars’ atmosphere, but the asphyxiation seen here is a little too extreme to look convincing. Not that’s this is Bottin’s fault, indeed one other shot with Quaid removing his ‘fat lady’ disguise still looks pretty decent, but it’s jarring nonetheless. While that was almost certainly Verhoeven’s intention, it looks more daft than shocking when Arnie’s eyes pop out of their sockets. A few of the blue screen shots look a little iffy too, but nothing to write home about when the same flaws are occasionally seen today.

The mark of a great film is that it provides a lot to talk about, and the length of this little essay proves that there’s a fair amount that can be discussed here. There’s actually more I had planned to mention but in the interests of keeping this readable I’ll stop here, having I think already made a decent case for the film. I genuinely think this is one of the best action movies ever made, thanks in no small part to it provoking a few thoughts of the nature of reality and coupled with Verhoeven’s extreme and extremely likeable approach to ball-out action films it provides a memorable and visceral cinematic experience.

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