Total Recall (1990)

Paul Verhoeven | 1hr 53min

At every step of Douglas Quaid’s journey into the Martian conspiracy of Total Recall, he is confronted with forks in the road, offering him one of two choices. To welcome the danger of new technologies, or to reject the call of adventure. To live out his deepest wish fulfilment as a monster, or to carry on an ordinary life as himself. To save a potentially fictional civilisation and risk death, or to let it perish and return home none the wiser.

One of these realities exists only in his head, but it is impossible to tell which, and from this ambiguity Paul Verhoeven draws out an identity crisis that follows Quaid to the depths of a strange, extra-terrestrial plot. If Alice in Wonderland’s bizarre trip down the rabbit hole met the retrofuturism and metaphysics of Blade Runner, then it would probably look a lot like this – an ambitious, off-kilter genre movie that unites its science-fiction, action, romance, and comedy elements under a space-bound adventure, and then tops it off with a riotous Arnold Schwarzenegger performance.

A very physical Schwarzenegger performance, almost pushing into the realm of comedy. He makes some big choices here that don’t all land, but it is tough to imagine anyone else in this role.
Precision in Verhoeven’s staging and camera angles, bringing artistry to the violence.

The Blade Runner comparison shouldn’t be all that surprising given that the source material of both films comes from the wildly creative mind of Philip K. Dick, equally questioning the nature of reality, perception, and identity in the context of futuristic civilisations. The influence of Ridley Scott’s seminal work of science-fiction extends far beyond character and themes though, as the sheer scope of Verhoeven’s visual world-building is stretched to magnificent proportions, crafting alien cities and landscapes out of imposing, expressionistic miniatures.

From there, it is impossible not to see a mix of other cinematic predecessors emerge as well, with talk of political revolution bringing Metropolis to mind, and the surreal madness evoking the distorted humour of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The choice between two different realities being boiled down to a single pill even remarkably presages The Matrix by nine years as well, setting a new standard for action sci-fi films with philosophical concerns. In its entirety though, Total Recall is very much a Verhoeven film in the vein of Robocop, hiding inspired reflections on humanity beneath audacious set pieces of bloody violence and extreme tonal shifts.

Total Recall is in a lineage of science-fiction films like Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Brazil, building out a fantastical world of imposing architecture rendered through detailed miniatures.

It takes a little while at first for Verhoeven to arrive at these brilliant displays of spectacle though, as much of the first act is spent around Quaid’s home on Earth where he lives with his wife, Lori, and works a construction job. Televisions lining the walls of subway trains and giant x-ray walls that screen civilians both represent small but significant parts of a technology-dependent society, and Verhoeven maintains a strong narrative drive through it all in the staging of a heart-pumping chase. But as the story moves to the Martian colony ruled by tyrannical governor Vilos Cohaagen, it is evident that this planet is where Verhoeven is having the most fun as a filmmaker. Most importantly, he passes that joy on to his audience with some truly unhinged conceits as well – a fat lady disguise that encases Schwarzenegger in a shell-like apparatus, an underclass of mutants living in Mars’ red-light district, and even a revolution leader who lives as a conjoined twin growing out of his brother’s belly.

Solid world-building on Earth before we even get to Mars, lining subways with televisions.
Body horror rendered in grotesque practical effects, pushing the film’s style in unexpected directions.

Cronenbergian body horror abounds in scenes like these that push Verhoeven’s visual madness to its limits, even going so far as to render the bulging eyes and popping veins of characters doomed to suffocate on Mars’ uninhabitable surface through grotesque practical effects. Adding a sense of peril to these fervid designs is a persistent dedication to red hues all through the mise-en-scene, vibrantly lighting up interiors of rigid lines and steel beams, but even more dominantly hanging in the air of Mars’ rocky landscapes, casting a hellish glow over Cohaagen’s dominion.

Giant sets and the red light of Mars coming together to create brilliant backdrops and action set pieces.
An oppressive frame here with the giant fan obscuring a shot of total carnage.

It is almost too easy to be swept up by such outlandish visual fantasy, as much like Quaid, we excitedly invest our suspension of belief into his believed reality as a secret agent from Mars. Schwarzenegger himself too is a huge, physical presence onscreen that matches Total Recall’s deranged aesthetic, even if his throaty grunts and yells eventually grow tiresome. And yet every now and again, Verhoeven weaves in just enough doubt for us to wonder whether these thrills are simply one big distraction from a greater existential question lying beneath.

“What if this is a dream?” Quaid wonders in the final seconds, having remarkably solved all of Mars’ political troubles. “Then kiss me quick before you wake up,” his too-perfect love interest responds, right before the screen fades to white. Even in his escapist storytelling, Verhoeven still finds a way to let the uncomfortable ambiguities of reality linger in our minds, as Total Recall finally settles in that anxious space that exists between majestic, adventurous bliss and crushing, psychological despair.

Great work from Verhoeven in using his steel architecture to obstruct and divide frames.

Total Recall is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

One thought on “Total Recall (1990)”

  1. Funnily enough, there’s a bug with google where if you search “[any Schwarzenegger film] cast” he’s absent.

    Picked this up on DVD a few months ago, will definitely try get to it soon, some great images here.

    Like

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