When it comes to great sci-fi, the style and approach it takes can be incredibly varied. Some films in that area are clever, thoughtful portraits of what humanity could be like in years long ahead of us (Brazil, for instance). Others opt for over-the-top, yet grippingly crafted action, while not forgetting to keep audiences engaged with compelling stories and effortlessly fun characters (particularly the Star Wars films, most of which I have seen). Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, released only three years after his instantly successful Robocop put him on the American map, somehow squeezes both sides of the spectrum into a mere 113 minutes… yet still hugely satisfies as a smartly silly slice of gory ‘90s cheese.
And believe me, something drawing from Phillip K. Dick (more specifically, his 1966 short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”) should not have worked as something this silly. Although I haven’t read any of his actual work, the Dick adaptations I have seen (Blade Runner, Minority Report) were fairly serious—or, in the case of Blade Runner, completely serious—looks at the future that didn’t leave much room for laughs or goofiness at all.
Total Recall, on the other hand, is ridiculously over-the-top in nearly every single way, with absurdly gruesome action*, often-comedic dialogue (a few one-liners—you’ll know which ones—even recalling Roger Moore-era James Bond), and Arnold Scwarzenegger’s craziness and machismo bringing it into the realm of camp at full speed. Instead of coming off as an awkward, tonally confused mess, though, the film still works, mainly because it is just as committed to expanding the unique ideas of its source material as it is to overloading on high-octane thrills.
Don’t believe me? Well, the film’s central plot revolves around Mars, a now-fully colonized planet that our main character, Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger), keeps having dreams about dying on. (No, seriously.) Despite the nicely futuristic** comfort of his small home, loving wife (Sharon Stone), and steady job as a construction worker, these dreams bother him so much that he ultimately decides to head to Rekall, a company that implants false vacation memories—including that of going to Mars as a secret agent—in customers’ heads.
Seeing how consistently surprised and entertained I was by everything that follows, I’ll advise that you watch the movie itself before reading any further, as I will have to get into some minor spoiler-ish things from here. At the very least, avoid all trailers for the film, as they give away far, far more than I’m about to.
OK, it’s just us now. Not surprisingly, the procedure goes very wrong, and Douglas not only discovers that his entire domestic life is a lie (his “wife” Lori actually being married to somebody else, and also a seriously intense fighter), but also that he really was a secret agent on Mars in the past, there is literally a small tracking device inside his skull, and armed federal agents are now hot on his trail in an effort to take him down.
But then again, as Rekall’s Dr. Edgemar—accompanied by Lori—argues upon encountering Douglas on Mars, this could all just be part of the experience he’s having at Rekall, strapped in a firm metal chair while these fantasies play out in his head. Seeing a bead of sweat go down Edgemar’s face (apparently signifying that he’s really a human, not a simulation created by Rekall) quickly persuades Douglas otherwise, but even with that, the movie could actually still work either way.
But let’s not just remember Total Recall because of that. Remember it because it just might be Verhoeven’s greatest futurist vision yet (no, I have not seen Robocop yet, and no, I didn’t really like Starship Troopers as much as everybody else seems to nowadays). Remember it because it’s an action movie that, despite the inevitable cheeseball ending, is otherwise genuinely unpredictable—and surprisingly thought-provoking, too. Remember it because Verhoeven’s distinct visual aesthetic (namely, every environment having a shiny metallic feel) is memorably on display throughout. Remember it because of the inventive character designs created for the non-human characters (including a stripper with three breasts—juvenile, I know, but still creative all the same). Heck, just remember it because nothing ever, ever flags on the entertainment front, no matter how hokey, implausible, or just plain dumb any given situation may get. Period.
Given how much I enjoyed this film, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to sit down and watch its 2012 remake, which, despite still making some money ($198.5 million against a $125 million budget), received far more negative reviews. As a matter of fact, I probably won’t. Watching the trailer, I only saw a soulless, woefully humorlesss—albeit visually sleek—Blade Runner clone (compounded by the fact that it apparently takes place completely on Earth), which simply isn’t worth my time or money. Sure, I killed a couple hours sitting through the bland Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard, but the original version of that film wasn’t something I even cared about all that much. Total Recall, on the other hand, is something I do, so spoiling my good memories of it is pointless to the extreme.
*The violence in this movie is so (comically) graphic, in fact, that it was initially given an X rating, which was only lowered to an R after multiple edits were made. [NOTE: HEAVY SPOILERS IN LINKED SOURCE]
**Recall is set in the year 2084, which will still date it once that particular year rolls around, but at least makes this more plausible than if it was set in 2019 (as Blade Runner was) or 2015 (Back to the Future Part II, anyone?).