Total Recall (1990) Total Recall (1990) ***

     Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” is basically a goof. Although it is susceptible to being read as a philosophical meditation on the relationship between memory and desire, it’s also a shaggy dog story in which real memories keep thwarting attempts to overwrite them with artificial ones, yielding increasingly overblown and melodramatic results each time. Also, it’s extraordinary lean and efficient, weighing in at just nineteen pages in the PDF version that I read. Just the source material you’d want for a sprawling, swollen sci-fi action epic starring Arnold Schwarzenegger at the pinnacle of his Ah-Noldness, right? But Total Recall, as the film version wound up being called, is a more faithful adaptation than you would expect, or indeed than it appears to be at first glance. To be sure, most of the movie is nowhere to be found in Dick’s story, but most of Dick’s story did indeed find its way into the film. Considering what it takes to turn a nineteen-page tale into a two-hour motion picture, I’d say that’s pretty close to fair, especially since the copious additions are conceptually in keeping with recurring themes in Dick’s other fiction. Even the one really serious omission— the darkly absurd original punchline— is defensible on the grounds that Total Recall, unlike “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” isn’t meant to be a joke. I have no counter, however, to the objection that Dick’s protagonist was egregiously miscast. Schwarzenegger was quite simply the last man on Earth who should be playing Douglas Quail, and changing the character’s name to Quade doesn’t help the situation any.

     Douglas Quade (Arnold Schwarzenegger, as we’ve already established) is dreaming about Mars again. That happens to him a lot, always with disconcerting vividness and realism, even though Quade has never set foot on the Red Planet. Doug’s wife, Lori (Sharon Stone, from Deadly Blessing and Scissors), always becomes weirdly combative when he talks about his recurring dreams, not least because they always involve a particular woman (Rachel Ticotin, of Criminal Passion and The Eye), and that woman isn’t her. Still, Lori’s reaction to hearing about her husband’s Mars dreams is consistently so vehement that it seems like there must be something even deeper than neurotic jealousy at work.

     However strongly Quade might feel drawn to Mars, though, now is inarguably not the time to go there, even for a short-term stay. There’s the expense, for one thing. Space travel may not cost nearly as much as it did in eras past, but it’s still a serious stretch for anyone who lives on a construction worker’s pay. But more importantly, the Martian colonies are currently wracked by terrorism and revolutionary violence, to which Cohaagen (Ronny Cox, from RoboCop and The Mind Snatchers), the CEO of the corporation administering them, has responded with nothing short of police-state tyranny. At issue is the mining and refinement of terbinium, a Martian mineral unobtainable on Earth, which somehow or other constitutes the key to the current technological and military superiority of the Northern Democracies over their geopolitical rivals in the Southern Bloc. The Martian rebels contend that Cohaagen’s firm was unfairly exploiting them even before the crackdown, prioritizing its terbinium-derived profits far above the lives, let alone the livelihoods, of the people digging the stuff out of the ground or subjecting it to whatever processes are necessary to make it useful back on Earth. They want control of the colonies taken away from Cohaagen’s company, and a normal representative government established on Mars, and they’re prepared to wreak whatever havoc might be necessary to accomplish those goals. Even Doug’s friend and coworker, Harry (Robert Costanza, of Man’s Best Friend and Urban Decay), tends to agree with Lori that he should forget about Mars, all things considered, and concentrate on the perfectly good life that he’s already got on the homeworld.

     But if Quade can’t actually go to Mars, maybe there’s something else he could do to scratch the same itch. There’s a company called Rekal, you see, which deals in synthetic memories. For a fraction (a large fraction, admittedly) of the cost of doing something exciting and adventurous for real, Rekal’s technicians can implant detailed impressions of the experience in your brain, custom-tailored to give you whatever it is you would have wanted out of the real activity. Maybe if Quade went to Rekal, they could design a package of memories for him that would finally silence this growing fixation of his by tricking his brain into thinking it’s been satisfied. The prospect becomes even more enticing when Bob McClane (Roy Baker, from What Lies Beneath and The Tomorrow Man), the Rekal sales rep with whom Quade consults, mentions the optional upgrade in which the customer gets not merely the memory of an exotic vacation, but what amounts to an episode from an alternate life. For instance, what if instead of just “going” to Mars to see the sights, Quade “went” there as a secret agent on a death-defying mission with implications fit to shake two worlds? Wouldn’t that be something to reminisce over? And he could do it all from the comfort and safety of a booth in the Rekal laboratory, with a money-back guarantee if the implanted memories seem one scintilla less real than those of anything Quade has actually experienced. McClane doesn’t need to twist Quade’s arm any further. The salesman is, for all practical purposes, describing Doug’s own dreams, and he signs up for immediate treatment on the spot.

