Back Issues [Sci-Fi Sunday]: Total Recall


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’m spending every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Story Title: Total Recall
Published: May 2011 to August 2011
Writer: Vince Moore
Artist: Cezar Razek

The Background:
Total Recall (Verhoeven, 1990) was the blockbuster adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. Though an extremely expensive production, Total Recall was a critical success and widely regarded as one of the greatest science-fiction/action movies of all time. Total Recall’s success led to a number of adaptations, including a videogame and even a somewhat-tangentially-related television series, Total Recall 2070 (1999). While Minority Report (Spielberg, 2002) began life as a sequel to Total Recall, we wouldn’t see an actual follow-up to the sci-fi classic until over twenty years after the film’s release when Dynamite Entertainment acquired the license and produced this four-issue miniseries that picked up immediately where the film ended.

The Review:
As mentioned, “Total Recall” begins right where the movie left off with no question about whether the film’s events were real or a delusion of hero Douglas Quaid; Mars is now home to a breathable atmosphere, effectively turning it into a smaller version of Earth. Quaid still struggles a bit with his sense of identity and self, since everything that has transpired is exactly as specified by Rekall, Inc., and, while he is grateful to be alive, he questions what is next for him now that his “Ego Trip” has reached its conclusion. While Mars administrator Vilos Cohaagen dead, his forces are still as loyal as ever and not only open fire on Quaid and his love interest (and member of the rebels), Melina, but also launch an all-out assault on the rebels of Venusville. There, they reunite with fellow rebels Thumbelina and Tony, that latter of which remains frosty and distrustful of Quaid (whom he continuously calls “Hauser”) and tries to attack him for his part in the death of the rebel leader, Kuato.

Quaid overcomes his identity crisis by becoming a mediator for peace.

Tired of all the fighting and discord, Quaid opts to go against Tony’s advice and dive into gunfire to appeal to Captain Everett in the hopes of brokering a truce between the warring forces. While Everett reluctantly agrees to stand his troops down on the proviso that Quaid can convince the rebels to do the same, he also reveals that, with Cohaagen and Kuato both dead, anarchy is breaking out all over Mars and that Cohaagen’s two children, Milos and Vila, are set to arrive and act as the new administrators of the planet. Milos and Vila vow to continue the mining of “Turbinium” (or “Terbinium”; both spellings are used at various points) and to improve the quality of life on Mars while still supporting the war effort back on Earth but it doesn’t take long before the killing and terrorist acts flare up again and the two are reinstating martial law across the planet. Additionally, the mutants of Venusville are suffering from an inexplicable, fatal disease of sorts that claims the life of Eva, the young mutant girl who told Quaid’s fortune in the film and who mutters, with her dying breath, a warning that “the Martians are coming”.

Mars gets new administrators, but conflict is rife as Quaid uncovers more Martian tech.

Tensions flare between Tony and Quaid once more over Eva’s death and the unexplained deaths of other mutants all across the Martian colony, which Tony is quick to pin on the Cohaagens. Quaid, however, speculates that Mars’ new atmosphere may be responsible and resists Tony’s rallying call for the rebels to take up arms against the administrators. Quaid’s pleas fall on stubborn, deaf, and frightened ears, however, and Mars is once again thrown into bloody and violent conflict, which only escalates when the Cohaagens respond by cutting off the water supply to know-rebel areas of the planet. The result is many people protest at being tarnished with the same brush, many other die, and the Mars military relentlessly hunt down and kill or arrest any rebels and mutants they come across. Quaid is, however, able to buy the rebels of Venusville time to get them to some kind of safety by pleading with one of the army’s sergeants (who know that Quaid, the muscle-bound action hero who never reloaded his gun once, was such a diplomat?) Still, Quaid is preoccupied with the continued warning about the “Martians” and heads back to the Pyramid Mines in hopes of finding some kind of answers.

The arrival of the Martians throws Mars into further chaos!

