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I miss the old days when an R-rated action-packed science fiction movie can be passionately made with exceptional directing, clever writing, great camera work that’s consistently steady, solid performances from the actors, action that was not too choreographed, and visuals that heavily utilized practical effects and optical effects.
I’m talking about Total Recall, the 1990 sci-fi action movie that starred a much younger Arnold Schwarzenegger supported by Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, Rachel Ticotin and Ronny Cox. Directed by Paul Verhoeven (who directed the 1987 classic RoboCop) with a screenplay (based on the Philip K. Dick short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale) by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon and Gary Goldman, Total Recall was a tremendous hit in the cinemas grossing more than $261 million worldwide with a production budget of over $60 million. To date, the film remains a favorite not only with fans of Schwarzenegger but also with people who love action movies, sci-fi movies, movies of the 1990s and geeks.
But before looking back at this movie, it is important to take note that Total Recall took several years of development before it finally got produced. The very first screenplay was written by O’Bannon and Shusett in the 1970s (after securing the film rights to Philip K. Dick’s short story when the author was still alive). Eventually prolific movie producer Dino De Laurentiis took the project for development. Years later, De Laurentiis’ company collapsed (due to failed projects) which provided Schwarzenegger the golden opportunity to get Total Recall by persuading Carolco to secure the rights for a few million dollars. After many screenplay drafts written and the hiring of Verhoeven as director (note: Schwarzenegger approached him personally) plus Gary Goldman, the rest became history.
Now, here is a look back at Total Recall.
The story begins at the surface of planet Mars where a man and a lady (both wearing space suits) travel on foot. Suddenly, the man slips down and breaks the frontal shield of his helmet exposing himself to Mars’ air. It turned out to be an intense nightmare for Douglas Quaid who was in bed with his beautiful wife Lori. Lori asked him about the unidentified woman who appeared in his dreams, but Quaid expresses his love for her. On his way to work, Quaid saw a TV ad inside the train about Rekall, a company that sells holidays and adventures in the form of memories. At work, his fellow construction worker discouraged him from availing of any services from Rekall. After work, Quaid visits Rekall and decides to avail of an ego trip as a secret agent. Just as the memory trip was about to start, Quaid wakes up violently…
This movie is still great to watch. Let me start first with the creative team of Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
When it comes to the synergy between the director and the lead player, Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger make a great creative team that made this movie very special! When asked during an interview what it was like for him to work with Schwarzenegger, Verhoeven said: Arnold is great. Switching from Rutger Hauer to Arnold is not that big a step. It’s strange to say that, because he’s this crazy Austrian, with an accent—but, for me, Arnold is the American Rutger. I think if I did a few movies with Arnold, I could do as much with him as I did with Rutger. Now, this movie was the wrong thing . . . But I think you can do much more with Arnold, explore more possibilities, than was necessary for this movie.
Now, it is a fact that Schwarzenegger lacks versatility when it comes to acting. Even so, Verhoeven succeeded in getting a deeper-than-expected performance from the star in this movie. Sure, we get to see Schwarzenegger fight bad guys with really rough action, fire guns, run and jump around here but what really stood out here was his portrayal of a man who discovers that the life he knew was all a lie and goes on to find the truth about himself. This role remains a standout role of Schwarzenegger’s among all the characters he played in his many other action films. What is also notable with Douglas Quaid is that the protagonist is always in danger and never invincible, very similar to how Bruce Willis played John McClane in Die Hard. If you watch this film after seeing Schwarzenegger play his invincible icon in the Terminator movies, you will feel his pain, tension and curiosity here! As if that was not enough, there is also the other role Schwarzenegger played in this movie that you should see.
Of course, Total Recall also drew greatness and depth from Verhoeven who also got strong performances from Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, Rachel Ticotin and Ronny Cox. Sharon Stone is the beautiful wife who will shock you. Michael Ironside is the henchman who will make you root for Schwarzenegger even more. Rachel Ticotin is the brave woman who is believable with the cause she is involved with.
More notably, Ronny Cox is the all-powerful and ruthless executive who will get on your nerves and make you root for Schwarzenegger a lot, very similar to how his villainous role in RoboCop made moviegoers root for the cyborg policeman. It should be noted that the evil executive-henchman duo of Cohaagen (Cox) and Richter (Ironside) here is a directorial trademark of Verhoeven’s and it should bring back memories of the other evil duo in RoboCop. More than that, Ronny Cox succeeded in selling the concept that Cohaagen really had been the administrator of the colony in Mars exploiting the resources and the people for a long time.
More on getting the most out of the actors, Verhoeven and his team crafted a memorable hand-to-hand fight scene between Lori (Stone) and Melina (Ticotin) actually taking part in the action and stunts. Sharon Stone clearly got athletic in this movie and her efforts paid-off nicely, complete with another fight scene with Arnold Schwarzenegger (she actually even threw two high kicks at Schwarzenegger’s head) early in the film. Beyond the hard battle with Stone, Ticotin went on to take part in further action scenes in the film and she sure is believable as an action performer. To put things in perspective, Stone and Ticotin are not action stars but they excelled nicely in their work here and this also made Total Recall special.
