Back in 1990 I was in high school. During that time I discovered a lot of classic genre movies that have since become among my all-time favorites; movies like Blade Runner, Ladyhawke and, indeed, Total Recall. At that time I had already been an avid reader of science fiction for years, so I was first in line to see any movie based on classic works of big names in SF literature. Philip K. Dick (PKD), who died in early 1982, has since become Hollywood’s favorite SF author, with about a dozen movies based on his works. The first, Blade Runner, was not a commercial success (but has of course been a critical success and a cult favorite ever since), so we can perhaps chalk it up to Total Recall, which was a big success worldwide, that PKD’s works became the major go-to-SF-oeuvre for the movie industry, this side of Jules Verne.
Hollywood being Hollywood, however, the stories in movies based on literary genre works will more often than not differ quite radically from the original prose works. Apart from A Scanner Darkly (the movie rights to which were sold cheaply by the PKD estate in exchange for the promise that the movie would follow the original novel closely, which it did), all the Dick-based movies have made many changes to the original stories. But it has generally worked out quite well, and PKD’s star has only been on the rise because of it. And I, for one, would not want Total Recall to be any different than it is.
The narrative follows the future adventure of Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who is afflicted with a strange fascination with Mars. In this future, Mars is in the process of being colonised, and just as has happened with colonialism and imperialism on Earth in the past, a rich elite is exploiting the poor population. On Mars, an evil corporation has built cheap city domes that don’t protect the inhabitants from the radiation that is coming down through the thin atmosphere, causing the people to develop disfiguring mutations. The corporation is also charging exorbitant prices for air, causing the people of the domes to riot and commit rebellious terrorist attacks.
While living as a lowly construction worker on Earth, Doug Quaid sees these things on the news and cannot, for some reason, stop thinking about them. He then hears about a company – Rekall – which can implant fake memories of an exciting vacation trip to Mars, enabling him to go there without actually going there. Fascinated, Quaid buys an implant adventure as a secret agent, putting him squarely in the middle of all the Martian troubles, accompanied, of course, by a couple of beautiful take-charge action heroines.
But, the implant goes wrong. Perhaps. Or is it just part of the vacation package…? From then on neither we nor Quaid can be sure what is real anymore. Nonetheless, the adventure promised by the Rekall salesman actually comes to happen; the movie just doesn’t reveal to us whether it is A) an implanted adventure, B) something Quaid is imagining while descending into madness, or C) whether it is all in fact real. That’s where the audience have to make up their own minds.
And audiences have bickered about this for two decades. What is really going on in this movie? Well, we can ask Paul Verhoeven, because he provides some comments on the commentary track that is included on this new release. He doesn’t say which interpretation is definitively correct, but his comments mainly espouse option B: namely that the implant process is so dangerous that it lobotomizes Quaid, even as he merely imagines the adventure he was supposed to have. The final scene, Verhoeven intimates, fades into white rather than the usual black, in order to (perhaps!) indicate that Quaid is now lobotomized. (In Danish, meaningfully, “lobotomy” is called “the white cut” – possibly it is called something similar in other European languages.)
For me, however, what makes this movie so brilliant is that the actual answer is not B, but A: The entire movie comprises the successful implant, from the first frame to the last. The beginning is part of it; going to Rekall is part of it; having the body of a Schwarzenegger is part of it. The real Doug Quaid is probably a normal guy (probably looking much like Richard Dreyfuss, who was tapped to play him in the earliest version), maybe even an accountant as in the original script, but the secret agent Doug Quaid is, of course, a Nietzschean Man like big Arnie. The whole movie is the implant; the great Martian adventure that is being artificially put into Quaid’s brain. If this is not the case, my suspension of disbelief suffers a great deal, because a lot of little things do not make sense (I would explain, but then this review would grow too long).
Whichever angle you choose to interpret it from, Total Recall is nothing less than one of the most intelligent science fiction movies ever made. It has gorgeous visuals, fantastic action sequences and better acting than you have any right to expect. Some of the special effects look somewhat dated today, of course, but others hold up surprisingly well. At the time, it was top-notch stuff. The development towards higher and higher screen resolution is both a blessing and a curse, precisely because a lot of the special effects that used to suspend our disbelief in olden days are now revealed, on Blu-rays, to be more obvious matte paintings or miniature sets; suddenly you can actually see the strokes of the paint brush on the background sky, or notice eye-catching imperfections in sets made of papier maché or styrofoam.
Different movies age with differing levels of grace; it is one of the great movie industry enigmas just how a director achieves a timeless look – often you will only know if you succeeded when you look at the movie again after ten or fifteen years. A lot of 1980s movies look truly awful today, because they were too much in the throes of ‘80s fashions that have since changed completely. But some movies managed to achieve a style that has made them perfectly watchable throughout posterity; Blade Runner is one of them. I am a huge fan of Paul Vervoeven’s other great science fiction movie, Starship Troopers from 1997, and has probably seen it more times even than I’ve seen Total Recall. I remember how shiny and perfect Starship Troopers looked in 1997, and it kept looking good when I rewatched it over the ensuing years. It is only in the last few years that I feel Starship Troopers has begun to look a little bit dated; especially effects-wise. The same is the case for Total Recall, but both movies fully retain their basic quality and entertainment value even so.
The new Blu-ray release of Total Recall (a proper one, unlike the first Blu-ray release, which featured no significant extra material), also including a DVD, is a thing of beauty. Featuring a digitally restored picture, the frames have never looked as sharp as they do here, and even some of the ‘80s stylism has been smoothed over to appear more timeless. In addition, we have a great new 35 min. interview with the director (this is on the DVD, but it’s in high definition), whose enthusiasm for the movie remains undiminished. There are four extra featurettes, covering everything from special effects to restoration comparison, although some of these features have also been seen on previous releases. Finally, there’s a photo gallery, and a trailer for both this and the upcoming new Total Recall remake. Verily and forsooth, this is indeed, as it says on the cover, the Ultimate Rekall Edition!
Except for one teensy little thing. The Momentum Pictures 2-disc Special Edition DVD version of the movie from 2005 has a second commentary track by cinematographer Jost Vacano. Granted, it is in German with English subtitles, but why is this second and informative track absent from the new Blu-ray release? It can’t be because they didn’t have room for it. This is the only glitch that keeps this from being a perfect 10-star experience.
Total Recall is released on Special Edition Triple Play 16th July 2012.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Rachel Ticotin, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside and others.
Runtime: 113 min.