Over the years I must’ve seen this movie at least thirty times. I was in my early teens when I first saw it and it totally blew me away. Total Recall is a brutal, entertaining, but also very clever action science fiction movie. I still don’t quite understand how they managed to fit together so many different elements into one cohesive and engaging narrative. It’s at the same time completely over-the-top and oddly realistic. The characters are stereotypical and yet feel genuine and honest. And on top of all of that, you have the body of a classic nineties action movie, complete with Arnie, strapped onto this mysterious story of Mars, memory manipulation, corporate greed, and other fun stuff.
And yet everything feels tight, straightforward, and, most of all, just fun. Total Recall is a movie based on a 1966 short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick. It’s one of the most successful science fiction adaptations I have ever seen. And also the one that stood the test of time. I just watched this movie last night, in the year of our lord Satan 2023 and it still looks awesome. Of course, this was the remastered version but that’s beside the point. There’s no poorly aged CGI or clumsy sets, only sturdy and quite believable practical effects. This was one of the last big movies using miniatures instead of Computer Generated Imagery.
One of the main reasons why I love watching Total Recall over and over again is its setting. Most of the story takes place on Mars, the red planet, providing you with the perfect escapism experience. In the movie, Quaid decides to take a vacation on Mars while in real life we take a vacation by playing this movie. The world Philip K. Dick built is sadly a familiar one, mirroring our own corruption, greed, and lack of proper moral values. It’s close to the Tech Noir genre heralded by Blade Runner (another Dick adaptation) several years earlier. However, instead of a grey and drab environment, we get this polished and vibrant setting, using the eighties tech boom to show how things might look in the future.
I think all of this came by accident, with the studios wanting something flashy and energetic but with an engaging main story. Although, to be honest, I really do not care how this masterpiece came to be. Even more although, the story of how we ended up with Total Recall starring Arnie is a surreal one. I’m tempted to dig into it further, so keep an eye out for that deep dive. Moving on, I wonder how this movie feels to younger generations. Do they find it as mind-fucking as we did back in the day? It features futuristic concepts which are still beyond the grasp of human comprehension. However, they’re so potent that I’m certain something like this awaits in our bright corporate future.
So, we will be following construction worker Douglas Quaid who keeps dreaming of Mars. He soon becomes so obsessed with the idea of going to Mars that he decides to visit Rekall, a company providing such services. Things start to get complicated from here and Quaid finds himself in mortal danger not knowing how to trust and what to think. As I am writing this I keep thinking about how every scene of this movie tops the previous one. And I mean that in every way possible with the movie ending in one hell of a finale. The story is very ambiguous and it will keep you guessing and forming theories throughout.
Apart from this thoroughly engrossing story, we’ve also got excellent and quite visceral practical effects. I mean, the movie opens with a scene of Arnie breaking his helmet while on the surface of Mars and dying in excruciating pain with his eyes popping out of the eye sockets. Bullet wounds look nasty as fuck and there will be a lot of them. And that scene with the excavator nearly grinding up our heroes was almost too believable and disturbing. Granted, some of these effects do have a comical tone to them, almost cartoonish in nature. All of this just adds to the glorious strangeness that is in this movie.
I guess now’s the time to talk about the cast. After missing out on RoboCop, Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted another chance to work with Paul Verhoeven and he got it with Total Recall. Schwarzenegger was no stranger to action science fiction movies having starred in The Terminator and The Running Man. And just he was great in those movies, he was also great in this one. Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin were not just beautiful but also smart, dangerous, and fit. Ronny Cox was perfect for the role of an evil corporate overlord and the same goes for even more striking Michael Ironside as Richter. His next role was similar as he played the unhinged General Katana in Highlander II.
I looked at all the stuff I’ve talked about so far and realized we haven’t even scratched the surface of Total Recall. Where are the mutants, the lady with three boobs, Kuato, Benny, aliens, and all the cool tech and futuristic concepts? Not to mention all the Uzis, MAC-10s, a wide variety of Calico weapons, and oddly enough not a Pancor Jackhammer shotgun but an SWD/Cobray Street Sweeper shotgun. The devil is in the details, my friends. I feel like I could go on and on about this movie but I don’t want to bore you to death. I just want to mention that the 2012 Total Recall remake is nowhere near the original but it’s still quite watchable.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writers: Philip K. Dick, Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, Rachel Ticotin, Ronny Cox
Fun Facts: Dan O’Bannon wrote the script featuring a lot of dark humor, something that Paul and Arnie didn’t see working so they cut it out.