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Total Recall
Tonight's Feature Presentation

TOTAL RECALL (1990)

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Ironside, Sharon Stone, Rachel Ticotin, Ronny Cox

Written By: Ronald Shusset, Dan O'Bannon, Gary Goldman Directed By: Paul Verhoeven

The Short Version

One of the true landmark movies of modern science fiction.

Have some provocation of thought to go with your blood and guts!

Just how many iconic moments can you pack into one movie?

Or product placements, for that matter?

Total Recall entertains on every level.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

RED LEICESTER.

Similar to Cheddar – yummy Cheddar – but more crumbly.  Like a dream world given to reality.  Or is it the other way around?


Pairs Well With...

KILLIAN'S RED.

Red beer for the Red Planet!  Out of all of the product placement neon signs in all the bars on Mars, this is the only one we see for a red beer.

“Get your ass to Mars.”


It’s true that it took over fifteen years, forty drafts of the script, and one extremely large budget (for its day) to get Total Recall made, but even for those who truly believed in this movie – and there were a lot of people fighting for it – I don’t think anyone could have foreseen just what an iconic picture that Total Recall would become.  Still a landmark even more than two decades later, Total Recall has not only stood the test of time, but has taken its place as one of the treasured films of the modern science fiction canon.

Not bad for a piece of ultraviolent cheese that got an “X” rating the first time it was shown to the MPAA.

The genesis of Total Recall lies with a 23-page short story written by Phillip K Dick in 1974 called “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” about a mousy accountant who suddenly discovered that the life he knows and remembers is a dream and that he’s really someone else.  A gent named Ron Shusset bought the movie rights for a thousand bucks and sat on them for a while, knowing that any movie version thereof would be a massive and expensive undertaking.  While he waited, he wrote and produced a little movie called Alien.  After that, figuring that the ball could be rolled now, he spent the next ten years adapting what would become Total Recall and shopping it around.  The story is long and complicated, and even reached the level of pre-production with Patrick Swayze in the lead at one point, but eventually, all the pieces fell into place, and Total Recall as we know it was finally born.

The timing could not have been better.

Total Recall exists at a crossroads.  It holds the distinction of being one of the very first films to employ photorealistic computer generated special effects (the body scanner sequence, recently become an overall reality), while being one of the last major productions to use old school miniatures and model making.  Those exterior shots you see of Mars are all extremely large and highly detailed models; just a few short years later, not only would every major studio but even guys making home movies in their basements be able to do those shots on a computer.  Visually, Total Recall is a stronger film for sitting astride both eras, for it draws beautifully from both, while a year or two in either direction would have had it drawing from only one or the other.  And those visuals that result from this best of both worlds – one of the key elements that Shusset had been so worried about while holding on to the story for this film – are breathtaking.  (Or breathgiving, once we hit the climax.) 

When Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, he described what he saw as “magnificent desolation,” and that is the effect of seeing Mars in this movie.  The exteriors are epic, and the interiors are a beautifully realized, claustrophobic extension thereof.  The industrial, few-frills tenor of the human constructions on the Red Planet actually serve to augment this effect; a mighty accomplishment indeed.

Not that the film slouches with Earth, mind; the attention to detail paid by Director Paul Verhoeven and the production staff when scouting locations and creating sets is mind-blowing, and the advantage that is taken with what the crew found in Mexico City results in an atmospheric effect that both compliments and contrasts the Martian locales all at once.  Both are oppressive in their way, but the colors and the physical plans couldn’t be much more different.

They do, however, both have quite the show of product placement, especially on Mars.

Sure, there’s product placement in every movie, but even many years on, few could match Total Recall for either volume or ingenuity.  Indeed, the product placement has since become one of the many iconic trademarks of the film.  The average tavern scene in a movie has between zero and two advertisements for any actual brand of alcohol, neon or otherwise.  I stopped counting them for Total Recall when the number hit double digits, which didn’t take long at all.  Forget advertisements for “Beer.”  Miller Lite, Killian’s Red, Beck’s, and even Bacardi rum get their time in lights, amongst others.  Want to read a newspaper?  How about an issue of “Mars Today,” perhaps the most inventive (and commented upon) product placement of all?  While you’re reading it at the Hilton (or maybe the Venusville Best Western), why not enjoy a Barq’s, or maybe a Pepsi or some Evian?

“Mars Today” et.al. aside, though, Total Recall has more than its share of iconic visuals and moments that didn’t come off someone else’s store rack.

Who can forget Johnny Cab, voiced by Robert Picardo?  “Helluva day, iddn’t it?”

Or Benny (Mel Johnson, Jr), the human (mostly) cab driver, for that matter?  “I’ve got five kids to feed!”

Even with barely two minutes on the screen, I know very few people who’ve been able to forget the haunting psychic mutant woman and her daughter (Monica Steuer and Sasha Rionda).  “Bet I can guess your birthday!”

And I’m damn certain that no one’s forgotten Mary (Lycia Naff), the three breasted mutant who has since become the most iconic hooker without an actual sex scene in all of science fiction history.  “Baby, you make me wish I had three hands!”

And then there’s Kuato, the most visually jarring mutant of all.  Disturbing, compelling, and a makeup and animatronics masterpiece, Kuato is the best realized puppet since the original Yoda.  “Open your mind…”

No CGI rendering would have stirred audiences so greatly.  Total Recall was indeed made at exactly the right time.

