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Total Recall, written by Ronald Shusett, Dan O'Bannon, and Gary Goldman from the story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick, directed by Paul Verhoeven, 1990, 110 min.

Total Recall could have been one of the finest science fiction films of all time if Verhoeven had toned down the violence and concentrated on the Dickian twists of reality. There, I've said it. But that statement makes no sense at all. Verhoeven... tone down his violence? Not likely. And so the audience has to follow Arnold Schwarzenegger as he proceeds to kill people like there's no tomorrow. The irony of it all is that there may not be a tomorrow -- Schwarzenegger seems somewhat discomfited at the end when the sidekick suggests it was all a dream, and maybe it was. Such a ludicrous, far-fetched story... it could only happen in a dream. Or in the movies, of course, which is a nice excuse for some of Verhoeven's excesses. But I'm not so sure that he can take credit for such a coherent irony across this film. Of Verhoeven's three science fiction films (Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers), I feel that Robocop is the only one that succeeds at doing something more interesting in addition to splattering the screen with blood. Total Recall tries hard, but I still can't see past the violence and the poor characterization (my other main complaint about the film).

Arnold, the good old construction worker, finds himself enmeshed in a bizarre, dizzying plot. A rebellion on Mars, a beautiful sidekick, a treacherous wife, an evil mastermind. And a little thing called memory. All the ingredients are here for a blow-it-up-real-good kind of fun. And Verhoeven provides lots of splendidly trashy moments along the way ("Consider this a divorce!" comes to mind as a line that caused a bit of uproar among those worried about the decline of our civilization). I don't want to say much more about the plot because Verhoeven orchestrates it like the seasoned professional he is (he made many movies in his native Holland before arriving in Hollywood). The twists in reality are cleverly portrayed, but the movie is also critic-proof in a few more basic components. Like the scene where Schwarzenegger breaks out of the memory machine near the end. How could he do that? Well, near the beginning, we see him doing some jackhammering. Speaking as someone who has used a jack-hammer for about ten minutes, I can say that anyone who does that as a job would be insanely strong (if they weren't crippled and laid up with pain). There may be a few holes of logic here and there, but Total Recall covers that quite nicely in the conversation between good Arnold and the evil mastermind. Duelling realities... which one is in control? Which explanation will convince you? The contradictions make for a fascinating look back at the movie, and this is certainly a different process than most films of this sort subject themselves to.

Characters... what characters? We have an assortment of stereotypes, all nicely lined up on the sides of good and evil. But things aren't what they seem, both in terms of the motives inside the context of the dominant version of the story (I won't reveal any secrets or treachery, don't worry) and the question of whether it was indeed all a dream. Does making it all a dream let the screen-writers and Verhoeven off the hook for poor characterization? Maybe, but that would reveal a bit of contempt for the audience, wouldn't it? Here, let's foist this poorly-written stuff on the audience in the name of entertainment, and then say that it was all a dream (or rather, implanted memory). I know that some (or most) people will disagree with my assessment of Dark City, but I thought that that film made much better use of its human side than Total Recall.

What parts of Total Recall retain the spirit of Dick? Memory implants are everywhere in Dick's novels. The hapless hero of Dick here becomes an action hero, but he's just as much at the mercy of the convolutions in reality as Dick's bumblers. I especially enjoyed the confrontation at the end, where (minor spoiler warning) Schwarzenegger finds out that he indeed used to be a bad guy. But that doesn't mean much to the current version of himself, who proceeds as if he were good. I don't know if Dick ever used this specific idea, but it seems gloriously Dickian. Evil foiled by its own misunderstanding of the nature of memory and illusion. But Dick never over-used violence in his books. And Dick's characters, while quirky and often quirkily named, never came down to these kinds of basic stereotypes or categories.

One final note. I recently saw this film on TV, largely uncut as far as I could tell. The TV station was showing it in order to promote a new series, Total Recall 2070. I was intrigued so I tuned in for the two part premiere. Unfortunately, the makers of Total Recall 2070 seem to think that all Dick is fair game, and the resulting show should have been called Blade Runner 2070. The whole memory implant thing becomes a subplot in a hunt for rogue androids. It's a handsome show, with all of the visual wit of Ridley Scott's original Blade Runner -- too bad that they stole from the wrong movie. And worse, the main character looks like the glam twin of McCoy from the computer game version of Blade Runner. Maybe reality-twisting would not work week after week on TV, but they could have at least tried. Furthermore, the show fails pretty spectacularly as a police procedural, with some remarkably dumb moves on the part of our heroes. Accusing people without evidence and so forth. I might try the show again sometime later, in the hopes that it may have found its own legs. As of now, I'll keep that one hour a week for better things... like re-reading some of Philip K. Dick's books.

Last modified: February 2, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (

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