TOTAL RECALL (1990) / Action-Adventure

Running Length: 113 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for strong bloody violence, language, sexuality, and nudity.

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, Ronny Cox, Mel Johnson Jr., Marshall Bell
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Producers: Mario Kassar, Andrew G. Vajna
Screenplay: Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Jon Povill (based upon the short story “We Can Buy It for You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick)

At first glance, Total Recall may seem like the same old big budget actioneer that its star Arnold Schwarzenegger so often populates. Immediately, you expect bad acting, pervasive fight scenes, a lot of one-liners, and for good reason, too. (The latter two will be found here.) Cast Schwarzenegger was a huge risk for director Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop), for his name alone usually discourages movie-goers. But let me tell you something: Total Recall is not at all what you’re expecting.

Based on a short story by science-fiction icon Philip K. Dick, the plot of Total Recall transpires in a distant future, on an earth that looks a lot like the financial districts of most major cities. Schwarzenegger stars as Douglas Quaid, a construction worker who often dreams about visiting Mars. His wife Lori (Sharon Stone) and his friends dissuade him from thinking these thoughts, but when he hears about Rekall, a company that specializes in implanting memories of actual vacations, he decides to give it a go.

Upon arriving at Rekall, Quaid is given the option of traveling to Mars as either himself or a multitude of alter-egos, including the option to travel as a secret agent. He opts for the latter, is restrained and sedated, but before the procedure can begin, he wakes up and freaks out, claiming that he is not who he is. He tries to elope, but is subdued and sedated yet again. When he wakes up, hes still the same, but his life is no longer what it once was. Hired killers are after him and his wife and friends aren’t who they seem to be. That’s when he happens across a tape explaining that he’s actually part of an underground resistance fighting the forces of Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), a corrupt politician. This is big news for Quaid. He didn’t want any part of this. On the outside, he may look tough, but inside he’s just as unsure as the rest of us.

While the premise is intriguing enough, the main success of Total Recall can be found in the film’s production design and special effects. The brilliant reds and oranges of Mars are beautiful to behold and the landscape of the planet in general is well-designed. Being as it is a movie from the early 90s, one would expect for Total Recall to be dated when it comes to the visual aspect, but that’s not true at all. It has actually held up quite nicely. The special effects are dazzling. There’s a scene where Quaid uses an instrument to remove a tracking chip from his brain, a scene where he dresses up using the guise of a lady, and scenes where characters die from decompression on the harsh Mars atmosphere.

Much like RoboCop, there are a heck of a lot of shootouts and all of them end in bloodletting. Characters are axed, stabbed, drilled to death, and shot to pieces – (especially a poor unfortunate soul that Quaid takes hostage on an escalator). There’s even a character whose arms are literally ripped from his body. But Verhoeven keeps it cool and stylish, and often comedic, never lacking in execution. He delivers this violence with a side of tongue-in-cheek humor, which tones it down, making it less gruesome than it actually is. While Total Recall does touch on some important issues, there’s nothing about it that leads you to believe it’s a serious movie.

And as much as people label Schwarzenegger as one of the worst actors out there, he actually does a great job here, bringing as much humor and enthusiasm to the role as he possibly can. He’s the kind of actor that was made for this kind of film and I doubt that any other could replace him. While he does occasionally fall flat with a couple of his line readings, he manages to keep it together quite well for the most part and creates a character that isn’t exactly three-dimensional, but one that we can root for.

Total Recall is not only a great popcorn movie, but a work of startling ingenuity. It’s as absurd as they get, yet it never takes itself too seriously. That’s why it’s so much fun. The blockbusters of late are mechanical and routine and don’t have the heart required to make things work. Such is not the case for Total Recall. Yes, there is a fair amount of stupidity to be had. (In a film like this, when is there not?) But the story never sags and the tension only builds, and I was never bored. Call it what you want – it’s good entertainment.

Final rating: ★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest


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