Total Recall (1990)

I’m kind of funny when it comes to remakes. In a lot of cases, most of them really, I’m of the opinion that they’re unnecessary, and that they can only come off worse for the comparison to the original. But even when I think a remake may be worth watching, I’m deeply reluctant to watch it before I’ve seen the original. So although I’ve seen the trailer for 2012′s new Total Recall starring Colin Farrell, and it’s actually looking pretty good, there was a chance that I would skip its theatrical release simply by virtue of not yet having seen the original version with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Fortunately, when the new Total Recall hits theatres, I won’t have to make the choice on that basis, as cable TV obliged me by offering up the original for viewing last night.

Total Recall is yet another Hollywood film adapted from a story by science fiction author Philip K. Dick; in this case, “We Can Recall It For You Wholesale” (which I’ll have to get my hands on and read at some point for the sake of curiosity). Schwarzenegger stars as Douglas Quaid, a construction worker who is haunted every night by nightmares of a strange adventure on Mars (at this point a colony of Earth). This growing obsession causes him to try and convince his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) to take a trip with him to Mars, but she isn’t interested. And then he learns about the company Rekall.

Rekall sells artificial memories; instead of taking a trip to Mars, Doug can simply remember having taken a trip to Mars without ever having actually gone there. While briefing Doug about his options, the sales representative mentions their “Ego Trip” package. Not only can he “go on a trip” without actually going, but he can even remember himself as being someone else while doing so. Doug is entertained by the idea, and opts for the “super spy” package, complete with facing down bad guys, getting the girl, and saving the world. The lab technicians get him ready for the memory implant… and then things go awry. Doug’s memory has already been tampered with. Before they implant the spy memories, Doug is already remembering having been a spy on Mars. They re-wipe his memories, dump him in a taxi, and disavow any knowledge of his being there… and Doug’s life quickly spirals out of his control.

He’s being chased by a cold-blooded killer named Richter (Michael Ironside), who works for the Chancellor of Mars, Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). Even his own wife is trying to kill him. Why, he’s not entirely sure yet… until he receives a message from his own past self, an actual spy named Hauser. Hauser tells him that he was a spy who worked for Cohaagen until he met a girl who was with the Martian rebels and fell for her. For his betrayal, he had his mind wiped and re-written with Quaid’s personality. It’s now up to Quaid to get the information that used to be in Hauser’s head to Kuato (Marshall Bell), the leader of the Martian rebels. And so Quaid finds himself heading to Mars with people trying to kill him, finding the girl, Melina (Rachel Ticotin), and getting the assistance of a flippant cab driver named Benny (Mel Johnson Jr.)

I’ve given ol’ Arnold a fair amount of grief on this blog for a couple of his films. He’s been in some real stinkers, and he’s never going to be where you turn to for first-rate acting. But Total Recall is a fun, intelligent story and Arnold actually holds his own reasonably well. When people talk about good Schwarzenegger films, this is the sort of film they mean. All of his co-stars turn in decent performances as well, though most of them are just flat characters; Ronny Cox’s deliberately hammy performance as Cohaagen may be the stand out of the film. I can definitely see how Colin Farrell could improve the quality in the remake, as he’s a better actor, but this isn’t to say that the acting here is bad; just that there are places where I can see room for improvement. It’s still good enough to carry the film.

Visually, this film is more than “good enough”; it was given a Special Achievement Award at the Oscars for its visual effects. Paul Verhoeven — who directed the film Robocop (eloquently written up at FMR as a Movie That Everyone Should See) — again delivers the action-filled sci-fi spectacle that is the main draw of his films. While a few of the effects do look a bit dated 22 years on, it’s only a few of them, and they aren’t really distracting. Everything else looks great, and is very believable as the cheaply made, poorly maintained domed city that Martian civilization is supposed to be in this film.

Total Recall is also a film that has a cerebral component to it that is often missing from action films, even science fiction action films. It’s not hard to notice that Quaid’s adventures line up closely to the promised package for his “Ego Trip”… and at one point in the film, he’s approached by a man claiming to be a Rekall scientist who tells him that he’s having a psychotic episode as a negative side-effect of the procedure going wrong. Quaid eventually deduces the scientist is working with Richter, but the question is left open for the audience. Is Quaid really having this adventure, or is it part of his “Ego Trip”? If it’s the latter, is it working as planned (with the scientist being a fake-out for the sake of the story), or is it genuinely a malfunction that will lead to him being lobotomized. The film never conclusively answers this question, leaving it to the viewer to decide. I’d normally not discuss a “twist” like this, to avoid spoiling it for people even later to the game than I, but the hallucination theory is spelled out as a possibility from the beginning. Still, if you want to skip my thoughts about which is the truth, and why, skip the next paragraph.

