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Director Paul Verhoeven contributed two classics to filmed science fiction, the acknowledged winner RoboCop and the less appreciated Starship Troopers. Before Verhoeven's mainstream career burned out with the mind-numbing excess and vulgarity of his Joe Eszterhas pictures, he made another big-scale Sci-fi action thriller, an adaptation of cult author Philip K. Dick's short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. The writing team does fairly well considering that the project is a star vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, then the reigning king of "kick ass" action thrillers: author Dick's convoluted reality-simulation games are at least given an honest spin, with a couple of fun plot twists. Otherwise Total Recall drowns in its own excess, overstatement, obsessive violence and a general lack of finesse in all departments, including special effects. Philip K. Dick returned frequently to the concept of neglected colonies of settlers on Mars. 1 The makers of Total Recall are more interested in escapist carnage. It almost seems appropriate that Philip K. Dick's name is misspelled in the credits.
Total Recall can be commended for adapting Dick's slim tale of implanted memory vacations into a full blown interplanetary James Bond movie. In the year 2080 construction worker Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is bothered by mysterious dreams featuring Mars and a sexy companion, dreams that upset his concerned wife Lori (Sharon Stone). He decides to have the Rekall Company implant in his brain a false memory of an exciting Mars adventure, one of many 'memory vacations' promoted on television: people that can't afford real vacations and adventures can purchase memories of them as vivid as the real thing. But Quaid's implant process goes haywire when the Rekall people discover that his memory has already been tampered with: he's not a construction worker but a secret agent named Hauser, whose real mission on Mars has been memory-supressed by a conspiracy run by the megalomaniac corporate boss Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). Lori is not his wife, but a 'babysitter' assigned to keep Hauser from learning his true identity; her real husband Richter (Michael Ironside) is Cohaagen's sadistic head of security. Contacted by a faction stirring rebellion among the Martian colonists, Hauser rockets to the red planet to join up with his 'dream girl' Melina (Rachel Ticotin) and help the rebel leader Kuato (Marshall Bell) wrest Mars from Cohaagen's control. What Quaid/Hauser doesn't know is that the scramblers of his memory/identity have more undisclosed twists to reveal.
Having no desire to repeat the box office failure of the earlier Blade Runner, the makers of Total Recall stuff this show with action, action and more action. Paul Verhoeven's Jon Davison/Edward Neumeier sci-fi pictures succeed precisely because the director's unrestrained excess is channeled into wickedly intelligent satire. Total Recall's writers concoct amusing permutations of Philip Dick's memory implant concept but the movie overall has the brainless, anything for a gross-out effect pattern of Schwarzenegger's other guns 'n' muscles epics.
It's not fair to complain that Der Ah-nold carries far too impervious a screen persona to be a vulnerable hero, as Total Recall doesn't work that way. The violence is presented in a comic manner and is supposed to be funny. When Hauser shoots a gun the opposition falls like ten pins, and when the bad guys shoot they hit only innocent bystanders. The most offensive material occurs when people are used as human shields, shot to pieces and then discarded; Verhoeven seems to think it essential to show every gushing flesh wound, in close-up if possible. This pure boyhood violence masturbation material drags everything down to the level of Total Crass. It is the real subject of the movie.
As in all Verhoeven films the acting is sharp and effective, with Sharon Stone excellent as the duplicitous fake wife and Michael Ironside genuinely scary as Hauser's main enemy. Ronny Cox repeats his hiss-able corporate villain from RoboCop. All three actors feature strongly in the Verhoeven canon, along with familiar faces Marshall Bell and Dean Norris. The actresses are all gorgeous and willing to show skin; the actors are practiced at making anguished faces of shock and horror as extreme as those seen in old E.C. horror comics.
Total Recall places a lot of faith in makeup artisan Rob Bottin, whose work is front and center at least every ten minutes. Some of it seems aided by other kinds of effects -- (the self-destruction of Hauser's 'big woman' disguise) and others are basic monster factory jobs. The score or so of Martian mutants, deformed by Cohaagen's early mining practices, are pretty disturbing, and a three-breasted Martian mutant hooker is good for a cheap laugh. But it's not long before things get out of hand. The butt-ugly tummy baby monster that emerges from Kuato's stomach seems too much like one of the Vaseline-dripping goober monsters from an old Full Moon fiasco, or a reject effect from Bottin's The Thing. After a while, the extreme expressions made by Schwarzengger seem almost as unreal as the sculpted cast latex dummy heads that Bottin's formidable crew uses to show faces distorting, eyes bugging out, etc. These elaborate effects elicit nostalgia for David Cronenberg's messy $25 exploding heads in Scanners. They were much more effective, and if I (totally) recall, were scary in a way this stuff never is.
But hey, Bottin's circus of foam rubber is expensive looking and highly exploitable in the fantasy and gore fan magazines that were all the rage in 1990. The film's visual effects are likewise done on a big scale, as Total Recall was one of the last effects extravaganza movies before the industry was transformed by CGI. The enormous Mars landscape miniatures are attractive without being impressive; something about the way they are shot makes them look soft. When figures large or small are matted in through various means, the shots look even worse -- a multi-panel wall screen TV effect is by comparison an almost perfect illusion. Several effects companies divided up the sequences and some of their work is excellent. The giant underground oxygen generator is ho-hum, but the volcano-like sequence of it in action compensates with some real visual excitement.
Total Recall delivered the goods and definitely did well as a summer hit -- it blew away the first RoboCop sequel. Arnold bounced back with James Cameron in the overachieving action- Sci-fi- special effects thriller Terminator 2, which is still a high-water mark of sorts. My memories are that this entire subgenre of violent action movies were completely unsuitable for the very children that packed the theaters despite the "R" ratings. The height of venality was reached in Terminator 2 when Schwarzengger's robot hero, ordered not to kill anybody, complies by simply shooting scores of policemen in the knees - a 'gag' that is supposed to be funny. Total Recall has the same mentality.
Lionsgate's Mind-Bending Edition Blu-ray of Total Recall is a generally good-looking disc. Some scenes have a granularity and dullness of color I don't remember in the theater, and some of those effects scenes actually look a bit soft. That's an objective observation, as in general the show looks just fine. I saw details in many effects that I've never noticed before.
The disc is quite a bargain -- look at that retail price above -- and loaded with extras to boot. Schwarzenegger's commentary input is restrained and Paul Verhoeven's is dialed down a bit from his frequently frenzied level of excitement. A making-of featurette covers the shooting through star interviews, and a couple of technical featurettes will make fans of big miniatures and fancy latex monster makers quite happy. Trailers and art galleries are included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Total Recall Blu-ray rates:
1. The Philip K. Dick book to read, right now, is The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the most fascinating and prescient pulp sci-fi sizzler I ever read. Take it from editor Steven Nielson, who turned me on to P.K.D. in 1974.
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T'was Ever Thus.