     There’s one rather serious problem, however. When Dr. Lull (Rosemary Dunsmore, of Dreamcatcher and Natural Enemy), the neurologist conducting the implantation of Quade’s false memories, begins the procedure, it turns out he already has memories of a trip to Mars, which have somehow or other been artificially suppressed. For that matter, he also has suppressed memories of being a secret agent! The hypnosis necessary to install the new memories dislodges the blocks on the old ones, driving Quade temporarily berserk and causing him to fight his way out of the Rekal office. Maybe Doug still isn’t thinking straight, either, after he regains his composure and goes home, because surely he’d realize, if he were in possession of all his faculties, that Lori isn’t going to want to hear about any of this shit. It’s altogether more reasonable, however, for Doug not to grasp even now the true reason for Lori’s longstanding hostility toward his “fantasies” of the Red Planet: she’s a secret agent, too, assigned to monitor him for any sign that his true past might be coming back to him. Harry’s in on it, as well, so it looks like there’s no one for Quade to turn to now that he remembers just enough to get him into trouble, but not enough to get out of it. And when Lori and Harry prove unable to re-neutralize Doug on their own, Lori calls for backup in the form of an assassin named Richter (Michael Ironside, from Neon City and Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II)— who, incidentally, happens also to be her real husband or boyfriend or whatever! Richter reports directly to Cohaagen, as if he weren’t bad enough news on his own, so the forces arrayed against Quade will certainly not want for resources in their efforts to bring him to heel.

     Luckily for Doug, though, it turns out that he has allies after all— not the least of them his own former self. During one of the few moments of downtime which Quade manages to finagle after his flight from Rekal, he is contacted by a man whom he doesn’t remember knowing even now (Roger Cudney, of Slaughter and Barbarian Queen II: The Empress Strikes Back), who gives him a large portable travel case full of what is obviously spy shit. One of the devices in that kit plays for Quade a video recording which he himself made some unknowable time ago, intended to bring his amnesiac future self up to speed on what the fuck happened to get him into this mess in the first place. Evidently Quade’s real name is Hauser, and he, like Richter, Lori, and Harry, was one of Cohaagen’s private secret police. One day, though, he learned something about his company’s operations on Mars so damning as to make him switch sides, putting his skills and connections to work for the rebel faction of the Martian underclass. It’s just as well for everyone if Quade doesn’t recall just what that was right now. The important thing is for Doug to get his ass to Mars, and to seek out a woman named Melina (who’ll be played by Rachel Ticotin when we see her, explaining the persistence of Quade’s dream girl), who used to be his number-one contact among the revolutionaries. Melina, in turn, can arrange an audience with Kuato (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2’s Marshall Bell— well, sort of… It’s complicated), the psychic mutant who leads the resistance. Kuato’s mental powers will enable him to extract whatever information still lies buried in Quade’s brain, which the rebels will presumably know how to exploit once they learn of it.

     Hauser left an important detail out of that recorded briefing, however, and it’s that missing detail which explains why Cohaagen keeps restraining Richter whenever it looks like he’s got the fugitive agent at his mercy. Hauser, you see, never really betrayed Cohaagen at all. The whole scheme— the suppressed memories, the insistent desires and fantasies stemming from them, the return to Mars in the face of massive opposition— has been a convoluted, multi-layered psy-op intended to lead Cohaagen to the mysterious Kuato. Hauser knew that the mutant’s paranormal senses would expose even the most disciplined double agent. Only an infiltrator who didn’t know he was an infiltrator could get the job done. But that seemingly masterful bit of spycraft has a critical weakness in practice, which is that the suppression of Hauser’s memory has also suppressed the personality formed by it. In a very real sense, there is no Hauser anymore, but only Douglas Quade. And Quade is the kind of guy who would consider Hauser a real asshole, and do everything in his power to stop him.

     “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” never goes into what Quail actually did as a secret agent. For Philip K. Dick’s purposes, it mattered only that it was something that no spymaster could stand to risk anyone finding out about ever— the kind of thing that would have required the agent’s death in a less technologically advanced age, when human brains were still inaccessible black boxes. Meanwhile, the question of whether Quail’s ostensibly recovered memories (which, after all, bear a suspicious resemblance to the false ones he went shopping for at Rekal) are really real barely even comes up, and is disposed of more or less immediately. Dick, in other words, put his fascination with identity and its technological manipulation and/or simulation on the far back burner this time, with the odd eventual result that Total Recall feels most authentically Dickian during scenes that are wholly the invention of screenwriters Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, and Gary Goldman. In the movie, for example, there’s an entire second-act subplot in which Lori and a man claiming to be a Rekal neurologist (Roy Brocksmith, from Arachnophobia and Kull the Conqueror) confront Quade on Mars, and try to convince him that he’s still strapped into that booth in the Rekal lab, experiencing the side-effects of a sanity-threatening equipment malfunction. Nothing comparable figures in the short story. Alas, the whole thing is a bit of a waste from the viewer’s perspective, because by that point we’ve seen way too many Mars-set scenes that Quade wasn’t in at all for any bid to raise doubts about the reality of the situation to be effective.

