Sunday, May 13, 2012

Total Recall - 1990

"Total Recall" - 1990
Dir. by Paul Verhoeven - 1 hr. 53 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's one relevant question about "Total Recall:" do you think that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Verhoeven are going to be able pull off a mind-fuck movie (hey, the term is actually used in the film, so there's no reason to shy away from it in this review)?  And, having just watched this film, I'm not sure I can answer that satisfactorily.  There are things that this film does well, and you can certainly feel the Dickian undertones (not that I've read his fiction (yet), but I've seen enough movies based on his work to be able to ballpark what the tone of his work is), but the strengths aren't as fully related to the premise of the story as they might be.

The story is this: Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is a construction worker, married to what you'd probably have to admit is a woman out of his league (at least based on profession; Sharon Stone plays his wife, Lori), and he keeps waking up from nightmares about a trip to Mars.  He's never been there, and tries to convince his wife to move there, but it's no dice.  The next best thing is offered by a company called Recall; you can purchase the memories of your dream vacation, purportedly indistinguishable from your real memories.  Everyone warns him off of it, but Quaid gives into temptation.  The process goes wrong, leaving Quaid in the middle of a psychic embolism, and all of a sudden everyone starts trying to kill him.  Quaid flees to Mars on his own advice (yes, it makes sense when you see it), and gets caught up in a showdown between the freaks (Martian mutants) and Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), the head honcho on the red planet.

So, from the first question that I posed, there are three things that need to be addressed.  First, what are the strengths of this film, second, how does that relate to Philip K. Dick's work, and thirdly, do Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger manage to pull this off?

There are a few strengths about "Total Recall."  The biggest is probably that this is prime-era Schwarzenegger.  No, he's not a particularly great actor, but that didn't really hold him back from making a few good films along the way.  That just means that you have to cater to what he can do, and put him in a position to succeed.  Verhoeven does just that: Arnie gets to flex, fight people, and look confused a lot.  And he makes great noises, which have been parodied endlessly.  No one nyah's like Arnie nyah's.  The other thing that makes this movie interesting is that director Paul Verhoeven has a very distinct vision of the future, and it's consistent through-out his sci-fi work.  Visually speaking, it's very easy to tie together the general "look" of his best work (that would be "Robocop," "Total Recall," and "Starship Troopers," for the record).  The future is boxy, sleazy, media-saturated, well-lit, and highly class-stratified.  Also, Verhoeven makes excellent use of traditional special effects techniques (here, puppetry and prosthetics are used to great effect).  No, this doesn't have the same level of polish as a computer-animated blockbuster of the current time, but there's a wonky, asymmetrical ugliness to the mutants (for example) that's appealing and fun.  And also, there's a three-boobed hooker.  It's such a bizarre detail, one that doesn't tie into anything else in the film, and yet it's also probably the first thing anyone who's seen "Total Recall" will mention.

Does any of this really relate to Dick's work (which, again for the record, I've only experienced in film adaptations).  Not really.  Verhoeven's strengths don't coincide with moral and ethical considerations.  The idea behind the film is a strong foundation, on which Verhoeven applies his ultra-violence and non-stop satire.  But does that even really matter?  Ultimately, if the film is good, the source material is irrelevant.  I still can't figure out whether or not this is a good movie.  It's certainly of it's time; Arnie delivers nonsensical wisecracks when he offs someone (my favorite: his "Screw you!" to Benny, as he kills him with a giant drill), and the hair is as big as it gets.  What could have been a subtler plot turns into a reason to get from one cool visual to the next (and there's no shortage of those, from Quaid fishing a device the size of a golf-ball out of his nose, to the malfunctioning disguise upon his arrival on Mars, to the mutants, to the three-boobed hooker and more), and it does entertain along the way.

"Total Recall" is definitely worth watch for that reason.  Verhoeven usually errs on the side of too much, which is one of the reasons some of the bizarre visuals have held up over time.  But it's not exactly a good film, and it's also not one of Schwarzenegger's very best films, either.  The bottom line is, if you're looking to watch one of Arnie's films when he was huge, you could do both better and worse than "Total Recall."  But I also guarantee that there will be at least one visual detail here that you'll remember long after you've watched it, which is a triumph of it's own.

3 / 5 - Blu-Ray

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