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Video Review: Total Recall (1990)

July 9, 2011
  • Dir. Paul Verhoeven
  • Released by Tristar
  • Based on a Phillip K. Dick story
  • Rating *
Original Laserdicks Review:
In 1966, Philip K. Dick wrote “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” Over the next two decades or so, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett (best known as the co-creators of Alien) tried to bring the story to the silver screen. During this time, another Dick tale became Blade Runner, a fine science fiction film (from the director of Alien, notably) that captured the tone of the author’s work quite well. When “Wholesale” finally became a movie itself, it did not have the same luck.
The main problem arose due to a lack of funding. O’Bannon and Shusett had no luck getting their Dune adaptation funded, either, and it eventually left their hands and became a rather hokey David Lynch film. In this case, they finally found someone who could get them the money they needed–if and only if he were allowed to star in the movie, now dubbed Total Recall. The man with his hand on the purse strings was Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Schwarzenegger certainly had a credible history in science fiction movies by then, having starred in The Terminator, Predator, and The Running Man. However, his action hero persona was all wrong for the world of Philip K. Dick, and the creative team behind the film told him as much. Much like with The Running Man (which was loosely based on a Stephen King novel), the everyman-hero story would require a heavy reworking to accomodate the bodybuilder-turned-actor.
However, Schwarzenegger had the connections to Carolco, and thus the writers caved. Carolco, run by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, was a rather respectable independent production company that funded myriad action films during the 1980s and early 1990s, including First Blood and its sequels. They were known for giving servicable budgets and creative freedom to young, daring directors, a practice that both made and eventually killed the company.
One of the directors who contributed to that fall was Paul Verhoeven, via the bomb Showgirls. However, when Total Recall was starting production, Verhoeven was a young filmmaker with great potential, having proven himself with the spectacular science fiction satire RoboCop in 1987. He would bring a similar tone to Total Recall, one that once again did not work with the material.
The story as revised follows Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger), a construction worker who, despite his wife’s (Sharon Stone) warnings, decides to have a memory implant of a vacation to Mars supplied by a company named Rekall. The implant goes awry, and Quaid suddenly remembers that he is a spy fighting against the corrupt governor of the Martian colony (Ronny Cox). Or perhaps the implant went as planned, and Quaid’s refusal to accept the fictional nature of the memory will ultimately lead to a lobotomy at Rekall.
The ambiguity of Quaid’s real condition is almost completely obliterated by Schwarzenegger’s casting. Other actors considered for the role, such as Richard Dreyfuss, would have been more unlikely heroes, and thus the it-might-be-a-dream angle would seem more plausible. With Arnold, the audience immediately assumes that he must be a superhero, since he so often plays one anyway. Unlike Last Action Hero, where his reputation served the film’s ironic intent,  Total Recall falls apart because the incredible is the norm for Schwarzenegger.
The goofiness does not end with Arnold’s one-liner-spewing lead, as Verhoeven treats the movie largely as a cartoonish sci-fi romp rather than a cerebral piece. The film does not take itself seriously enough for the viewers to bother taking its themes seriously, and the film feels very superficial as a result. The gross-out makeup effects from Rob Bottin only make the film more laughable.
Total Recall is not without any merit. The script still contains hints of its original greatness under all of the macho nonsense, the miniature effects look reasonably impressive, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is actually quite lovely (if not his best work). However, these small concessions do not even begin to forgive the transformation of a potential thinking person’s science fiction thriller into an idiotic action flick. This movie is an infuriating waste of a great idea.

From → Film Criticism

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