There, he discovers another gigantic, ancient Martian machine and a mutant named Q’d, who bares a striking similarity of Quaid and keeps repeating: “The Martians are coming. I must prepare the way”. Fearing what the machine could unleash if activated (much like Cohaagen in the film, it has to be said), Quaid attacks but is soundly overwhelmed by the man, who activates “the second machine” to “[preserve] the Mar on Mars” by covering it in vegetation and, in response, the Martians return to their planet. The Martians’ arrival causes a great deal of fear and concern amongst everyone on both Mars and Earth; still, M’s’s, the enigmatic spokesperson of the Martians’ assures them that they come in peace and that their intentions are to help humans and mutants alike find their place on Mars. Milos, however, is concerned that the moss is a threat to their position of power on the planet and his desire to seek revenge against Quaid for killing their father, with all the fighting and bloodshed merely being a minor concern against that goal and the mining of Turbinum. Vila, however, doesn’t share this same sentiment and actually conspires against her brother’s machinations in order to make the most of her inheritance.

Richter makes a surprise appearance…only to be defeated almost immediately.

Quaid is largely nonplussed about the appearance of Martians (which is a bit odd and contradictory considering he was so dead-set on finding out what Eva’s warning meant just a few pages earlier…) as there are lives at stake from the mysterious fatal affliction striking down the mutants. Tony, however, remains unconvinced about his intentions and desire to track down the root cause of it all, and mass rioting breaks out, forcing the Cohaagens to turn to Quaid for help regarding their common interests. Although Quaid is able to track down Q’d, believing him to be the key to solving all of the recent problems on Mars, he is once again bested in combat and then ambushed by Richter! Having somehow survived his plummet, and his sporting mechanical arms, Richter chokes Q’d and then attacks Melina in revenge for her part in Lori’s death. However, Richter allows his emotions to get the better of him and is easily dispatched when Quaid rams into him with a digger and sends him plummeting down a canyon, wasting all of our time in the process.

The mutants recover from their illness just in time for the military to prepare to destroy the colony!

However, Quaid is unable to stop Q’d from activating the final Martian machine, bringing water to the Red Planet and causing both Martians sudden appear all over the planet and, in the process, mass panic. The illness that had crippled and killed the mutants suddenly has the opposite effect, imbuing them incredible physical strength and vitality, although M’s’s states that this as an unintended side effect as the Martian machines weren’t built to consider their effect on mutants. In response to the Martian “invasion”, Admiral Nimitz of the Northern Block assumes command of the Martian colony and orders the army to open fire on the Martians. Using psionic powers, the Martians are able to shield themselves from harm but many innocent people are killed in the fracas; this time, Captain Everett refuses to listen to Quaid’s pleas and the two brawl before Everett is ordered to cease his attack anyway. Much to the outrage of the Cohaagens, Nimitz plans to attack the colony with the Reagan space weaponry platform in order to cleanse the aliens in one move.

Quaid once again saves Mars from destruction and commits to his perception of reality.

Enraged at having his birthright taken from him, Milos ventures out with a gun to kill M’s’s and, when he saves the Martian’s life, Quaid. Luckily for Quaid, Milos is a terribly shot and Quaid is easily able to disarm him, though Milos refuses to co-operate with him. Vila, however, is much more co-operative and allows Quaid to take their private shuttle to the weapons platform to shut it down before it can fire. During all that drama, M’s’s drones on and on to Melina about how the Martians foresaw everything that transpired in the film (and this comic…though apparently not the mutants…?) and set in motion everything Quaid would need to bring life to Mars as recompense for the Martians’ previous destructive ways. Joined by Q’d, Quaid and Melina fight their way through the space station’s marines all while cracking jokes and quips. Still, Quaid manages to hit the abort button and save Mars once again. In the aftermath, the Cohaagens remain in control of the colony (and Milos begrudgingly abandons his vendetta against Quaid), the beginnings of co-operation and communication are forged between the military and the Martians, and the story ends with Quaid not really caring if it had all been a dream and just making out with Mileena.

The Summary:
As I mentioned in my review of the film,Total Recall is one of my all-time favourite movies; it’s action-packed, thought-provoking, and features some of the most impressive practical effects ever put to film. The film’s complex themes of identity and reality are matched only by how elaborate he sets and animatronics are and the film is almost the perfect balance of action, humour, and intrigue. I could honestly watch it every day and talk about it for hours and never get tired of it; the nostalgia and influence of it is that strong for me.

The comic’s pacing is all over the place and bogged down by exposition!

It’s a shame then that this comic book continuation is so mind-numbingly dull and boring! For a comic that is a follow-up to Total Recall, there is so much exposition crammed into every page, every speech bubble and text box, and even during fights! Exposition and world-building was delivered at an easy-to-digest pace in the film but, here, characters go on and on and on about basically nothing and it’s much more a tale of diplomacy than an action-packed thrill-ride. Quaid, especially, suffers from this; given that he (somewhat…) resembles Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s really weird trying to imagine the Austrian Oak spouting as much dialogue as his comic-book counterpart does. His speech patterns are so not-Arnold that it’s almost to the point of parody and I never pegged Quaid, a man who was bored by his mundane existence and relished the idea of being a secret agent, to be the voice of reason!

