How can you resist something like Total Recall? Paul Verhoeven, still fresh off of Robocop, made this movie at exactly the right time. After a decade of over the top action movies full of oily (and homoerotic?) muscle men and horrible one liners like the Rambo series, Commando, the Predator movies, Cobra and countless others, Total Recall was both the ultimate example of this style of film and a subtle deconstruction.
Cleverly starring Schwarzenegger, one of the leading action heroes of the ’80s, Total Recall points out every ridiculous convention and then one ups them all. One of the most expensive movies of its day, the art direction and set design are stunning, and the special effects look great to this day. It is far more believable than the fakey CG monsters that are so commonplace now.
Based on a Philip K. Dick tale (like Blade Runner, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly and others), Total Recall is the story of Douglas Quaid, a lowly construction worker who dreams of visiting Mars. It’s the future, but a modest one. Instead of jet cars and neural connections to the futuristic equivalent of the Internet, Doug just watches the news on his flat screen TV, which actually looks pretty much like LCD screens you can buy nowadays. The news is fixated on terrorists lead by the mysterious Kuato undermining the Martian authorities.
Doug’s wife Lori (Sharon Stone) comforts him. Trying to get his mind off of the red planet, she shoots down his idea for a Mars vacation. Soon it’s off to work and at this point it’s hard to miss the societal commentary. He’s a construction worker. He lives in a super nice condo with a big TV and has a super hot wife who wears spandex ’80s exercise gear. All the other construction workers are pudgy, ugly little people and he’s this huge, ripped pile of man meat and hey, everyone loves that face. Of course something is wrong with this picture. But is Verhoeven giving clues that things are not what they seem in Doug’s life, or is he commenting on how poorly action movies reflect reality? Is he pointing out the way women are treated as achievements and not human beings?
Doug’s determined to get his Mars vacation one way or another, and despite his construction worker buddy’s urging, he decides to go to Rekall, the company that can implant artificial memories of fancy vacations you could never afford. Undeterred by the threat of lobotomy, Doug orders the deluxe Mars vacation with an “ego trip” upgrade — instead of experiencing Mars as Douglas Quaid, he’s opted for the temporary identity of a secret agent.
But something goes wrong and Doug experiences a “schizoid embolism” because, according to the technicians, his memory has already been wiped. Rekall senses disaster, destroys his files, and dumps him in a cab. Soon, a bunch of government agents lead by his construction buddy are out to kill our hero.
In the average ’80’s action movie, the bullets fly, the hero is never touched, and the bad guys are all taken out in one bloodless shot. Not so in the hyper violent world of Total Recall, where Doug’s enemies erupt in fountains of gore and innocent bystanders die in the bloodbath.
He staggers back home to tell his wife about it but she suddenly turns on him, with multiple kung fu kicks to his crotch. After a brief fight, she tries to charm him, pleading (with a gun to her head), “You wouldn’t kill me. Would you, honey? After all we’ve been through?” Quaid considers a moment and replies, “Some of it was fun.” And then he punches her in the face, quipping, “Nice knowing you.”
Once again Verhoeven is mocking the style while reveling in it. The stupid one-liners are a must for a dumb ’80s action movie, but it’s usually something like Arnold pinning a guy to a tree with a knife and saying, “Stick around!” But he’s not fighting some generic bad guy from a third world nation (another action movie staple). No, he just punched a woman, his wife, an attractive blonde, right in the face. This is totally against the rules for most Hollywood movies, and definitely against the rules of ’80s action movies. But is this trying to take ’80s action movies to the next level of indiscriminate violence, or is this glibly mocking them while subverting the style? I think Total Recall is doing both. It’s simultaneously rejoicing in the ludicrous excesses of ’80s action movies and twisting them for social commentary and commentary on both Hollywood and the film itself.
Total Recall is a lot smarter than it appears on the surface. It’s also pretty damn misogynistic.
With Michael Ironside on his tail, a friend gives him a suitcase full of useful gadgets, including a video of himself explaining the situation. Basically, Quaid used to be Hauser, a secret agent working for the Martian government, but he ended up switching sides and joining the revolutionaries he was fighting against. And then the government caught him and erased his brain. So what’s next? “Get your ass to Mars,” he helpfully tells himself after teaching him how to rip out the tracking device implanted in his head. Note that this scene is copied in The Matrix.
Once on Mars, Doug hooks up with an “athletic brunette”, which is exactly the kind of woman he told the people at Rekall he wanted in his trip to Mars. I think this, too, is commentary on ’80s action movie conventions. Almost all the women in ’80s movies have terrible ’80s hair. Ugly, curly permed messes were the norm. By 1990, this trend was on the way out, and Sharon Stone certainly reflects that with her straight blond hair and (by Rekall’s standards) “curvy” body. But Melina (the petite Rachel Ticotin), a sex worker/revolutionary and Hauser’s lover, still has that horrible ’80s permed mess. She’s also nowhere near as “Hollywood pretty” as Sharon Stone and everyone I’ve ever watched this with has agreed that it’s really weird that Arnold would pick her over Sharon Stone. They are two peas in an übermenschen pod. I think that again Verhoeven is being more clever and more subtle than viewers might expect.
