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Total Recall

As a little Christmas present to all of you (got quite the high opinion of myself don't I? ) I've decided to jump ahead from the shorter reviews of my backlog to give you all one of my classic, long-winded ramblings that I wrote just a week or two ago.


Year of release

Directed by
Paul Verhoeven

Written by
Ronald Shusett
Dan O'Bannon
Gary Goldman

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Rachel Ticotin
Sharon Stone
Ronny Cox
Michael Ironside

Total Recall

Plot - The year is 2084. Technological advances have allowed humanity to make many great leaps forward, including the colonisation of Mars. Things are not all rosy on the red planet however as the governor, Vilos Cohaagen (Cox), faces a revolt by a group of rebels. With scenes of violence and destruction a regular fixture on the TV news, Mars does not seem like the most inviting of holiday destinations. Unless your name is Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger). He has always had a fascination with the planet. Unable to convince his wife Lori (Stone) to take the actual trip, Quaid settles for visiting Rekall Inc, a company capable of implanting memories of ideal vacations. Purchasing a Mars secret agent package things go horribly wrong and he is left confused and running for his very life. It turns out his wife isn't really his wife, but an agent working for Cohaagen. According to her he isn't really Quaid and his whole life is a fake. Managing to avoid the men who are trying to kill him Quaid heads to Mars to try and uncover the truth about who he really is, in the process becoming embroiled with mutants, a mysterious woman (Ticotin), Cohaagen's thugs and a secret hidden with the planet's mines.

I've always enjoyed a slice of trashy, pulpy sci-fi. And they don't come much pulpier than Total Recall. In fact right at this moment I'm struggling to think of another film that has quite as many moments and scenes that revel in such a lurid and gaudy nature. Even if you've only seen Total Recall just the once I imagine there will still be moments from it locked in your memory; the decompression scenes on the surface of Mars, the 'fat lady' disguise and the reveal of who it really is, the extraction of a tracking device through Arnie's nose, the three breasted hooker etc. Although given whose at the directorial helm it really shouldn't come as any kind of surprise.

There are a lot of things you can say about Paul Verhoeven and his approach to filmmaking throughout his career; 'purveyor of good taste' probably wouldn't be all that high on the list however. He has always been a director who is comfortable getting down and dirty in the filth and the sleeze of cinema. And Total Recall ticks off many of the boxes that make for a classic Verhoeven flick. Garish violence and lurid death scenes? You got it. Copious amounts of blood spurting all over the place? Absolutely. Gratuitous sex? Oh you bet ya! What is also common in the films of Verhoeven however (perhaps RoboCop most noticeably) is that beneath the flashy surface lies a substantial element of intelligence, very often that of a satirical and subversive bent. On the most basic of levels the plot is an absolute labyrinth, just a terrifically cryptic little puzzle which keeps you always guessing as to which direction it's heading in and is forever pulling the rug out from under you. Just when you think you've got a handle on its mysteries and the motivation of its characters the script will throw you another curveball. In fact Total Recall has more twists and turns than a twisty-turny thing (a little nod for Blackadder fans there). Verhoeven uses this mystery and its themes of identity, paranoia and unreliable memory to create what is actually quite a classic piece of noir cinema, albeit one populated with all manner of mutants and advanced technology.

Go deeper however and you find that the film covers similar ground to RoboCop in terms of its themes and issues. Just as with that Peter Weller-starrer, Total Recall uses its futuristic setting to provide some commentary on our own current society, most notably on large corporations and the stranglehold they have on our lives. It's about how these corporations have been able to gain a monopoly on the necessities of our lives, and how these greed b*stards put their own personal needs above the needs of the people. For us it takes the form of fossil fuels and life's necessities (oil, electricity, heating etc). For the inhabitants of Mars it takes on the form of life itself; Ronny Cox's Vilos Cohaagen controls the supply of breathable air for the entire populous of the planet. If you don't play ball, you die. It's an issue that was relevant back in 1990, it's an issue that is relevant today, and is an issue that will most likely be relevant for mankind's foreseeable future.