Melina gets very few moments to shine and may as well not even be in this mess of a story…

Other returning characters equally suffer; Melina may as well not even be in the story since she does so little and Tony’s animosity towards Quaid, while somewhat understandable, is comically exaggerated to the point where he dismisses any suggestion that isn’t all-out war. It was a nice surprise to see Richter make a reappearance but it was an absolute waste of time and effort as he basically has no impact on the story at all (his role could easily have been fulfilled by an extended fight sequence with Q’d). As for the introduction of Martians…I mean, what? Obviously the film hinted that Martians existed but actually seeing them was a bit jarring, as was Q’d’s inexplicable resemblance to Quaid (that I don’t think was explained…?) and the fact that they, too, basically did nothing. Again, it would have been a lot easier to have them be a long dead society whose technology is appropriated by humans, or the Cohaagens, or whatever rather than having them wander about making speeches and disappearing for huge chunks of the story.

Quaid often gets his ass handed to him in the comic’s few fight scenes.

It’s a shame as there are some glimmers of enjoyment to be had here; when the action actually picks up, it’s pretty fun and exciting but a lot of it eventually falls flat because the art really isn’t very good at all and Quaid is constantly being bested in combat. I suppose this has some resemblance to the film as Quaid did struggle when fighting Lori (Sharon Stone) and Richter (Michael Ironside) but I would argue that was mainly due to him being attacked when he was unprepared. Here, he often has the upperhand against much smaller foes, like Milos, and still struggles to hold his own; many of his fights end anti-climatically as a result and the whole thing just feels like a massive waste of everyone’s time as it does a pretty terrible job of continuing Total Recall’s story or paying homage to one of the greatest sci-films of all time.

My Rating:

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Terrible

Have you ever read Dynamite Entertainment’s Total Recall comics? If so, what did you think to them? Did you feel like the story was a good way to continue the movie or, like me, were you disappointed at how boring, clunky, and unappealing it was? What did you think to the introduction of Martians to the plot and Richter’s sudden reappearance? Do you think the events of the film, and the comic, were all real or were they just Quaid’s delusion? Leave your thoughts about Total Recall, whatever form it takes, in the comments below and check back in next week as Sci-Fi Sunday continues.

Talking Movies: Total Recall

Talking Movies

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

The Plot:
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.

The Background:
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.

The Review:
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.

Unsatisfied with his mundane life, Quaid (literally) dreams of visiting Mars.

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.

After visiting Rekall, Quaid is relentlessly hounded by friend and foe alike!

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.

As expected, Ronny Cox makes for a fantastically unlikeable and cruel villain.

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.

Richter is a vindictive and ruthless mercenary with a personal vendetta against Quaid.

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.

Fights are bloody, dirty affairs with a near-constant risk of explosive decontamination.

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.

Aggressive and independent, Melina is more than a match, and an equal, for Quaid.

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.

The resistance is largely comprised of mutant colonists who despite Cohaagan’s dictatorship.

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.

The Nitty-Gritty:
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.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that most of the film is a delusional, psychotic episode.

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.

The film’s content, and ending, is intentionally left ambiguous and open to interpretation.

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).

The Summary:
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.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

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.

10 FTW: Movies with Ambiguous Endings

You’ve paid your money and you’ve sat down in the cinema or in front of your television; you’ve got some snacks and a drink and you’re ready to suspend your disbelief for anywhere between ninety minutes to three hours with a good, old fashioned movie. The plot is intriguing, the characters relatable, the antagonist layered, and the film’s construction has sucked you right in. Then, out of the blue, the film ends in an ambiguous way, leaving questions swimming around in your head.