Ticotin is more in line with the ’80s woman. Women then were obsessed with exercise and huge curly hair. While Sharon Stone does spend some time exercising in a weird parody of similar scenes in earlier films, it’s hard to miss that she’s built in a completely different fashion. Ticotin’s body is angular and thin and while Stone is still thin, compared to Ticotin, she is “voluptuous”, as Rekall’s weird “pick your masturbation fantasy” computer phrases it. Is this a comment on how Arnold is stuck in the ’80s? Is it a comment on how bizarre ’80s fashion is and how dumb ’80s action movies are? Is this a comment on how the female body is commodified in movies and the way body types go in and out of style? Is Arnold really into women that are brunette, athletic, sleazy, and demure?
And like many Philip K. Dick works, there is the issue of the doppelgänger. There are two Arnolds, the Quaid version and the Hauser version. Hauser is a very German-sounding name, an obvious Nazi allusions. Then we have his female partner, the revolutionary with curly black hair, versus the blonde with straight hair who supports the fascistic government. Hmm. And when you consider the trouble Arnold has been through with people accusing him of Nazi sympathies… You have to wonder if Verhoeven and his writers were criticizing Arnold for a little more than starring in brain dead action movies. Total Recall may not have answers, but at least it is asking questions.
A bit later there is a very interesting scene where a doctor claiming to be from Rekall contacts Quaid and tells him that he’s still back in Rekall and dreaming all of this. He tells him to take a symbolic red pill and return to reality before he gets lobotomized. Hey, does that remind you of a similar scene in The Matrix? Sharon Stone shows up to help convince him, but just when he starts to believe, he notices the Rekall goon sweating and shoots him in the head. Then he has a fight with his wife (including another assault on his manhood), which ends up with her pleading, “You wouldn’t hurt me, would you sweetheart? Sweetheart, be reasonable! After all, we’re married!” She dives for her gun and he shoots her dead, quipping, “Consider this a divorce.” One more time, the goofy one liner is used in bizarre fashion and breaks the rules of ’80s action movies. He just shot the attractive white woman with blonde hair, ostensibly his wife and made a smart ass comment about it. Casual misogyny? Taking the action movie to the next level? Commentary on Nazi ideals? All of the above?
Having abandoned reality or seen reality for what it is, he tries to meet the leader of the revolutionaries. Most of these freedom fighters are mutants (the result of shoddy Martian dome building) who have been rounded up into a ghetto. Yes, this, too has heavy World War II undertones, especially when the bad guys turn off the air supply, bringing to mind Nazi gas chambers.
Kuato (a deformed, psychic little monster growing out of Marshell Bell’s stomach) tells Quaid to activate this reactor, an alien artifact found in the turbinium mines. These very same mines made Cohaagen, the fascist ruler of Mars, incredibly rich. Also padding his wallet are monthly fees for oxygen. As soon as Kuato’s narrative purpose has been completed, a traitor blows him away. (Quaid later gets revenge by killing the traitor with a screw tipped drill while yelling, “Screeeeewwwww yooooouuuuu!”)
Cohaagen captures Quaid and Melina and reveals that Hauser did not actually turn and this was all a trick. A video from Hauser confirms that he really was a bad guy. They try to erase Quaid and reestablish Hauser’s personality, but Quaid breaks free using raw Arnold power. There’s a climactic showdown, exploding eyeballs, and the action movie happy ending where Arnold defeats the bad guys, activates the reactor (thus generating free air on Mars) and gets the girl. Except the movie ends on a note of uncertainty.
Melina: I can’t believe it; it’s like a dream. What’s wrong?
Douglas Quaid: I just had a terrible thought. What if this is a dream?
Melina: Well, then kiss me quick before you wake up.
And then the movie fades to white, instead of black. I love this ending. It effectively translates Philip K. Dick’s paranoia and elastic, subjective reality to the screen while questioning whether the gung ho action movie approach is worthwhile at all. Does Total Recall glorify the 80’s action movie, vilify it, or both?
Either way, it’s a fitting end cap to the cycle. While some may credit the blatantly self-reflexive Pulp Fiction with destroying the ’80s action movie, the truth is that Total Recall did it years before, and with much greater subtlety, and it’s still the only movie that makes Philip K. Dick’s paranoiac milieu fun instead of horrifying.
And while a few big ’80s styled action movies followed Total Recall, most of them were giant flops, like Arnold’s own Last Action Hero.
And now, a series of hilarious faces:
- Action, Science Fiction
- Release Date: 6/1/1990
- Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
- Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Ironside, Rachel Ticotin, Ronny Cox, Sharon Stone
- Produced by: Andrew G. Vajna, Buzz Feitshans, Mario Kassar, Ronald Shusett
- Written by: Dan O'Bannon, Jon Povill, Philip K. Dick, Ronald Shusett
- Studio: Carolco Pictures, StudioCanal