Total Recall (1990)
Written by Philip K. Dick, Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett, and Gary Goldman
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Total Recall is not the best film ever made. It’s not even the best science fiction movie, but it is a beautiful example of a type of science fiction film that died out around the beginning of the 1990s. The practical effects, the matte painting, the clever use of computer effects in minimal ways, all add up to a world I wish we could spend more time in. But, I’m sort of glad that we don’t get more of this setting because it makes the bits and pieces provided all that more interesting to mull over.
In 2084, Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a construction worker with dreams about visiting Mars and has visions of a beautiful woman who lives there. His wife Lori (Sharon Stone) and his friend Harry both discourage Quaid from entertaining these thoughts. After all, Mars is currently caught in a civil conflict between Governor Cohaagen and insurgent forces. One day, after work, Quaid visits Rekall, a company that sells implanted memories of vacations so that he can at least imagine what it would be like to visit Mars. Well, things go wrong, and the technicians discover Quaid has suppressed memories about another life.
From there, the facade of Quaid’s life crumbles as he learns everything, and everyone he thought was part of years and years of memories are an illusion. The answers for Quaid lie on Mars a place ravaged by the planetwide mining operation and the effects of radiation poisoning in the poorer domes. Tourists are hidden away from the local population who have mutated, developing physical deformities but also profound psychic abilities. Quaid struggles to determine what is real and what is a lie as his adversaries plot against him, unaware he’s being guided down a meticulously crafted path.
The path to Total Recall becoming a feature film started around 1985 with Richard Dreyfuss attached to star. After that fell through, producers looked at Patrick Swayze to take the lead role. In 1987, famous film producer Dino de Laurentis announced that the movie was going into production with the Dan O’Bannon/Ronald Shusett script but that never came to be. David Cronenberg was asked to direct, but he found the script to not have a clear direction and ultimately walked away. The de Laurentis group eventually went under the Total Recall property was snatched up by Schwarzenegger (who had wanted to star in the picture) and Carolco. Arnold had been impressed with the humor and action of Robocop and personally sought out Paul Verhoeven to direct. Which is how we got the film we love today.
Total Recall is the middle part of an unofficial science fiction trilogy by Verhoeven, along with Robocop and Starship Troopers. These three films serve as a brutal satire of popular American entertainment and the corporate imperialism of the 1980s and 90s. Verhoeven has never been explicitly loud about his personal and political beliefs, though he is a bit of a scholar on Jesus of all people, having published a novel focused on the historical Jesus and has wanted to make a movie about the man. Verhoeven’s films inform us more about what he wants to say about Western civilization, particularly America. Robocop is very obvious in his portrayal of municipalities being under the thumb of powerful corporations and law enforcement serving a tool of oppression by the powerful. Starship Troopers seemed to fly over the heads of people, including myself until recently, who are coming to understand it as a scathing takedown of fascist colonialism and imperialism. Total Recall hasn’t been quite as analyzed though I think it touches on similar themes.
Total Recall is a film about the oppression of the lower classes but happily aloof and unaware middle-class people, with this system being kept in place by a brutally powerful ruling class. Quaid is a middle-class, blue-collar worker who has everything he could ever want: an incredibly well-furnished apartment, a sexy blonde white wife, a job centered around his masculine nature. We see Quaid fixated on the news coverage of social unrest and violence on Mars, which his wife shuts off and tries to distract him from. Quaid can only see the world as a middle-class consumer, and so, instead of educating himself more on what’s happening on Mars, he buys a product in the form of Rekall. But by even taking this step he unlocks something about himself that has been suppressed and eventually finds solidarity, not with people from his own class, but with the marginalized, the genetically poisoned, sex workers, non-white people in a colony built on the graves of native Martians. It’s not the technology of Earthlings that saves them in the end, that tech is transformed into commodities for corporate profit. A woman is overhead on a train saying that Cohaagen has raised the price of oxygen, and later the governor deprives the working poor of Venusville of the air they need to breathe.
I can’t think of many films as relevant today as Total Recall. It’s a message to the privileged classes to wake up done in only a way Verhoeven could, chock full of humor and action. He’s such a damn good director he becomes too clever in sneaking these messages into his work. Quaid becomes a white savior, in the end, mocking the liberal sensibilities of the middle class. However, as revealed in the third act, Quaid’s former personality of Hauser set all this up, infused Quaid with a sense of heroism so that he could help the Martian government find the core of the rebellion and kill its leaders. The desire of the privileged to step in and take over movements, rather than listen to the marginalized and oppressed has led to the squashing of political revolution over the years. The professional-managerial class and technocrats often believe they have solutions and don’t need to listen to those oppressed communities.
Paul Verhoeven continues to be a beautiful cinematic onion whose thematic layers I savor, pulling back. His work is woefully misinterpreted by both the fans who adore it and the critics who snub their noses at it. The external trappings of the movies all point to the absurdity of what unfolds on screen, Verhoeven is pointing and laughing at the sensibilities of vapid media consumers who love ultraviolence. His violence is so over the top and obscene that it becomes comic. I highly recommend this brilliant film that diverges from its source material quite a bit, to become an entirely different animal, but ultimately is something just as relevant.