Saturday, August 25, 2012

Total Recall Movie Review

It’s funny sometimes to revisit a twenty year old film that had groundbreaking visual effects for its day. In some cases (Terminator 2: Judgment Day comes to mind) the effects look about as good as anything today. More often than not, however, they look more like Total Recall There’s plenty to admire in Paul Verhoeven’s science fiction futuristic mind-bender if you can ignore what looks like cheesy B-movie effects. Then again, that B-movie look is somehow more fitting for the movie. After all, its story is the stuff of classic B-movie science fiction.


I never realized it before, but Total Recall is almost a direct forerunner of The Matrix and Inception. You can see the early philosophical renderings of dream world versus reality even down to the offering of a pill to escape the dream. The medium of cinema is obviously fertile ground for exploring that split. We go to movies to escape reality; to get wrapped up in others’ lives; to fantasize about being someone else for two hours. All of which are about dreaming in one way or another. So when Doug Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is offered the chance to escape his dull reality as a construction worker and become a super spy on the planet Mars, we understand his desire for we too have come to his story for an escape.

What begins as a simple procedure to have memories of a vacation to Mars that he never took implanted becomes much more when he opts for a theme memory package that includes getting mixed up in a spy scenario. That’s when things start getting really strange. The technicians find recessed memories trying to surface and soon Doug is wrapped up in interplanetary intrigue that suggests he’s not who he thinks he is. Was he really a spy who had his memory erased? Is his wife (Sharon Stone) a planet put in place to support his fake identity?

The plot details are far too complex to summarize, but they involve rebel factions on Mars fighting against the oppressive government controlled by Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) for the mining of a valuable element. Doug is a pawn at the center of a plot that increasingly resembles the vacation package he purchased. Therein lies the ambiguity in the film. We’re never really sure, as Doug is not sure, what’s real and what isn’t. In the end it shouldn’t matter to the audience because we get our dose of action and thrills regardless. No movie is real so who cares if the movie of Doug’s life is real?

The thing you realize about Ah-nold when you go back and watch his movies is that he’s actually a terrible actor. I noticed this more than ever watching The Expendables 2 recently. But we can overlook his shortcoming as a thespian because of his great abilities as an action star. Plus it can just be great fun as a thrill ride. And the presence of Michael Ironside as the heavy, Cohaagen’s enforcer, just adds to the fun and notches the creepiness factor up a bit.

The screen story was adapted by Jon Povill, Ronald Shusett, and Dan O’Bannon from a Philip K. Dick short story. Gary Goldman collaborated on the screenplay with Shusett and O’Bannon. Like most film adaptations of Dick’s work, it’s apparently fairly loose, but retains the spirit of the original. Dick was not only a great science fiction writer, but a philosopher. In this case, his work explores the relationship between memories and reality. Experience shows us that it’s a fragile relationship. What does it mean for our actual experiences if our memories tell us something different? There are some cool ideas at work, although I’m not entirely sure they’ve been captured or treated with the appropriate finesse in Total Recall.

As a director, Paul Verhoeven has tended to comment (at least in his American films) on the power of media as a propagandizing tool for the rich and powerful and of the capacity for power to corrupt too easily. His vision of the future is bleak, perhaps somewhat reflecting his early childhood in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. It indicates a cynicism about the direction of humanity that the residents of Mars are either part of a wealthy ruling class and their security forces or freaks who scrape bottom for a living and depend entirely on the benevolence of their masters, who can turn off their air at any moment. Verhoeven can be easily dismissed as little more than a Hollywood hack who specialized in overblown action movies, the Michael Bay of his day. However, I find his work in science fiction occasionally rubs shoulders with the exceptional.

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