When it comes to storytelling under the direction of Verhoeven, Total Recall moved at a medium-to-fast pace and there was never a single moment of rushing, nor a single boring moment at all. The film just kept going smoothly complete with true unpredictability which results lots of twists and surprises. I should also state that the dialogue from the finalized screenplay is still excellent, and they were nicely delivered by the actors. Verhoeven also added depth to the film by using mystery while also getting good performance from Schwarzenegger as Doug Quaid finds out that life is not what it seems. I should state that the sci-fi elements of altering (and adding) human memories with the use of computers and the business of selling virtual holidays and ego trips were strongly emphasized. These also add to the film’s mystery which should engage you to wonder and analyze as the story moves on.
On the spectacle, Total Recall is heavily loaded! The action is violent, plentiful and carries that particular aesthetic that only director Verhoeven has. It’s hard to explain in words but once you watch the action in this movie (plus comparing it to RoboCop and Starship Troopers), you will realize it. Even so, the action never turned this movie into a brainless affair. The action worked nicely to balance the mystery and suspense.
The visual effects here were mostly done by practical and optical ways. Special effects specialist Rob Bottin, who famously worked in John Carpenter’s The Thing and worked also with Verhoeven in RoboCop, came up with very memorable animatronics to simulate facial and physical changes on characters on key sequences involving sci-fi elements. The team also crafted really freaky looking makeup works on the Mars mutants, which really gave this film a strong sci-fi look. I also like the use of miniatures and physical sets that visualized the colony in Mars. By today’s standards, this movie’s visual effects still look great and I can only wish that filmmakers today would rely less on computers and go back to using practical effects (note: physical stuff) and, on certain occasions, optical effects.
When it comes to the physical environments, this movie was filmed a lot in Mexico, specifically on key locations and on the sound stages in an established movie production studio there. Years ago, when I first learned for the first time that the trains used in the film were real-life trains that actually operated in one of Mexico’s real-life transportation systems, I was astounded! Paul Verhoeven himself confirmed that the train sequences were not only shot on location with real trains (note: monitors were added by the filmmakers to achieve a futuristic look) but the place’s architectural design were very unique and fitted nicely with the sci-fi concept of the movie.
The Mars colony set does not look fake to me. In fact, it really looks like it has long been lived in by people and the filmmakers nicely designed it. The Venusville set looks very convincing and, within the story, it got decayed due to long-term businesses, constant vehicular traffic and people who always flocked the place. The Mars hotel meanwhile has that cleaner, nicer look with tourists who paid good money for pleasure and discovery.
I should mention that the cinematography here done by Jost Vacano is excellent. The set-ups of the camera to get great angles of the actors is special, and the same can be said about the capturing of the spectacle that happened on-screen. The flashback of Mars inside Quaid’s mind had great, floating views of the location complete with perfectly smooth movement! Vacano also worked with Verhoeven in RoboCop.
Finally, the musical score by the late Jerry Goldsmith is very memorable and this is my favorite among all his works. The music provided gave this movie a strong sci-fi feel and when suspense plays, the tunes added nicely to it. The most memorable music tracks here are the opening credits music (which is immersive) and the foot chase between Quaid and Richter on Earth (the music really keeps the pace high).
Total Recall is a true, adulterated sci-fi action classic and easily it is still is one of the best ever movies I’ve seen from Schwarzenegger, Verhoeven and Stone. A few visual elements did not age well but its highly engaging story (combined with the strong performances and spectacle) remains its key selling point. There is a lot of ambiguity throughout the film and it will keep you wondering if the story (or at least portions of it) was reality or all a dream in Quaid’s mind. The way the story is structured combined with the excellent spectacle, this is a movie that is worth watching again and again! It remains an effective viewing experience for me until now.
As it contains the directorial trademarks of Verhoeven mixed with Schwarzenegger’s own style of expression and hard action, Total Recall is a very unique move of its own and it’s impossible to replicate nor match. Keep in mind that the 2012 remake of this movie was badly made (even though it had a big budget and highly advanced visual effects involving the use of computers) and ended up being a complete failure.
To put it short, Total Recall is more than just an action-packed thrill ride. It is also a mystery film that will keep viewers on the edge as the search for answers continues. Total Recall also explores the theme of what would you do when you realize that the life you remember turned to be an exceptional lie, and that you are literally caught in the middle of a web surrounded by dangerous, powerful people. I could never forget how my mind got motivated as I focused on the narrative the first time I ever saw this great movie decades ago. Total Recall was a sci-fi viewing experience like no other.
Overall, Total Recall (1990) is highly recommended! I urge you, my readers, to buy the movie on Blu-ray disc or watch it via streaming.
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