Total Recall was the last of the major Hollywood films that retained the spirit of a sixties B-movie. This bizarre combination actually helped blockbusters. They never took themselves seriously and retained the sort of adventure spirit that Edgar Rice Burroughs would have approved of. I don’t exactly know when this spirit left, but I think Michael Bay is responsible.
Total Recall follows the story of Douglas Quaid, a construction worker who has dreams about Mars. He wants to take a vacation there but cannot afford it. So he goes to get a fake memory implant of a “perfect vacation” at Rekall, a futuristic business specializing in such implants. While there, Rekall uncovers some repressed memories of his time as a spy on Mars. This leads him to actually go to Mars to uncover the identity of the people who destroyed his mind.
Or does it? Like Blade Runner, Total Recall is a film that has sparked endless debate about whether or not the events in the film actually take place and are not just the result of some intense hallucination by Quaid. The evidence is there for both. Characters in the film first appear on advertisements on bus stations only to appear in the flesh later. Subtle hints about the nature of Quaid’s supposed vacation. The length of time he spends on Mars is the same length he paid for in the memory. It is a film that requires the viewer to actually pay attention. At the very least they will receive an opportunity to see Arnold Schwarzenegger try to act.
Yes, that is the other main aspect of the film. Many would dismiss the film as another testosterone filled action romp due to the presence of Arnold. Yet I will say he does the best he can possibly do. He doesn’t act like a hulking superman. He actually acts like a scared individual who is in mortal danger from the enemies chasing him. It was almost a complete turnaround of what he had been doing in the past.
But I must say, try as he might, Schwarzenegger did not really fit the character. We are still looking at the action superstar and not Quaid. According to IMDB, Christopher Reeves had been offered the role but had turned it down. I don’t know why. He would have been perfect for the role. He had made his career by playing the ultimate superhero under the guise of a completely inadequate man. That is exactly what a Phillip K. Dick character should be. The character should be normal, the character should be someone who could be found everywhere. Either way, it should not be Schwarzenegger.
This is still a minor complaint. I still found myself believing Schwarzenegger’s performance. Maybe that’s why this film is one of the better blockbusters. It took a one dimensional actor and pushed him to his limit. And this isn’t even a James Cameron film.
I must also say that I never found the violence in this film to be to over the top. Well, it was, but that was the point. It approached the level of a comic book rather than a snuff film. But so what? Phillip K. Dick was, at his heart, a pulp science fiction writer. That’s the sort of tone that anyone adapting his work should strive for. Even if it is scientifically implausible (the main villain’s fate, while visually striking, is laughably inaccurate) it still works for the universe that the film has created. Say what you will about Paul Verhoeven, he creates self contained universes that never, ever contradict themselves. For the entire length of the film, the viewers believe in them. Except Showgirls, which was camp because the self contained logic Verhoeven tried to create still could not apply. When he succeeded though, he succeeded beyond what was ever required of him.
Total Recall is the sort of film Hollywood should be making more of. So, of course, this is the sort of film they stubbornly refuse to make.