For me, a great movie with an ambiguous ending that either turns the entire events that preceded it upside down or allows me to interpret what has happened makes for an extremely enjoyable experience, not least because it means that you can re-watch the movie and interpret the ending and the plot in different ways each time. Some might disagree, obviously, but I’m not them so here are ten of the best moves with interpretative endings and some of my thoughts about them:

Blade Runner
10 Blade Runner (Scott, 1982)

Kicking things off with one of the forefathers of the ambiguous ending, we’re really opening a can of worms with this one considering just how many different versions and endings exist for Blade Runner. Controversially, though, I’m not that big a fan of Blade Runner; as a film, it’s very slow and plodding, with long sections where seemingly nothing happens. This is married to some gorgeous sets and a realistic, lived-in feel to the future world we are presented with. Consequently, my Blade Runner experience begins and ends with Ridley Scott’s 2007 Final Cut version of the film, in which Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) finds an origami unicorn on the floor of his apartment, strongly hinting (as Deckard had previously dreamt of a unicorn) that Deckard is a Replicant. Apparently, this is the philosophy that Scott subscribes to though I disagree as there isn’t really any real evidence in The Final Cut to support this beyond the ambiguity of the final scene. Supporting this further, the question about Deckard’s humanity was left unanswered in Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve, 2017), despite other versions of Blade Runner hinting more strongly that Deckard was actually a Replicant all along.

Shutter Island
9 Shutter Island (Scorsese, 2010)

Throughout Shutter Island, Edward “Teddy” Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is forced to confront some personal demons as he uncovers the mysterious disappearance of a patient of the asylum housed on the titular island. As events begin to unravel, we learn that Teddy is, in fact, a patient of the asylum and he was allowed to play out an elaborate fantasy in an attempt to force him to confront the truth that he murdered his wife. Despite scepticism from Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), this unconventional method appears to have finally worked as Teddy finally admits his guilt. However, later on, he appears to have regressed to his fantasy world once more, leaving the hospital no choice but to have him lobotomised. As the orderlies come to take him away, he questions whether it is worse to live as a monster or die as a good man, casting doubt as to whether he has truly regressed or simply wishes to end his sane life on a high note; personally, I prefer the latter interpretation, as that line seems a deliberate inclusion to make us think that Teddy is merely feigning his regression to “die” as a hero.

The Thing
8 John Carpenter’s The Thing (Carpenter, 1982)

This is the second time that The Thing has made one of my top ten lists, and with good reason; not only is it a masterpiece of practical effect wizardry, it’s also an excellent tale of isolation and paranoia. After uncovering an alien spacecraft and unwittingly unthawing a gruesome, shape-changing parasitic lifeform, the residents of an Antarctic research outpost succumb to paranoia and fear as the titular Thing assimilates them one by one. In the end, with the Thing seemingly destroyed and the outpost up in flames, our hero – R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) – sits alone and exhausted by a dwindling fire when he is confronted by Childs (Keith David), his hot-headed rival who had mysteriously vanished right as the chaos started to really ramp up. Also exhausted, Childs sits with MacReady and they share the remnants of a bottle of scotch, both too tired to act on their suspicions that the other might be the Thing and succumbing to the knowledge that, once the fires burn out, it won’t matter soon anyway. Doubts about who is really human are raised when one observes that, unlike MacReady, Child’s breath does not show in the freezing weather but, in this case, I feel that both are actually human and the ending has a more morbid message: both men, whether human or alien, are paying the price for human nature and that, given the volatile relationship between the two characters, it’s likely they would find any excuse to try to kill each other but are simply too fatigued to continue their hostilities.

The Descent
7 The Descent (Marshall, 2005)

The Descent was a welcome surprise when I first saw it; despite some questionable acting from the lead females, the film quickly descends (hah!) into an atmospheric, claustrophobic nightmare when six cave-diving friends find themselves trapped in an unchartered cavern and being attacked by cannibalistic mutated humans. With fear and paranoia setting in, and beset by the vicious crawlers at every turn, the party is eventually whittled down to central protagonist Sarah Carter (Shauna Macdonald) who, after being knocked unconscious, awakens to find herself before an exit and frantically scrambles free, screaming with maniacal glee as she makes it to her car and speeds away. Overcome by the gruesome events that have taken her friends from her, she pulls over and breaks down in tears, only to find the screaming corpse of her headstrong friend Juno Kaplan (Natalie Mendoza) in the passenger seat. For American audiences, this jump-scare is where the film ends but, for us Brits, the scare causes Sarah to awaken to find herself still trapped in the cave with no exit in sight and her fire slowly burning away. With no escape, and the sounds of the ferocious crawlers echoing all around her, she finds solace in a hallucination of her dead daughter as the film fades to black. If you ignore The Descent: Part 2 (Harris, 2009), which reveals that Sarah did actually escape the cave in the end (and is inexplicably convinced to return to that nightmare), this ending is a massive downer and really reflective of the differences in American and British audiences; we Brits love us a good bleak ending laced with ambiguity, as the final haunting shot raises the possibility that all of the events that occurred were a hallucination of Sarah’s to justify her slaughtering all of her friends.

