Total Recall


‘…much more than just an Arnie vehicle, it’s got the logic of a bad dream, and that makes for one of the great sci-fi action movies…’

I was a pretty satisfied customer by Total Recall back in 1990. A big star vehicle for man of the moment Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was the middle section of three ground-breaking satirical sci-fi movies by Paul Verhoeven. Both Robocop and Starship Troopers are celebrated works, and this 30th anniversary edition of Total Recall provides an opportunity to re-assess this adaptation of Phillip K Dick’s novella We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Not everything about Total Recall chimed first time around; it lacked the vehicular action of James Cameron’s Terminator films, the vision of the future wasn’t as persuasive or beautiful as Blade Runner, and some of the action scenes verged on the nasty side. Times have changed, and with a fresh restoration, Total Recall packs more punch than it used to, with a bit of hindsight.

And hindsight is important; spoiler alert, Verhoeven’s film has a twist ending that radically alters the story that’s unfolded. Originally a timid accountant type to be played by Richard Dreyfuss, then Jeff Bridges, central character and construction worker Doug Quaid is hardly a weed; when he signs up for an adventure called Blue Sky on Mars, neither he nor we the audience know what to expect. When the action is finally over, and the shooting finally stops, Doug looks up and sees a blue sky on Mars, suggesting that the whole film was an implanted memory that we have experienced, like Doug, as reality. This notion of slipping in and out of reality is engagingly played with, with each character announcing themselves with a lie and a cover story, before Doug takes the action cinema route forward. Total Recall also feels like a video-game, of a type that hadn’t been invented in 1990; exposition–led dialogue leads into each encounter, and a floating-head version of Doug delivering the remit for each mission. The script, with Dan O’Bannon amongst the contributors, seems to look forward to a time when virtual reality is preferable to the real world, and the vision is a grim one.

Total Recall’s ugly future was a turn-off at the time, but now seems to reflect man-made entropy and decay in society. Mars is populated with mutants, with men with brains outside their heads and, famously, three-breasted women; one crowd-pleasing effect that gets two encores too many here, although presumably test-audiences dug it. Doug’s wife Lori, played by Sharon Stone, is also a negative presence, leading up to his killer ‘Consider this a divorce’ line. This is a dystopian world, as in Robocop and Starship Troopers, but one that fits with the downbeat nature of the story; Doug’s triumph ultimately means nothing more than a nice vacation, with no more substance that completing a PS3 game on difficult level. Doug doesn’t save the world, or Mars, but just enjoys consuming a ego-boosting product artfully designed to sate his thirst for meaning; the film of Total Recall works in pretty much the same way.

This fresh 30th anniversary double-disc package offers plenty of incentives to take ‘a vacation from yourself’; an enthusiastic commentary from Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven with the granular, personal detail and jovial repartee you’d hope for, although Verhoeven’s comment about getting revenge on Stone via Basic Instinct due to her ‘timid’ attitude to nudity here jars. There’s also a slew of featurettes covering development, music and special effects, the pick of the bunch being Total Excess, an hour-long documentary that looks at Carolco, the company formed by Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna. The script for this one probably needed another pair of eyes on it; fond as I am about Rambo 2, describing it as a ‘masterpiece’ is a bit much, as is describing the mechanical Cliffhanger as a film ‘conjured up’. And Dean Devlin’s name is repeatedly listed on-screen as Dead Devlin, not ideal. I should add that Andy Vanja allowed me to use his Century City flat as an office while I rewrote a script in Hollywood, and was one of the many generous people I met on my way up, so an hour long documentary on his work was a pleasure to watch, despite such glitches in the machine.

There’s a remarkable head-long feel about Total Recall; like Doug, we barely have time to register the fresh, nightmare-ish environments we find ourselves in before heading into the next hell-scape, making it an ideal watching in 2020. Total Recall has wit, imagination and energy to burn; much more than just an Arnie vehicle, it’s got the logic of a bad dream, and that makes for one of the great sci-fi action movies. Links below.


Thanks to StudioCanal for access to this title.


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  1. I love the sheer excess and campiness of this film. It really feels like a Verhoeven movie, if you know what I mean. I prefer Robocop, but this is still an ambitious movie. Sharon Stone is memorable here, even though she’s only in it for a short time. And what more can be said about Arnie?! Can’t picture Dreyfuss in the role at all. Bridges, maybe.

    • Like you, I prefer Robocop, but this is from the same shock playbook, and the remake showed how hard it is to nail a slippery story like this…

    • There’s so much going on here, I should have mentioned him! This new package is really worth it…

  2. “although Verhoeven’s comment about getting revenge on Stone via Basic Instinct due to her ‘timid’ attitude to nudity here jars” Doesn’t surprise me…if there’s one thing Verhoeven always seems to want in his films it’s as much nudity as there is…sometimes that ruins the film even.
    That said this was a great film, and it’s also going to be included on my poll for sci-fi month. I didn’t know about this special edition yet. Awesome…..even though I already own the film on dvd, it sounds this is worth getting though! Great post that was worth the wait! 😀

  3. I actually read the novelization of the movie by Piers Anthony first. I didn’t realize it was a novelization, as nothing on the cover said anything about the movie. I’ve watched the movie since, and enjoyed it, but never got around to reading the original short story. PKD is not my cup of tea and I dislike most of his stuff.

    Outside of the Lord of the Rings extended trilogy, I have never been a fan of “extras’ on dvd/blurays. It has always struck me as something for the movie buff and not just a casual watcher. So it’s draw is much more limited than the movie itself.

    Do you watch these movies on disc? I see this is getting a steelbook release and I’ve always wondered why anyone would buy one of those? Any idea?

  4. I thought this held up really well on my most recent re-watch too. Though it does have the feel of the ’80s about it with some of the costumes and hair. Plus a ton of product placement. I think this movie may have set the high bar for that.

    • It amused me to see that Pepsi is the drink to enjoy in a radioactive dystopian hell-shape. Yes, a bit late 80’s at times, but the whole thing still has impact.

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