Mel Johnson, Jr.
1 Hr., 53 Mins.
Total Recall February 19, 2018
can think of few other blockbuster filmmakers of the 1980s and ‘90s as interesting as Paul Verhoeven. When prosaic moviemakers like Stephen Sommers or Joe Johnston were making sorta bland but still serviceable actioners meant to make shitloads of cash, Verhoeven was crafting artistically – and sometimes intellectually – ambitious thrillers that were distinctly his. The classic Verhoeven formula, I suppose, primarily consists of slick, polychromatic visuals and conceptually weighty storylines, paying homage to classic pulp and occasionally the best of philosophical sci-fi literature.
I tend to like him the most when the content’s elementary and his artistic leanings are given the opportunity to overwhelm the atmosphere; 1992’s erotic carousel Basic Instinct especially comes to mind. But every once in a while during his heyday did Verhoeven find an effective balance between the artistic and the cerebral that would result in some sort of minor masterpiece. (Some might say that this was best encapsulated by 1987’s RoboCop, but I think that film’s too self-serious and viscerally underwhelming to deserve such a distinction.)
Arguably, the most Verhoevian of the director’s movies is Total Recall, the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle that also worked as an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1966). It contains most of the Verhoeven staples – namely his noiry steampunk visual stylings and highbrow conceits – but is also packaged as a scrumptious blockbusting bonbon that deserves at least some of the renown of Blade Runner (1982). It makes for unusually sharp and unusually photographically ravishing escapism, ameliorated by an unforeseeably great star turn by Schwarzenegger.
Set in an indeterminately dystopian 2084, the film stars Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid, a self-effacing average Joe who works as a construction worker by day and acts as a husband to an alluring blonde named Lori (Sharon Stone) by night. Though his existence has always been rather unruffled, Quaid’s lately become disturbed by recurring nightmares that involve the now-inhabited planet Mars and an enigmatic woman with whom he feels an implacable connection. Lori encourages her husband to shrug these dreams off. But these ambiguous nightmares are so evocative, Quaid’s wont to trying to figure out what exactly’s ignited them.
So he opts to take a “memory trip” (a commonplace pastime in future America in which any experience of your choice can be implanted in your brain) to Mars, hoping he’ll get to the bottom of this unyielding domino of night terrors. Just moments into the implantation procedure, though, Quaid reacts in such a way that suggests that the life he’s currently living might be something of a simulation, too.
This idea is given weight the moment he steps out the door. En route to his apartment, he’s attacked by people he’d until now thought were his friends. Then he gets home and Lori’s trying to off him.
Then comes the kicker: everything Quaid’s come to know about himself is a lie. He actually used to be a secret agent who worked for Mars’ governor, the evil Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). He had his memory wiped for his own protection after defecting. Ever since, his day to day existence has mostly been an aftereffect of various memory implants. Lori herself is one of Cohaagen’s minions, sticking around as a wife simply for the purpose of monitoring the man.
After this discovery's made, Quaid first has a mini existential crisis, then reverts back to his old quasi-action heroic tendencies. Shortly after having to readjust to his newfound sense of self, Quaid finds out that Cohaagen is thirstily seeking a turbinium reactor that, when activated, could potentially make Mars breathable. Since Cohaagen is currently monopolizing oxygen on the planet, such could undermine his boundless power. Quaid makes it his mission to get his hands on it first.
Yet even this seemingly straightforward plot is not as simplistic as I’ve made it sound: Quaid himself is portrayed as a seriously confused, frequently terrified action hero whose coming into his own as a capable fighter is kind of like watching a newborn calf take its first few steps. Here, Schwarzenegger is not all-knowing and steely, rather an – if you can believe it – offshoot of the quotidian who’s as lost in trying to navigate this sticky situation as we would be.
Of course, his Quaid is preternaturally efficient at adjusting when peril kicks him in the crotch. But part of Total Recall’s effectiveness has to do with that believable sort of humanity. It’s at once thrillingly man-sized and explosive and very much aware that its pugilistic protagonist is not exactly comfortable with everything he’s being made to do. Even when the climax arrives, we’re not so sure our precious Quaid will make it out on the life side of the classic life-or-death scenario. (Don’t worry: he will.) Schwarzenegger captures this strange alloy of susceptibility and paladin strength.
Total Recall is an authoritative, artfully made thrill ride. But also laudable about it is the way it slips in subtle missives about the hollowness – and easy modifiability – of existence, and how quickly everything you’ve come to understand about yourself can drastically change without any sort of warning. But that’s Verhoeven for you: for him, making a superfun action bombshell with plenty of style and plenty of philosophic chutzpah is as insouciant as a leisurely stroll in the park. A-