Full of Sound and Fury: #27, Total Recall


Director:  Paul Verhoeven

Cast:  Arnold Schwarzenager, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, Ronny Cox, Marshal Bell, Mel Johnson Jr., Michael Champion, Roy Brocksmith

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class M, dim red star (7/7).  This is—in some ways—an ambitious movie—but it utterly fails to capitalize on that ambition or its roots, and instead devolves into a violent and silly action-adventure movie with a deeply flawed premise.  Not even Ah-nold’s one liners can save this mess.


Take two veteran screenwriters, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the guys who brought us Alien, and give them the rights to “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” a gem of a short story by Phillip K. Dick.  After a few years, give the project to Dino de Laurentis, with Shusett as producer and Richard Dreyfuss in the lead role.  Or possibly Patrick Swayze.  Bring David Cronenberg on as the director, but he wants William Hurt in the lead role.  Have Cronenberg and Shusett fall out over the continually redrafted script, and let de Laurentis lose interest after Dune flops and his production company goes bankrupt.

Enter Arnold Schwarzenager, who was initially rebuffed by de Laurentis as the star of the film, and have him persuade Carolco Pictures (the company that brought us First Blood and Rambo II in the ’80s) to buy the rights to the picture, with Schwarzenager as the star with veto power over producer, director, screenplay, costars and promotion.  By the time Schwarzenager personally recruited Paul Verhoeven (Robocop) to direct, the screenplay had been through forty-two drafts, and still lacked an ending (or even, according to some reports, an “act three”).

There was no way was this going to work out well.

It turned out to be a giant mess with aspirations to philosophical depth.  The script is riddled with scientific inaccuracies so great that they wreck the willing suspension of disbelief; the performances are rather lack-luster; the film is incredibly violent; and the resolution is deeply flawed.  Many, if not all, of the movie’s failings can be traced back to the movie’s own lack of identity, as it isn’t sure what it needs to be and indeed changes from one type of movie to another about a third of the way in.

On the other hand…the movie debuted at number one in the box office in its opening weekend, ultimately grossing over $250 million.  Critics seem to love the movie—Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars, and it’s rated 81% positive over at Rotten Tomatoes.  So maybe there’s something there I’m not seeing…

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  Boy wants to go to Mars, but he can’t afford it.  Boy goes to Rekall, Inc., instead, to buy the memories of a trip to Mars, complete with him being a secret agent and meeting a brunette (“athletic, sleazy and demure”).  The memory implant doesn’t work because someone has already done a memory wipe.  Boy wakes up claiming that they’ve blown his cover, so the Rekall folks wipe his memory (again) and send him home.  On his way home, Boy is attacked by his coworkers, and then, once home, by his wife.  Boy flees, chased by Boy 2.  Along the way Boy receives help from the previous version of himself through an old coworker at the spy agency, and goes to Mars.  Boy meets girl, who despises him for betraying them.  Boy leaves.  Boy meets his “wife” and one of the Rekall folks, who try to convince him that he’s having a psychotic episode.  Boy figures out they’re lying and combat erupts.  Boy is rescued by, and rescues, Girl.  Boy and girl flee to the rebels, but are captured by the government.  Boy is revealed to be a false persona created to destroy the resistance.  Boy and girl escape.  Boy and girl fight the government.  Boy and girl activate an alien underground installation which melts a glacier and oxygenates the entire planet.  The day is saved!


Visually, Total Recall has a lot going for it in some ways.  It was the last major science fiction film to be done without any significant CGI, using instead miniature effects (scale models), makeup and masks.  Most of those effects look pretty good, and many of them owe their success to Rob Bottin, the make-up and special effects wizard who brought The Thing to life.  The movie was filmed in Mexico City, using the public transportation system for a good part of the story, and successfully conveys both the future and Mars itself.

Jerry Goldsmith scored the film, and he put in a superb effort with a strongly martial orchestral soundtrack recorded by the National Philharmonic orchestra.  The soundtrack is probably one of the highlights of the film, making use of a metal percussive element as well as a seamless blend of orchestral and electronic elements which suit the opening of the film to a “T.”

The performances are, by and large, at least adequate and in some cases better than that.  Arnold Schwarzenager, in the role of Douglas Quaid, is perhaps a little out of his depth.  Surprisingly enough, I enjoyed him most in the opening third or so of the film, when he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on: his yearnings for something more, something different, seem real, and his confusion at the events surrounding him seems very real.  Unfortunately, however, when the movie makes its transition to the big action flick, Quaid somehow seems a little too flat, a little too cool, for what’s going on.  He’s Ah-nold in big action hero mode, complete with snappy one-liners, and somehow that cheapens the movie.  And Schwarzenager’s scenes as Hauser, the “real” personality before the memory overlay which created Quaid, come off as a grinningly evil caricature.

