Movie Review – Total Recall (1990)
by NIR SHALEV
Philip K. Dick was definitely an oddball writer. His works became some of the most influential science fiction tales of the second half of the twentieth century and a nice chunk of them were adapted to the big screen. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was adapted into Blade Runner, the movie of “Minority Report” kept the title but contains a different story entirely, while “A Scanner Darkly” remains the one adaptation of his that’s true to its source in almost every way. More recently there’s also “The Adjustment Team” that was adapted into The Adjustment Bureau.
Total Recall is based on the short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, and Michael Ironside. The budget is humongous but was necessary in order to portray an inhabitable Mars that could be filled with people and, of course, plenty of practical special effects.
Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is an average man, save for his Olympian build. He’s married to a beautiful blond, Lori (Sharon Stone), and has a job in construction, drilling into concrete. But Quaid also constantly dreams of living on Mars. His dreams are always similar and contain the same beautiful brunette by his side (Ticotin); Lori is even jealous of his dream woman. One day Quaid hears of Rekall and investigates it. What he finds out is that it’s an institution that implants memories into the subject that allow the subject to “travel” anywhere in the known solar system; and there’s a Mars package. Quaid wants to do it but the doctor prefers that he goes elsewhere, like Saturn, because Mars is currently hostile, what with its government constantly fighting large groups of resistance fighters. Quaid insists on going to Mars and also chooses the secret agent add-on but before long, he wakes up and tries to break loose, claiming that his cover had been blown.
What we are treated to in the first act of the film is the virtual reality that is introduced into the film’s universe, and to a tad bit of politicking that takes place in Mars. Quaid believes that he’s actually a secret agent named Hauser whose cover was blown and receives guidance from a recording of himself, yes himself. He eludes the military forces that are chasing him and finally makes it to Mars, where he seeks out the brunette from his dreams and assistance from her freedom fighter friends.
Quaid is told that Mars was colonized centuries back and that a man named Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) eventually took the credit for it and had stolen all of the power that controls all the oxygen on Mars. Cohaagen’s now a megalomaniac that gets rich by constricting the most precious commodity that mankind has ever had, breathable air, and that is why a resistance exists and why they fight against him and his military forces every day. Simply for air. It’s rather a scary thought.
Quaid is also told that when he was Hauser the secret agent, he’d stumbled upon a separate conspiracy that involved the air on Mars, and as a result his memory was blocked and replaced with another personality, that of Quaid. Now Quaid must find his way to a mutant known as Kuato who is a psychic and whom can use his psychic abilities to tap into Hauser’s original thoughts and memories and remember the details of the conspiracy that Cohaagen had started.
Total Recall has a rather a complicated plot for a Schwarzenegger film but it’s also a relatively flawless one. The brilliance of the screenplay, aside from the espionage and explosions that are handled very well, is that the film’s theme deals mainly with not being able to differentiate between dreams and reality.
Before Quaid is put to sleep in Rekall it is explained to him that the virtual reality he would enter is indistinguishable from actual reality, so that his dream would never feel like a dream. In the ideal of going on vacation to, say, the Caribbean through Rekall, the subject truly believes that, upon awakening, they were actually there. That’s the purpose of believing in the realism of the virtual reality but when it comes to Quaid, is he really dreaming? Is the movie entirely a dream? Are parts of it just a dream? How much of what’s happening is part of Rekall? One can’t really tell, viewing this film over and over throughout the years, and that’s why the film’s brilliant. I still really don’t know where Quaid fell asleep or whether he did, and also whether Hauser ever really existed.
The film’s director is Paul Verhoeven, whose other famous films include Soldier of Orange (1977), Robocop (1987), Basic Instinct (1992), Starship Troopers (1997), and Black Book (2006); one can note that he’s rather familiar with science fiction and espionage films. He’s an excellent filmmaker who always shoots everything in focus and allows his characters to control the outcome on their stories, just like it generally should be according to screenwriting 101. The film was written by Ronald Shusett, Gary Goldman, and Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the screenplay to Alien (1979).
This is a terrific example of a film that requires a large budget in order to convey its brilliant imagery and the project had the right director who preferred to shoot everything with as much practical special effects as possible; that technique usually works much better than the alternative. The screenplay is also very intelligent and eventually delves further into double and triple agent territory but remains a mysterious yet wonderful action film. Oddly, the violence depicted within the film is excessive but stands to prove a point, and also it was toned down because initially the film had an X rating.
If you hadn’t jumped on the Total Recall craze when the film came out, surprise yourself by watching it now. An intelligent, violent, and visually inventive film like this is rare and should not be missed.