The Good: Politics, Decent performance from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Decent direction
The Bad: Some really bad secondary performances, Action adventure conceits that hold up poorly, Score is dated and intrusive.
The Basics: Total Recall may be hailed as a science fiction classic, but it is objectively more dates than timeless.
From almost the moment I posted my review of the new film Total Recall (that is here!), I have gotten comments and an inordinate amount of feedback asking me why I provided no comparison to the original (1990) version of the film. The simple answer is that, until this evening, I had not seen the 1990 Paul Verhoeven/Arnold Schwarzenegger film (the slightly more complicated is that I like to review films and television episodes for what they are, not simply as a comparison to others). Total Recall was released when I was young and not allowed to watch rated R movies. My step brother saw it at the time when he was visiting his biological father and came home raving about the three-breasted woman in it (I used my biological mother at the same point in life to buy me books that my parents did not want me to have!). So, Total Recall slipped through the cracks in my attention until tonight.
I went into Total Recall with no expectations and I tried to even forget what I saw in the remake a few months ago. I was surprised that, for a film that is 22 years old, how little I had heard about or seen about it. In fact, it wasn’t until the glass cracked on Douglas’s faceplate on Mars that I recalled that I had read a whole article on the special effects surrounding the eye-popping scene. So, for the most part, this is a very true review of the original 1990 film Total Recall. (I have still not read the novella upon which this film was based.)
Opening on Mars, Douglas Quaid is walking with Melina when he falls and he is exposed to vacuum. He awakens in bed with Lori, his wife, who resents his dreams of Mars. Despite a news broadcast indicating that violence has broken out on Mars as a result of an independence movement there, Douglas wants to move with Lori to Mars. When she insists they do not, he decides to explore the virtual reality option of a vacation to Mars via a company called Rekall. Despite the doctor being reluctant to give him a Mars experience, Douglas Quaid insists, though he opts for the Ego Trip, which allows him to go to Mars as a secret agent.
When the Rekall agents try to give him the memories, they discover that his memory has already been altered. Douglas knows information about Mars and is attacked by his best friend from work who warned him against going to Rekall. Returning home, Lori turns on him and attempts to kill him. She reveals that his memories are, in fact, false and that he is merely an assignment to her. Lori’s allies, led by Richter, begin hunting Douglas using an implant they have in the unsuspecting man. Told he was an agent by a former co-worker who leaves him a briefcase, Douglas begins piecing together his past and his identity while pursued from Earth to Mars!
Total Recall is a science fiction vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger that provides him with an opportunity to explore a fairly decent amount of range. While newer movies tend to use Schwarzenegger as a catch phrase-spouting action hero with little real depth, Total Recall has him appearing as a surprisingly well-rounded individual. As Douglas Quaid goes into the Rekall procedure, Schwarzenegger plays him as realistically curious and ambivalent. When his memory block is broken, the aggression he portrays is similarly realistic and expressive. This might actually be one of Schwarzenegger’s best performances. In fact, when Schwarzenegger plays Hauser, his bearing and demeanor – his body language and presentation of his lines – are different enough to make the character feel like a viable alternate identity.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about everyone in Total Recall. When Douglas goes to Rekall, he is surrounded by doctors who are portrayed by people who are fair, at best, actors in the scene. Their performances are melodramatic and disturbing for how hammy they are. While many of the action sequences are well choreographed, they tend to feel that way and Paul Verhoeven, the director, cheats a number of shots, most notably Lori kicking Douglas in the crotch repeatedly. It was a thrill for me, as a fan of Marc Alaimo (he was amazing in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) to see him in the film. His brief role as Everett is memorable.
Lacking truly iconic scenes and catchphrases, Total Recall stands on its own as an impressive enough concept for a film. The question of which memories are real and which are manufactured is almost instantly negated by the sheer volume of shots involving characters other than Douglas engaged in the hunt for him help to reassure the viewer that the whole film is not simply a figment of one man’s imagination. Eliminating the more banal question of reality makes Total Recall more than just a glorified Twilight Zone type film.
What pulls Total Recall up from feeling overly dated is the political machinations explored in the movie. Cohaagen, the prefect of Mars, is an interesting adversary who has a realistic amount of motivation and ability to pull off all he does in relation to Douglas and the rebels. Richter is a pretty generic lackey and Melina quickly becomes a pretty generic sidekick. The supplemental characters of Total Recall are enough to create a viable “universe” where the struggles are developed enough to be intriguing at the least. There are psychic mutants, holograms, the cab driver with five children and, yes, the three-breasted woman.
But unlike some of the science fiction that explores political struggles like colonies fighting for their freedom or the nature of a man whose struggle is internal and the desire to understand his own identity and motivations, Total Recall seems happy to simply play in its own universe. It’s science fiction that does not take the step beyond entertainment and the surface exploration of the motivations of the individuals within the universe. In other words, Total Recall is an entertaining work, but it fails to delve further into the human condition in a way that makes a bold new statement that illustrates real human understanding.
The clues to the mystery of what is actually going on in Total Recall are sprinkled well throughout the film, but unlike some of the other classics of science fiction that overcome the limitations of their filming dates, this one does not. It is good, but not great and well worth a single viewing, but not the whole fan cult that has grown up around it.
For other classics of science fiction, be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Alien Quadrillogy
The Star Wars Saga
For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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