Total Recall Film Analysis Essay

In the future according to “Total Recall” — the new version, not the 1990 movie with the same name and the same alleged source in a Philip K. Dick story — Earth has been devastated by chemical warfare, leaving only two populated areas connected by a tunnel through the planet’s core. On one end of the chute, known as the Fall, is a sleek successor to Britain, an imperial metropole that exploits the teeming, watery Colony (Australia with elements of futuristic Hong Kong and Bangkok) down below.

This premise contains the seeds of an interesting economic and political allegory, but the ambitions of the filmmakers — Len Wiseman directed a script by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback — lie in the direction of maximum noise and minimum sense. The movie has a lot of chasing, shouting and fighting, carried out in crowded, overscale frames without much regard for either action-film effectiveness or narrative coherence. So much information is thrown at you in such a haphazard fashion that your ability to care dwindles along with your willingness to enjoy any of it.

Douglas Quaid, a Colony-dwelling proletarian who commutes via the Fall to his factory job, is haunted by strange dreams and is played by Colin Farrell. His wife is played by Kate Beckinsale (who is married to Mr. Wiseman), and now may be the time to note that in the earlier “Total Recall” the Quaids were Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone. Life is not fair: Mr. Farrell is one of the hardest-working would-be movie stars in the game, whereas Mr. Schwarzenegger is among the laziest action heroes in history. But after more than 20 years I retain a vivid memory of Mr. Schwarzenegger saying, “Consider that a divorce,” after putting a bullet in Ms. Stone’s head. After less than 24 hours I can’t recall anything Mr. Farrell said or did, other than run from Ms. Beckinsale, sometimes in the company of Jessica Biel.

Why all the running? Quaid may not be the working stiff he thinks he is but rather a superagent of some kind mixed up in the ongoing struggle between the authoritarian Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston of AMC’s “Breaking Bad”) and the shadowy leader of the resistance (Bill Nighy). Don’t get too excited about those names. Mr. Cranston appears to be trying for an odd kind of career balance, as if starring in one of the best shows on television obliged him to take supporting roles in some of the worst movies in theaters. And he doesn’t really do much except sneer sadistically and look plausible with hair. Mr. Nighy does even less.

The 1990 “Total Recall,” directed by Paul Verhoeven at the apex of his Hollywood credibility (after “RoboCop” and before “Showgirls”), is not a great movie, but it has a garish, perverse energy and a willingness to be at once gleefully silly and slyly philosophical that stands up pretty well. It also has Sharon Stone.

Why bother with an update? A parallel-universe (or wishful-thinking) answer would be that Philip K. Dick remains a name and an imagination to conjure with, as neuroscience, technology, corporate power and political authority conspire to bring some of his paranoid visions closer to reality. But this “Total Recall” has less to do with Dick than its predecessor did, and it might have fared better without the baggage of expectation and comparison that it inevitably carries. A science-fiction movie about a guy on the run and the two slender, combative, black-suited women who may or may not love him might not be all that memorable, but it would at least be forgettable on its own terms.

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Something that should be born in mind whenever exposing oneself to Paul Verhoeven's particular brand of sensationalist entertainment is that the man, by a conservative estimate, is as mad as a snake. In the late 80s, with a maturing arthouse reputation in his native Holland, he abruptly ditched all vestiges of highbrow aspiration and headed for Hollywood. He quickly established himself as a master of nosebleed sci-fi/action with Robocop in 1987 and has obviously not felt the urge to don a beret or smoke a Gauloise since.

A series of liberal-baiting blockbusters, including underrated thriller Basic Instinct and the awesome Starship Troopers, confirmed that, in spite of his stylistic volte-face, Verhoeven had retained his auteur's commitment to uncompromising vision. On the other hand, 1996's lapdance epic Showgirls confirmed him as a borderline pornographer and a complete and utter fruitcake. Total Recall (1990) might be eclipsed by Robocop, but it's still a handy example of the Verhoeven modus operandi: crank the volume to 11, pile on the violence and invite the critics to go fuck themselves.

And if it does lack the satirical edge of his other sci-fi outings, it exhibits ample evidence of Verhoeven's queasy sense of humour and kaleidoscopic dystopian fantasies: violent, repressive and liberally splashed with hilarious surrealism. Adapted from the Philip K. Dick short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Total Recall is what 1984 would have been if PlayStation 2 had figured as heavily in George Orwell's formative years as the playing fields of Eton. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in one of his last truly effective roles and still the right side of terminal self-parody, plays Doug Quaid an ordinary Earth-bound Joe who is plagued by disturbing dreams of Mars, a politically unstable off-world colony ruled by a corrupt dictator whose draconian control of the air supply is fuelling a revolution. Quaid's wife (Sharon Stone), can't understand her husband's obsession with the hellish planet, nor why he is so keen to go there.

In an attempt to scratch his inexplicable itch, Quaid visits Rekall Inc. a memory implant service who promise him a virtual trip to Mars with all the trimmings. But during the implant procedure something goes disastrously wrong. Quaid discovers — or seems to, at least — that his entire memory has been erased and replaced with a manufactured version. His whole life is a pre-fabricated fantasy. The plot really kicks in when Quaid finds himself pursued by agents of the ubiquitous "organisation" and his wife tries to kill him. Acting on a mysterious tip-off he locates a device, apparently hidden by himself before his memory was wiped, on which a recording of his previous self spills the beans — he was once in the employ of the organisation and stationed on Mars.

The right hand man of dictator Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) he was a key element in the regime until he converted to the rebel cause. In retaliation, Cohaagen erased his mind and dumped him on Earth. Or did he? When Quaid journeys to Mars to unravel the mystery (disguised, it appears, as Claire Raynor with an exploding head), we begin to wonder whether this is, in fact, reality or simply the recreational memory implant he bought on Earth going into overdrive.

It's a clever and intriguing premise, the stuff of many of Dick's stories, including Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, and Verhoeven exploits it to the full — embroidering it with plenty of brutal violence and big bangs, naturally. The scene where a representative of Rekall Inc. turns up on Mars, with Quaid's wife in tow, to persuade him that he is dangerously lost inside his own head is painfully tense. A bead of sweat on the Rekall tech's forehead gives the game away and Quaid simply blows them away — "Consida dat a divoors," he quips after putting a bullet through Stone's skull. Vintage Arnie, vintage Verhoeven.

Things get a little formulaic after that, with Quaid throwing in his lot with the rebels to defeat Cohaagen, liberate the air supply and solve the riddle of the monolithic alien machines found in a vast cavern beneath the planet's surface. But there's at least one more major twist round the corner and the action keeps coming thick and fast. With a budget of $63m, Total Recall was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever made. That wouldn't buy you a Jennifer Anniston romcom these days and, to be honest, the film doesn't have quite the jaw-drop factor we've come to expect since the CGI revolution. That said, the blood-red mountains of Mars (actually Mexico) look splendid and there's some exceptional modelwork.

Among a myriad of Verhoeven's delights to savour are a machine gun-toting midget whore and her triple-breasted colleague; a rebel leader who looks like a foetal Winston Churchill growing out of someone's stomach; a subterranean sin city peopled by mutants; and Arnie plucking a glowing red, golf ball-sized tracking device out of his nose. A benchmark in head-banging movie sci-fi.

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