Retrospective: Total Recall (1990)

‘It’s a B-movie and it’s proud of it’ was the first thought that came to mind when I saw Total Recall but really it has quite a bit more nuance than the Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie would have you believe. For a start it’s based off a Phillip K Dick short story and it’s directed by Paul Verhoeven, one of the more inspired action movie directors who is best known for his rather interesting remake of another sci-fi classic, Starship Troopers.

It’s set in a dystopian future with mining on Mars and union trouble/civil war. None of this really matters so much to the humble everyman character that Schwarzenegger often inhabits in his various actions movie roles throughout the 80s and 90s. In this one he is a construction worker who hears of this wonderful holiday destination where he can go to Mars (a place he has been dreaming about) but experience it in his mind, without the great expense. He does so and this is where the movie gets very ambiguous. He becomes a secret agent and is given the option of naming the colour of the hair of the girl who will become the heroine. He then falls asleep and everyone he has ever known is trying to kill him in as violent a way as possible and he is suddenly a very important agent who can bring down the dictator on Mars, the ludicrously named Cohaagan (who is a classic mustachio twirling villain, except bald). His agents try to stop him, from his wife, Lori (Sharon Stone) to Richter (Michael Ironside) and his small army of goons, while he escapes to Mars to free them from oppression and meet the girl literately from his dreams.

There are many aspects to the movie that I rather like. The special effects are made using miniatures and aren’t CGI, which sometimes looks quite good and sometimes quite shocking in a fun B-movie sort of way. The final scenes of heads blowing up is so stupid that it’s quite frankly adorable. There is quite a lot of work on the movie to make it look futuristic in a quite a dated way from angular cars to brutalist architecture and technology. Everywhere from TVs filling walls and all sorts of things which show that the set dressers had spent time thinking about the movie and focusing on lots of nice little details in between the completely over the top violence and shockingly bad one liners. It is conventionally filmed apart from some lovely future shots which to me show that the director has seen Blade Runner and Star Wars. It does vistas and alien worlds very well such as the mutant’s city which is the centre of rebellion on Mars.

Like Die Hard it is an action movie of a similar vintage. This is a an 18 rated movie really for 7 year olds with the stupid and over the top action and the very silly one liners by Schwarzenegger and the sex aspect being rather infantilised (oh look, a triple breasted hooker on Mars!). However, like the best Pixar movies there are some surprisingly deep messages hidden in all the dumb action such as the role of free will, multiple interpretations of the ending, the role of fantasy in the escape from reality and the nature of dreams and their meanings and answers.

There is a recent remake of this movie that is most unfortunate as it suffered from being completely unnecessary and a sign that creativity seems to be withering. It also compares badly with a movie which embraced its limitations and a particular look which was not glossy and CGI heavy unlike the movies which would follow shortly afterwards.

The original Total Recall sells itself as a dumb action movie and then tries to introduce some rather interesting concepts that it hopes the audience would just absorb while Schwarzenegger brutally murders someone. This is a rather entertaining movie, which you can find a lot more in the second viewing because it has so many interesting ideas hidden under its dumb shell. If you can put up with Schwarzenegger’s appalling acting but enthusiastic delivery and enjoy various members of the cast chew the scenery then it is the ultimate, slightly edgy family movie.

Review by Harry Riedl


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