Michael Ironside, as the chief heavy for the bad guys, is wrath and anger personified.  Ronny Cox, in the role as the more cerebral evil mastermind, is delightfully smarmy, and the two together are fairly riveting on the screen.  Rachel Ticotin, in the role of Melina, Quaid’s one true love, is little more than adequate, though truthfully she doesn’t have much to work with.  Sharon Stone—in her first film role as Quaid’s “wife”—is fresh-faced, beautiful, and fairly effective, especially when she realizes her cover is blown and she becomes angry.

Three other (unfortunately minor) performances stuck out—first, Robert (“Bobby”) Costanzo as one of Quaid’s co-workers who really works at the Agency.  The Brooklyn-born actor is a lot of fun to watch on the screen, and seems very real.  Another performance of note is Debbie Lee Carrington, who plays Thumbelina.  A “little person” and a stuntwoman, she, too, is a lot of fun to watch, and rather convincingly fires a machine gun in one memorable scene.  Finally, Mel Johnson Jr., as Benny, the mutant cab driver who betrays the heroes to the government, is a walking, talking stereotype, but he’s also magnetic and his performance is a lot of fun.

Thematically, the movie is a bit of a mess.  In terms of plot structure, it’s even worse.  Essentially, the movie starts out as a rather unconventional and thought-provoking story dominated by questions of identity and memory.  And then it changes, almost without warning, and becomes a violent roller coaster ride through vales of idiocy, paying only lip service to the themes and questions it invokes at the outset (with one startling exception).

Of course, there’s a reason for this, and it’s probably rooted in the unusual development history of the movie.  It’s based on a very short little story, and as Dan O’Bannon, one of the initial scriptwriters, would later say, the story merely gives the first act of the movie; acts two and three would have to be invented from scratch.  O’Bannon is the one who said they should take Quaid, the protagonist, to Mars, though his story would have been very different from what—eventually—made it onto the big screen.  David Cronenberg later stated that he was intrigued because the story started off as pure Philip K. Dick (“this very wonderful beginning”), but then no one knew what to do with it.  Cronenberg rewrote the script (12 times), and then, in a meeting, the following dialogue occurred:

Shusett:  You know what you’ve done? You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version.

Cronenberg:  Well, yeah.

Shusett:  No, no, we want Raiders of the Lost Ark Goes to Mars.

Cronenberg:  Well, Jeez, I wish we’d all had this discussion twelve months ago — it wouldn’t have wasted all our time!

(from Tales From Development Hell by David Hughes).  Cronenberg departed the project at that point, since his vision was incompatible with that of de Laurentis and Shusett.

So, ironically enough, a story about a man with two identities is embedded in a movie that’s not sure what it wants to be…a thoughtful and thought-provoking story about a man with no real past and the manipulative jerks who created him, struggling to become real, and a violent story about a rebellion against corporate tyranny for the sake of freedom.  It is this schizophrenic quality of the film that robs it of its power, though it does have other scripting issues.

That said, and ignoring the script’s believability issues, the two parts of the film actually work—and even work well—independently of one another.  It is only their misbegotten marriage that creates the problem.  At least in part, this is due to the fact that once the action starts, it doesn’t stop.  Verhoeven’s pacing is strictly a sprint, and the breathless pace doesn’t really give the viewer much time to ponder questions of identity and memory until Verhoeven is good and ready to let those questions resurface.  However, the action movie doesn’t do much more than pay lip service to the philosophical question movie, and that fact mars the promise of the film.  To put it another way, the opening third of the film promises to deal with the issue of who Quaid is if his memories are all false, while the action movie doesn’t fulfill that promise.

Nowhere is this more evident than in what could have been one of the penultimate scenes of the movie.  After Quaid first encounters his one true love, Melina, on Mars, and is rejected as a double agent, he returns to his hotel room.  There, he encounters his wife and Dr. Edgemar (Roy Brocksmith).  Edgemar, the owner of Rekall, attempts to convince Quaid that he’s still sitting in the chair at Rekall, undergoing a psychotic episode and refusing to face reality.  All it will take, Edgemar says, is to take a pill, the psychological symbol of attempting to get well, to break the psychosis and return to normal.  Quaid’s wife, Lori, is there to beg him to take the pill and to return to her and their life together.  And in true action movie style, Quaid spots that Edgemar has a bead of sweat on his bald pate, deduces that everything is actually real, and that he must not take the pill.  Instead, he shoots Edgemar and raging combat ensues when the backup goons, and then Melina, ride to the rescue of their respective sides.