Event Horizon
6 Event Horizon (Anderson, 1997)

Here’s a film that doesn’t get enough love, Event Horizon is a truly horrific science-fiction horror revolving around a spaceship that, having crossed through time and space, has returned as a semi-sentient haunted vessel that desires only to kill its inhabitants in increasingly gruesome ways and return to the hell dimension that it passed through. Event Horizon actually has two ambiguous endings: the first comes when Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) sacrifices himself to split the Event Horizon in two, allowing the remainder of his crew to be spared while he and the demonically possessed Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill in a commendably menacing role) be transported back to “Hell”. When I first watched Event Horizon, I assumed, based on Weir’s agonised “Noooo!” and the editing of this scene, that Miller had died in the ensuing explosion but, upon repeated viewing, you can clearly see the aft section of the craft disappear into a black hole, meaning that Weir was merely expressing his frustration at only taking one victim to “Hell” instead of the entire crew, making Miller’s sacrifice even more tragic as he now has to suffer unimaginable horrors. However, it doesn’t end there as the forward section of the ship is later recovered and Miller’s crew freed from stasis; upon awakening, and suffering from shock, Lieutenant Starck (Joely Richardson) looks upon her rescuer and sees only Weir’s scarred face grinning back at her. Descending into a screaming fit, and comforted by Cooper (Richard T. Jones), it appears as though Starck is simply severely traumatised by the horrific events she has barely survived but, as the film fades to black, the doors of the Event Horizon close by themselves, suggesting that the demonic force haunting the ship is still present.

5 The Grey (Carnahan, 2011)

Boy, was this film a surprise. Given the odd marketing campaign, you would be forgiven for going into The Grey believing it was simply about Liam Neeson fighting wolves but it is so much more than that. Haunted by the death of his wife, John Ottway (Neeson) is struggling with suicidal tendencies when the plane he is flying on crashes in the middle of the frozen Alasakan wilderness. With limited resources, tensions running high, and a pack of ravenous wolves stalking them at every turn, Ottway is forced to rely on his survival instincts and knowledge of wolves to lead the survivors in a seemingly hopeless search for safety. Inexplicably surviving what appears to be an unsurvivable plane crash potentially gave Ottway a concussion, however, as it is eventually revealed, once all of the other survivors have tragically perished due to injuries, the elements, or the increasingly emboldened wolves, that he has been heading directly towards the wolves’ den the entire time. Left alone and forced to confront the Alpha Male, Neeson straps broken bottles and other make-shift weaponry to his fists and prepares to fight to the death as the film abruptly cuts to black. A brief after credits scenes offers little in the way of closure, affording only a glimpse of what appears to be Ottway resting atop a slowly dying wolf, leaving the character’s ultimate fate entirely up to the interpretation of the viewer. I honestly understand the negative backlash this caused as the marketing made a big deal out of the showdown between Neeson and the Alpha, man against nature, and all that but, honestly, when I first saw it and Ottway was reciting his father’s beloved poem, burying the wallets of his fallen comrades, and preparing to fight to the death with a voracious wolf…man tears, every time. I always like to think that there was only ever going to be one outcome: Ottway put up a great fight but was ultimately killed by either the Alpha or one of the other wolves. Yet the short scene after the credits presents the slim possibility that Ottway survived the battle, if with serious injuries, allowing those who prefer a more positive ending to believe that he came out victorious and is merely exhausted from the conflict.

4 Total Recall (Verhoeven, 1990)

Can we stop for a second and recognise that Total Recall is still one of the greatest science-fiction movies ever created? Honestly, this movie has aged incredibly well; it’s use of practical effects, model shots, the rising action and over-the-top fight scenes, all married with two truly memorable villains and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s undeniable charisma make for one of the best action/sci-fi experience ever conceived. That it also presents an extremely and surprisingly complex and deep narrative only adds to its stature, in my mind. Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is obsessed with Mars, dreaming of it every night and is so desperate to visit the red planet that he pays a visit to Rekall Inc. to purchase a memory implant of having vacationed for two weeks as an undercover secret agent. Immediately however, there are complications; Quaid goes psychotic during the procedure and is suddenly attacked by friends and foes alike for no discernible reason. Eventually driven to Mars, he learns that he was once Hauser, a former employee of the villainous Vilo Cohaagen (the wonderful Ronny Cox) who volunteered to have his memory wiped so that Cohaagen and his sadistic enforcer, Richter (fantastically portrayed by Michael Ironside), could wipe out the rebellion opposing his authority on Mars.

