Snuggled neatly in the centre of Paul Verhoven’s magnificent unofficial Sci-fi trilogy, sits Total Recall (we don’t count Hollow Man, Kevin Bacon’s invisible penis thriller, round these parts). Flanked by the robust satire of Robocop and Starship Troopers, Total Recall initially seems the most simple of the three, a straight ahead, action splurge of ultra violent razzmatazz infused with boffo animatronic (by The Thing’s Rob Bottin) and visual special effects work, but closer inspection reveals the opposite is actually true.
Taken as “just an action film”, Total Recall is virtually flawless and can truly be counted as one of the best Arnold Schwarzenegger ever made. It’s breathless chase through a banal futuristic Earth to the scarlet slums of Mars lower class which ropes in fake memories, spies, creepy robot cab drivers and vigorous gunplay. Christ… SO. MUCH. GUNPLAY.
The Austrian Oak plays Doug Quaid an unnaturally massive construction worker who has reoccurring dreams of having memories of Mars despite never having been there. Against the advise of literally everyone he’s ever met, Quaid take a trip to Rekall, a place that implants fake memories of holidays you couldn’t possibly afford. Taking a secret agent on Mars package deal Quaid seems to have somewhat of a negative reaction, and by “negative” I mean “total” and by “reaction” I mean “spaz attack”. After a sedating him the technicians theorize that somehow, someone has already mind wiped Quaid and that they are treading on very dangerous ground. Re-wiping his mind of him ever being there the shifty bastards put him in a cab and send him home. This sets into motion a paranoid’s nightmare as friends and loved ones turn out to be undercover sleeper agents and Quaid has to flee from a VERY trigger happy government spook called Richter (played with volcanic malevolence by the fantastic Michael Ironside). Receiving recorded a message from himself claiming to be someone named Hauser, Quaid is advised by himself that he should get his ass to Mars. Having gotten said ass to Mars he finds himself tangled with the resistance, a rag tag group of freedom fighters desperate to free the Martian people from a corrupt leadership and to get free air pumped into their domes. Can Quaid help them? Is Quaid even Quaid? And is ANY of this shit real?
It’s at this point I’ll point out that Total Recall is very loosely based on the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Phillip K. Dick the author also responsible for the source material for Blade Runner and Minority Report, therefore explaining why this movie has that little bit more going on than your average Schwarzenegger shoot-em-up. Arnold wrestles with the material admirably, forced to endure endless bouts of dignity-free situations between heavy bouts of breathless exposition. Arnold talking too long? Get him to wrap a wet towel around his head to dull the tracker implanted in his skull. Another chunk of plot explanation going on too long? Have him now pull said tracker out of his nose to wincingly reveal it’s the size of a ping pong ball. The movie continuously wrong-foots you with impossible plot points that Arnie nullifies with a new bit of tech that he just happens to be given, but instead of lazy writing it’s actually exhilarating and actually leads onto a point I’ll make later on.
Frenetic, endlessly quotable and as unforgettable as the triple titted prostitute that blew all our minds as teenagers, Total Recall would stand head and shoulders above most action epic based on it’s insane body count alone but it’s when you look a little closer and think a little more outside the box that the true genius of this movie reveals itself….
Confirmed by Verhoven himself, if taken as if Doug Quaid is in fact suffering a schizoid embolism, Total Recall isn’t actually a extremely kill crazy American blockbuster at all, but is actually a COMMENT on kill crazy American blockbusters. The rollercoaster plotting, the silly jokes, the suspicious coincidences, the excessive brutality, the fact that EVERY dude in the future is built like a fucking stuntman, it’s all explained. The whole of Total Recall is an action film that is a commentary on action films and all their muscular traits. The fact that this major plot point is so buried it’s still technically a fan theory simply (and fittingly) blows my mind. But then maybe we should have expected it from a director who puts Christ analogies into films about robot policemen.