65. Total Recall (1990)

TotalRecall1Another entry from the Arnold canon, but not just another; as Commando is perfectly quintessential, it’s because of this film: this is pure Arnold, but with the added bonus of Verhoeven ultraviolence.

It’s interesting how, unlike Woo or Wong Kar Wai, Verhoeven came to America and made, by most accounts, his best film in Robocop. Not only that, he set his formula for at least two more payouts — to diminishing return each time, but ‘diminish’ is an oxymoron in the face of Michael Ironside’s arms and Michael Ironside being skewered by a giant bug.

Total Recall is an adaptation of Robocop’s formula, and so this becomes a director’s film. At one point, David Cronenberg was working on this, and although Cronenberg has never written or directed a Philip K. Dick film, the two seem like the perfect fit. But they wanted to do Raiders of the Lost Ark on Mars, and that’s what we got, for the most part. Leaving it at that however, would be doing a disservice to Verhoeven, whose stabs at satire often take shape as Johnny Cab non-sequitors and some of the cruelest collateral damage you’ve ever seen.

Also developing with the big V was world-building, to later culminate in Starship Troopers. Mars and future Earth are both intricate and interesting locales, busy with background details and always showcasing the bizarre visual set pieces that compose this film’s unique look.

Dean Norris is Vagina-Face, Quatto is a face in a guy’s stomach, three-boob chick, mechanical heads, X-ray walls, ancient alien artifacts, holograms… This movie is to the teeth with fascinating scifi set pieces and ideas. It’s a showcase of spy gadgets in a far-flung future, but unlike James Bond, Quaid is ruthless and comical, an extreme version of your garden secret agent.

All that above is fine, but it’s just for show. The true reasons I love Total Recall are precisely all follows:
“See you at the party, Richter!”
“You think this is the real Quaid? It is.”
“Hey Benny — Screw you!!”
“Consider that a divorce.”
“You blew my cover!”
“Get your ass to Mars.”

This was a magical time for action films, when lines were perfect for actors — no, icons — but without the post-governator self-awareness. Of course, this is another Dan O’Bannon script, and fairly uncharacteristic if Alien and Screamers (another great Dick adaptation) are initial indicators of his filmic style. But that Arnold has a kind of magnetic pull.

For the role of Hicks, which went to Michael Beihn after the original actor pulled out, or was pulled out, Cameron at some point considered Arnold, which scarily would’ve made Aliens an Arnold movie. That’s what he does. Robocop was also gonna be an Arnold movie, which might’ve worked but for the fact that Arnold is as big as Robocop and his rippling mass wouldn’t have fit in the suit.

He finally got his day with Verhoeven, and it was as spectacular and bloody as you can imagine. Maybe it was all a dream… No, shut up — it was far too visceral, and ambiguity is for those weak-sauce Dick adaptations that respect the author, like A Scanner Darkly, and Blade Runner. There’s room for those. But we believe in diversity here.

A note about the remake: for completely different reasons, Total Recall (2012) was one of my favorite films of that year. An action movie with a relentless pace and shockingly entertaining performance from Kate Beckinsale. Off Underworld, you wouldn’t expect her to be so electric. But my beef with the remake is that the director Len Wiseman claimed to stay truer to the source material, when the movie produced was the 1990 story again but with a lot of it stripped out — refined toward pure action, but gutted nonetheless. The original short story ends with an invasion of tiny, apocalyptic frogs — nobody stayed true to the source material. And for that, I guess in the end I’m thankful. Two great movies, but very different.

3 thoughts on “65. Total Recall (1990)

  1. “although Cronenberg has never written or directed a Philip K. Dick film…” Not officially. Unofficially, eXistenZ is more or less a PKD film, and it does a better job at capturing the essence of his writing than a lot of the official adaptations.

    I think the best Dick adaptations are the ones in which the director puts his own stamp on the material while keeping Dick’s themes. Blade Runner captures Dick’s themes (more than the plot) but is also very much a Ridley Scott movie, same for Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly and eXistenZ… that last one is certainly a Cronenberg movie, not just a Dick movie as directed by Cronenberg.

    I suppose the 2012 version of Recall is more faithful in the sense that nobody ever goes to Mars, but I’m no purist, and I would argue that going to Mars was an improvement that the 1990 version made over the source material.

    1. I never thought about eXistenZ like that but it totally is a Cronenberg’ed version of Ubik. And both Spider and eXistenZ, if I remember correctly, end on that same horrifying note as in the book.

      I actually disagree that the best Dick adaptations are more director than writer, just because of A Scanner Darkly and Screamers, which are among the best and very faithful to the source material — the two most faithful, in my experience. And I’m about 50/50 on Linklater, and this is the least like his other movies. Blade Runner is that special case where the adaptation was better than the novel, and less Dick, more emotional drama.

      You wonder how Mars even entered into the picture, honestly. But — it all worked out. Total Recall is so iconic because of it and all these things

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