Rejecting his former life, Quaid opts instead to activate an alien device that provides Mars with a breathable atmosphere, freeing the populace from Cohaagen’s air tax and ending the film with a conspicuous white light as Quaid shares a kiss with his dream woman, Melina (Rachel Ticotin). I say conspicuous because, traditionally, films end on a fade to black and this is only one of many indications that the events we have witnessed are not entirely what they seem. At Rekall Inc., Quaid tailors the memory he will receive to the finest detail, describing Melina as his love interest, viewing pictures of places he later visits on Mars, and being told that the vacation will involve him overcoming an interplanetary conspiracy. Later, Dr. Edgemar (Roy Brocksmith) attempts to convince Quaid that everything he is witnessing is a free-form delusion that he has allowed himself to be trapped in and that, unless he chooses to wake up, he will end up lobotomised. Quaid rejects this when he notices that Edgemar is clearly sweating with fear and discomfort and, in doing so, commits himself to seeing his path towards being the saviour of Mars. Total Recall presents both possibilities simultaneously; the over-the-top action and increasingly coincidental set pieces lend a credibility to Edgemar’s claim that Quaid is trapped in a dream world but scenes where Quaid is entirely absent, such as during conversations between Cohaagen and Richter, suggest that the plot against Quiad is very real. In the end, the white out could simply be a sign of a new beginning for Mars or the brain cells in Quaid’s head dying from psychosis; sometimes I will watch the film and believe that Quaid is a former mercenary turned rebel leader and, others, I choose to believe that he has simply allowed himself to be lost to an extremely realistic dream.

The Wrestler
3 The Wrestler (Aronofsky, 2008)

After years in obscurity, Mickey Rourke began a bit of a comeback in the mid-to-late-2000s and perhaps no other role really showed how much he had matured and was ready to be taken seriously as an actor than that of Robin Ramzinski (AKA Randy “The Ram” Robinson). Ram, his best years as an athlete behind him, has fallen on hard times and really been through the wringer; he is estranged from his daughter (the delectable Evan Rachel Wood), in constant pain, works a menial job where he is the source of constant ridicule, and is forced to take bookings in venues barely a quarter of the size he was headlining in his prime. After he suffers a heart attack and is advised that he must never wrestle again, Ram takes the advice to heart and begins reconciling with his daughter and trying to make a future with his only confidante, an ageing stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). In the end, though, after a drink and drug filled bender causes his daughter to sever all ties with him, Ram returns to the one place he has only ever felt loved and valuable, the ring, knowing full well that it could be not only his last match but the last decision he ever makes. During a rematch against his greatest opponent, the Ayatollah (Ernest Miller), Ram begins to suffer chest pains and is in considerable visible pain. Despite the Ayatollah’s concerns and pleas to end the match quickly, Ram fights through the pain and disorientation to mount the top rope and leap into the air as the film cuts to black. Did Ram make the splash, win the match, and walk away victorious or did he crash in a dying heap on his fallen adversary? Honestly, considering the poor hand Ram has been dealt in his twilight years, I actually prefer the idea of him going out in a blaze of glory than living through another heart attack and having only a resentful daughter and a guilt-filled stripper to wake up to.

American Psycho
2 American Psycho (Harron, 2000)

Adapted from the book of the same name by Brett Easton Ellis, American Psycho is an incredibly enjoyable dark comedy revolving around Wall Street yuppie Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) who, by day, enjoys the frivolities of greed, sex, and consumerism but, by night, stalks the streets for victims to kill. Fully acknowledging that his urge to kill is a deep-rooted psychological disorder over which he is slowly losing control, Bateman takes out his frustrations at being mistaken for other co-workers, his fiancée’s infidelity, and his peers having better positions, clientèle, and even business cards by murdering co-workers, vagrants, and prostitutes. Eventually, his urges become too much to contain and he embarks on a killing spree throughout the city night, shooting innocent bystanders left and right before finally calling his lawyer (Stephen Bogaert) and, through maniacal tears, listing his numerous transgressions in a frantic confession. However, the next morning, his lawyer fails to recognise Bateman, believing him to be a man named Davis and that the call was an elaborate prank, reasoning that Bateman is far too spineless to engage in such activity.