Film Trivia Snippets - The film's shoot turned into quite the hellish experience for all involved. Shooting took place in Mexico City and due to one issue or another; food poisoning, extreme heat and the city's extremely poor air quality (said to be akin to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day), pretty much the entire cast and crew fell ill at one point or another. In fact only two people escaped falling sick; Arnold Schwarzenegger and the film's writer, Ronald Shusett. Schwarzenegger escaped because he had all of his food catered in the US and flown in; he did this after falling ill during the filming of Predator (also in Mexico) due to drinking some tap water. Shusett meanwhile went to extreme lengths to preserve his health; he only brushed his teeth with boiled or bottled water and insisted on receiving weekly B12 shots. He was initially mocked by the crew for his germophobia until they all fell sick. One of those to fall sick as a result of the air quality was associate producer Elliot Schick who actually had to be transported by helicopter to a nearby hospital. Paul Verhoeven also suffered greatly. In fact at one point he got so ill from food poisoning that he had an ambulance on set at all times. In between takes paramedics would administer fluids and medication s that he could keep directing.
So the film is still relevant and in fact if anything the film has actually gained an additional level of relevance in recent years with the rise of social media, smart phones and ever more immersive technology. Just as Douglas Quaid does to his great detriment we are losing ourselves in technology; choosing to live vicariously through our gadgets than to experience actual reality. We are not actually experiencing life, just an imitation of it. An additional link between Total Recall and RoboCop is Paul Verhoeven's apparent fascination with American consumerism. In the Earth set sequences when Quaid is out and about, and being pursued by his would be captors, we find him absolutely swarmed by all manner of brands and advertising all around him. And I love the sequence where the sales agent at Rekall attempts to sell Quaid on the virtues of their services in a style reminiscent of a dodgy used car salesman.

Now when it comes to the acting of Total Recall, let's just say that it's....interesting. The performances here certainly haven't been honed at RADA or Juilliard; it's a series of individuals who are either hamming it up for all they're worth or who just can't particularly act. However I'd argue that it's a perfect fit for the material. If someone was to actually start 'acting' with any kind of subtlety or restrain in the midst of all this sensationalist, over-the-top trash it would stick out like a sore thumb. It would be akin to Arnie hamming it up in a film by Fellini or Tarkovsky. Speaking of Schwarzenegger, he is of course the film's star. Now no-one is ever going to accuse him of being a great actor, but as is frequently the case, in his own inimitably Arnie kind of way he's sort of awesome. This film was released towards the end of Arnie's true golden era and it really is the perfect kind of role for him; a role which requires him to kick ass and throw out the odd one-liner here and there. And to be fair to him he does stretch himself a little from his typical action hero, displaying a more vulnerable and confused side to his character. As his 'wife' we have Sharon Stone who is actually quite a lot of fun in this film. As someone who has usually been relegated to simply being a sex object that entices the protagonist throughout her entire career, she seems to be having a blast in a role that allows her to be quite a cunning, diabolical temptress. Oh and what a bitch! I mean she hits Arnie in the crown jewels not once, not twice, but THRICE!!! That's true evil.

The real star turns of Total Recall however come from its villains, meaning that it once again mirrors RoboCop. In RoboCop, Peter Weller's police officer turned robotic avenger comes up against a double threat; a materialistic and sadistic boss and his vicious lackey that takes care of the dirty work. In both films the role of the boss is actually played the same man, the great Ronny Cox. In this instance he is Vilos Cohaagen, the corrupt and ruthless governor of Mars who is basically a dictator; stopping at nothing to achieve what he wants and sacrificing anyone that gets in his way. And as his brutal lieutenant this time out, replacing Kurtwood Smith, we have Michael Ironside as the relentless and merciless Richter. Both men just absolutely kill it in their respective roles, making us truly despise them to the point that we can revel and delight in the brutal deaths that befall them both. There are also a series of great performances in the film's smaller roles, helping to ensure that Total Recall has one of the most colourful casts of supporting characters you're ever likely to find; individuals like Mel Johnson Jr. as Benny the cab driver, Roy Brocksmith as Dr. Edgemar, Debbie Lee Carrington as the dwarf hooker Thumbelina, Dean Norris as the disfigured mutant Tony, Ray Baker as the Rekall sales agen and of course Lycia Naff as Mary, aka the three-breasted prostitute.

