Total Recall

“Get your ass to Mars.”

What happens when you bring together the star of Jingle All The Way and the director of Showgirls?

You get the bloody sci-fi action masterpiece that is Total Recall.

At the beginning of this decade some movie producers got it into their heads that what audiences really wanted to see was a PG-13 remake of this film and Robocop. This was a bad idea, everyone could see that it was a bad idea, but they did it anyway, no doubt blinded by money and drugs. Unsurprisingly, both films ended up being critical and commercial failures. They failed because they both lacked the one irreplaceable ingredient that made the originals so successful: bonkers director Paul Verhoeven.

Verhoeven first made a name for himself in the 1970s as the unapologetic naughty boy of Dutch cinema. After shocking and repulsing everyone in the Netherlands, he moved to Hollywood in the mid-80s. His first film there, Flesh + Blood, was a massive flop, but he struck gold with his next film, Robocop, turning a b-movie concept with a silly name into a masterpiece of razor sharp satire and gratuitous violence that never lets you lose sight of the human soul trapped within the machine. Robocop's success, both critically and commercially, gave Verhoeven the cred to do whatever he wanted. Which was when the future Governor of California came calling with a little film he wanted to make called Total Recall.

Based on the short story ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’ by Philip K. Dick, Total Recall was a project that languished in development hell for many years. At one point David Cronenberg was set to direct with Dino De Laurentiis producing. Richard Dreyfuss, Patrick Swayze, and William Hurt were all considered for the lead role. After Cronenberg quit due to creative differences and De Laurentiis' company collapsed, Arnold Schwarzenegger used his star power to salvage the project. After getting Carolco to buy the script on the cheap, and negotiating a sizeable payday for himself (£11m plus 15% of the profits), Schwarzenegger personally recruited Verhoeven to direct because he loved Robocop so much.

The film centres around Douglas Quaid, a blue collar construction worker on Earth who dreams about going to Mars. His wife repeatedly discourages him so he goes to Rekall, a company that specialises in implanted memories of vacations. Quaid selects a fantasy package about being a secret agent on Mars, but during the implant procedure something goes wrong. Turns out that Quaid really is a secret agent from Mars who had his memory wiped, and now everyone in his life, from his wife to co-worker, are trying to kill him.

Or are they?

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

That's the question Total Recall asks, but never has any real intention of ever answering.


Although both films share little in terms of story, Total Recall is something of a companion piece to Robocop. As well as sharing the same director, both films have Ronny Cox as a 1%er villain, both have effects from Rob Bottin, both are set in futures where everything is going to hell, both are beyond violent, both feature a shit load of glass being broken, both are endlessly quotable, and both centre around heroes in search of themselves after their identity has been taken away from them.

Despite this, Total Recall lacks Robocop’s tragic heart and its satirical bite. But in their place it does have a great idea at its core, one that Verhoeven has a lot of fun playing around with. Between the various chases and bloody shootouts, there's always the suggestion that everything Quaid is experiencing is simply the fantasy he paid for gone wrong. You never get a straight answer, and the ending leaves things on a very ambiguous note. It never becomes the total mind fuck that it might've been if Cronenberg had stayed on board, which is probably for the best. If Verhoeven had tried to make Total Recall a complete psychological brain twister it would’ve been well beyond his leading man’s capabilities. Instead, he plays to Arnold's strengths, asking no more of him than to look perpetually confused, kill as many people as possible, and spout one-liners.

With the mind games kept to a minimum, Verhoeven turns Total Recall into a Hitchcockian “innocent man on run” tale. This is his North By Northwest, a piece of pure cinematic entertainment, made with the director’s trademark dark humour and extreme violence. And I do mean extreme. The body count here is more than double Robocop's. The violence in this movie is so over the top it is almost comical, which, knowing Verhoeven, was probably his intention.


Notes and Quotes 

--Although never stated on screen, the film takes place in the year 2084.

--The Kuato puppet required 15 puppeteers to operate it.

--Kurtwood Smith turned down the role of Richter because he felt it was too similar to his character from RoboCop. Cox obviously had no such concerns about playing Cohaagen, who is just Dick Jones 2.0

--Almost the entire cast and crew fell victim to food poisoning while shooting in Mexico City. Schwarzenegger avoided this by having his food catered from the US.

--I love how Verhoeven's futures always look so shitty. Not in a stylish dystopian way like Blade Runner, but in a cheap and gaudy way. His horrible futures are just ugly, inside and out.

--Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven planned to reunite and make a film set during the Crusades. The film was ready to start filming when the studio, Carolco, ran into financial difficult and couldn't afford to make two big budget films at the same time. Mario Kassar, the head of the studio, decided to make Cutthroat Island instead. That film was such a financial disaster that it bankrupted the studio.

Quaid: "See you at the party, Richter!"

Quaid: "Well, Cohaagen. I've got to hand it to you. It's the best mind-fuck yet."

Hauser: "Howdy, stranger! This is Hauser. If things have gone wrong, I'm talking to myself and you don't have a wet towel around your head. Now, whatever your name is, get ready for the big surprise. You are not you, you're me."
Quaid: "No shit."

Cohaagen: "Who gives a shit what you believe? In thirty seconds you'll be dead, and I'll blow this place up and be home in time for Corn Flakes."

Lori: "Doug, honey... you wouldn't hurt me, would you, sweetheart? Sweetheart, be reasonable. After all, we're married!"
Quaid: (shoots her) "Consider that a divorce!"

Quaid: (killing Benny with a large drill) "SCREW! YOU!"

Quaid: "Anywhere just go! Go!"
Johnnycab: "I'm not familiar with that address. Would you please repeat the destination?"
Quaid: "Shit! shit!"
Johnnycab: "Would you please repeat the destination?"

Four out of four asses you need to get to Mars.

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig

3 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Terrific review, Mark. I liked Total Recall because it was so crazy bonkers. But I loved Robocop because of its heart and emotion. Most certainly agree that Verhoeven was smart to tailor his movie to Schwarzenegger's acting range.

Anonymous said...

Verhoeven was a gifted director. The really good directors leave their mark and unique voice on films. Say what you want about Showgirls its his film and his style is all over it. Starship Troopers is also an excellent film that is both hugely underratted and a cult classic. Very sure Basic instinct was him as well.

Josie Kafka said...

This was the first rated-R movie I saw (or at least the first one I saw in the theaters). I was still single-digits years old. My father took me, and I can't even imagine why: we've only gone to see a movie together, just the two of us, twice in my entire life. I could feel him tensing up next to me during the scene with the three breasts, since he and my mother always did the "cover your eyes!" thing if people even kissed on screen.

I loved it. If you don't mind violence and sex, the cheesiness of this film is perfect for small innocent children.

And, reading these lines from your review:

Between the various chases and bloody shootouts, there's always the suggestion that everything Quaid is experiencing is simply the fantasy he paid for gone wrong. You never get a straight answer, and the ending leaves things on a very ambiguous note.

...I wonder if this film influenced my love of the "is it real, is it not?" trope.