Friday, August 22, 2014

Total Recall (1990)

For about a decade director Paul Verhoeven was a wild-man of Hollywood films. When Robocop literally exploded on the screens in 1987, it introduced his satirical, blood spattered, very R rated world. And viewers loved it (well until he did Showgirls, but that’s another story). Verhoeven tackled three sci-fi flicks in that run, and Total Recall was right in the middle. The question is, did Verhoeven overreach with this film, or did he hit that over-the-top sweet spot?

Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is your typical construction worker with a sexy wife, Lori (Sharon Stone). Since Quaid lives in the future, he has a dream of traveling to colonies on Mars. No seriously, he has this dream all the time. He sees a commercial for a company called Rekall that can actually implant memories in your mind. So you can remember the great vacation to Mars you’ve never actually taken. Quaid heads over to Recall, and they convince him to try the deluxe package, where they implant a fantasy version of the vacation – where you are a spy on a dangerous secret mission: essentially a futuristic James Bond. Quaid loves the idea and goes for it.

Well, there is one little problem, as Quaid undergoes the procedure, his mind snaps. His brain is flooded with memories of being a real secret agent, with a real objective. He starts to backtrack and realizes that Quaid isn’t a real person, his real name is Hauser and he is on a mission that involves a dangerous rebel leader on Mars. Meanwhile a relentless hired gun named Richter (Michael Ironside) pursues him, and a man named Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) seems to be playing both sides of the table. Hauser also meets the girl of his dreams (literally) when he runs into the sexy Melina (Rachel Ticotin) on Mars. Can she help him make sense of all these memories, or is it going to take a case of Total Recall to find a solution to this puzzle.

Good Points:
  • Some wonderfully executed action scenes
  • A propulsive and exciting score by Jerry Goldsmith
  • A fun plot that twists, turns and doubles back on itself

Bad Points:
  • The satirical undercurrent may undermine the film for some viewers
  • Not the least bit accurate in its portrayal of Mars
  • If you don’t like Arnold, then you won’t like this movie

Verhoeven takes Arnold and the viewers on quite a ride. The script always keeps you guessing with which direction it actually is heading. The violence is over the top but visceral. The sci-fi imagery is a lot of fun, and there is a lot of humor and satire in the film. It is really a well-balanced thrill ride that is still as entertaining now as it was when it came out.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Doesn't matter if you call him Quaid or Hauser,
he's still Arnie all the way.
In recent years I’ve seen a bit of a backlash against Total Recall, with some viewers calling it cheesy, silly and just plain dumb. I’m not sure if these were people that were clamoring for a remake that we eventually got in 2012. But after that film landed with a bit of a thud, the backlash seemed to have calmed down a bit. But really my question to all those folks who declare this 1990 film “cheesy” is this: have you ever seen a Paul Verhoeven film before?

First and foremost this is a Verhoeven flick from beginning to end. Doesn’t matter if Arnold Schwarzenegger is in the film. Doesn’t matter if this is based on a story by Philip K. Dick. Doesn’t matter that you’ve got Jerry Goldsmith cranking out an awesome sci-fi score. Verhoeven was in charge and so the movie was going to have all his quirks, his satirical look at life and that crazy over-the-top ultra violence that was his hallmark. Either you can get on board with that or you’re gonna find the movie to be… well cheesy I guess.

I've got a headache this big, and it's got virtual reality
written all over it.
Total Recall has some excellent visuals going for it, especially when you consider the film was made in 1990. We hadn’t quite hit the full bore CG effect boom that would be ushered in by Jurassic Park, so most of the effects work you see in the film is practical stuff. The scenes are Mars are the visual highlights with some really cool miniatures and matte paintings adding scope to the film. The production design gives Mars a real lived in quality, especially in the slum areas Quaid ends up visiting. There is a feeling of oppression in the design and look of these areas. I especially like the use of red lighting, particularly in Cohagen’s office. Red is a key color in the film, showing up several times in various production elements (and not just in the gore being spattered about). You could take this as a visual cue that all the red is tied to fact that Quaid is not living these events but dreaming them.

Beyond the literal “red planet” motif, there is also some very interesting work for the alien technology that we see in the film. The size and geometric look of it reminds me of the giant beehive in Mysterious Island, in some ways. It is a sharp contrast to the human colony settings, and the ones used on earth.

