Quaid should be A-OK. He seems satisfied with his job as a construction worker and is married to a seemingly docile wife (Sharon Stone). He gets on well with his fellow employees, though his head is often in the clouds as he dreams of Mars. How to solve the problem? A handy-dandy trip to the false memory transplant center will make all his dreams come true, asking the technogeeks to make him believe he's a top secret agent en route to Mars on a mission (with the woman of his fantasies being a sassy brunette, as opposed to his demure blonde wife). No sooner has he received the implanted memory than he starts to freak out, beating people up, claiming that he is not Quaid. When he wakes up, he's himself again but unexplained killers are out to destroy him, his wife cheerfully tries to knife him in the kitchen, and videotapes of "Quaid" appear, telling him he's an indispensable part of the underground resistance fighting corrupt political figure Copenhagen (Ronny Cox, perfectly smarmy).
For the first 45 minutes, we're playing catch-up. Is Schwarzenegger really a spy whose trip to the false memory center triggered a series of disturbing flashbacks, or is he just stuck in a psychotic dream world where he gets to become the hero in his own life? This audience mind-bender was based on a short story by Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner), whose fiction often dealt with different levels of perceived reality. Read into it what you will, it's basically The Twilight Zone with guns and ample bloodshed. When Rachel Ticotin shows up as the dark haired woman of Arnie's dreams, it brings to bear the fantasy world as escapism. (The fact that Total Recall turns out to be a cop-out in the Philosophical Discourse Department shouldn't surprise anyone -- it's a popcorn movie, for cryin' out loud!)
Total Recall begins on a futuristic earth which bears more than a passing resemblance to the financial districts of most major cities. Paul Verhoeven continues the mordant humor and plastic-sheen aesthetics of his superior RoboCop (and none of the Total Recall villains are as memorable as Kurtwood Smith's nerdish superfreak, Clarence "You Burnt the Fuckin' Money" Boddiker, who was half the size of Robocop and thrice as deadly). It's fast paced and surprisingly inventive with the gadgets Quaid employs to get himself out of danger -- these include the obligatory tracking equipment, but also a memorably eccentric "masking" device that almost gets him through the airport terminal unharmed (as an overweight female tourist in a bright sunflower dress. Trippy, man. Phil Dick might've dug it.)
Verhoeven is unable to keep a good thing going, though. The entire philosophical premise and sleek look both corrode when Quaid arrives in Mars. Sitcom antics involving various goofball aliens in a bar give way to endless shoot-outs. When you can't think of anything else to do, bring out the big guns and start splattering villains in memorably gruesome ways. There seems to be a desperate need to fill the audience entertainment gap: We can't figure out how to end this flick, so let's bring out the fireworks! Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! On top of that, the bright red textures of Mars are gauche and tacky. Red Planet, for all its flaws, managed to find a unique color scheme of exotic shades (finding room for lush greens and radioactive purples). Total Recall is not half as ambitious, bathing everything in an unflattering lava lamp red. Yuck.
One more thing: Arnold Schwarzenegger is a fool to think he'll make it as the Johnny Carson of action films. Sometimes it's fun, but more often than not his reflex gag one-liners remind me of the empty Reagan years. On the surface, we're supposed to be amused, but there's not much going on underneath besides heaps of bullshit-bathed swine, rotting in the kennel. This actually ties in with the nihilistic violence Verhoeven relishes. A bullet in the head is easier to take if the hero makes a joke after the fact. Who's gonna cry over spilled milk or broken bones if we're "lighthearted" about it? Honey, I don't want to marry you. Excuse me while I bury the hatchet in your forehead. Got it, baby? Consider that a divorce.
If Sharon's words aren't enough for you, check out the Total Recall Special Edition DVD, which comes in a cool, circular, metallic case resembling Mars and features an extremely enlightening documentary short (the film began production with Bruce Beresford directing Patrick Swayze in the lead; Richard Dreyfuss was originally considered for the role) balanced by an extremely weak commentary track. Courtesy of Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger, the track features such insights as Arnold spouting something like, "Here is a good scene. I am inside that lady which we will find out soon." I'm blocking the actual words because they threaten to deaden my brain. Ya know, maybe that Richard Dreyfuss idea wasn't such a bad idea.
You'd complain, too.
Run time: 113 mins
In Theaters: Friday 1st June 1990
Box Office USA: $18.1k
Box Office Worldwide: $198.8M
Distributed by: Rialto Pictures
Production compaines: Original Film, Rekall Productions, Prime Focus
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 84%
Fresh: 43 Rotten: 8
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Colin Farrell as Doug Quaid/Carl Hauser, Kate Beckinsale as Lori Quaid, Jessica Biel as Melina, Bryan Cranston as Cohaagen, Bill Nighy as Matthias, John Cho as McClane, Bokeem Woodbine as Harry, Will Yun Lee as Marek, Steve Byers as Henry Reed, Currie Graham as Bergen, Jesse Bond as Lead Federal Police, Brooks Darnell as Stevens, Michael Therriault as Bank Clerk, Lisa Chandler as Prostitute, Milton Barnes as Resistance Fighter, Natalie Lisinska as Bohemian Nurse, Billy Choi as Street peddler, Emily Chang as Newscaster Lien Nguyen