FILM REVIEW: Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall (USA, 1990)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox

There’s nothing more annoying than a stupid film which pretends to be clever. The worst offender would be Guy Ritchie’s Revolver, which presents itself as a great metaphysical journey in a desperate attempt to cover up its total meat-headed idiocy. It’s possible to love a stupid film if it knows it is stupid, but something like Revolver will get on your nerves for days.

Total Recall, on the other hand, is a clever film which appears to be very stupid, and which will linger somewhere in your subconscious as you try to work it all out. While not the most successful adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s work, there is plenty to both admire and enjoy about Total Recall, and it remains one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best films.Watching a Paul Verhoeven film is like trying to peel an onion while wearing boxing gloves. On the surface his Hollywood movies especially are trashy, pungent affairs with lots of violence, lots of sleaze and lots of swearing. He has often been accused of only being interested in dumb entertainment or base titillation – and in the case of Showgirls, they may have a point. But once all the flashy layers have been stripped away, his films do contain real substance, and are in many cases quite profound.

To reach the nugget of truth at the heart of Total Recall, we have to peel away several layers, each of which would seem like overkill to the squeamish or uninitiated. The first of these layers is the abundance of action movie clichés which threaten to distract us and undermine the story. In true Lethal Weapon style, there is a big action sequence every ten to fifteen minutes, in which our hero always manages to defeat the bad guys and get away unscathed. This may be down to events in pre-production, when David Cronenberg was set to direct; he fell out with writers Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon (Alien) who had re-envisioned Dick’s short story as “Raiders of the Lost Ark goes to Mars”.Thankfully, Verhoeven is too smart to let such frivolities swamp the film. Much like John McTiernan did with Die Hard, the action sequences are carefully positioned within the storyline and are punctuated by complex sections of dialogue, some of which contain the key to understanding Quaid’s predicament. Hence it is never really possible to just sit back and nod off; you may occasionally flinch, but you never want to walk out, for fear of missing something important which is coming up. Verhoeven should also be credited for giving us two strong female characters; both Lori and Mellina are strong-willed, independent and can kick butt just as well as the men.The second level we have to negotiate is the explicit sexual content. Dick’s other work has explored the secondary position of women in future societies; in Blade Runner Zhora makes a living as an erotic dancer and Pris is described as a “basic pleasure model”. But while Ridley Scott treated these characters with great sensitivity, Verhoeven takes an almost adolescent pleasure in shooting half-naked women. No-one else would get away with staging large parts of the film in a mutant brothel, whose inhabitants include a dwarf prostitute and a hooker with three breasts.

But again, just when you think everything is about to collapse, Verhoeven tugs on the reins and pulls everything back together. If there were individual patches of sexual gratuity nestled amongst more ‘serious’ scenes, we would quickly lose patience with the film. But because the sleaze is so all-encompassing, we either get bored with it or accept it before getting back to the story. The first time the three-breasted girl opens her shirt, the teenage urges take hold (at least among men) and we briefly gawk at the screen. But the more such events happen, the more blasé they become so we eventually just recognise them as part of the culture and refocus on the characters. Pulling this off in such outré circumstances is the sign of a smart filmmaker.The third level through which we have to navigate is the flesh-ripping violence. Being an 18 certificate film, the violence is a lot more graphic and realistic than in most mainstream action films. This is not a film in which people are punched in the face and then get up unscathed, or one in which people’s agony is kept off-screen. Amongst others, Total Recall has a scientist having a six-inch bolt shoved through his head, a henchman having his arms severed off by a lift, the villain’s head being distorted in outer space and Arnold being repeatedly kicked in the nuts. And that’s on top of all the gunfire and realistic blood.Total Recall is a full-on film, but all of the violence is meaningful. Verhoeven’s pull-no-punches approach is an emphatic way of demonstrating the level of danger Quaid and Mellina are in. In something like Star Wars, our heroes are fighting such a large number of interchangeable enemies that we never really identify with said enemies and don’t focus on their pain. Here, we feel the pain of all the characters; their shocking deaths and injuries demonstrate the social instability of this dystopia and by no means glamorise violence. The special effects are created by Rob Bottin, who also designed the effects for The Thing, and his use of animatronics and latex rubber give the film a painful physicality.

Having gotten through all that, we finally arrive at the substance of the film. As in Blade Runner, a great deal of Total Recall is about an underclass who are being mistreated by a corrupt corporate world, in this case by a tycoon who controls the air supply of the Martian colony. And like Blade Runner, the film ends with some form of redemption for these characters, albeit via a conventional kind of happy ending. Both Roy Batty releasing the dove as he dies and the mutants watching the mountain overflow with oxygen are moments which are steeped in Biblical imagery; the final shot depicts Quaid and Mellina as both the saviours of the world and as a new Adam and Eve.Most of Total Recall, however, is about questioning our perceptions of reality. As in Mulholland Drive, there is the ongoing possibility that everything we are seeing is a dream, and it is difficult to pinpoint where reality may begin and end. In one version, Quaid is genuinely Quaid, and everything we see from the scenes in Rekall is just the memory implant playing out; the implant was designed as a secret agent mission, and the line about it not being put in yet could be a red herring. In another version, Quaid is Hauser after his memory was erased; everything on Mars is real and Lori is not his wife. The film is constantly disorientating, and probably tries the same trick too many times to be fully effective.
Total Recall is an intelligent no-holes-barred action movie which can be enjoyed either as cheesy, dumb spectacle or as an examination of dreams and social inequality. Because it is so disorientating, it is easy to get lost and assume that the whole thing is hokum; it’s not the kind of film you can pick up after coming in halfway through. It’s full-on nature also means that many won’t get through it in one sitting; if you can get past Arnold being disguised as a women with an exploding head who can only say “Two weeks!”, you’re doing well. It’s no Blade Runner, but it’s an interesting and challenging science-fiction film on a par with Robocop and Starship Troopers.

Rating: 4/5
Verdict: Sleazy but stimulating


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