Personally, as coincidental as it may be, I’m inclined to think it’s real. It’s definitely not the Rekall program gone correctly; the events that occur would be far too irresponsible as part of a planned story (consider the marital strife it would cause when he came back to reality.) The “schizoid embolism” theory of the implant going wrong is more viable, but Dr. Edgemar’s actions make me wonder a bit about it. If he could just show up where Quaid “was” in his hallucination, why didn’t he? Why did he need the door opened, and why could he only enter once? There may be explanations for all this, but it does put me in a skeptical position (especially as although Edgemar does predict some events, it’s nowhere near as incoherent as he suggests.)

As to the other twist (which I won’t spoil at all since it’s possible for me to say this much without doing so), I have to say it was a great move, plot-wise. I’m also going to go out on a limb here and say Kuato knew. For those who’ve seen the film, just consider what he says to Quaid. It’s solid sagely “wise mystic” advice either way, but it’s even more savvy if Kuato is aware of the twist.

The validity of my speculation on the twists aside, the fact is that the film doesn’t just provide twists and turns, it makes them interesting enough to actually discuss. It has a fairly intelligent plot, and although the dialogue has its moments of cheesiness, the script is reasonably solid throughout. I’m not going to discount the idea of seeing the remake — I am curious how Farrell will do, and just how similar they will be (the trailer looks like it’s cleaving pretty close so far) — but this isn’t a film that needed to be remade because “they screwed up the first time” or anything like that. Whether 2012′s Total Recall is good, bad, or somewhere in-between, 1990′s Total Recall is a fun, solid, intelligent film.

Rating: 4 Stars

One side note. As I said, I saw this on cable TV (well, satellite, but you catch my meaning.) Specifically, I saw it on TNT, late at night. It’s pretty certain now that I’m not going to watch another film on TNT unless it’s a film I really want to watch and I really want to watch it right then because I don’t want to wait further for some reason. This is because although I enjoyed the film, I cannot say it was a good film viewing experience. It seldom went more than 15 minutes without a commercial break, and those breaks were sometimes as long as ten minutes themselves — I checked a few times, and also did the occasional count of actual commercials, with one break having a dozen… on top of the usual network idiocy of occasionally sticking promos on top of the show you’re trying to watch. (I don’t care if The Mentalist is on tomorrow; I’m trying to watch Total Recall.) Plus they did the usual trimming for time and some wholly unnecessary censoring. The showing started after prime time was over; was it really that bad to let Hauser say “Get your ass to Mars” instead of “Get yourself to Mars”? (Yes, I knew the original quote before seeing the movie, even though I didn’t know the context. The internet is funny that way.) Commercial overdose and needless censorship isn’t the way to get me to watch your station. I understand the need for commercial breaks, but a dozen ads every 15 minutes is absurd. And I get that you don’t want to get in trouble for introducing swear words to kids, but this was, as I said, after prime time. No kid should be up watching TV that late in the first place, and even if they were, it’s more than a little silly to go about censoring swear words and then air an ad for what is basically a phone sex hotline in the middle of it.

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10 thoughts on “Total Recall (1990)

    • You know… it really depends a lot on the channel. But for the most part, I’m getting to where if it’s not a channel specifically dedicated to movies, I’m less likely to bother. Even some of those are getting bad, what with network drift and the “pop over ads”. TCM, and the Encore networks seem to be the best bets.

  1. I quite like Arnie is some movies, yes even in Eraser! But for some reason I didn’t um, recall much about the original though I’m pretty sure I have seen it. I am looking forward to seeing the remake though, surely Colin is a much better eye candy for me than Arnie at any age, ha!

    • I’ll have to take your word for it on the eye-candy factor, but between Beckinsale and Biel, I suppose I won’t be doing too bad on that front either. Eraser wasn’t a great film, but it was perfectly watchable for a basic action flick.

  2. Nice writeup, buddy. Rough go seeing it on TV though. Oooosh.

    I’ve always shaken out on the “It was the Implant” side of things, but that’s why its such a great debate. You point out the primary reason why this flick rocks though. Its a great action flick with a plot that engages your brain. It makes you think!

    As far as the remake, it might be worth it to update the special effects and make it an even more serious flick. But we’ll see… I dont trust Hollywood to do it well. The footage I saw at NYCC looked good (I know there’s a trailer out now, but I havent checked it out yet). We’ll see.

    • The trailer looked good as well, but I get what you mean about not trusting Hollywood to get it right. Really, that’s kind of how I am with any Philip K. Dick story — they can be awesome if done right, but can go wrong in so many ways. (I think Blade Runner qualifies as an example of both for you since you’ve seen and weighed in on the different versions….) There’s such a cerebral component to the high concept that it’s easy to see Hollywood just tossing anything complicated in favor of a brainless action flick.

  3. Pingback: Warning: This Title Contains Strong Language | Morgan on Media

  4. I don’t want to say that this one didn’t have much of an impact on me when I first watched it but what I can say is that I still found it to be a lot of fun, even if it did get a little cheesy by the end. Hope they do a good job with the remake, because it looks like they surprisingly will. Nice review.

    • Thanks, Dan. It’s certainly got a bit of cheese in it, that’s for sure. But it’s the good, fun, cheese. The remake does look better than most remakes usually do, at least so far.

  5. Pingback: Total Recall (2012) | Morgan on Media

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