1001 Films: Total Recall (1990)

“All right, let’s say you’re telling the truth and this is all a dream. I could pull this trigger and it won’t matter.”

Is it unfair of me to truly have hopes for a cult 90s science fiction film directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger? It’s the film that I believe at this point is a go to movie if a cinema is hosting a midnight sci-fi event, but somehow I still managed to have some overly ambitious expectations.

Before I get to things I didn’t like let’s get a lot of the things I liked out of the way. There’s something about science-fiction from the 90s which just feels right. When a filmmaker, like Verhoeven, can make the world seem tactile like he does in this movie – and other films, like Alien and Planet of the Apes – which I adore. Thanks to the use of a lot of practical effects, or more importantly the lack of availability for digital effects as we have now, the world in which we reside feels so real, while at the same time being completely farce driven. However, once you throw your futuristic expectations, as we now reside in a future way beyond that displayed in the film, it completely works.

The idea of implanted memories and colonized planets that we can all go and visit are perfectly bought. So when we finally enter the conspiracy laden tale of Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who’s apparently had his mind wiped and become this whole new person we’re immediately thrown into this reality with car chases, gun fights and rebels. It’s exactly what Quaid asked for when he first stepped into the Recall store.

Phillip K. Dick, the author of the short story the film is based on, and Ronald Shusett (screenwriter) eventually even propose the idea that this world we’re watching unfold is actually fake. It is the dream, or memories, that Quaid asked for when he came to Recall. While I see that as a viable solution to the problem at hand I feel that the film truly doesn’t earn that bag of cats. There are other science fiction films, eg. Inception, which do a lot more to ask us to wake up from a dream or question our reality – regardless of how real it truly is – than this film does. It’s completely possible that between the moment that we first see Quaid sit down in the chair at Recall and then we cut to him having an adverse reaction to the procedure it could be us being cut into the dream, but that’s moot since I didn’t feel the movie did enough for me to care about the possibility of that being true. The consequences of whether that was true or not far outweigh the thought that it is reality, and the kicker is if the film had actually ended with Quaid waking up at Recall and it being definitively true that this was the ego package he had paid for we would all be tossing our popcorn at the screen chanting for our money back.

The problem with movies like this is that the moment you’re not completely sold on it you begin to become hyperaware of its flaws and plot holes. I’m not talking about being super picky about the premise or science being shown for us, but more the character exposition being laid out in the film. We get a scene where Quaid remembers who he knew before his memory was wiped, but doesn’t remember himself. Somehow he can recall the reasoning for why this big agency didn’t want him to know these things, but when we see the recording of him being a part of the agency and a part of the machine what and why would he want to destroy that? Why doesn’t he immediately see the reasoning of the man that he was, i.e. Hauser, and then get why he needs to be on board with Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) and Richter (Michael Ironside), as much of an asshole as he is? It’s just weirdly convenient that we’re allow partial character transformations. Some may argue this is an evolution, but that is never earned, only forced. This could probably be evidence for the argument that the film is just a dream, because like a bad movie there are holes and gaps in the story that only an unreal scripted story would have embedded in it.

Regardless, at the end of the day the film does deliver enough plusses, yes the shot of Arnold’s head almost exploding in space will haunt me in my sleep, to outweigh most of my negatives, but I refuse this film the cult status it seems to hold in the hearts of many. It’s just a middling film with a few great Arnie one liners.

Rating: 5.5/10