Released: 1 June 1990
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Budget: $50 to 60 million
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, and Ronny Cox
Construction worker Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) lives a mundane life dominated by dreams of Mars. Determined to fulfil his fantasy of having visited the Red Planet, he pays to have memories of a trip to Mars implanted in his mind, but awakens to suddenly find himself hounded by the ruthless Richter (Ironside) and, apparently, caught up in an interplanetary conspiracy that believes him to be the saviour of Mars.
Total Recall began life as We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, a short story written by renowned science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick and first published in 1966. The story told of a man, obsessed with Mars, who finds that he actually has hidden memories of being a secret agent on the Red Planet and an adaptation of the story, first drafted by Alien (Scott, 1979) writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, languished in development hell for many years. The adaptation passed through many drafts and the hands of the likes of Dino De Laurentis and David Cronenberg before Schwarzenegger, who had been aware of the project and lobbied for a starring role, convinced Carolco to buy the film rights and personally recruited Paul Verhoeven to direct. Total Recall was one of the most expensive films ever produced at the time of release, with much of its enormous budget needed for the copious special effects; practical filmmaking techniques such as animatronics, miniatures, and lavish, futuristic sets brought the world to life and created numerous challenges for the filmmakers. After being frustrated with the initial lacklustre trailers, Schwarzenegger made efforts to improve the film’s marketing, which resulted in Total Recall debuting at number one at the box office upon release and grossing over $260 million. Although the film’s excessive violence drew some criticism, Total Recall was, largely, a critical success and has since been regarded favourably as one of the greatest science-fiction/action movies ever made for its frantic action, enjoyable excess, and thought-provoking themes regarding reality and identity. Considering Total Recall was one of the formative movies of my childhood, and that today is Schwarzenegger’s 74th birthday, this seems like an appropriate time to revisit the film and talk about why it’s such a classic of its genre.
I mentioned just now that Total Recall was a massively influential film on my childhood and it’s true; it was unlike anything I’d seen at the time, with its fantastic visuals and bombastic, haunting score by Jerry Goldsmith. Many years later, I jumped at the chance to revisit the film as part of my Master’s degree to talk about its status as an adaptation; in truth, very little is actually inspired by the original short story (with the film’s first thirty minutes or so being the closest to the text) but the story’s themes of reality, identity, and paranoia are clearly evoked throughout the film, which is littered with allusions and references and minor elements that both explicitly, and subtly, tie in to Quaid’s chaotic story.
When we first meet Quaid, he’s a relatively mundane character and, despite being happily married to Lori (the delectable Sharon Stone at her best), Quaid feels his life has reached something of a rut; he’s stuck in a dead-end job and distracted by dreams of Mars and a mysterious brunette, Melina (Ticotin), and a desire to be more than he is. Unable to convince Lori to move or take a trip to Mars, he is inspired by advertisements for Rekall Incorporated, a futuristic travel agency that implants personalised memories of one’s dream vacation. Despite the warnings of his friend, Harry (Robert Costanzo), that Rekall’s procedures carry a high risk of lobotomy, Quaid opts to pay the company a visit and signs up to their “ego trip”, which allows him to live out the fantasy of being a secret agent on Mars.
However, during the procedure, Quaid suddenly freaks out and starts attacking the Rekall staff; ranting and raving about Mars, Rekall spokesman Bob McClane (Ray Baker) makes the decision to subdue Quaid, partially wipe his memory, and send him on his way. However, almost immediately Quaid is attacked by Harry, who accuses him of “[blabbing] about Mars”, and is shocked to find he has a penchant for killing and action. Returning home, he is even more shocked and massively confused when Lori suddenly attacks him with a ruthless aggression and he is forced to go on the run as mysterious killers, led by Richter, hound him at every turn.
In the process, he receives mysterious messages from people who claim to have known him on Mars and even from himself under the name Carl Hauser; Hauser’s video message informs Quaid that he’s actual a double agent who used to work for the malicious Vilos Cohaagen (Cox) but switched sides to join the resistance movement after falling in love with Melina. Cohaagen is a cruel and vindictive corporate figurehead who basically controls the Martian colony since he owns the monopoly on air, charging the colonists extortionate prices for the luxury of breathing, and the flow of “turbinium”, a mysterious Martian mineral that allows him to be an extremely powerful and influential figure. Ronny Cox is a fantastic actor and always made for a chilling, supremely confident villain; his motivations, while based on greed and power, are surprisingly complex as well since he truly valued his friendship with Hauser and is visibly enraged when he is forced to order Quaid’s death. Cox commands every scene he’s in with a subtle authority and explodes into an unmatched fury at a moment’s notice but he’s also fully capable of chewing the scenery and portraying Cohaagen as a bit of a smarmy, self-righteous dictator who doesn’t hesitate to order the deaths of countless innocent people simply to send a message to those that dare defy him.