And at the right time came the right Director.  Paul Verhoeven pulls no punches.  He doesn’t just push the envelope; he folds it up into a paper airplane, launches it out the window, and fires a machine gun after it.  The level of violence is pervasive and spectacular (and of course drew all sorts of criticism), and yet when you really look at it, not one stray bullet feels gratuitous.  Not one.  The escalator sequence – another of Total Recall’s iconic moments – is often seen as a showcase for the film’s violence.  Our Hero is running from the bad guys, and is trying to shove is way up a crowded escalator.  Machine gun-wielding bad guys appear up top and start spraying bullets.  Everyone ducks, but a bystander in from of Our Hero is hit and killed.  Our Hero then uses his still-standing corpse as a shield while he blows away first the bad guys above him, then the bad guys below him.  It’s bloody chaos and a bloody mess.  And yet, I ask you, what else would you expect a machine gun battle in the middle of a packed subway station escalator to be?  A study in cleanliness and precision?  Hell, no!  Verhoeven sees the moment for what it is and he films it.  And thus the story is able to flow without interruption, or the feeling that something off kilter just happened.  Why?  Because the punches didn’t get pulled; that’s why.

To his own delight, he doesn’t pull punches in the fistfights, either.  When the two female leads, played by Sharon Stone (“If you don’t trust me you can tie me up.”) and Rachel Ticotin (“Sleazy… demure…”) have their square off, it’s not a catfight; it’s a straight up martial arts competition, just like you’d expect two men to have.  Even most hardcore fight films rarely gave (or even still rarely give) such a contest that kind of respect.  But again, Verhoeven sees the moment for what it is and he films it.  (And discovers the lead for Basic Instinct in the process; thank you, Total Recall.)

The fact that he lets each scene’s nature take its course, including the violent ones, is so desperately important because perhaps for more than any other science fiction / action film, the narrative for Total Recall must be allowed to flow smoothly.  For many, Total Recall is an action flick and that’s it; tack on the little mind fuck at the end of deciding whether or not the hero wakes up a vegetable as a little extra.  Those people are missing the boat, because the gents who adapted the screenplay for Total Recall treated Phillip K Dick’s original short story with amazing reverence, despite their changes to it.  (Meek accountant becomes Ah-nold the construction worker, etc.)  Whatever details they changed, the theme was kept sacred, and the overall philosophical questions of what is and isn’t real  and what does or doesn’t constitute our individual realities as human beings are not only preserved, but have massive temples of contemplation built around them.  Those temples are the story, and they are always inviting the viewer to contemplate, question, and reconsider.  How many large production scripts have the cojones to intentionally outline their entire plotlines on camera not just once, but several times, and make those deliberate outlines into plot devices themselves?  Far from being “bad writing”, this telegraphing is a very intentional step taken by the writers to invite the viewer into the original story’s central point of discussion: is any of this real?  (In only one respect was this tainted in editing; Rachel Ticotin’s charcter is also supposed to have said “I modeled for them once,” a line that would have only furthered the question.)  In that regard, you’re taking the same journey that the hero is, because he can’t be sure, either!

This is the vindication of Verhoeven’s no-holds-barred direction.  How do you keep a story that deliberately telegraphs itself from feeling telegraphed?  How do you keep the audience from deciding that since they know, they can stop paying attention?  How do you keep the central question open?  You keep everything in motion.  You let the bullets fly.  You let the blood packets explode.  In a very real sense, one of the main reasons the violence is so pervasively there is to make sure that you keep thinking.

Well, that, and explosions are cool.  And who better to set one off in 1990 than Arnold Schwarzenegger?

The role of Total Recall’s hero, Douglas Quaid, turns out to be one of the best of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career.  Quaid is actually a stretech for Schwarzenegger, whose characters generally start from the very first moment knowing that they’re the biggest badasses on the block.  Quaid, though, starts off as an Aw-Shucks Everyman with a dash of Walter Mitty thrown in.  Schwarzenegger, not completely confident?  Schwarzenegger without all the answers?  It’s not until the very last showdown that he grows totally into the badass role that audiences had always come to expect from him, and yes, along the way, one actually does get to watch that character growing.  It’s not a light switch.  It’s traditional acting of a sort that really hadn’t been asked of Arnold Schwarzenegger before.  Welcome to the stretch.

Is Total Recall flawless?  Of course not, but the flaws are easily forgiven, especially since almost all of them have nothing to do with moviemaking, but are rather flaws of science.  The bug eyes thing, while a dramatic and memorable effect, doesn’t really happen.  Martian gravity is less than that of Earth.  Even assuming that the machine shown at the end of the movie could work (it wouldn’t as explained), there’s no way it could work as fast as it does.  But who gives a damn, really?  Sci Fi moviegoers have been forgiving such things since the first time someone showed a spaceship making noise in a vacuum, so why stop now?  Suspension of disbelief: it’s what’s for dinner!

Bottom line, there’s a reason that Total Recall has become one of the iconic movies of the modern science fiction canon.  Though written off by some as mindless action cheese, there’s nothing mindless about it. Crafted down to the last bullet and mutant hooker’s proposition, Total Recall entertains on every level, from the base to the contemplative, presenting the audience with a garishly wrapped and totally fun package.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011

More From The Bar! | The Terminator | Total Recall (2012) | Pandorum |



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