The scene quite competently eviscerates everything that the opening act sets up, establishing once and for all that the entire sequence of events is reality.  Instead of playing to the promise of the movie, the script actually rejects it as a cheap trick and never looks back.  That betrayal accomplished, the movie once again takes off at high speed, delivering non-stop—and stupid and senseless—action.

Some say that a willing suspension of disbelief makes the movie enjoyable, but frankly, Total Recall tests the viewer’s ability to willingly suspend disbelief in a number of ways.  Just off the top of my head, there’s a bug in Quaid’s head which can be blocked by a wet towel (which stays wet, no matter what), but not concrete, steel girders, etc.  That same bug, which is rather larger than a marble, can nevertheless be pulled out of Quaid’s head through the nose.  His mask, a total head covering, features a telescoping rod which would occupy some of the space of his head when not extended.  The bad guys carry guns on Mars, when a shot through one of the apparently ordinary glass windows will (and does) expose everyone to the nearly airless surface of Mars.  The Martian surface can effectively kill the main villain while an equal time of exposure not only fails to kill Quaid and Melina but also leaves no significant injury.  The Martian reactor, the product of alien technology, can give Mars sufficient atmosphere so that people can walk around in the space of less than four minutes.  And where does that atmosphere come from, you might ask?  It’s a glacier, buried under the martian soil.  It may, or may not, be a planet-wide feature….  I don’t mention Mars’ lesser gravity, since Hollywood never seems to pay attention to gravity when it’s less than Earth-normal, probably because no one has figured out how to do it convincingly and cheaply.

So…irreconcilable differences between the first part of the film and the middle and ending, paired up with a down-right silly story which ignores physical reality.  If it’s that bad, why do so many people like it?  I think it’s because, whatever else is going on, Arnold Schwarzenager has charisma to burn, and it’s a fast-paced, action-packed thrill ride which never lets up.  The violence, mild gore, shocking imagery and speedy transitions may well mean that most viewers simply sit back and enjoy the ride, without paying much attention to the movie’s defects.  In that sense, the movie is actually a triumph of the film-maker’s art, and it is a reasonably fun ride.

One last thought:  some of the quibbles I have with the movie could be said to employ a kind of dream logic, thereby deliberately playing to the question of whether or not Quaid’s experiences are real or not.  If that’s so, the movie is an even greater failure than I imagined, as Quaid’s memories of his trip to Mars as a secret agent will never be, in any way, compatible with reality.  When he wakes up, Rekall’s implanted memories will stick out like a sore thumb, and he’ll know them for what they are.


If you’re in the market for a big dumb action film that never lets up, and you’re prepared for that ride to ignore the laws of physics, Total Recall is well worth the price of admission.  If, like me, you expect your movies to make sense on every level—even if that’s only in terms of internal logic in the worst-case scenario—you might want to give this one a miss.  If the movie hadn’t promised more than the roller coaster ride it actually delivers, I might have been okay with it, but as it stands I have to consider the movie a failure.

It’s worth mentioning that a remake is due to hit the big screen this summer.

On the plus side, the movie did spur me to go out and pick up a Philip K. Dick short story collection containing “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” and that reading experience was definitely worth it.


2 Responses to “Full of Sound and Fury: #27, Total Recall”

  1. Mark of the Wretched Excess Crew here. I freaking hated this film, precisely for the reasons outlined above. “The memories make the man” is a fine position to take in a story like this, but only if you actually allow the question to come up along the way. Given a bit more of a struggle between Ahnold’s conflicting personalities, it might have been palatable. Hell, if he’d been forced to make a conscious choice to remain Quaid, and reject Generic Evil Spy Bastard Asshole, I might have been a little more forgiving of it.

    But as it is, what could have been an interesting exploration of identity instead turns into a generic soulless action flick. It’s not dumb enough to transcend itself, and not smart enough to entertain me, therefore making it two long painful hours of my life I’ll never get back.

    Ronny Cox was fun to watch, though…

    • Just a quick thought: I loved seeing the very young Sharon Stone in this film—her first major role—and it reminded me just how beautiful she actually is. I also really enjoyed the over-the-top nature of Venusville, complete with mutants, even though I didn’t mention it. But yeah…I hate this movie.

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