The movie does take some extreme liberties with its portrayal of Mars. The way the atmosphere affects an unprotected human is all wrong. The red lighting and even the shade of red used by the production team is way off. However most of this can be explained away if you buy into the fact that Quaid is imaging all of this. He wouldn’t have a firm idea of what Mars is really like, except what he knows from movies.

Johnny Cab is a glimpse of our future - now I'm
really scared!
For the scenes on earth, Total Recall goes for a more near future look. Nothing is really too out of touch from our world. But there are neat little touches that tell us that we are in a world where technology advanced enough to give people some additional creature comforts. Every women I’ve known who’s seen this movie, comments on the receptionists nail color changing device. Johnny Cab (voiced by Robert Picardo of all people) is an immediately memorable character. In some ways it still has that 80s vision of the future, something that reminds me a bit of the classic Bubblegum Crisis series. It all adds to the film’s charm.

Sound effects are pretty solid in the film. Nothing super crazy in the design department. Since the film occurs in the near future, most of what we hear is familiar sound effects from our own time. But the explosions and gunshots pack a real punch, and what else can you ask for from an action movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Total Recall represents some of the best action music from Jerry Goldsmith’s long career. The most interesting element is his use of electronic sounds to supplement the orchestra and provide a bit of a futuristic sound to the score. This is a favorite of mine from my favorite composer, so I wrote a whole blog about the music that you can read here. Suffice to say it supports the film wonderfully, and even has a couple of satirical moments of it’s own.

Exotic locals, dangerous locals and seductive women
yep, it's Bond in space!
At some point, the combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Verhoeven had to happen. You had one of the biggest action stars of the 80s with a director who understood how to film a great over-the-top action scene. How could this not work? For me this is one of Arnold’s best performances. He does a good job with all the aspects of Quaid, from the construction worker who is almost content with his life to the man on the run from a shadowy organization out to kill him. He actually looks afraid in this film, something that we really hadn’t seen too much of in films like Commando or Terminator. This role allowed Arnold to be confused, afraid and even a bit helpless at times. The exact opposite of what a super spy is supposed to be. But I also love when he plays Hauser in the recordings. That guy is such a jerk, really a 180 from the Quaid character we know. You can tell Arnold is just have a good time in this film, and that kind of energy really helps carry the audience along for the ride, and matches the energy that Verhoeven injects into the film.

Matching his enthusiasm is Ronny Cox as Cohaagen. Between Robocop and Total Recall Cox was one of the best villains of the late 80s and early 90s. Not as smooth as say David Warner or Alan Rickman, Cox still had a sense of command about him. In this film he’s a bit of a blowhard, but he is still in control (or likes to think he is). He’s a great bad guy you love to hate. Matched with him is Michael Ironside as the hot-tempered Richter. Ironside has a real intensity in this role, almost going over the top, but remaining believable as a guy who just hates Quaid. The fires of jealousy burn strong, because Quaid was sleeping with his girl.

Sharon foreshadows her skills for "Basic Instinct".
And when that girl is Sharon Stone, well who can blame him. Stone as Lori really steams up the screen in nearly all her scenes. You almost get the feeling that she is actually more dangerous than Richter or Cohaagen. She has a couple great fight scenes including one with Melina. It’s a shame Lori makes her exit about halfway through the film, a little more of that bad girl wouldn’t have hurt.

Rachel Ticotin as Melina turns out to be Quaid’s dream girl. She plays the role just as the script describes her, a combination of demure and sexy. She is one tough girl, and shares in the action and danger of the second half of the film with Quaid. Ticotin gives the part a lot of personality and you genuinely like her.

The script to Total Recall was probably the initiator of the virtual reality film craze that eventually hit in the late 90s. While we can probably go back to Tron as the grandfather of these movies, Total Recall was one of the first mind bender flick made for a large audience. When the film came out it sparked lots of discussion and I knew several people who saw the film twice just to see if there were clues to the reality we were seeing in the film. Essentially it was the Inception of 1990.

