What do you get when you merge Paul Verhoeven’s ability for directing ultra-violent action films with the conventions of an Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle? The answer is Total Recall; an exciting, thought-provoking and violent science fiction action spectacle. The movie’s plot was taken from Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, and the project underwent an arduous journey from page to screen. After falling through the hands of David Cronenberg, Patrick Swayze, a subdivision of Disney (who had Richard Dreyfuss for the lead role) and a bankrupt Dino DeLaurentiis, Schwarzenegger convinced Carolco Pictures to purchase the story and hire Paul Verhoeven to direct (Arnie was keen to work with Verhoeven, and had wanted to for several years). Thank God Total Recall was brought to fruition in this form, as it’s a thrilling roller-coaster ride of top-notch action entertainment that is unafraid to have a brain.
Arnie’s character here is mild-mannered construction worker Douglas Quaid, who is persistently haunted by a recurring dream about another life on Mars with another woman. Against the advice of his wife Lori (Stone) and his friends, Quaid visits Rekall Inc.; a company that implants artificial memories of ideal holidays. He purchases a holiday of an adventure on Mars as a secret agent. As the procedure is being carried out, however, things go wrong – as it turns out, Quaid has had prior memories covered up, and he really is a secret agent. A series of violent incidents ensue, as Quaid is pursued by government agent Richter (Ironside) and finds himself mixed up in a plot involving Mars Administrator Vilos Cohaagen (Cox). The reality of the situation is continually in question, though: who is Quaid? Which personality of his is correct? Is this all just an implanted memory, or is this reality?
Armed with a surprisingly satirical script (which lampoons everything from commercialism to the perils of excessive government control), several phenomenal action sequences and amusing one-liners, Total Recall set the benchmark for modern sci-fi actioners. Director Verhoeven even found time to play mental games and challenge the viewer’s perception of reality, much like any decent Philip K. Dick story should. By leaving the deeper mysteries of the film unanswered and with an unwillingness to address the dual possibility of the final outcome, Total Recall possesses infinite replay value. Literally, you could draw a different conclusion every time you watch the movie. This is the reason why this Arnie vehicle is so special: it’s not an obvious, brainless action-fest. More thought and attention pervades the film than one would usually expect to see in this type of blockbuster.
Total Recall also stands as one of the last big-budget action spectacles to feature classical methods of special effects such as models and elaborately-constructed sets. Afterwards, computers began to monopolise the film industry and directors continually got lazier and lazier. While movie-goers who are accustomed to crisp, modern CGI-laden films may perceive Total Recall as dated, these special effects are arguably more convincing than digital imagery. Additionally, Verhoeven is a director renowned for the explicit content of his features, be it nudity, gore or violence. Total Recall gained notoriety upon release for its record-setting body count. Many cuts had to be made in order for the MPAA to allow the film to enter multiplexes with an R rating. Also beneficial is Jerry Goldsmith’s utterly perfect score, embodied by the main theme played during the opening credits. Every note of Goldsmith’s work exudes outer space, sci-fi and action. It’s an effort that deserves to stand alongside other seminal scores, such as John Williams’ Star Wars music and James Horner’s work on Aliens.
Another of Total Recall‘s biggest assets is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance as Quaid. Sure, the Austrian Oak has never been an accomplished actor, but Arnie’s commanding screen presence is the reason why he’s such a great action star. The muscular behemoth makes sense when he’s cracking one-liners, shooting guns, running and shooting more guns, so it’s fortunate that the role was tailored to his strengths. In the supporting cast, Michael Ironside and Ronny Cox are laughably over-the-top as the main villains. Sharon Stone, while not Oscar-worthy, also submitted a fun performance here. It’s interesting to note that Stone has played a love interest for both Arnie and Sylvester Stallone during her career (Stone was Sly’s love interest in The Specialist). Rounding out the cast is Rachel Ticotin who pulled off an impressive performance as Melina.
Naturally, Total Recall is predictable and fairly cheesy, but in a sense these qualities are all part of the charm. There’s something exhilarating about revisiting a film like this in an era of toned-down violence and political correctness. As directed by Verhoeven, it’s enjoyably over-the-top in every aspect, from the violence to the sparkling one-liners to the garish special effects. Much like every other action feature Verhoeven has handled (RoboCop, Starship Troopers), Total Recall is also packed with more awesome than most people can handle in two hours. If you’re under the age of, say, 20 and you want to know why adults turned up in droves to see hardcore action films in the cinema before everything was toned down, this film provides the answer.