1990. This year was front and centre in the heyday of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the era when he could do no wrong at the box office. And more than that, it was the glory days of the Sci-Fi action epic where high concept science fiction premises became mere window dressing for violent, 80’s style shoot ’em ups. Arnie was the master of these back in the day and Total Recall is one of his finest.
Based on a Phillip K. Dick story, Total Recall is about a man named Douglas Quaid in the year 2084. Well, he thinks his name is Douglas Quaid. After having a series of “dreams” about Mars where a rebellion is taking place, he goes to a company called Rekall to have memory implants about a fictional experience on Mars as a secret agent put in. He reacts violently to the procedure, possibly because the theoretically fictional memories are real and his reality is fake.
From there, a bloodbath begins as “Quaid” tries to unravel the truth and ends up heading to Mars in pursuit of it.
Much of the story and the aesthetic Phillip K. Dick created was lost in translation. Reputedly, David Cronenburg was attached to direct the film but was actually criticized for making it too much like Dick’s original story, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. In the end, Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed Carolco to buy up the rights, got Paul Verhoeven to direct, and starred in the film. Considering that Richard Dreyfuss was once in line to star in it, Arnie stepping into the lead role represented a massive shift in the narrative.
While much of Dick’s story is gone and replaced by a river of blood created by Arnie kicking everyone’s asses, the one key element left behind is the ambiguity of the ending. Both the viewer and the reader are left wondering if everything that’s happened is real or if it’s all still inside an implanted memory. That is the core of the story after all.
Total Recall is a ridiculous, over the top Sci-Fi shoot ’em up that is a prime example of an era of filmmaking in the late 80s and early 90s. That being said, it definitely holds up better than the 2012 reboot. Even two years later, the Colin Farrell version isn’t as enjoyable as it’s now 24 year old counterpart. The 2012 reboot, though they shy away from that moniker and refer to it as a new movie based on the same source material, lacks the bizarre simplicity that Arnie brings to these kinds of films. Under the influence of a post-Inception filmmaking world, the 2012 Total Recall attempts to be deeper that the original but ends up being more convoluted and lacking in substance. The 1990 film seems more accepting of the idea that it’s an action film in a science fiction frame and is more enjoyable because of it.
Maybe I just like Arnie better than Farrell. I do have a soft spot for movies starring him.
At one point, Hollywood was trying to make a Total Recall sequel with Arnie that fell through and reputedly became Minority Report starring Tom Cruise. Which would make sense since it was based on another Phillip K. Dick story called The Minority Report.
If you watch Total Recall for what it is, then it’s still a highly enjoyable experience and one that holds up well almost 24 years later. What are you waiting for? Get your ass to Mars.