More noise than signal

Total Recall

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

I have decided that Total Recall is the best Christmas movie ever. Now, it’s got no reference to Christmas in it at all, granted, but if people are going around seriously claiming that Die Hard is a Christmas movie then I’m going to assume that the barrier for entrance for “Christmas film” is that “it’s a film”. Ergo, Best Christmas Film Equals Total Recall.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Doug Quaid, brother of charisma vacuum Dennis, appears to be a simple, mild mannered construction worker on Earth, but he’s becoming increasingly obsessed with going to Mars, much to his wife Lori (Sharon Stone)’s dismay. There is, however, another way to get the Martian experience – have the Rekall company implant a memory of a perfect two week holiday. Or for a small extra fee, combine it with a secret agent story, where you’re chased across Earth and Mars, fighting the bad guys, saving the planet and getting the girl.

Unfortunately the memory implant goes wrong, seeming to clash with an earlier mind-wipe. The Rekall staff panic, sedating the agitated Quaid, removing any reference to them in his mind and sticking him in a cab home. Puzzled as to how he got there, Quaid doesn’t have time to work anything out as he’s waylaid by a few of his construction worker mates who seem rather disappointed that he blabbed. He blabbed about Mars. The punishment for blabbing? Death.

Being Arnie, that’s not on the table, so after dispatching them with an efficiency that surprises himself he heads back home, only to find his wife part of the conspiracy too! Escaping a trap, now with Richter (Michael Ironside) and his squad of goons on his tail, Quaid is aided by an old Agency buddy, giving him a suitcase containing cash, a tool for removing a tracking device, a useful hologram generator and a video from himself. His past self’s advice? Get his ass to Mars, join up with the resistance and uncover his buried mental treasure to get enough dirt to screw the villainous Vilos Cohaagen, Governor of Mars (Ronny Cox) out of his job and preferably his life.

Quaid sets about doing just that, meeting up with an old flame that he can’t remember, Melina (Rachel Ticotin) and the mysterious psychic leader of the mutant rebellion on Mars, Kuato. Cohaagen’s goons are in hot pursuit, and while Quaid and Melina slip away, Kuato takes a bullet to the head. Well, one of his heads, at least. So it’s left to Quaid to action Kuato’s last agenda items, freeing Mars from Cohaagen’s dictatorship by starting the half million year old alien reactor Cohaagen’s been trying to keep secret, which will either destroy the planet or convert the planet’s ice and precious turbidium ore into a breathable atmosphere.

I love Total Recall, and have since first clapping eyes on it. It’s the perfect combination of Ah-nold’s over the top persona, Paul Verhoeven’s capacity for envelope-pushing and his (or perhaps his second unit’s) imaginative action set-pieces and stuntwork. In this era of PG-13 friendly action, arguable it stands out even more today than it did on its release, and it’s certainly still a very refreshing change of pace from, well, nearly everything that’s not Deadpool.

It’s essentially peak Arnie action, but this time it’s married to a plot that’s actually more than something lazily scrawled on a napkin. While it’s at best very, very loosely inspired by the Phillip K. Dick short story, it’s served to produce an engaging story with enough nuanced to be argued both ways as to whether this is a deranged fantasy of Quaid’s or not. Of course, suggesting it isn’t means placing a lot of trust in the mechanical engineering abilities of half million year old aliens, but if you want to take it on face value you certainly can. However, if you want to look at this through Dick’s recurring questions of what exactly makes up our identity, then you can find this to be an unusually intelligently plotted action film hidden under the camouflaging excess, perhaps rivalled only by Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers.

Mention must be made of the performances – while Arnie is, to an extent, Arnie as usual, it’s as close as he’s come to a character with actual nuance, but the supporting antagonists put this over the top, with Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside both being lovably loathsome, and Sharon Stone also given a decent range of

The effects, for the most part, hold up as well as the rest of the film – there’s a few compositing colour artefacts that seem to have been impervious to the HD clean-up, but the scope of the worldbuilding shots still look pretty good. As for Rob Bottin’s effects, including his bulgy-eyed head models, well, they’re pretty much iconic. They still look pretty effective today, although if I say “and as convincing” that’s a bit more of a backhanded compliment, but they still bring joy to my heart.

I don’t know if it’s right to call this the thinking person’s action film, but there’s certainly more here for the thinking person than any of Arnie’s other films. Indeed, there’s more here for any person, regardless of how much they want to think about their films.

For my money the best Hollywood action film to come out of the nineties, and well worth watching today.