Total Recall (1990)

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Lowly construction worker Doug Quaid dreams, literally and figuratively, of a life on Mars; but when he goes for the cheap option of merely having the memories of a Martian holiday, the procedure triggers a bizarre reaction which sees him meeting up with his old self and going to the red planet for real. On Mars, he’s important enough for people to want to kiss or kill him: but is he working for the despotic ruler of the planet or the rebels trying to bring him down?

Paul Verhoeven’s film has a couple of things in common with Ridley Scott’s seminal Blade Runner: firstly, they both have two-word titles; secondly, they are both based on Phillip K Dick stories, in this instance We can Remember it for you Wholesale. Aside from that and the odd bit of thematic resonance that spills from one story to the other, it is difficult to think of two science fiction films that are more different in their approach.

For this we have not only no-nonsense action man Verhoeven to thank (if that’s the word), but also no-nuance action man Arnold Schwarzenegger; for Arnie is Douglas Quaid, visited nightly by dreams of meeting a beautiful brunette woman on the suffocating surface of Mars, even though he is apparently happily married to Lori (the gorgeous Sharon Stone). When Doug’s curiosity about Mars leads him to seek the services of memory-implanting company Rekall, he suffers an adverse reaction because it appears that some of his memories have been erased on a previous occasion.

The visit to Rekall also brings adverse reactions from his friend Harry and Lori, both of whom suddenly want to kill him; during his escape from more would-be killers, led by the single-minded Richter (Michael Ironside), Quaid hears a message in which he tells himself that he is not who he thinks he is, but a man called Hauser who has vital information for the future of Mars.

Quaid meets up with Melina, the girl of his dreams (played by Rachel Ticotin) in a sleazy Mars bar (sorry, couldn’t resist) called the Last Resort in a seedy suburb called Venusville; Melina is a rebel, fighting against the forces of the thoroughly evil overlord Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), who not only mines Mars for the precious fuel it provides, but also has sole control of the air supply that allows the colonists to breathe – Venusville is inhabited by a number of horribly-scarred mutants, exposed to poor quality air. Cohaagen is also guarding a secret, rumoured to be alien technology, in the pyramid mines, but as Quaid/Hauser discovers more about Mars and meets Kuato, the semi-psychic hero of the rebels, nobody (least of all Arnie) is really sure which side he is on.

Unlike Blade Runner, you could never accuse Total Recall of ponderousness. Indeed, between the fighting, shooting, swearing and a number of strikingly ugly special effects, the film barely stops to think for a second, which makes it the perfect Schwarzenegger vehicle. Arnie is great as long as he is killing people, or looking strong, confused, or angry; he has trouble with other emotions, such as playfulness or love in the scenes he shares with Stone or Ticotin, but his clunkiness is a great part of his charm.

Verhoeven approaches the subject with his usual eye for viscera, dispatching scientists, by-standers and hundreds of grey-suited stormtrooper-types in crunching, gory fashion. He also introduces us to some fascinating mutants, not least Kuato who turns out to be a grotesque baby, embedded in another man’s stomach (I can’t be sure, but I don’t think a model Kuato was the must-buy toy of Christmas 1990). Though it is very much the lesser part of the show, the plot bowls along quite nicely with sufficient twists to keep us guessing which side Arnie is really on, and ending with satisfactory if predictable showdowns between Quaid and Richter, and finally the despicable Cohaagen.

In short, Total Recall works because it carries itself off with enough gusto not to dwell on its moments of poor execution. For example, the effects with Arnie’s disguise on arrival in Mars, or on his and Melina’s exposure to Martian air, are disturbing but well-realised, and compensate for a myriad of clichés in the script, some very silly moments (such as the exploding ‘Johnnycab’), and areas where not enough was spent on visual effects – the matte shot which draws back to show Arnie riding in an obvious model train, for example, or the triple-breasted whore (who, depending on whether she featured in Dick’s original story, might have furrowed Douglas Adams’ brow). The film also features some of the ugliest ‘futuristic’ cars ever committed to celluloid.

Total Recall is violent and nasty, though nowhere near as brutal as Verhoeven’s earlier Robocop, and whilst at heart it is trash, it is at least fairly coherent trash which does what you would expect it to given its male lead. Philosophical questions about whether memories create identity are better left to the likes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Arnie is quite rightly content with getting his guns and his ass to Mars.

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