Wednesday, 9 February 2022

Total Recall (1990)

Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 science fiction film Total Recall is based on a short story (We Can Remember It For You Wholesale) by Philip K. Dick with a screenplay by Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon. And of course it stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, a big box office draw at the time.

Philip K. Dick also wrote the novel on which Blade Runner was based. Dick’s science fiction was noted for its disturbing and disorienting blurring of the boundaries between reality and illusion.

Doug Quaid (Schwarzenegger) works on a building site. He’s been having very troubling dreams about Mars. He’s never been to Mars but he’s become obsessed with the idea of moving to the Martian colony. His wife Lori (Sharon Stone) is determined to talk him out of the idea.

Then he finds what seems like a good compromise. He sees a TV commercial for Rekall, a company that offers what are in effect virtual vacations. You go to their office and they implant incredibly realistic memories of a fun-filled exciting vacation which never really happened. But the memories are so real that (so they claim) it’s just as good as a real vacation. 

In fact it’s better. They offer the perfect vacation. A vacation with none of the irritations of real vacations (such as the spaceline losing your luggage). And during this perfect location you get to have a steamy sexy holiday romance with a gorgeous member of the opposite sex. And as they point out to Doug, she will be absolutely his perfect fantasy woman.

You can also choose to spend your vacation playing a fantasy role. Doug chooses the secret agent option. You get to kill the bad guys, bed a gorgeous lady spy and return a hero.

Doug can’t wait. But it all goes horribly wrong. There’s something about Doug that Rekall didn’t know about. Something about Doug’s actual memories.

This is the point at which the movie starts to get really interesting. Doug isn’t sure where his dreams end and reality begins. The audience isn’t sure either. There’s the possibility of dreams within dreams. Doug’s dreams might be more real than his reality. His memories might be real or they might be faked, or he might be dreaming that his memories have been faked. At various points in the movie these questions are answered for us, or are they? Is Doug being presented with reality or more faked reality? Doug can’t be sure and nor can we. Everything is open to question.

This is also the point at which the action kicks in and from now on the movie will be almost non-stop hyper-violent action. With plenty of humour as well.

So this is a very cerebral piece of high concept science fiction and it’s a big dumb action adventure movie. It’s not that it switches between these two poles. Both strands of the movie are interwoven. It’s an adrenaline-charged roller coaster ride that keeps challenging our perceptions.

Paul Verhoeven makes this strange mixture work.

At various points in the movie we get revelations which suddenly make things clearer, and then we discover that they haven’t actually made things clearer at call. The revelations have just raised new questions and new doubts. It’s not that the movie is working on two levels, dream and reality. It’s working on multiple levels of dream and reality. The dreams might be real. The reality might be fake. It’s possible to interpret the movie in several different ways, depending on the point at which you think the movie has cut through the final level of falsehood and reached truth and reality. And depending on whether you think it ever reaches that point at all. All the possible interpretations of the movie work. You choose your interpretation and then you watch the movie again and you’ll decide on a different interpretation.

I like Schwarzenegger a lot in this movie. He could be very charming and very likeable with an engaging ordinariness about him. Quaid is a nice guy but he’s a hyper-violent nice guy and he’s confused and he’s emotionally torn. He has a beautiful blonde loving wife and a beautiful brunette girlfriend and he loves them both but they’re in different realities, or different dreams. This was probably the most challenging and complex rôle Schwarzenegger had played up to this point and he carries it off surprisingly successfully.

The brunette is Melinda (Rachel Ticotin), who was Quaid’s girlfriend only he wasn’t Quaid then.

Ronny Cox as Cohaagen, the virtual dictator of Mars, is nicely chilling. Michael Ironside is great fun as his chief henchman, the obsessed Richter.

Sharon Stone has to switch back and forth between two personalities, or two personas, and she does a superb job. It was this performance that convinced Verhoeven that she could handle her rôle in Basic Instinct.

Digital effects were very much in their infancy at the time. There are a few here but most of the special effects are done the old-fashioned way. And they look great. The Martian colony looks terrific - kind of high-tech but run-down and squalid at the same time, and very sleazy. There’s some amazing puppeteering and makeup work and miniatures work. Much of the movie was shot in Mexico City where Verhoeven found some wonderful New Brutalist architecture for his location shooting.

Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven share an entertaining and informative audio commentary. I get the feeling that Schwarzenegger is very proud of this movie, and with good reason. Verhoeven makes it clear that there’s no definitive interpretation of the events of the movie.

Total Recall had a very interesting production history. The idea of filming Dick’s short story had been kicking around for years. Schwarzenegger had wanted to do the movie for years. Dino De Laurentiis ended up owning the rights and he was adamant that he didn’t want Schwarzenegger. At various times at least half a dozen directors were in line to make the movie. Production had actually started in Australia, with Bruce Beresford as director, when De Laurentiis’s production company went bankrupt. Schwarzenegger heard about it, got on the phone to the guys at Carolco and within hours a deal was made. It was now to be a Carolco production with Schwarzenegger as star. Schwarzenegger had no doubts at all as to who the director was going to be. He desperately wanted to work with Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven was keen. Within another day or so Rachel Ticotin and Sharon Stone had been cast. The movie was now to be shot in Mexico.

You can enjoy Total Recall as an action extravaganza and as an arty philosophical science fiction movie and you do both at the same time. Very highly recommended.

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