Red: the color of blood, oppression and Mars.
What helped the film was the satire that kept the film from getting too serious. Sure there were plenty of Arnold one liners in the script, but there were also moments like the whole Johnny Cab sequence, or the bizarre fat woman costume that Arnold uses to sneak onto Mars. There is also a touch of social satire, not quite as obvious as the material in Robocop. But I like how a guy like Quaid, who has a really great life, can actually be so dissatisfied with it that he would risk a lobotomy. Depending on how you view the ending, he may end up brain dead.

Total Recall works as well as it does because of the way Verhoeven keeps the plot and action moving. Things do twist around, and the audience it kept guessing, but the ride is constantly fun. There is also a bizarre visual, intense action scene or funny one liner around the next corner. You can sit back and take in the explosions and blood. You can try to figure out if this is all a dream. Or you can realize that Total Recall is a solid piece of entertainment by a crew and cast at the top of their game. For me, it is the best of Verhoeven’s sci-fi trilogy (including Robocop and Starship Troopers), and certainly superior to Hollowman. Revisiting it, I was surprised how much fun the movie was, and how well it held up. 

In the end, we all got our asses to Mars.
Part of Hitchcock's World: Blogathon: Journey Across the Cosmos Through Film.


  1. This movie was weird. I saw it last fall and I wasn't entirely sure what to make of it, though part of that might have to do with the fact that I'd never seen a Verheoven film before. That, and unlike many viewers I actually read the Philip K. Dick story it was based on before seeing it.

    Curiously enough, this movie actually is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the short story... sort of. It's a bit exaggerated at times but the first act follows what Philip K. Dick wrote pretty closely. If I remember correctly Dick's story might have even had those robot taxis (although not quite as amusing). Of course, given it's not a very long story that mostly just takes up the first act (up to around the point where Arnold has to put a wet towel on his head and shove a thingy up his nose) and the rest of the film takes the stories ideas into some strange new directions.

    1. Yeah, I've never read the original story this was based on. I need to read more of his stuff. Anyway, Verheoven doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who likes being tied down to a particular plot so much. His movies often go into weird and wild directions, and use the source material as the starting point. Sometimes it is a lot of fun and works great - other times (like Hollowman) not so much.

  2. Philip K Dick’s prose is clanky – read aloud it’s as euphonious as dropped tableware. I think this partly accounts for his slow rise to popularity. Nonetheless he is full of great plots and ideas. (I have his complete short stories & a few full length novels.) Ever since Blade Runner it seems there always has been a PKD adaptation in theaters or in production. This one is one of the most fun: well-paced, action-filled, funny, and with a cast perfect for the parts. Yes, it’s unashamedly silly in many ways (unlike the noir-tribute tone of Blade Runner), but it works. I can watch it again without pain, which is usually my standard for a thumbs up.

    1. Yeah it really is the opposite of the dark and grim "Blade Runner". I read "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" a couple years back for the first time and was surprised how different it was from "Blade Runner". But I think that it was a great starting point for the film, which also went in its own direction (like "Total Recall"). I remembered loving "Total Recall" back when it was released, but hadn't seen it in years. I'm glad it held up well.

  3. I agree with Richard B., Dick's prose doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. (Glad to know it's not just me.) When I first saw Total Recall in the theater, though, I was a bit indifferent about it. I enjoy the humor, and the roller coaster ride, but at times it did seem over the top with violence and profanity, and moreso the ending (which still bugs me a bit). If that were the "true" reality, it seems like Quaid sure would have an enormous headache the next day to say the least. :)

    I've seen Recall a few more times off TV, however, and I've mellowed and just enjoy Recall for the SF romp that it is. I like the visuals and the twist and turns in it and the soundtrack too. I was curious about the newer remake, but I'm a bit hesitant about renting it due to the reviews. I wasn't that enamored with the new Judge Dredd movie, and a lot of fans seemed to have enjoyed that one.

    Oddly like I like The 6th Day as well, which stars Schwarzenegger too in a similar-type plot.

    1. Yeah, part of me wants to check out the remake, but many of the reviews and comments form folks I trust have been on the poor side. So I'm not in any huge rush.

      Oh man, I remember when "The 6th Day" came out and everyone thought it might be a sequel to "Total Recall". There was much confusion. :) I still haven't seen that one. Might give it a shot just to do some compare and contrasting.