Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall is one of the most fascinating science fiction films of all-time and certainly one of the most enjoyable. This 1990 extravaganza is equal parts lunacy and complexity, with Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” tale serving as the foundation.
The Dick story, rendered into a taut screenplay by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon and Gary Goldman, explores concepts of memory and reality. Something called “extra-factual memory” enters the mix and conscious memories are distorted with entrenched reality. Verhoeven manipulates these concepts with a satirical bent and a mind for modern blood-and-guts action.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is Quaid, a construction worker in the year 2084. He lives a simple life with his wife Lori (Sharon Stone), but he’s always wanted to go to Mars. There is political conflict on the red planet, with Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) fighting back rebels. Quaid sees an advertisement for Rekall, a service that will implant memories, and decides to check it out.
Rekall, headed by Richter (Michael Ironside), convinces Quaid to take the “ego trip” option. This allows him the memories of the Mars trip, but he’ll be a secret agent. Unfortunately, something goes wrong during the procedure and the lines between reality, memory and implanted memory are blurred.
The concept of Rekall is captivating, as we wonder what makes memories real. The notion of buying memories isn’t impractical and the various “levels of reality” press the plot in stimulating directions. The audience wonders what’s real, just as Schwarzenegger’s character does, and that provides a compelling access point.
In lesser hands, the circumstances of Total Recall would melt into a baffling mess. But Verhoeven keeps building, providing the flashing lights and exhilarating trash of his landscape with enough context. The mutants of Mars have stories, lives. The squalid bars and locales matter.
Schwarzenegger has the distinction of playing an Average Joe and an action hero, all under the same roof. The secret agent caveat gives him the elements required to defend himself, but the everyman exterior makes him “one of us.” As an actor, he finds himself in the middle. Sometimes he’s confused. Sometimes he’s the defiant ass-kicker.
The action is thrilling and Schwarzenegger delivers a characteristic compilation of hits, with one-liners peppering some of the more enthralling kills. The “you’re screwed” scene is a howler, but nothing’s as funny as the swollen heads on the surface of Mars.
As with the best science fiction, Total Recall knows when to take itself seriously and when to hold nothing back. Verhoeven’s mind for the satirically violent future, evinced wonderfully in RoboCop, is blended with a Martian rebellion and the appearance of mutants like Kuato (Marshall Bell). This amalgamation of science fiction, action and absurd fantasy is top-tier.
Verhoeven’s considerations of memory, incidentally also a big part of the aforementioned RoboCop, matter because they speak to issues of identity. In the case of Murphy, the director forges the cop inside the silver exterior and builds him from the inside out. In the case of Total Recall’s Quaid, he blesses the character with a certain boyish wanderlust.
And into this gobsmacked desire to see Mars, Verhoeven injects violence and cold truth. Life is a struggle for the mutants. They’re abused and oppressed. These provocations, abundant in Verhoeven’s work, are the lifeblood of Total Recall. And these thoughts forge the film as a science fiction marvel, a movie as much about “reality” as it is about a three-breasted babe in a seedy bar.