My first memories of Total Recall have gone on in the same way that my own for RoboCop had. I was thirteen years old and I saw both films back to back on television (where they were both uncensored, surprisingly) and although both had been helpful factors in allowing myself to accept the sight of graphic violence on the screen, I merely came out just liking them because all I saw was an action film. Growing older was a different story as I looked into these films and suddenly saw another layer of brilliance on Paul Verhoeven’s end, the loud satire it presents in your face. With a Philip K. Dick story and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead, he’s clearly at some of his most inviting. And with Total Recall, there comes Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best film yet.
Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel We Remember It For You Wholesale, Total Recall stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid, a man suffering from troubling and recurring dreams he has about a woman on Mars. He heads into Rekall, a company whose purpose is to implant memories inside of one’s mind in order to be finding tranquility with an ideal vacation destination. Complications ensue after the process goes wrong and it seems that there may not be a “Douglas Quaid” after all for instead he may have been a secret agent by the name of Carl Hauser and everyone around him has been an illusion. Paul Verhoeven deconstructs the paranoia of identity crisis and the final result that comes out is something beyond words. In terms of Philip K. Dick adaptations it’s impossible already to top the wonders that are present in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner but the extreme sense of intelligence on Paul Verhoeven’s end is another story.
One cannot do away with talking about what makes a Paul Verhoeven movie work so well unless one talks the self-awareness that can be felt amidst the satire. Everything starts from the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger (in arguably the best role he has ever done for the screen) coming after The Terminator and Predator. We already recognize the sorts of roles Arnold Schwarzenegger is known for playing, In that role as Douglas Quaid, Arnold Schwarzenegger is not playing the typical overly hardcore action hero that he usually plays but perhaps the fact that he is cast in a role that feels like a broken portrait of what we remember him for is why his performance in turn is a perfect one for what we have at hand. Schwarzenegger is still the eccentric action star he always was but he’s inside of a more overwhelming mayhem around him: the sort that characterizes a Paul Verhoeven film perfectly.
Everything about Total Recall oozes of its era. The special effects are cheesy but in a sort of late 80’s/early 90’s fashion although given how they are used, it perfectly fits for the nature of the world that Total Recall lives within alongside what it wishes to satirize in turn. The wise one-liner from Arnold Schwarzenegger does come by and it’s as funny as the most charming ones have ever been, but the over-the-top nature of Total Recall is a self-aware one in the best way. Practical effects and elaborate set pieces come aboard to enhance the experience all the more, going down from the planetary design or the gushes of violence (typical of Verhoeven fashion), it’s a film that utilizes all of this in order to represent a specific psychological process in turn. This process being a mind unable to find a sense of relaxation because identity crisis is only full of chaos within itself.
Total Recall does not do without a criticism of societal construct, jabbing at capitalism (coming clear from a Pepsi logo being used as a necessary evil for the scenery) but it’s all typical of a Paul Verhoeven movie to satirize such economics. At the time, Total Recall was amongst the most expensive films ever made but there was another allegory present that eluded me upon that first look. Ronny Cox’s antagonistic Vilos Cohaagen earns his wealth because he restricts air for the local residents. If RoboCop were not proof enough of Paul Verhoeven’s social satires then Total Recall can come about to show something else in a blunt manner. One that fits the nature of a Paul Verhoeven film so perfectly. Verhoeven’s dystopic worlds are not to be seen as much different from those of our own, something that has always made his work in the science fiction department so enthralling.
Just the whole assembly of Total Recall is pure perfection. Coming from the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, or Michael Ironside, to the concept and the sets: all of this is a great big goldmine for Paul Verhoeven to allow his brilliance to ooze onto the screen. For some, it’s a highly entertaining action movie that warrants rewatches over the years. For others, it’s also one of the most intimate portraits of identity crisis ever to have been made alongside a brilliant critique of industrialization just as RoboCop was for capitalism. Is the film ever subtle with its satire? You can only be the judge of that but even if it weren’t, the fact that Paul Verhoeven is so self-aware of the ridiculousness of how it plays out is why everything present here is so wonderful. Arnold Schwarzenegger has never been any better than he was in here. See you at the party, Richter!
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via TriStar Pictures.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shussett, Gary Goldman, from the novel We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick
Produced by Buzz Feitshans, Ronald Shusett
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, Ronny Cox
Release Year: 1990
Running Time: 113 minutes