Cohaagen’s agent in retrieving Quiad is Richter, a ruthless mercenary with a personal vendetta against Quaid who relentlessly hunts down and tries to kill him at every turn. Richter, for all his aggression and sadistic intelligence, is merely Cohaagen’s pawn, however, and angers his boss with his attempts to kill Quaid (since Cohaagen wants him alive) and escalates events at every turn with his reckless and aggressive ways. Richter treats his assignment as a merciless crusade since he’s clearly harbouring a deep-rooted hatred of Quaid not just because Lori is actually his (as in Richter’s) wife but also stemming from unresolved and vaguely hinted events prior to the film’s beginning. A persistent and increasingly enraged individual, Richter doesn’t hesitate to gun down innocents or employ every resource at his disposal to hunt Quaid down; he also proves to be a considerable physical threat for Quaid and their final confrontation is one of the most brutal and memorable fight scenes in the movie.
Not that Total Recall is short on action or fight scenes, mind you; Quaid gets hit in the bollocks a cringe-worthy amount of times throughout the film in his numerous fist fights with Lori, who fills the role of a secondary antagonist. Though far sultrier and more manipulative than Richter, she’s still perfectly happy to engage Quaid in hand-to-hand combat and, largely, manages to hold her own. When not fighting Richter or Lori, Quaid is engaged in several massive shootouts in a variety of locations; these are made especially visceral thanks to the abundance of blood squibs and escalate once Quaid reaches Mars and the threat of explosive decontamination looms in the background of every subsequent firefight.
Quaid is also assisted by the literal woman of his dreams, Melina, a principal figurehead of the resistance who is initially antagonistic towards Quaid since he disappeared without a word some time ago and then reveals that he’s married. Despite this, she believes that he is crucial to their success against Cohaagen and comes to his rescue when Lori manages to subdue him; this leads to a more even fight between her and Lori that is literally over Quaid’s fate (and affections). Still, while Total Recall is an extremely macho film, Melina is able to hold her own and break out of her cliché labels (she is literally described, and “made”, to be “Brunette, athletic, sleazy and demure”) to be an extremely capable and aggressive character. Once she rescues Quaid, they basically team up for the remainder of the movie, fighting side-by-side and facing the same odds as equals.
Total Recall is full of memorable and rather shifty supporting characters; each of them, even the most helpful ones, seem a little off in ways that are clearly meant to rattle both Quaid and the audience. One of the most prominent is, of course, Benny (Mel Johnson Jr), a chatty and lewd taxi driver who Quaid meets on Mars. Though he seems to be a helpful ally and proves his credentials by revealing that he’s a mutant (Cohaagen’s cheap domes caused horrific disfigurements to certain colonists), he turns out to be a traitor to the resistance, resulting in a dramatic and imposing showdown between him, Quaid, and Melina in which Benny tries to run them down in a massive Martian excavator. Other supporting characters include notable members of the resistance Tony (Dean Norris) and George (Marshall Bell); George turns out to be the conjoined brother of Kuato, the semi-psychic mutant leader of the resistance who lives on George’s stomach. Revered by the colonists and seen as a hero of the rebellion, Kuato uses his abilities to reveal to Quaid that the Martian technology he briefly glimpsed at Rekall is the key to liberating Mars. A frightening aberration, Kuato is just one of many fantastic practical animatronic effects in the film, which also includes a life-like head of Schwarzenegger for the scene where Quaid painfully removes a tracking device from his head, numerous bloodied and desecrated corpses caught between the film’s many firefights, and, of course, the film’s depiction of explosive decompression. Despite the cartoonish nature of the visual, which sees Quaid, Melina, and Cohaagen’s eyes bulge comically from their sockets, this depiction of the characters violently convulsing and suffocating to death has some basis in reality but, regardless, remains an impressive and gruesome effect thanks to the grisly animatronics.
Given that it’s set in the still-far-future of 2084, technology plays a big part in Total Recall; the world is heavily reliant upon gadgets, gizmos, and automatons of all kinds, employing robotic taxis, holograms, and space-faring technology at every turn. Security is high in this world, ensuring that weapons cannot be smuggled into the subway or across planets, and Mars has been largely colonised thanks to a series of self-sustaining domed cities. As slick and impressive as a lot of Total Recall’s futuristic tech is, though, characters still rely on traditional firearms and melee weapons for many of the action scenes (there are no laser rifles here). This allows the use of technology to stand out even more, however, leading to a fantastic scene where Quaid and Melina utilise holograms to run rings around Richter’s men and ultimately bring a breathable atmosphere to Mars using ancient alien technology.