     Total Recall marks an interesting moment in the career of director Paul Verhoeven, because I remember it being his last really good Hollywood movie, but if you look closely at it, you can see all the ways in which he was about to go off the rails. (I emphasize remembering there because I’m not sure how far I should trust my 30-year-old recollections of Basic Instinct at this point. My perception at the time was that it was sleazy, dumb, and dull, but I was only seventeen, and maybe I missed something.) On the upside first and foremost, Total Recall has at its core a powerful parable about how action creates identity. Hauser wasn’t born an amoral rat-bastard. Rather, he became that by choosing to behave like one again and again, until finally it would no longer even have occurred to him to do otherwise. But take away the memory of all those choices, and you also take away their cumulative weight, so that the next time he faces such a decision, there’s nothing pushing him toward evil beyond whatever incentives are inherent in the situation. Freed from his past as Hauser, Quade has a chance to do things differently, and thereby to remake himself into a genuinesly different person. In that sense, Total Recall is sort of a counterargument to RoboCop, which posited that Alex Murphy would always be Alex Murphy, no matter how much was taken away from him or imposed on him from outside. I’m honestly not sure which perspective I align with better; maybe Verhoeven wasn’t, either, given that he made both movies. But considering how besotted 20th-century sci-fi tended to be with concepts like destiny and innate essences, it appeals to me whenever a story in the genre says, “Nah, fuck that” as forcefully as this one does.

     The other thing Total Recall gets seriously right is very much in keeping with the spirit of RoboCop (or the spirit of Flesh & Blood, for that matter). Never let it be said that Paul Verhoeven doesn’t know how to spend money effectively, or to hire the right people for a job! This movie has everything from alien landscapes to extravagantly grotesque mutants to fantastical machines of both human and extraterrestrial origin, and it all looks great. Mark Stetson’s miniature Mars colony, built into, out of, and through the walls of a sheer-sided chasm rivaling the Grand Canyon, stands among the major triumphs from the last age of purely practical special-effects set-building, and Alex Funke (Total Recall’s director of miniature photography) filmed it as convincingly as anything else of its kind that I’ve seen. The animatronic prosthetics for the most grievously deformed mutants are some of Rob Bottin’s best work since The Thing. There’s even one really effective bit of computer graphics imagery during a shootout between Quade and the Martian spaceport security guards, in which all the participants are shown through the screen of the giant fluoroscope used to scan disembarking passengers for weapons and other contraband. Even the shitty robot taxicabs, with their ventriloquist’s dummy pseudo-drivers, contribute to the immersiveness of Total Recall’s two worlds, because they’re shitty in a way that I can fully believe a Silicon Valley tech startup devising. The action sequences, meanwhile, are well mounted, easy to follow, and often creatively orchestrated. The aforementioned fluoroscope shootout, for example, was something that simply never occurred to me as a possibility until I saw it here. Perhaps most impressively of all on the action front, Verhoeven managed to shoot a fist-fight between Doug and Lori in such a way as to make it look not totally ridiculous that Arnold Schwarzenegger would have his hands full in a tussle with Sharon Stone!

     And yet there’s something just a little bit off about the whole enterprise, in ways that foreshadow the risible failings of Starship Troopers, Hollow Man, and maybe even Showgirls. A lot of it comes down to how Verhoeven uses Schwarzenegger. Predator showed that Arnold the Barbarian could indeed act within certain fairly stark parameters, but Verhoeven seems totally uninterested in having him do so. Rather, he tries to lean into the actor’s miscasting as someone who could be taken for anything other than an action hero by encouraging the bluntest, crudest, clunkiest performance that Schwarzenegger could deliver. The result is a Douglas Quade whose closest kinsman among the star’s previous roles is The Running Man’s Ben Richards. His badass quipping is leaden and corny. His ability to shrug off the after-effects of a fight makes him seem boringly invincible, no matter how convincingly close-fought the battles themselves might be. He rockets past charisma into the realm of mere smugness. And there are only so many times that a hero can walk into a trap before he starts to look not too bright. To be sure, there are right ways to do this sort of thing, as John Carpenter demonstrated first in Big Trouble in Little China, and then again in They Live. Unfortunately, Verhoeven lacks Carpenter’s tonal agility. He isn’t deft enough to send up a character trope in a story that plays it straight— a pitfall to which he would succumb again and again throughout the 1990’s. That same flat-footedness also comes into play in Verhoeven’s handling of Total Recall’s copious violence. Like most of Verhoeven’s English-language movies, Total Recall is frequently cruel, but in contrast to its predecessors, its cruelty doesn’t seem to be in service to anything. What’s more, Douglas Quade is among the cruelty’s most reliable perpetrators, even though the story as presented leaves precious little room for irony in interpreting Quade’s motives or character. Indeed, treating him as the kind of secret bastard that most 80’s action heroes collapse into under close scrutiny directly undercuts the main theme of the film. It’s a situation in which polyphony was a bad idea in the first place, regardless of whether it were handled more adroitly than Verhoeven manages here.



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