Total Recall (1990)

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Starring; Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, Ronny Cox

Perhaps never has a genuinely good movie been more deliberately confusing. “Total Recall” excels at almost everything that it attempts, and yet manages to place enough doubt in the minds of its audience that we’re as quick to question the reality of the events unfolding  as is its lead character. Little hints are sprinkled here and there that seem to point to everything being “just a dream,” but then in the same scene we see odd behavioral changes in certain people. This lends credence to the notion that it’s all supposed to be real. So, which is it? I’ve seen this movie dozens of times now, and I still can’t say for sure.

Based on a short story entitled “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick, the entirety of the source material (minus the ending) is covered within somewhere between a five to ten minute period of the movie’s 113-minute length. The year is 2084. Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has been having dreams about Mars. It’s beginning to annoy his wife Lori (Sharon Stone), who has become jealous of the woman in his recurring dream. Nothing will have it but that, one way or another, Quaid has to take a trip to Mars. So, he opts to have false memories of a two-week vacation to the Big Red Planet implanted by the people at Rekall. The company’s pitchman, Bob, persuades Quaid to choose from a set of role-playing scenarios. The one that piques Quaid’s interest is the Secret Agent package. “People are trying to kill you left and right,” Bob tells him as he lays out the scenario. “You get the girl, and save the entire planet!” Interestingly, once Quaid has described the kind of woman that attracts him, the picture that comes up is of the girl from the dreams he’s been experiencing lately. Something goes wrong, and the technicians panic. Quaid becomes enraged, claiming that his cover has been blown. Bob tells them it’s just the Secret Agent portion of his memory implant that he’s acting out, but that can’t be. It hasn’t been implanted yet.

The rest of “Total Recall” is the best action film that Arnold Schwarzenegger ever made that doesn’t contain the word “terminator” in the title. It features several fantastic one-liners, as any good Schwarzenegger film should. It’s also one of his bloodiest, and that’s thanks to who was sitting in the director’s chair. Paul Verhoeven, already famous for “RoboCop,” pulled no punches with his first big U.S. hit movie, even with the cuts that were demanded by the MPAA. He does it once again, this time in literal eye-popping fashion. A lot of movies with too much emphasis on their violence often make their gore cringeworthy after a while, but Verhoeven finds a way to make you laugh along with him during his over-the-top scenes. My favorite that occurs in “Total Recall” is the scene where Richter (Michael Ironside) and his men are chasing Quaid through a subway. They think they’ve got him dead to rights ascending an escalator. Good thing that they’re the standard movie bad guys who can manage to shoot everything except their target. One unfortunate soul gets caught in the crossfire, and continues to get caught in the crossfire as Quaid uses the guy’s limp body as a human shield. The extent to which this guy gets perforated with bullets is as hilarious as it is graphic.

Schwarzenegger is good, but he gets a lot of help from his supporting cast. Sharon Stone is very sultry as Lori, and I actually find her character much more interesting than the tough-as-nails Melina (Rachel Ticotin). Michael Ironside is always reliable, as is Ronny Cox who, before his association with Verhoeven, wasn’t known for playing bad guys. I’m most intrigued by the appearances from various TV actors with whom I’ve become familiar. Marc Alaimo (best known for his work on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) has a good, if very small role as Captain Everett. Robert Picardo (“The Wonder Years,” “Star Trek: Voyager”) provides the voice of robot taxi driver Johnny Cab. I half-expect him to say, “Please state the nature of your travel emergency.” Also look for but don’t expect to recognize Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”) under heavy amounts of latex makeup as Tony, one of the Martian mutants.

“Total Recall” stands apart from most other Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicles in the way that it is able to blur the lines between reality and fantasy. This allows for an unusually complex role for Schwarzenegger to tackle, and he handles it remarkably well. He had no less than four writers, including Dan O’Bannon of “Alien” fame, to provide him with one of the better scripts of his career. It’s kind of a deluxe combination of several of his previous films. It has the mindless violence of “Commando,” the conspiratorial politics of “The Running Man,” the otherworldly sci-fi of “Predator,” and the mentally taxing paradox of “The Terminator.” It’s that last part that really drives the story of “Total Recall”: the uncertainty of whether the life you are experiencing is really yours, and whether the world around you is real or just a dream. Whether or not the movie answers these questions for Douglas Quaid is left open. While it gets bogged down during the climax due to a rather large amount of logic and physics-defying craziness, the movie’s greatest achievement is in giving its viewers the opportunity to decide for themselves how much is only happening inside Quaid’s head. Sometimes, “life is but a dream.”

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