One of the biggest themes in the film is that of identity; Quaid is unhappy with his everyday life and the person he is and wants more out of life but is shocked to discover that his dream of action and adventure appears to be a reality and that he really has no idea of who he really is since he is missing memories of a previous life as Hauser. No one is who they say they are, with friends turning into foes on a whim and strangers turning out to be trusted allies, and these themes are first (and expertly) sold to us by McClane, who literally sells customers entirely new identities and the prospect of improving their perception of themselves. Another major theme is, of course, of reality; the film opens itself up to interpretation, featuring an ambiguous ending and inviting multiple re-watches to try and ascertain if the film’s events are real or simply a “schizoid embolism” experienced by Quaid during his trip to Rekall. There is plenty of evidence to support both theories, meaning no two viewings of the film are ever the same: McClane basically lays out the first half to the movie to Quaid at Rekall as part of his ego trip but the narrative often jumps away from Quaid’s perspective to follow Richter and/or Cohaagen, which would imply that the events we’re witnessing are actually real. However, later in the film, Quaid is visited by Doctor Edgemar (Roy Brocksmith), who relates that Quaid has suffered a paranoid episode and is stuck in a dream world of his own creation. He offers Quaid a pill that will allow him to “wake up” from his fantasy and return to reality but, at the last minute, Quaid rejects the offer as another of Cohaagen’s tricks and commits himself to opposing Cohaagen’s domination of Mars.
Ultimately, everything prophesised to Quaid comes to pass and the film ends with the happiest, and most unbelievable, of endings; Quaid gets the girl, kills the bad guys, and saves the entire planet, bringing a breathable atmosphere to Mars and ending the story on a white out, a popular filmmaking device used to imply a degree of ambiguity to a film’s ending. In the end, whether Total Recall is real or a dream is entirely up to your interpretation; I like to believe that it’s real, since the majority of the film is framed that way but, sometimes, it’s fun to see it all as a chaotic delusion of Quaid’s that paints him as an invincible secret agent who never needs to reload his gun (seriously, watch the film again: Quaid never reloads, he simply tosses guns away).
Even now, over thirty years after its release, Total Recall remains an almost timeless and undeniably classic piece of science-fiction cinema. Endlessly quotable and full of brutal fight scenes, gory shoot-outs, and some truly impressive animatronics, miniatures, and practical effects, Total Recall stands the test of time not just thanks to the meticulous attention to detail and tangibility of its special effects but its thought-provoking themes of reality and identity. Allowing for multiple interpretations and constantly throwing curveballs at the viewer, Total Recall demands several rewatches not just for the performances, action, and quotes but also to see all the subtle nuance and little details spread throughout the film that lend credibility to either perspective. Although nostalgia plays a large part in my affection for Total Recall, I’m hard pressed to deny its appeal and legacy even now, having seen the film countless times over the years. Everything about Total Recall has a slick, tangible quality to it thanks to the elaborate sets, amazingly detailed miniatures, and the abundance of gruesome practical effects that serve to punctuate every scene, making it absolutely gorgeous to look at even when Schwarzenegger is ramming a pole through some guy’s head! Even better, the film invites discussion and allows audiences to debate on whether they think it is real or a dream and, if you think the movie is a bit of a mind-bender, I would absolutely recommend reading the original short story some time since it’s one of Dick’s most interesting works.
What are your thoughts on Total Recall? How do you interpret the film; do you believe it was real or was it all the chaotic fantasy of a lowly construction worker? What did you think to Schwarzenegger’s performance and Quaid’s rivalry with Richter? Were you impressed with the film’s special effects or do you feel they are a little outdated in today’s CGI-dominated productions? Have you ever read We Can Remember It for You Wholesale and, if so, how do you feel the film works as an adaptation and what is your favourite Philip K. Dick book or movie? Were you more a fan of the 2010 remake and would you like to see Total Recall done again, perhaps in a way that is closer to the original story? How are you celebrating Schwarzenegger’s birthday today and what is your favourite Schwarzenegger film? Whatever your thoughts, go ahead and leave a comment down below.
Oh man, this is reminder from back when! I was really entertained by the movie, more so by the action, special effects, and technology than the plot. I remember thinking the discovery of previously hidden memories was neat, but then the action took over my attention. Later, I read PKD’s short story and was more impressed by the idea behind the plot. Who are we? Do we change our memories as we age, to make them more appealing to others as we tell stories of our past — and do we change memories to become more palatable to ourselves? Those kinds of questions are why I enjoy PKD’s stories. As for the movie remake, I thought it was disappointing — and the idea of a tunnel connecting Australia to the U.K. was silly. Would be neat if someone made a third movie that more closely follows the short story. Doesn’t have to be packed with action. More of an exploration of identity on how we perceive reality. Or maybe production companies would think that wouldn’t appeal to many viewers.
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It’s mental to me how great the 1990 film is and how well it still holds up thanks to the practical effects. I’d love to see a version of the original story done, maybe as a TV movie or an episode of something like The Twilight Zone
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