Bateman calmly states that he not only committed the crimes he confessed to but enjoyed them, only for his lawyer to brush him off. Returning to his seat, Bateman reasons that, despite his confession, he has learned nothing about himself or the world and that the hollow emptiness he feels inside has only grow larger as a result of his actions. However, it is left up to the audience to decide whether the increasingly elaborate events we have witnessed actually took place or if they were simply the deluded fantasies of a bored, morbid, and repressed individual (further exemplified by his secretary, Jean (Chloë Sevigny), finding Bateman’s journal filled with doodles depicting murder and rape). Prior to visiting his lawyer, Bateman attempts to clean up the apartment of one of his victims, only to find it in pristine condition and being sold by a realtor, who reacts to Bateman’s presence with a clear discomfort, if not fear, suggesting that the gruesome murder actually took place. For me, as a big fan of the film and the book (which provides few answers and raises more questions, if anything), I like to think that some of the murders took place but maybe not all of them; given that Bateman and his co-workers are completely interchangeable and the dark satire at work in the film, I think it’s entirely possible that Bateman is so incredibly repressed and striving for attention and to stand out that he has killed vagrants and prostitutes but, in doing so, has simply allowed his dark fantasies to conjure increasingly elaborate murders and scenarios to distract him from the fact that he is nothing more than a faceless corporate snob amidst a sea of faceless corporate snobs.

Inception
1 Inception (Nolan, 2010)

Perhaps one of cinema’s most unique and original ideas since The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999), Inception presents a world in which thieves like Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) can enter a person’s dreams and subconscious to extract information. Unable to return to his children due to his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), having framed him for her suicide, Dom is tasked with putting together a team and planting an idea in the head of the heir to a business empire in exchange for his criminal record being expunged. Inception takes full advantage of modern effects and technology to realise the infinite possibilities of the dream world, allowing reality to bend and warp in unique ways. As Dom and his crew are forced to dream within a dream, the film plays with perceptions of time as much as reality as Dom risks losing himself to the elaborate dream world he has created. Eventually, Dom confronts his demons and completes his mission, passing through customs without a hitch. All throughout the movie Dom has been haunted by not only his wife’s suicide but also the fact that he left in such a hurry that he was denied one final look at his children’s faces. Returning home, as Hans Zimmer’s powerful score builds to what appears to be a victorious crescendo, Dom, frantic to prove that his dreams have actually come true, conducts one final test, setting off a spinning top that will topple over if he is in the real world and spin indefinitely in the dream world. However, he never stays to see their result, as, finally, he sees his children and they not only turn to face him but run, overjoyed, into his arms. As he carries them out of frame and the score fades down, the shot lingers on Dom’s spinning top as it spins and spins and spins…faltering only slightly as the film cuts to black.

If The Grey brought out the man tears when I first watched it, Inception opened an absolute floodgate! I never thought that I would care so much about whether Leonardo DiCaprio got a happy ending but Nolan really sucked me into this world and had me so emotionally invested in all of his characters, especially DiCaprio’s Dom. The composition of this final shot, with the score and the sense of catharsis, never fails to be overwhelming; I was so happy to see him finally see his children’s faces and was on the edge of my seat waiting to see the top topple over and truly saddened that it didn’t because, in that first viewing, my knee-jerk reaction was that Dom had gotten lost in the deepest layers of his dream and had chosen fantasy over reality. However, the ambiguity of the ending allows one to view this film similar to Total Recall; you can watch it one time and believe that Dom emerges victorious or choose the depressing ending if you wish. Evidence can be found for both: it is said that one must had a totem unique to them but Dom carries and uses his dead wife’s spinning top as his totem.

It equally seems unlikely that Dom’s client would have the connections necessary to wipe his criminal record clean, and Dom is repeatedly told that he has to “wake up” and “face reality”, as though he has been trapped in a dream ever since he and Mal first experimented with deep dreaming. However, I felt so strongly for Dom and wanted so badly for him to see his kids and return home that it is hard to not believe that everything worked out for him…if not for that damn spinning top, endlessly spinning away, casting doubt over everything except for the fact that, in that moment, Dom does not care whether he is dreaming or awake; whatever the case, he has accepted this as reality without even a cursory look back.