Film Trivia Snippets - Arnold Schwarzenegger was originally in line to play the title role of RoboCop, but issues with the costume caused producers to abandon that idea. When Schwarzenegger saw the resulting film he loved it and became determined to work with Verhoeven. When Schwarzenegger acquired the rights to Total Recall his first call was to Verhoeven to try and get him to direct. /// The script for Total Recall was floating around Hollywood for so many years that people began to think it was cursed. Early on it was originally going to be directed by David Cronenberg who intended to cast William Hurt as the lead; he dropped out however as a result of the production being put into turnaround. Then at one point Patrick Swayze was actually signed on to play Quaid with Bruce Beresford directing. Before filming could begin however the company financing the project went bankrupt. In the original script Quaid was much more of an everyman which explains why individuals who were strongly considered included Jeff Bridges, Richard Dreyfuss and Matthew Broderick. /// Hard as it might be to believe but the film was even more violent than the finished product. The original cut was actually given an X-rating by the MPAA because of its excessive violence. With some of the violence trimmed and different camera angles chosen to lessen the gore of certain scenes it was eventually able to gain an R rating. /// Paul Verhoeven offered the role of Richter to Kurtwood Smith which would have seen them re-teaming after RoboCop. Smith turned it down however because he felt it was too similar to the role of Clarence Boddicker in Robocop.
I love how highly detailed and realised the world of Total Recall is; it's just brimming with visual wit and creativity. The production design team really do seem to be have given free reign just to let their imaginations run wild. Alongside the elaborate sets (the oppressive Earth-set scenes, Mars' communities and its red light district) and impressive work with miniatures (the surface of Mars) I love all of the gadgets and technology they created for the film which don't actually have any great importance to proceedings other than to just flesh out the world and convince us of both its futuristic and alien nature. Just little small things like the pen that can instantly change the colour of someone's nail polish, the holographic tennis instructor or the automated, robotic Johnny Cab. Or how about the screens at this world's equivalent of a subway that provide full body X-ray scans to check for weapons; technology that seemingly anticipated the TSA and the current airport climate.

At the beginning of this review I noted the large number of vividly memorable moments and scenes that Total Recall has in its arsenal. Most of the moments are a result of special effects and while Paul Verhoeven certainly deserves a great deal of credit for how he handles and incorporates the effects into the film, the real praise must go to the film's F/X maestro Rob Bottin. When people think about the great visual effects artists in cinema the names that generally come up are individuals like Stan Winston (the Terminator series, Jurassic Park, Predator etc), Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, 7th Voyage of Sinbad) and Rick Baker (American Werewolf in London, Men in Black, Harry and the Hendersons). Rob Bottin doesn't seem to have quite the same standing and level of respect that is afforded to those illustrious artists and I think that's a real shame. Throughout his career he has crafted some astonishing creations and added immeasurably to the likes of The Thing, Innerspace, RoboCop and The Howling. And Total Recall is another wonderful showcase for Bottin's prodigious talents. From the terrific make-up applications that bring to life the many mutants of Mars (most astonishingly the mutant leader Kuato) to the exceptionally realistic puppets and animatronics that allow for such moments as the bulging eyes and swelling tongues on Mars' surfacem and the instance at the airport where Quaid's malfunctioning mask opens up to reveal its occupant.

There is of course the big talking point of the film, one which people continue to discuss and argue over even a quarter of a century after its release; is it all a dream? Does the entire film just spool out of Quaid's memory as a result of his visit to Rekall? There's certainly a lot of evidence to suggest that this is indeed the case. Near the start of the film when Quaid visits the Rekall offices the sales agent tells him what the package consists of, and in the process gives away the exact plot of the film to come pretty much verbatim. When he's undergoing the process one of the technicians notes of the programme that there is a “blue sky on Mars” (or something to that effect), predicting the final images. When Dr. Edgemar tries to talk Quaid out of the supposed delusion he predicts that if he doesn't the walls of reality will come crashing down. Seconds after Quaid shoots him the walls do literally come crashing down and Richter's troops storm the room. And then there's the fact that the film ends in atypical fashion, fading to white instead of black. However the film isn't satisfied to just settle for this simple conundrum. It goes darker than just the notion of whether it's a dream or not. It ups the stakes by positing that if he doesn't escape from this mindf*ck then he will be lobotomised. So when we get that flash of white at the end of the film perhaps that is Quaid actually having his brain wiped whilst still sitting in the chair at Rekall. That would be a pretty dark way to end a big Hollywood blockbuster starring Arnold Schwarzenegger; exactly the kind of subversive move that Paul Verhoeven would delight in.

Conclusion - Total Recall has a bit of a reputation as a guilty pleasure for a number of people. While that may be somewhat understandable in purely visual terms I think it's got way too much going for it to fall into that category. Yeah it may be rather pulpy, and on occasion even a touch campy, but it's also a slyly intelligent movie capable of melting your mind if you really think about everything and try to work it all out. The film is an absolute visual treat, not least because of the work of Rob Bottin, and Verhoeven directs it all with an incredible energy. Just an absolute blast.