Film Review No.135: Total Recall

Here’s a film I’ve wanted to cover on here for some time. Total Recall is pretty much the film that simultaneously waved goodbye to the excess of 80s cinema and hello to the technical special effects wizardry of the 90s. It was one of the last big special effects movies to go largely without CGI relying instead on models and animatronic effects to sell you it’s fiction. I’d bet most people raised in the 80s are fans of this film and if you’ve never seen it you should so you can be a fan too. Click the link for my review!

In Total Recall Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Doug Quaid, a man with a comfortable life in a new town that dreams of going to live on Mars. His wife is Lori (Sharon Stone) is dead set against the idea doing all she can to put him off. When Quaid sees and advert for a virtual holiday service called Rekall which promises to implant the memories of a holiday to Mars in his head he can’t resist the chance to experience the red planet, even if it’s in a virtual form. He opts for a two week package with an “Ego-trip” bonus where he’ll believe he was a secret agent and he’ll get to seduce the literal girl of his dreams. He goes for his memory implant and suddenly things go wrong when it turns out he’s been to Mars and the holiday implant is conflicting with a memory wipe implant he appears to have had. After being drugged and chucked in the back of a cab Quaid wakes up to find that his friends and even his wife are spies placed to keep him in check. A message from himself prompts Quaid to get his ass to Mars where the real adventure can kick off.

What makes Total Recall quite an interesting film to be on the verge of a remake is that the possibilities for what the sequel could be are quite free from the constraints of the original. See Total Recall was based on the Philip K Dick short story We Will Remember It For You Wholesale, but only loosely. The story itself ends when Quaid is having his memory implant procedure and the doctors at Rekall discover that he’s already got the memories they’re implanting because they’re real. From there writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Sushett extrapolated a second and third act that involves Quaid heading to Mars to find out the truth and save the planet. A story that’s similar to the spy story he had chosen to be implanted.

That is Robert Picardo, the holographic doctor from Star Trek Voyager in puppet form. He pretty much steals the scene she’s in.

Now what makes Total Recall stand out is that despite being a violent, comic book style action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is that it’s actually a very intelligently written nigh on philosophical piece of story-telling. This is helped by it being directed by the man that nailed that same task a few years earlier when he directed Robocop, that man being Paul Verhoeven. You’ll find that most Robocop fans are also fans of Total Recall and it’s easy to see why. The direction style and tone are very similar. Verhoeven once again uses TV shows within the film to flesh out the world around our main characters, although here it’s less in your face than it was in Robocop. It has that trademark dark humour, the over the top violence and is pretty much one memorable sequence after another. Verhoeven was creating some amazing work at this point in his career which all contributed to his status as a genuine auteur of cinema. Three films in a row he directed that all have legendary era defining qualities, the third being Basic Instinct. We won’t talk about what he did next though, because I already have.

I mentioned the effects in the intro but they’re worth going over in more detail. This is honestly one of the best looking films of it’s time and the quality of the model work and puppetry effects still hold up to scrutiny today. Obviously there’s that pre-digital era fuzz around the edges of composite shots but other than that the designs are seamless. The scope is just incredible too. When you see a film like Avatar keep in mind that the worlds in that film were created by some guys behind a desk tapping on a keyboard. Here they’re lovingly sculpted models that I refrain from calling miniatures purely because they were actually pretty damn huge. Christopher Nolan has taken to calling these types of effect “Bigatures”. The surface of Mars that you see on this film certainly takes up a lot more physical space than a few megabytes on a hard drive. There’s one computer generated effect in the film but that’s been done so that it fits entirely in context of the scene. In the scene characters walking into an X-Ray tunnel in the city subway (We’re so worryingly close to this being real) at which point an alarm is sounded by a gun Quaid is carrying. The X-Ray we see is a CGI skeleton that’s animated a little bit robotic but it’s effective none-the-less. If you do find yourself watching this for the first time keep the fact that that is the only CGI effect in mind and you’ll fall in love with the skill taken to make this film look how it does.

Looks a bit sore love. I say leave it alone for oooh… twoooo weeeeeeksss.

I could prattle on endlessly about the effects but there’s other aspects to be discussed. The film moves along at a pitch perfect pace and it’s always taking you somewhere new. There’s never that feeling that the characters are heading nowhere. Along the way enough curve-balls are thrown at you to make you question what is real about Quaid’s adventure. It’s impressive that any film starring Schwarzenegger can actually get you thinking and discussing the puzzle pieces that make up the truth of the plot. By the end we’re left with enough pieces to make our own minds up but not enough to say for certain. There was a sequel planned which would have been based on The Minority Report. If that had have happened we would have instantly had the biggest question this film leaves answered and as such I’m glad it never did.

Presentation wise the film is excellent barring some pretty obvious sets. The sets have that Verhoeven angular style to them that is most obvious in his Starship Troopers film but has always been evident in his work. Because every location on Mars had to be entirely different to Earth they had to build every set. I’d imagine a quite large sound stage would have been used to build the bulk of Venusville, the planets red light district where a lot of the film takes place. The films score Jerry Goldsmith is fairly typical of a lot of his work although it’s not quite a romanticised as his Star Wars or Indiana Jones scores. The main theme itself is one of those pieces of music that gets stuck in your brain just like the Robocop or Jurassic Park themes did.

Overall Total Recall is a must watch film. It’s a rare beast being an R rated sci-fi film that manages to deliver both action and the sort of questions good sci-fi should deliver. Whilst Arnold’s acting may be as wooden as the chipboard the sets are made from he manages to not damage the film by providing the sort of charm he was known for back then. Total Recall is a must watch film for anyone that likes sci-fi, action and triple breasted hookers.


About lvl54spacemonkey

Just a dude who likes movies and games and has delusions of working in one of those industries. Write screenplays and work on short films in my spare time. Most of which never get finished. View all posts by lvl54spacemonkey

3 responses to “Film Review No.135: Total Recall

  • Ben

    As much as I think Total Recall is a great film, I think it would have helped if they explored the “Is this a dream or real” angle a bit more. That moment in the bedroom when the doctor and Arnie’s wife shows up to convince him that he is dreaming could have triggered the film into becoming a very different story, maybe even a better one…

    • lvl54spacemonkey

      The is it a dream stuff is littered throughout the entire film. In fact what happens right after that scene is just what the Rekall doctor described. He warns him that if Quaid kills him in his dream then all hell will break loose and Quaid will be drawn deeper into that world. The moment Quaid shoots him guys literally burst through the wall and the most action packed part of the film begins.

      There’s also a lot of smaller like lines of dialogue and small visual touches that repeat when he’s on Mars. Notice the images of the hidden alien caves that were meant to be a secret are shown to Quaid on his visit to Rekall. Why would they have those images? Also everything he describes as being part of the spy package happens. What if his freak out at Rekall was the first part of the spy Ego Trip? There’s enough in this film to genuinely question whether it is real or not. The fact the film dissolves into white as it ends is traditional film language for waking up from a dream.

      • Ben

        Reading what you’ve written, there are parts I missed (the cave walls for example) but I just felt like it could have been a more obvious plot point.

        I admit that there is already a lot that alludes that aspect of the story in there though.

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